Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT

| 29 Nov 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT

The Maserati 5000GT was launched 60 years ago, at the 1959 Turin Motor Show. In this 2007 article from the Classic & Sports Car archive, Mick Walsh enjoys a drive in one of these rare beasts

A premier exotic has to fulfil certain criteria.

Obviously it must be super-rare – to the degree that few people have seen one on the road – an outrageous price tag denotes very limited production and, of course, it should be bespoke and hand-made. Performance, at least on paper, should be spectacular, developing an almost mythical reputation for the car.

Candidates for this fabled group might include Delahaye 165 V12 and Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale. In such company the Bugatti Veyron is already too common, but one guaranteed member of the exclusive club is the Maserati 5000GT.

Classic & Sports Car – Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Allemano’s sleek profile

The supercoupé, which was launched 60 years ago this month, ticks every box for eligibility. Its fantastic, if ultimately unproven, performance was the result of its all-alloy 5-litre quad-cam V8 developed from a spectacular sports-racing car, the Maserati 450S.

Matched to highly individual coachwork by Italy’s finest stylists, the 5000GT’s ultra-rich clientele ranged from millionaire sportsmen to a Mexican president.

Like many of the greatest cars, each of the 34 5000GTs are often referred to by their first owners rather than chassis numbers. Each car lost Maserati money and few clocked up any distance, not just because wealthy buyers didn’t have time but also, confidentially, the 5000’s mighty spec made them ultimately unusable.

It was one thing for factory test driver Gurrino Bertocchi to impress passengers blasting down the Autostrada del Sole to prove the Maserati’s awesome performance, but it’s quite another to motor any distance. Like race team owners Briggs Cunningham and John Simone, you really needed a team of mechanics to tune the beast.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Ornate script, Iniezione by Lucas

In ’59, the 5000GT was the Alfa 8C-2900 berlinetta of its era, the most elitist thing on wheels. Some displayed bizarre styling focused around a signature motif and one even inspired a famous rock lyric: ‘My Maserati does one-eighty-five. I lost my licence, now I don’t drive.’

It didn’t matter that ex-Eagle Joe Walsh was optimistic about his Allemano-bodied ‘026’ GT’s top speed in Life’s Been Good – it sounded good and added to the mythology of the monarch from Modena.

Frustratingly, most survivors eventually sat silent under covers in dark corners of secret underground garages. Such was the 5000GT’s reputation for big bills that few were prepared to invest in reviving these fantastic machines, but as historic Ferrari and Maserati values spiralled, so collectors started looking for alternatives and slowly the 5000GTs were rediscovered.

In keeping with its special appeal, the car inspired obsessive collecting patterns. A chance encounter with a 5000GT in Mexico City in 1968 was never forgotten by Alfredo Brener, then aged just 16. As soon as he had amassed his fortune, he tracked down five different cars, spent huge sums restoring them, exhibited them at Pebble Beach and then sold them all.

Such an extreme only fuels the legend, but pales in comparison to the story of chassis 066. This Allemano 5000GT was specially delivered by Bertocchi from the factory to Munich for its sheik owner who wasn’t present when the car arrived.

As a result it remained parked outside for years and was nearly crushed when local authorities tired of the abandoned exotic. It was saved from the scrapper’s truck for just DM50, but remains in a sad state awaiting restoration.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
450S coupé at Le Mans

The origins of the 5000GTs are similarly intriguing. As the story has it, Omer Orsi, son of Maserati’s owner Adolfo, tried to help revive sales by sending brochures to the prominent and the wealthy. Soon after the sales literature for a 3500GT and 450S racer had been mailed to the Shah of Persia, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the Iranian Embassy in Rome was instructed to call Maserati and set up a meeting.

One November Sunday in 1958 the Shah stunned engineer Giulio Alfieri and Orsi with a request for a special road-going Maserati based on the 450S.

Swamped by unpaid debts, Maserati had already withdrawn from motor sport to focus on road-car production and out of the blue a benefactor was agreeing to pay for the development and build of a special Maserati GT.

The Shah’s brief specified ultimate performance (Alfieri reputedly guaranteed 280kph – 178mph) and a two-seater coupé style with a usable boot.

Back at the works, Alfieri immediately started work on the first 5000GT Tipo 103, chassis 002, mating a much-strengthened 3500 chassis with the racing V8 motor.

Modifications for road use included capacity upped to 4937cc, and reduced compression ratio to 8.5:1, but the helical gear camshaft drive remained, as did twin Marelli distributors, 16 spark plugs and four twin-choke Weber 45s.

