Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

| 15 Jun 2022
Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Fangio sat here. That thought alone makes this cockpit very special.

The seat has been retrimmed and the bodywork remade, but El Maestro in his last full championship year gunned this same, beautiful Latin thoroughbred to three victories in its early life, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Looking at the black-faced Jaeger rev counter, holding the flat, wood-rimmed wheel and glancing over the low, Perspex ’screen, the image of El Chueco’s first victory around the Circuito de Monsanto is easily conjured, even before that fabulous 3-litre, twin-cam ‘six’ barks into life.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Juan Manuel Fangio piloted this Maserati 300S to victory in its first documented race at the Mansanto circuit in Portugal

Enough daydreaming of times past.

Push in the clockwork-style key and the fuel pumps start to click like castanets.

Next is the wonderful Magneti Marelli magneto switch that is shared with the Maserati 250F, a charming crossover of engineering.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The 300S’s three-step ignition switch can also be found in the Maserati 250F

After three clockwise clicks, we’re ready to press the starter and wake that 280bhp double-overhead-cam heart.

Even on a cold day the twin-plug straight-six erupts with a sharp rasp that spits and pops through the triple 42DCO3 Weber carbs as it warms.

Today, the radiator even has to be taped up to help.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The fabulous straight-six shares much of its componentry with the famous 250F engine

While waiting, I review the spartan cockpit.

The dash layout is basic: a black Jaeger gauge marked to 8000rpm, with two smaller SACMA dials for temperature and oil pressure on either side, behind the wheel.

To the left are chassis plates, and accessible fuse and relay boxes, perfectly placed for working passengers on long road races.

Beefy chassis tubes surround the cockpit while the superb bucket seats, with three vents in the back, offer comfort and support.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

A Jaeger gauge and two SACMA dials sit behind the steering wheel

It’s little known that the 300S drivetrain was offset by 40mm to give the driver more space.

The gearlever is ideally sited, to the right of the tunnel, with a stubby lever and short H-pattern gate, plus a flick-up cover protecting reverse.

With a racing clutch, acceleration from a standstill is tricky but, once rolling, the gearchange is fantastic, the close ratios perfectly matched to the sweet-revving, dry-sump ‘six’.

The longer-stroke 3-litre Vittorio Ballentani design delivers more torque compared to the fabulous 250F and has no flat spots.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The offset gearbox allowed more room for the driver

After a little hesitation and spitting from 1800 to 2400rpm, it starts to pull hard once warm and sings like Caruso above 4000rpm.

To my ears, that glorious roar from the twin exhausts on the passenger side sounds sweeter than any tenor.

Along the roads of Norfolk’s desolate Fens, it could almost be a test run around Bologna in 1957 – a regular pattern for works mechanics and engineering chief Gino Bertocchi when there wasn’t time to get to the Autodromo di Modena.

Stirling Moss and Denis ‘Jenks’ Jenkinson did much of their testing for the Mille Miglia in examples of the 300S around the Emilia-Romagna region, and Moss rated the car as one of his all-time favourite sports-racers.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Depending on its gearing, the 300S was capable of 170mph

The four-wheel drum brakes have impressive feel and power – racing aces claimed that the beautiful drums stopped as well as early discs. Today, however, replacements for the original asbestos linings are difficult to source.

On the long, open straights the 300S is eager to stretch its legs, the urgent power delivery launching this beauty rapidly to impressive speeds.

With tall Le Mans gearing, the Maserati was good for 170mph (the last cars had five-speed ’boxes) but the bumps, crests and falling camber across the Fens demand restraint.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The Maserati’s simple interior features centrally mounted fuse and relay boxes

It’s an evocative area, dotted with open railway crossings, isolated farms and spectacular skies, but even in this remote place the lipstick-red Latin racer attracts attention – including one carpenter who rushes out with his camera to capture its sleek, sweeping form as it speeds by.

Within the two-year assembly of 26 cars, the Fantuzzi-designed 300S body shape had three styles, evolving from the stubbier early short-nose to the final, more aerodynamic long-nose we have here.

I adore them all, but the third series of works cars with their muscular, 450S-style rear, ‘sharknose’ bonnet ducts and five vertical side vents are the most attractive.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The beautiful riveted petrol and oil tanks sit behind the transaxle

The bootlid cutouts reveal wonderful details including aviation-style flip-up filler caps and a glimpse of the riveted tanks.

It has all the purity of form of a Macchi C250 Veltro fighter plane.

Through the corners, the super-responsive worm-and-gear steering equals the rest of this brilliant machine.

The sharp turn-in, perfect weight balance and tall, 6in-wide rubber delivers inspiring feel.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps
Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Fangio’s footwork on the pedals (left) helped to deliver the 300S’s maiden victory, whilst a stamp (right) indicates this car’s famous chassis number

Having watched historic racers Willie Green and Martin Stretton command this agile masterpiece, steering on the throttle through Raidillon or Sainte Dévote, it’s a tease on these rough roads and I wish the corners here were smooth and open for powersliding out of the apex.

But the character through the lively controls is still easy to appreciate.

Back on the main road for one last blast up through the gears, the performance and sound of this 780kg rocket are awesome.

