100 years of passion: C&SC returns to the birthplace of Maserati

| 9 Dec 2014

It’s fair to say that the world of automotive journalism is place where, more often than not, the cliché is king. This is particularly true of modern cars, where tired old hacks struggle to tell identical homogenous shopping blobs apart in the car park, let alone to describe their dynamic differences. And it’s understandable – a number of models even use the same engines, the same chassis and the same switchgear.

In many ways, the problem is worse when we talk about sports cars. But who is really fooled? Do we really think the writer ‘kicked the tail out’ on the two-mile crawl to the office through rush hour traffic? Probably not.

By far the worst offender, to my eyes at least, rears its ugly head when the test car is of Italian disposition: passion. The truth is, most Italian cars are built just like Audis, just like Jaguars, and just like clock radios. Design by committee, along the same sterile production lines. But there is something about Maserati – something that lasts. 

It was born in a dark and overbearing Bolognese chamber of commerce a century ago this week, as Afieri Maserati, the eldest of six brothers, signed a declaration that their automotive repair shop had opened for business.


That was way back in December 1914, but now I’m standing in the exact spot where it all began, listening to Adolfo Orsi – grandson of the man who bought Maserati in 1937 – speak of the beginnings of a company that would come to mean so much to this part of Italy. His words are heavy with love of the cars, but also the people behind the firm’s most famous designs, the Khamsin, Ghibli and 250F. But he is most excited about the brothers, and the masterpieces they created with little more than their bare hands and a dream. 


Stepping out of the chamber of commerce and into the narrow streets of Bologna, we walk just a few hundred yards into the night, arriving after a few minutes at a small alleyway. A door is open halfway down the passage, and peoples’ voices spill out into the street. Above the door is a sign – installed this week – declaring that this small, unassuming building was the place where it all began: the Maserati’s workshop. 


Inside, it’s changed very little. Two small rooms, barely large enough to accommodate a double bed, make up the bulk of the floor space, with another, larger adjoining room to the left. These days, you have to walk down a series of steps to get to the workshop floor, but during those early years it would have been a ramp, which was used to get the cars back up to street level. 


Of all the brothers, the only one not to be involved in the engineering business was Mario, who devoted his life to art. It was Mario who, under Alfieri’s instruction, came up with the logo for the fledgling brand: the Trident. You don’t have to wander too far to find the source of his inspiration – the statue of Neptune stands just a short walk away, holding the weapon proudly above one of Bologna’s largest squares. 


In the early days, the brothers mainly stuck to repairing customers’ cars. Gradually, however, they broadened their horizons, gaining an interest in motor sport. Before long they’d created a winning car, and more followed. The business grew slowly as the brothers’ reputation began to spread, but their sights were never set on becoming the next Henry Ford. Instead, each car was produced and raced by either Alfieri or Ernesto – both talented drivers. When it won, it was sold to raise funds for the next project.


Hardly anything was bought in. All the work was carried out by the family, from building the engines to designing the chassis. The only parts bought off the shelf were gauges, and a few other items of little consequence. Incredibly, none of the brothers had an engineering qualification to his name – each had learned from hard-won experience. 

One of the crowning achievements of the pre-war era was the 16-cylinder Turismo. With little money to create a large capacity engine, the brothers slapped two of their existing engines together, sharing the same crankcase. The result was a four-litre V4 which, mated to a stunning roadster body, became the fastest car in the world in 1929. It’s currently on display at the Museo Enzo Ferrari.


It wasn’t just the original family that had a deep passion for the race car firm. Along the way, plenty of wealthy benefactors helped to keep the company afloat – most notably the Marquis Diego de Sterlich Aliprandi. But it wasn’t to be that way forever. 

The firm passed into the hands of the Orsi family in 1937, which controlled the company until 1968. Not being a car expert, Orsi was wise to keep the Maserati brothers within the business until 1947, at which point their company had been transformed into a large-scale manufacturer. With scale came problems, and much time was spent dealing with trade unions and strikes. Modena, though only a few miles down the road, was a long way from the small workshop the brothers had left in Bologna; they returned to their roots, leaving Orsi to take the name forward. 


Troubled waters lay ahead, with Maserati passing under the control of different owners and organisations, none of which captured the same success of the early racing days. Citroën came, then De Tomaso. By the 1990s the concern was limping along, supported by government funds; by 1994 Maserati had consumed more than 400 billion Lira of the people’s money. 

The cars that emerged from the factory during this period were unreliable and ill conceived, damaging the company’s reputation further. These dark days in the firm’s history are best summed-up by the BiTurbo. 

However, since then, things have improved greatly – thanks in no small part to neighbouring Ferrari, which took its rival under its wing for several years at the turn of the millennium.

Back in Bologna, we get the chance to sample a resurgent Maserati’s latest offering, the GranTurismo MC Stradale. We’re impressed. It’s comfortable, very quick, and sounds out of this world. The styling seems right, too. It has echoes of the 3200GT, but is overall a more muscular and higher quality proposition. 


In a cold and rainy car park in London, it would seem contrived to suggest that the car had any magical quality above its rivals by virtue of being Italian. But here, it’s easy to look at it in different light. You see it through the eyes of the people of Bologna, who seem gripped by the car as it rumbles loudly through the narrow streets. 

The firm was born here, and the economic impact that Maserati had on the area cannot be overstated. It touched everyone’s life in some small way, and the sight of one of the Trident’s finest passing mere yards from the original workshop isn’t lost on onlookers. Picking up speed and heading for the autostrada, a group of kids excitedly shout, running with the car eyes wide with admiration.

Maserati has been on a very long journey. It has had successes along the way – the Birdcage, 250F, Ghibli and Quattoporte – but also, from time to time, got very lost. In its centenary year, it’s comforting to see that the firm finally found its way back to that Bolognese alley, regaining some of the passion from all those years ago.