The Ghibli, Indy and Khamsin seem to encapsulate everything a great Maserati road car should be about. Here is commanding V8 urge for striding out across a country – or a continent – at effortless three-figure cruising speeds. They are fantasy cars, of course, which make even the most routine trip to the bottle bank feel like a cross-country blast to a dinner appointment with Catherine Deneuve. Yet they are blessed with a certain elegant restraint that suggests they were intended to be more than just playthings.
If this trio invites comparisons with front-engined Lamborghinis and Ferraris, it should be understood that they were intended to have a more mature, rounded appeal. In the ’60s and early ’70s, Maserati nurtured a customer base of aloof international jet-setters looking for ultimate performance but also refinement and beautiful finish. For these people, a Maserati was the perfect car for crossing Europe in remarkable comfort at remarkable speeds.
The definitive GTs of the Alfieri era, the Ghibli and Indy in particular sold strongly, seemingly immune to critics who sniped at their traditional suspension (Jaguar-style front wishbones with Salisbury rear axle) and lack of cylinders (just eight). What these detractors failed to grasp was Giulio Alfieri’s talent for making relatively mundane components perform excitingly and reliably, producing cars that in some respects added up to more than the sum of their parts. Besides, at Maserati in the ’60s there was no budget for the latest four-wheel double-wishbone suspension or other fancy tricks – and it might even be true to say that the cars sold steadily because they were relatively simple. The Khamsin represented a more sophisticated approach for the 1970s that must have refreshed and challenged ingegnere Alfieri, it’s just a shame that it appeared just as its potential constituency began to shrink.
These classic gran turismo Maseratis span more than 15 years of production and three separate corporate regimes. The Ghibli and Indy are products of the Orsi period, the Khamsin – one of only 421 built – a Citroën-inspired car that was actually built under the rule of Alejandro de Tomaso before he squandered the firm’s reputation with the Biturbo.
Common to all three is the quad-cam V8 engine – here in 4.9-litre form – that was the cornerstone of Maserati road car output for more than two decades. It linked the majestic 5000GT with the last of the Quattroporte III luxobarges built in 1990, although the two are unlikely to have more than a few nuts and washers in common. “People say the head gaskets are the Achilles’ heel of these engines,” says Andy Heywood of Maserati specialist Bill McGrath, “but we find the V8s tend to give trouble due to lack of use and if antifreeze and oil aren’t changed regularly. They should do 60,000 miles before they need top-end work.”
The design has its origins in the early ’50s, but was created virtually from a clean sheet by Alfieri for the ill-starred 450S sports-racer. With single-plug ignition, wet sump and chain camshaft drive it was civilianised for the first Quattroporte of 1963 and, in revised 4.7-litre dry-sump form, found a natural home in the Ghibli three years later. Styled in just three months by Giorgetto Giugiaro while he was working for Ghia, the Ghibli was launched at Turin in 1966 and went into production the following year. Ghia built four bodies a day to a high standard. Heywood is quick to point out that none of our featured cars has ever been a rotten wreck, which is testimony to Maserati quality control in a period when Italian cars were already getting a rusty reputation.
A new flagship that could stand with the best and fastest in the world, the Ghibli appeared just as the marque needed to reassert itself in the exotic car landscape and sold strongly throughout its six-year production run. With its fashionable retractable lights, low nose (hence the dry sump) and chisel-edged profile, the Ghibli was both an important precursor to a coming generation of waist-high ‘supercars’ and a fabulously extravagant, 180in-long luxury two-seater that was remarkably forgiving to drive and to live with. There were some parts from mainstream models (Alfa 1750 Berlina tail-lights, for instance) but they were not easy to spot.
Beneath its dramatic new body there was a familiar international mixture of components, skilfully blended to make a heavy but well-balanced car, based around a stiff tubular frame to which the steel body was welded. The seven-year production history of the Ghibli is relatively straightforward because Maserati saw little need to tamper with a popular model that, from the outset, did very well in America.
In time it got better brakes, wider tyres and the options of automatic transmission and power steering. More significant was the 4930cc ‘SS’ engine offered from 1969 (a few had been built unofficially the year before), the extra capacity achieved by lengthening the stroke by 4mm to 89mm. It only offered an extra 5bhp and little more torque, and was really a measure to counteract American emissions requirements.
