OPEN AND SHUT CASE

Buck­ley ar­gues in favour of the gor­geous Ghibli as the finest Maserati of all, with a lucky blast in an SS coupé and Spy­der

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS MARTIN BUCK­LEY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY BAKER

The dream of own­ing a Maserati Ghibli is one of those re­cur­ring ex­otic-car fan­tasies that I used to think might ac­tu­ally one day come true. They were, af­ter all, cheap for decades, mov­ing from be­ing a must-have fash­ion trin­ket of the play­boy classes to ir­rel­e­vant GT di­nosaur in one easy move. They are not even all that rare in ex­ot­ica terms: 1295 cars in six years makes a Ghibli pos­i­tively com­mon com­pared to any Iso or Mon­teverdi you care to name. In fact, the Ghibli was the most suc­cess­ful of the clas­sic V8 Maser­atis, and a cu­ri­ous case of a firm’s most ex­pen­sive car also be­ing its big­gest seller.

And yet, even at its low­est fi­nan­cial ebb, the fast, beau­ti­ful and rel­a­tively abun­dant Ghibli was still some­how al­ways priced just be­yond the grasp of the likes of me. I can’t moan, re­ally, be­cause I had my chance: the fail­ure to cap­ture a tired but oth­er­wise re­spectable ex­am­ple 15 years ago (for £12k) cer­tainly feels like one of my poorer fis­cal de­ci­sions when you con­sider the £300,000 this beau­ti­ful SS coupé is ex­pected to make when it goes to auc­tion in Septem­ber.

Andy Hey­wood of Mcgrath Maserati knows as much about Ghi­b­lis as any­one else in the world. His boys have just fin­ished on this Bianco Spy­der a restora­tion with such awe­some at­ten­tion to de­tail that it is hard to see it not mak­ing its £1.2mil­lion es­ti­mate when it crosses the block at RM Sotheby’s on be­half of owner and se­ri­ous Maserati col­lec­tor Stephen Dowl­ing.

Value-wise, the open cars were al­ways another game al­to­gether; only 125 were built and this 4.9-litre SS – chas­sis AM115/49S1251 – is one of only four right-hook­ers, sup­plied new in the UK to the fu­ture Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Ha­mad bin Khal­ifa Al Thani, a lad of about 20 at the time.

If the Spy­der is al­most be­yond pris­tine, the 4.9 SS coupé is merely im­mac­u­late. Fin­ished in Rosso Ru­bino with white Con­nolly leather, chas­sis AM115/491668 left the fac­tory in April 1970 with left-hand drive, was con­verted to RHD in Aus­tralia in the early ’70s and re­stored there 20 years later. It was the car that launched Dowl­ing’s Maserati col­lec­tion and has been looked af­ter for some years by Mcgrath, which also swapped it back to left-hand drive for him.

Com­pared to cars such as the Mex­ico and the Mis­tral, the Ghibli – first shown as a ten­ta­tive pro­to­type on the Ghia stand at Turin in 1966 – ap­peared to come out of nowhere. But it was re­ally a re­sponse to the sen­sa­tion caused by the Lam­borgh­ini Miura, and de­signed to keep in­ter­est in the age­ing Maserati range alive.

Pro­duc­tion started in 1967 and at first the plan was to build only 100 ex­am­ples, but this was soon in­creased to 400 with an­nual pro­duc­tion peak­ing in 1968 at 276 units.

We tend to think of Maserati as a com­pany that bounced from one cri­sis to the next in its ‘clas­sic’ pe­riod, but the Ghibli ac­tu­ally emerged from a time of rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity un­der the Orsi fam­ily, with the ex­pense and dis­trac­tion of Grand Prix rac­ing long be­hind it and the turmoil of the Citroën takeover still to come.

With Gi­ulio Al­fieri in charge of engi­neer­ing, Maserati cre­ated the most suc­cess­ful range of ex­otic cars in the world, with the widest choice of en­gines and trans­mis­sions. It also had a loyal cus­tomer base, who val­ued good fin­ish and com­fort over the last word in mid-en­gined chas- sis de­sign – but still liked the idea of driv­ing be­hind a thor­ough­bred, race-proven en­gine with links to the 250F and the great sport­srac­ing cars of the 1950s and early ’60s.

The other se­cret of this pe­riod of suc­cess was that Maserati never seemed to have a prob­lem with adapt­ing its cars to take lux­u­ries such as power steer­ing, au­to­matic trans­mis­sion and air­con­di­tion­ing; if the cus­tomers wanted it, they got it. Maserati also tended to shop around for styling. In the mid-’60s it was of­fer­ing se­riespro­duced mod­els with bod­ies by Frua (the Mis­tral and Qu­at­tro­porte) and Vig­nale (Mex­ico and Se­bring), and had not long since dropped the best-sell­ing, Tour­ing-bod­ied 3500GT.

So where Fer­rari had a co­he­sive vis­ual iden­tity bound up with Pin­in­fa­rina, the Maserati ap­proach at least kept buy­ers’ in­ter­est en­gaged in a fash­ion-led lux­ury Grand Tour­ing mar­ket.