Underpinnings followed the 3500: independent front and live-axle rear, with power-assisted Girling discs at the front and large drums at the back.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Touring coupé is presented at the 1959 Turin Show

Bertone was first choice as body-builder, but Orsi eventually gave the contract to Touring with the proviso that it had to look very different to the production 3500GT.

Styling chief Carlo Anderloni later explained that Persian baroque architecture influenced the body’s bizarre grille, with its pronounced Maserati trident. Such gaudy details continued on the inside with gold-plated dials and switches.

Few saw the prototype 5000GT outside the factory because the finished car was immediately shipped to the Shah’s garage in Iran. Later, when the Shah was deposed, the Maserati was moved to his chalet at Gstaad. By 2005 it had only covered 3750 miles.

A second Touring coupé was built and, after presentation at the ’59 Turin Show, was bought by South African millionaire and Kyalami track owner Basil Read.

Orders from the world’s wealthiest followed, but no sale was confirmed for build unless customers paid a sizeable deposit of the £5364 total price.

Interest was boosted when US journalist Hans Tanner secured scoop driving impressions of the second 5000GT. With Bertocchi at the wheel, Tanner reported clocking a staggering 172mph on the autostrada from Modena to Bologna. Even more impressive was 158mph through ‘a long sweeping curve on the return road... If anything can be said against this fabulous car, it is only that these speeds are too easy. Everything is smooth and quiet’.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Brochure art for the 5000GT

After the first two Series 1 cars, the 5000GT was further developed for extra refinement. The bore and stroke were then less over-square, which flattened the torque curve, and the intrusive racing gear cam drive was modified to a quieter triple-strand chain. Horsepower dropped 15bhp to 325bhp, mostly due to the new Lucas fuel injection taking the place of the racing Webers.

The Series 2 engines were given signature green paint for heads and cam covers while other improvements included new ratios for the ZF four-speed gearbox, followed by a five-speed unit. Discs were fitted all round.

Maserati’s order book looked mighty impressive, with many of Italy’s foremost industrial magnates – including Giovanni Agnelli and Ferdinando Innocenti – ordering bespoke cars, as well as Hollywood star Stewart Granger, millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham and various princes.

Where Bugatti had failed to sell the Royale to kings, the Orsi family could count several, even be they deposed, as customers. When the rebellious King Saud was asked to leave Cairo, his Frua-bodied 5000GT ‘048’ was impounded for non-payment of taxes. After the sad-looking 12,700km ‘barn-find’ was auctioned by Bonhams at Monaco in 2000 it made a new benchmark price of a remarkable £222,042.

Behind the scenes not all were happy, however. German businessman Rolf Helm insisted Maserati overhaul the engine of ‘006’ in the presence of his mechanic Peter Reuffel. Others reported rough engines and lacklustre performance.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Clockwise from top: Nardi tops off stylish cockpit’s quality leather and Jaeger dials; rear light cluster; cooling vent

Now, values of these fabled cars are steadily increasing, so several enthusiasts have commissioned extensive engine rebuilds to release the potential power. Foremost in this development is German specialist Robertino Wild who, after historic racing success with two 450S monsters, seemed the natural choice to sort a 5000GT.

Amazingly, Wild had no ambitions to become a historic car specialist. While studying as a medical student, he rebuilt the engine of his Ducati motorbike and a friend, impressed by his competence, asked if he’d look at a Porsche four-cam motor.

“With all those bevel gears, it looked similar to my Ducati, so I didn’t feel intimidated. I was only 20 and gave up medicine to become an old car doctor,” jokes Wild.

“Maseratis are special and for me they don’t compare to Ferraris,” he adds. “The engineers were really dedicated to the cars and the machining is a fine art. When you look at the polished components such as the 250F’s suspension, you can see the hundreds of hours of work. Despite the company’s financial problems, it’s clear that the team really loved the cars.”

Wild rapidly built up a reputation for historic Maserati racers as A6GCS, ‘Birdcage’ and 250F passed through his meticulous workshop.

One of his most challenging projects was to sort the magnificent 450S of Hartmut Ibing: “Maserati had done great things with the straight-six, but the V8 was a steep learning curve. Power wasn’t a problem but the engine needed to be more responsive. They didn’t have the facilities we have today and getting the crank balanced was a problem.

“We discovered that the weight was in all the wrong places and the only solution was to redesign the crank from scratch. With lighter conrods and improved weight distribution, the 450S delivered over 400bhp, but with more responsive revs and torque.”

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Packed engine bay

Once sorted, the dark blue 450S was a revelation and its winning ways attracted the attention of the owner of 5000GT ‘042’ who wanted performance and drivability to match a fastidious cosmetic restoration by Bacchelli in Modena.