The Ghibli was joined by the Indy in 1969. Styled and built by Vignale on a Quattroporte-type box-section platform, with a subframe for the engine and front suspension, it was intended to capture some of the visual excitement of the Ghibli in a more practical four-seater. There was a fashionable ‘hatchback’ rear door, yet all of the suspension parts were shared with the Ghibli. The car had appeared at Turin in 1968 as an unnamed prototype on the Vignale stand, but was formally launched at Geneva the following March as the Indy, after the firm’s successes at the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and 1940.
The Indy proved a hit, selling almost as many units as the Ghibli over a shorter production run. At first it came only with a 4.2-litre, 260bhp engine, but for 1970 a 4.7-litre version joined the options list alongside automatic transmission and power steering. With its 290bhp, this engine allowed Maserati to advertise 165mph potential. In 1971 the Indy became the Indy America, with 4.7 engine and a new dashboard. The final major change arrived in 1973, when the 4.9-litre V8 entirely superceded the two smaller units.
An impressive 1104 Indys were sold and, like the Ghibli, it probably went into profit. The Khamsin, in contrast, was one of the most poorly timed Maseratis, coming to fruition not only as Citroën was about to abandon the firm, but also at the time of an international fuel crisis.
Designed to replace the Ghibli, the Khamsin was an acknowledgment that not all Maserati customers were entirely enthusiastic about the mid-engined Bora/Merak. Physically about the same size as the Bora, the Khamsin catered to a more traditional customer but also brought the classic V8 GT car concept up to date with fully independent suspension and powered Citroën systems for the brakes and steering. The public got its first sight of the new car as a Bertone – rather than Maserati – prototype, styled by Marcello Gandini, at the Turin show in 1972. It took two years to go from show car to production vehicle, yet when the first Khamsins began to emerge in 1974 there were only a few detail differences over the prototype, such as the rear lamp cluster design. Many wondered, however, whether it would be Maserati’s swansong as buyers began to shy away not only from thirsty cars, but also such overt trappings of wealth.
Sharing the Ghibli’s wheelbase, the Khamsin also used the same alloy wheel design, well shod with the latest Michelin XWX tyres. Under the front-hinged bonnet was the familiar dry-sump, 4.9-litre V8, mounted well back for 50:50 weight distribution. Fitted with four Weber 42DCNF carburettors and Bosch electronic ignition, it had a quoted output of 320bhp at a modest 5500rpm, but the handbook allowed 6000rpm for brief periods. Pulling 26.1mph per 1000rpm in top on a 3.31:1 final drive, it could be stretched to 171mph – a figure that, as usual, proved elusive when the car was put to the test. The ratios were beautifully spaced, giving 47mph in first, 74mph in second – having passed 60mph after 6.6 secs – 107mph in third and 140mph in fourth.
The chassis was a combination of well-honed Alfieri convention and Citroën sophistication. Bertone fabricated its panels around a robust square-tube and sheet-steel structure and there was double-wishbone suspension all round, the coil springs and telescopic dampers doubled up on each side at the back. The limited-slip diff was mounted on four rubber dampers, with the rear suspension mounted on a subframe.
Maserati owner Citroën wielded its influence over the brakes and steering. The Khamsin had much the same speed-sensitive, ultra-high-geared, fully powered rack-and-pinion steering as the SM, the rack highly visible in the engine compartment mounted high up between the engine block and the radiator. The brakes were large, fade-resistant ventilated discs actuated by Citroën systems that did away with vacuum servos and master cylinders in favour of a high-pressure pump supplying green LHM fluid via the main accumulator to two smaller units for the front and rear Girling calipers. Should the engine stall, enough pressure would remain in the system for 50 stops.
The £13,000 Khamsin was the most expensive car in the Maserati range, outgunning even the Bora. Production ran through to 1982, only once rising above an annual build rate of 100 units. In a good year, the British importer – the cars were sold through Citroën in the beginning – sold 10 or 11 Khamsins, but five was more usual. The final two cars were sold in 1982, the very last going to a member of the Qatar Royal family.
Apart from cooling slats in the nose from 1977 to cure overheating problems and a rejigging of the facia layout at around the same time, the model changed remarkably little. It maintained the Maserati reputation for aristocratic GT cars while the new De Tomaso regime made ready an entirely new high-volume model that would take the firm in an entirely new direction.
