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Return of the Maserati

Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

At first glance, Modena looks like so many other ancient Italian cities, the town square made up of buildings old long before the Middle Ages. Rustic farms and villas encircle the city, though today, most of the workforce toils at the region's countless tile and brick works. But there's another side to this city, one that has earned it a reputation as a sort of "speed central." Modena is home to more high-performance automakers than anywhere else in the world.

Asked to name them, you'd almost certainly come up with Ferrari, and probably Lamborghini. But there was a time when Maserati would roll off the tongue, too. If it's not a name that comes immediately to mind, that's understandable. After the troubled automaker abandoned American shores in 1990, it nearly faded from the global scene entirely. But the trident has returned. And with the helping hand of its longtime, crosstown rival, Maserati is laying plans for a carefully orchestrated comeback.

Founded in 1914 by the four Italian brothers who gave the company their name, Maserati earned a fearsome reputation on race tracks around the world during the next 50 years. Piloted by the legendary likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Phil Hill, its race cars captured a procession of Grand Prix championships, as well as wins at the Indianapolis 500, in 1939 and 1940. "Maserati cars were, with the odd exception, the most user-friendly [race] cars in the business," Moss recalls today, one of the most storied drivers in Formula One history. "Ferraris, in principle, were stronger and more reliable, but Maserati cars were the most pleasant on the track." As they were on the highways, as well.

Maserati's racing effort literally came crashing to a close following the cursed start of the 1958 season, when virtually the entire team was wiped out during a race in Venezuela. Even so, the car's performance image was indelibly stamped on the brand, making it a favorite among affluent sports car aficionados. "People who made enough money to wear a gold chain around the neck knew Ferrari. Maserati was a little more exclusive," and appealed to those who were looking for more than style, suggests former racer and longtime motoring columnist Denise McCluggage.

The golden era of Maserati produced a steady stream of sedans, coupes and cabrios that remain sought-after collectibles, vehicles such as the Ghibli Coupe, the Quattroporte and the Bora. They featured incredible engines, tight suspensions and some of the best bodywork ever to flow from such trend-setting design studios as Pininfarina and ItalDesign Giugiaro.

Yet even in its glory days, Maserati's success on the track seldom translated onto the bottom line, and over the years, the company blundered from one financial crisis to another. Financial difficulties forced The Brothers Maserati to sell the company in 1937 -- though they went on to form a short-lived competition sports car marque: OSCA.

Among the owners to follow was the eccentric entrepreneur and former racer Alejandro de Tomaso, who took control in 1975, ensconcing himself in the rustic Canal Grande Hotel not far from Maserati's crumbling assembly plant. Legend has it that de Tomaso arrived in Italy after being forced to flee his native Argentina and a nasty little civil war. He had chartered a DC-3 and then started kicking bombs out of the back. Unhappily for de Tomaso, his side lost.

Initially, his tenure at Maserati was marked with success, thanks to the introduction of the Biturbo, a twin-turbocharged sports car considered one of the fastest vehicles of its day. But de Tomaso's tightfisted management and a series of dubious business ventures led the company into yet another crisis. Perhaps the biggest blunder was the decision to team up with Chrysler in an abortive effort to produce a reasonably priced roadster, the TC by Maserati. By the time the car reached market, the project was so far over budget there was no way to pull it back into the black. And the cars were so roundly condemned by critics that they quickly vanished from the market.

But Maserati's largest problems were more basic: abysmal quality and uncertain reliability. It was said that a wise owner kept two Maseratis on hand, one to run, the other for parts. Not surprisingly, sales collapsed, especially in the U.S. market, its largest. In 1990, bordering on collapse, Maserati pulled up stakes and went home. And there the story might have ended if it hadn't been for Italy's best-known carmaker, Fiat S.p.A., which bought out de Tomaso in 1993. It was an odd fit, all the more so considering that Fiat also owned the better known Ferrari.

Over the decades, Maserati and Ferrari had dueled on tracks and highways around the world. But when Fiat decided to combine the two companies in 1997, it came as close as possible to a match made in heaven. In contrast to the down-on-its-luck Maserati, Ferrari was entering the most successful period in its history. Today, it continues to post a string of record profits and that's despite the firm decision to hold sales to a maximum of 4,000 sports cars a year.


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