It also tended to mask the fact that the new shapes hid fa­mil­iar com­po­nen­try: Al­ford & Alder front sus­pen­sion, Bur­man steer­ing boxes, ZF trans­mis­sions, and well-lo­cated but em­phat­i­cally leaf-sprung Sal­is­bury rear axles. Al­fieri ar­gued, not un­rea­son­ably, that these were proven, re­li­able com­po­nents and that a solid rear axle gave cus­tomers the most pre­dictable han­dling. He could not claim that there was any­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary about his oval-tube chas­sis with box-sec­tion sills; the point is that it was strong, and ideally suited to a tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion process that was in­ten­sive in man-hours.

The Ghibli was the first Ghia-bod­ied Tri­dent since the one-off 5000GT built for in­dus­tri­al­ist Sig In­no­centi. Ghia never worked with Maserati again, but the suc­cess of the Ghibli put mo­men­tum be­hind the idea that sub­se­quent Maser­atis should have less for­mal shapes and a fam­ily re­sem­blance, which was why Vig­nale’s 1969 Indy looked like a four-seater Ghibli and al­most matched its pro­duc­tion run.

Work­ing at a rate of four a day, Ghia built the steel Ghibli shells in Turin be­fore send­ing them to Mo­dena to be welded to the chas­sis. It was styled in three months by Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro, the young de­signer for­merly of Ber­tone and soon to strike out on his own. In my opinion, he has never – at least in the realm of ex­ot­ica – done any­thing bet­ter since.

Both of ‘our’ cars await us on a dis­used piece of run­way at En­stone Air­field; it is a strange com­men­tary on the val­ues of these ve­hi­cles now that shoot­ing them on pub­lic roads is not re­ally an op­tion any more.

They are sub­stan­tial things: low and wide, on dough­nut-sec­tion Miche­lin XWXS with roomy cock­pits be­hind ag­gres­sively raked screens. The pan­els are a mas­ter­ful blend of crisp edges, soft curves and other sub­tle de­vices to trick the eye into see­ing sim­plic­ity when in re­al­ity there is much more go­ing on: the re­verse curve in the front wings that high­lights the power in the plung­ing bon­net line; the cham­fered edges to the coupé’s roof; and that crease in the flanks spear­ing be­tween the whee­larches. The bod­ies are steel apart from the bootlids, and if you find a coupé with a lid that ex­tends to bumper level then you’ve got one of the first c100 cars built. That means a smaller 4709cc, 306bhp en­gine (with four We­ber 38DCNLS rather than the later 42DCNFS) plus solid front discs, a hefty twin-plate clutch and pos­si­bly man­ual steer­ing.

The SS or Su­per Sport spec­i­fi­ca­tion was a longer-stroke, 4930cc ver­sion of the quad-cam

‘The Ghibli ap­peared to come out of nowhere, but was re­ally a re­sponse to the sen­sa­tion caused by the Lam­borgh­ini Miura’

V8 pro­duc­ing 330bhp and a shade more torque (355lb ft as op­posed to 341lb ft), built as a way of coun­ter­ing emis­sions reg­u­la­tions as much as in­creas­ing out­put. Hey­wood sug­gests that the dif­fer­ence was greater than it ap­pears, be­cause the later fig­ures were more hon­est. The en­gine bays are neatly pre­sented, prac­ti­cal workspaces dom­i­nated by a mas­sive rec­tan­gu­lar air­box atop the We­bers and four crackle-black cam cov­ers. There are no blanks for the ex­tra plugs to make the link with the ex­otic 450S sports-racer and the lux­u­ri­ous 5000GT, and there is just the one dis­trib­u­tor, aug­mented by elec­tronic ig­ni­tion.

While the rar­ity of the open ver­sion makes it one of the great­est prizes of all to the Maserati col­lec­tor, I would take the coupé over the Spy­der any day (who needs a con­vert­ible when you have air-con­di­tion­ing cold enough to make your toes ache?), par­tic­u­larly be­cause I’m not a big fan of white cars or of bolt-on wire wheels. Still, with its steel hood cover giv­ing it a smooth pro­file it is a beau­ti­fully re­solved open-topped adap­ta­tion, with ad­di­tional brac­ing be­hind the seats to make up for the lack of a roof.

But the gaze is con­tin­u­ally drawn back to the el­e­gant pu­rity of the coupé, which in any case drives bet­ter – if only be­cause the Spy­der, with its sticky gearchange and tight, freshly re­built V8 – “no more than 2500 revs,” says Hey­wood – still needs some shake­down miles.

There are some in­ter­est­ing de­tail trim dif­fer­ences on the cars, such as the treat­ment of the in­di­ca­tors in the front grille, and the cir­cu­lar ver­sus ob­long re­peater flash­ers on the front wings – plus the Spy­der’s slightly in­con­gru­ous front over­rid­ers. But both have the old favourite Alfa Ber­lina rear lights and those ex­traor­di­nar­ily ag­gres­sive twin tailpipes that look like sawn-off shot­guns from a ’70s sub-post of­fice rob­bery.