When the mint Allemano coupé arrived at Wild’s impressive Mönchengladbach facility, the challenge was to finally make the 5000GT deliver on its dramatic promise.

Wild says: “After the 450S, the project looked easier to do in theory, but in the end it presented its own problems. When we first tested the car, the engine felt rough. It had a great sound but was unwilling to rev and the torque was lifeless.”

With the crank removed, it was clear Alfieri and the Maserati engineers struggled with the V8’s bottom end. Extra metal had been crudely welded to the counterweights to get it to rev smoother: “This wasn’t a repair, but how the engine left the factory. Maserati only used static balancing and the orientation was wrong. One pair of counterweights was completely missing. It would have made sense to follow American V8 theory but, typically Italian, they were too proud and thought they knew better. Much of the engineering was about guessing and feeling, so what they achieved was amazing – our approach was more calculating.”

Combined with the newly machined crank, lighter conrods and pistons were also developed. Once they were assembled, Wild turned to the injection: “The Lucas system is effective, but the Italians didn’t really understand it and used a mixture adjustment linked to oil pressure and air density – a real headache. We ended up simplifying it.”

A key to this refinement was Lee Muir, an ex-McLaren CanAm engineer with vast experience of the Lucas system in Detroit. Once the indirect injection was refined, the V8’s character was transformed with smooth power and gutsy low-down torque. With the 5000GT’s potential unleashed, Wild’s team set about making the car safe enough for such performance to be used: “We stiffened up the front end with recalibrated dampers, but we’re still not happy with the steering. The chassis is essentially the same as a 3500GT, but with extra reinforcement. Maserati was concerned about the extra weight of the V8 so adjusted the steering box ratios to lighten the load. As a result it’s not direct enough for the performance.”

Ever the perfectionist, Wild is keen not to change the character of the car.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
5000’s sorted handling

Time to try the sorted 5000GT. Of all the bodies, Allemano’s is most common with 22 built, but it is also the most alluring.

Its long, sleek flank and wraparound glass top with slim pillars accentuate the bonnet length. The Studebaker-style panoramic rear window is steeply raked and only the rectangular headlights spoil its handsome style. Riding on expensive Borrani wires, it looks unmistakably Maserati.

Inside the bright glassy cockpit there’s nothing flash about the fittings – quality leather and brushed stainless trim, bold Jaeger dials and broad Nardi wheel with angled spokes so the pilot can clearly see the speedo and rev counter.

When I take over the wheel, the muscular 5-litre is already warm and Wild insists I use all the revs up to 6000rpm. Frustratingly, we’re not heading for the autobahn but some clear country roads and through the town the 5000GT is easy to drive with its silky low-geared steering.

Rush the ZF gearchange and it’ll grate, but once you are in tune with its timing, the action is precise. The clutch is heavy and requires a hefty push but, with so much torque in reserve, the car will cruise easily even if you wrong-slot. The brakes lack feel, but I’m assured that when you really push they transform and bite hard.

First impressions are of a superb ride – even over pavé – a taut chassis and minimal steering kickback. Once on the open road I finally get the chance to unleash the engine’s glorious power. From an edgy rumble as we slow for a clear stretch, I bury the throttle and the car lets rip a Wagneresque exhaust crescendo.

The 5000GT lunges forward with a glorious growl exclusive to exotic V8s. The engine seems to have a triple range when gunned hard: deep burble builds to vibrant growl before a resounding roar as power peaks.

The sensational acceleration rapidly reels in the next junction just as I change into third at 100mph. Even so, there feels much more in reserve and it’s easy to believe that 170mph is within the 5000GT’s grasp.

Irritating as the myriad junctions are, you do get to play Behra in a 450S at every stop thanks to that ferocious power punch and blood-curdling exhaust.

Command performance: the story of the Maserati 5000GT
Giovanni Michelotti styled the Allemano body

All my cynicism over Hans Tanner’s 1959 figures is blasted away each time the 5000GT roars off. All that’s needed now is a Ferrari Superfast for the ultimate supercoupé shootout. Gianni Agnelli had both, fitted with near-identical Pininfarina bodywork, but it’s not recorded which he enjoyed the most.

After this spectacular work-out we cut back on a twisty route to Capricorn’s workshop. Through the turns the nose understeers when you enter too quickly, and the steering starts to feel sleepy. The short, flat seats also offer limited support through the turns, but these are minor quibbles.

Like so many Maseratis this is a bargain compared to rival Ferraris, even after a hefty bill for sorting that wild motor. The king of super-exotic GTs? No question.


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