In the metal, it is the wide, muscular Ghibli that grabs the attention. Originally supplied to Germany but owned for several years by collector Alexander Fyshe, this concours SS has huge presence. It oozes sensuality at rest and takes possession of the road on the move, scything through the landscape. It feels wide inside, with generous footwells and high window sills. Slung low in the embrace of its shapely leather seats, caressing its man-sized, wood-rim steering wheel, you face a dash that’s a cliché of what an expensive Italian sports car should look like. There’s an abundance of white-on-black dials and an impressive battery of rocker switches for lights, wipers, town and country horns, and twin fuel tanks. The beautifully carpeted boot extends into the cabin – perfect for skis or shopping – and there are two tiny jump seats for emergencies, but it’s really only a two-place car.
The Ghibli is fast but not alarmingly so, delivering packages of smooth, torque-rich thrust through beautifully paced gearing in a crisp ZF ’box. Using 6300rpm, 70mph is possible in second, a theoretical 170mph in top. The power steering – light, fairly direct and consistently weighted – is the making of the hefty Ghibli as a daily proposition. The leaf-sprung rear can bounce and hop and betray itself on a less-than-smooth surface, but it never gets out of shape and always puts its power down efficiently. Neat and well balanced on tight corners, majestically stable on fast sweepers, it is swift and satisfying without delivering that fine edge of driver appeal found in a handful of more sophisticated rivals.
The Indy, while not as devastatingly beautiful as the Ghibli, is hugely glamorous. There’s something slightly awkward about the B-pillar treatment and this car, recently imported from Switzerland, seems to be sitting slightly high on its rear springs, but the fact that it seats four adds to its appeal for me. There’s space for the heads and legs of two full-sized adults in the back and a generous 18cu ft of luggage space. “Some people buy Indys when what they really want is a Ghibli and never really bond with them,” says Heywood, “but we sourced this car for a customer who specifically wanted an Indy and it’s going to be restored to his personal specification.”
Like the Ghibli, the Indy is fragrant with leather, thickly carpeted and air-conditioned as standard. Being a late 4.9, this manual car has slightly taller 15in alloys made by Campagnolo and, intriguingly, Citroën-type high-pressure hydraulics for the brakes. In a straight line it feels as sharp and strong as the Ghibli, with an exhaust note that is just as sonorously throaty, almost muscle-car like but musical and cultured. I prefer the more upright driving position, love the commanding all-round vision and feel instantly at home. It seems to shrink around you more readily than the Ghibli, corners with slightly more roll, but always feel wieldy and planted despite its rather elderly Pirelli P5 footwear.
The pressure-sensitive brakes feel out of place at first, but you soon acclimatise to them and appreciate the way they haul in all of that weight so effortlessly. These cars all have gorgeously smooth throttles, but the Indy has such a light clutch that it almost feels assisted. As Heywood points out, this late car uses three different fluids for its various services: LHM for brakes, brake fluid for the clutch and ATF for the steering.
I’ve always liked the look of the Khamsin, an elegantly sculpted wedge with a slender roof, a long, tapering nose and an abruptly sliced tail. It recaptured some of the effortless grace of the Ghibli, but with a sharper, more modern feel. The steel body has some interesting details, such as asymmetric bonnet vents and a glass rear panel to aid visibility, with tail-lights (Alfa Berlina again, but 2000 this time) suspended in it.
Open the glass hatch, supported by hydraulic struts, and there is generous luggage space, extra depth having been liberated by mounting the space-saver spare under the front bumper. Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the Khamsin is the interior. The neat finish and elegant detailing of the earlier generation of Ghia and Vignale Maseratis had given way to a flashier style, where the parts-bin nature of the switchgear and other elements was more obvious and the layout scattered and confusing. The Khamsin’s fixtures and fittings are generally a shade disappointing: the Alfetta doorhandles didn’t look very ‘special’, nor did the Fiat X1/9 release catches for the fuel flap and hatch.