Inside, there is a dif­fer­ence in driv­ing po­si­tion be­tween the coupé and the Spy­der that I can’t quite put my fin­ger on, but is prob­a­bly some­thing to do with steer­ing-col­umn an­gle or the seats them­selves, which look iden­ti­cal at a ca­sual glance but are ac­tu­ally quite dif­fer­ent.

The ig­ni­tion is on the cen­tre con­sole in the open car and on the steer­ing col­umn in the closed one. The fact that they have dif­fer­ent clocks and doorhan­dles prob­a­bly has more to do with what was in the fac­tory stores on the days they were be­ing built than any­thing else, but the anorak in me needs to know these things.

It was the sup­posed top speed well in ex­cess of 170mph that gave the Ghibli su­per­car sta­tus. I’m

not sure any­body of­fi­cially got one much over 160mph but, on the right day, with the long­est back-axle ra­tio and a will­ing­ness to pull deeply be­yond the mod­est red­line, who knows? Al­fieri was more in­ter­ested in a smooth driv­e­train and lots of torque in a flat, even curve. That meant a car that would see off al­most any­thing on its way to 120mph in third, could cruise at 140mph and, be­cause it didn’t need to be revved hard, had more po­ten­tial dura­bil­ity than cer­tain V12s.

Run­ning well, and min­is­tered to by the right peo­ple, the Maserati V8 is cer­tainly mag­nif­i­cent: silky and sonorous, with re­fine­ment in pick-up that is born of beau­ti­fully ac­cu­rate and smooth throt­tle con­trol yet with just enough growl to let you know that it is a clas­sic Mo­de­nese quad-cam all-al­loy en­gine. Hey­wood says that the 4.9s, with their later carbs, are much smoother.

It is cer­tainly not your typ­i­cal ‘throbby’ V8, which prob­a­bly has some­thing to do with fir­ing or­der or the de­sign of the ex­haust man­i­folds. The ZF ’box in both cars has an ‘H’ pat­tern, with fifth on the dog­leg, and re­quires a lit­tle thought when ma­noeu­vring the lever with some mean­ing around the com­pact gate. Both are quiet and the smooth clutch means that there is no ex­cuse for jerky progress. With vented discs and twin calipers up front the brakes are strong and bal­anced, if pos­si­bly a lit­tle sen­si­tive at lower speeds. Power steer­ing was stan­dard on the 4.9 SS and it can’t be any­thing other than a bless­ing in 4000lb cars such as these. What you lose – frac­tion­ally – in feel and fine con­trol at speed you are paid back in trip­li­cate in terms of ease of driv­ing, es­pe­cially be­cause the turn­ing cir­cles are so huge, and you get quicker gear­ing, too.

There are no tricks to the han­dling of these big Maser­atis, ei­ther: they don’t pre­tend to be Elans or even E-types, but carry their weight beau­ti­fully and feel com­pletely bal­anced and re­as­sur­ing at all times. If they roll, you can’t de­tect it from the inside and they are mag­nif­i­cently sta­ble and neu­tral through long, fast cor­ners. Nei­ther is a ‘sports car’ you toss about roughly, but both have poise and man­ners, rid­ing bet­ter than they have a right to on such ‘tra­di­tional’ sus­pen­sion. They have a sort of dig­nity, which sounds a strange thing to say about a near16ft-long piece of two-seater Ital­ian ex­ot­ica.

Per­haps, one day, we will look back and think £300k was cheap for a car such as the Ghibli. You cer­tainly can’t buy one for £12k any more, and what does £300,000 buy you in the ’60s Fer­rari world these days? Or £1mil­lion, if you like, when it comes to their drop­head equiv­a­lents?

I sup­pose ev­ery­one has a story like my £12k Ghibli. The point is that, at the time, I would have strug­gled to get that £12,000 to­gether, never mind find the money to keep it on the road. Some­times, with cars and many other things, you have to ac­knowl­edge your lim­i­ta­tions. There’s a sort of lib­er­a­tion in know­ing that I can’t even dream about own­ing a Ghibli now, so why waste en­ergy on it? Bet­ter (as with so many cars) to ad­mire from afar, cel­e­brate the fact that such things ex­ist, think your­self lucky you are not li­able for the eye-wa­ter­ing up­keep and, in my case at least, feel grate­ful for the chance to spend a few hours with two of the nicest ex­am­ples on the planet.

Thanks to RM Sotheby’s. The Dowl­ing Maserati Col­lec­tion will be sold at its Lon­don sale on 5 Septem­ber; see www.rm­sothe­bys.com

‘These big Maser­atis don’t pre­tend to be Elans or even E-types, but they feel com­pletely bal­anced and re­as­sur­ing at all times’

Buck­ley does his best ‘GT Man in Cannes’ face; Spy­der dash­board is packed with rows of di­als and switchgear, and has a classy fin­ish

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