A significant number of Khamsins, like this car, had a Borg Warner automatic transmission – geared down to 25.5mph per 1000rpm and around 140mph if the 5500rpm redline was observed. Off the line, the auto makes it feel slightly pedestrian but as the torque builds and the converter begins to bite the performance streams in. The low seating position heightens the sensation of speed anyway, along with an aggressive exhaust bellow that is easily the most strident of the three cars. Yet it is in steering and poise that the Khamsin feels a generation on from the Ghibli and the Indy. As in the SM, the assistance increases as the wheel is turned away from the centre but as road speeds rise the level of assistance decreases. Combine this with two turns from lock-to-lock, plus all-round double-wishbone suspension, and you have a recipe for a wonderfully neutral, roll-free car that goes where you direct it through gentle movement of the wrists rather than the forearms. In short, once you have got used to the ‘instant’ brakes and steering, you can drive the Khamsin much more accurately, and with more confident abandon, than its older brethren.
With a manual ’box, the Khamsin would certainly have the most driver appeal of these cars. If your tastes run to edgy and flamboyant ’70s styling, it makes a powerful statement that will stand it in good stead as a collector’s item. As the last great front-engined Maserati, and the last to be attributed to Alfieri, good Khamsins are already appreciating and rightly so.
The Ghibli has been strong money for some time with Spyders threatening to go stratospheric. That’s not to be celebrated if it’s near the top of your fantasy list, but the status is fully deserved and has been a long time coming. I guess I will always want a Ghibli, yet, in the real world, there is something very appealing about an Indy. Good ones are rare but, as with most exotica, those four seats – which make it so desirable in my book – hold it back in the market place. For me, it’s a car I can imagine using, living with. I want one.
Sold/number built 1966-’73/1274 (1149 coupés, 125 Spyders) Construction tubular steel chassis, steel body Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4719cc (SS 4930cc) 90˚ V8, with four Weber 38DCNL (SS 42DCNF) carbs Max power 335bhp @ 5500rpm (SS 335bhp) Max torque 326Ib ft @ 4000rpm (SS 341Ib ft) Transmission five-speed ZF manual or three-speed Borg Warner automatic Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, trailing radius arms; anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers f/r Steering recirculating ball, with optional ZF power assistance Brakes vented discs all round, with servo Wheels & tyres 7 15in alloys, 205/70 VR15 tyres Length 15ft (4572mm) Width 5ft 9in (1753mm) Height 3ft 8in (1118mm) Wheelbase 8ft 3 in (2530mm) Front track 4ft 7in (1397mm) Rear track 4ft 6in (1372mm) Weight 2866Ib (1300kg) 0-60mph 6.4 secs Top speed 174mph Mpg 12-14 Price new £10,180
Sold/number built 1969-’75/1104 Construction steel platform chassis, steel body Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4136/4719/4930cc 90˚ V8, with four Weber 38DCNL/42DCNF carburettors Max power 260bhp @ 5200rpm-300bhp @ 5500rpm Max torque 375Ib ft @ 3800rpm-344lb ft @ 4000rpm Transmission five-speed ZF manual or three-speed Borg Warner automatic Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, trailing radius arms, anti-roll bar; telescopic dampers f/r Steering recirculating ball, with optional ZF power assistance Brakes vented discs all round, with servo Wheels & tyres 7 15in alloys, 205/70 VR15 tyres Length 16ft (4877mm) Width 5ft 10in (1778mm) Height 4ft 3in (1295mm) Wheelbase 8ft 7 in (2629mm) Front/rear track 4ft 7 in (1410mm) Weight 3638Ib (1650kg) 0-60mph 7.5 secs Top speed 156mph (4.7) Mpg 11-13 Price new £9654
Sold/number built 1974-’82/430 Construction steel monocoque Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 4930cc 90˚ V8, with four Weber 42DCNF carburettors Max power 320bhp @ 5500rpm Max torque 354Ib ft @ 4000rpm Transmission five-speed ZF manual or three-speed Borg Warner automatic Suspension: front and rear double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar Steering rack and pinion, with Citroën hydro-pneumatic power assistance Brakes vented discs all round, with Citroën hydro-pneumatic power assistance Wheels & tyres 7 15in alloys, 215/70 VR15 tyres Length 15ft 5 in (4699mm) Width 5ft 11in (1397mm) Height 4ft 1in (1245mm) Wheelbase 8ft 4 in (2550mm) Front track 4ft 8in (1440mm) Rear track 4ft 10in (1471mm) Weight 3619Ib (1642kg) 0-60mph 5.6 secs Top speed 160mph Mpg 13 Price new £12,929
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Please read our copyright terms and conditions.
Words: Martin Buckley; pictures: Tony Baker