With the low windscreen and no crash helmet, the sheer velocity produces a freezing rush of wind that takes my breath – and cap – away.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Fangio (middle) chatting with Italian mechanics at São Paulo before the start of the Brazilian Grand Prix © Fiskens

Fangio was only contracted by the factory for single-seaters, but if the money was right from a privateer with a competitive car, the canny Argentinian hero was happy to guest drive on a weekend that didn’t clash with Grand Prix commitments.

So it was that, when a sports car race was staged around the scenic Lisbon park circuit, Fangio was the star attraction.

The car was entered by business manager Marcello Giambertone, and the factory was keen to support hero Fangio to help promote further sales of 300S racers to wealthy privateers.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

‘The character through the lively controls is easy to appreciate’

The Circuito de Monsanto wouldn’t stage an F1 Grand Prix for another two years, but the sports car feature on 9 June 1957 drew huge crowds.

Fangio’s main rivals were two young Americans in Ferraris, Phil Hill and fearless 25-year-old Masten Gregory, the ‘Kansas City Flash’.

The race turned into a close contest between the event’s oldest and youngest drivers, a gripping duel of Fangio’s Maserati versus Gregory’s Ferrari that left the remainder of the 18-car field choking in their dust. 

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Cutouts in the Maserati’s bootlid display the aviation-style flip-up filler caps

The 3.38-mile road circuit was a challenge, featuring fast sweepers and tight hairpins across mixed surfaces and tramlines.

With flat-out autostrada straights in the bright sun, then cutting through the cool, shady pines, Fangio was as effortless as ever over this undulating layout, drifting the long-nose 300S just like his favourite 250F to take pole position.

But the wild Gregory, in an 860 Monza, was close behind and clearly a challenge; he also knew just how beautifully the 300S handled, having raced one for the Parravano team in the USA.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Massive crowds would come to see Fangio race © Fiskens

More than 50,000 spectators came to see El Maestro battle Gregory, and they weren’t disappointed.

When the national flag dropped, the extra grunt of the Ferrari’s 3.4-litre ‘four’ gave an edge in acceleration, but maybe the veteran was wise to follow the bespectacled American: he was fast but accident-prone.

For 10 laps Ferrari led Maserati in close formation; Fangio pushed Gregory until he made a mistake and then, with a masterful overtake, coolly seized command.

Well clear of a struggling Hill in the other Ferrari, Gregory gave his all but just couldn’t catch the super-smooth Fangio.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

This angle of the Fantuzzi body was most often seen approaching very fast in competitors’ rear-view mirrors

After 55 laps, just two seconds separated the leading pair with Gregory setting the fastest lap on the last tour.

The nearest rival was the 300S of Carlos Menditéguy in third, two laps behind.

If you visit Lisbon, a morning walk around the Monsanto Forest Park is worth getting up early for, but Fangio’s winning Maserati is now in far better condition than the old track.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The late-series long-nose was judged to be the best-looking 300S, but the magnificent, resonating exhaust note was consistent throughout the generations

After the Portuguese win, Giambertone exported 3069 to South America.

On 1 December 1957, Fangio was back in the driving seat for the São Paulo Grand Prix.

Around the fast Interlagos circuit, the veteran was again in a class of his own with the 300S taking a win in both heats.

Seven days later, 3069 was trailered to Rio de Janeiro where a huge local crowd turned out to support the champion at the Circuito da Boavista, where even a one-minute penalty for a jump-start couldn’t stop him winning again.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The gearknob tops a stubby lever and there’s a short H-pattern gate

Today the car carries Fangio’s famous number 4 and Castrol sponsorship from that final São Paulo win.

The victory impressed Brazilian playboy Severino Gómez-Silva, who made an offer that Giambertone couldn’t refuse.

Although an enthusiastic racer with his 200S, Gómez-Silva preferred to take the 300S out along the Copacabana Beach to impress the ladies.

Through various Brazilian owners right up to 1972, chassis 3069 continued to be raced locally, but you’d never recognise it because the gorgeous original aluminium bodywork was replaced by a rather different, boxy design – and was incongruously repainted yellow.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

It is claimed that the four-wheel drum brakes stopped as well as early discs

The Maserati eventually went into storage until 1979, when it was discovered by legendary car hunter Colin Crabbe on one of his many sleuthing trips to South America.

A deal was done for $7000 and 3069, stripped of its yellow body, was shipped to the workshop of Antique Automobiles in Baston, on the edge of the Fens.

Historic racer Chris Drake eventually had 3069 fully restored with a new body, and by 1988 it was back in Italy where Count Zanon entered it in the 1988 Mille Miglia Storica.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

The longer-stroke 3-litre engine delivers more torque compared to the 250F

After passing through the hands of a series of well-known collectors and historic racers – including Massimo Columbo, Michel Seydoux and Lord Irvine Laidlaw – 3069 was sold in 1999 to Scottish-born American William Binnie.

A highly experienced racer in both moderns and historics, including three Le Mans sorties, Binnie loved racing the 300S.

Over the following 20 years he ticked all the premier event boxes including the Mille Miglia, Le Mans Classic, Goodwood Revival and the much-missed Shell Historic Ferrari Maserati Challenge.

The 300S remains one of my all-time favourite sports-racers and, although a cold, misty winter’s day on the Fens couldn’t be much further removed from that hot summer Lisbon weekend in 1957, the chance to drive one of the 26 Trident beauties is enough excitement to stop me sleeping the night before.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Chassis 3069 passed through the hands of some prolific collectors and historic racers

The reason this late-development 300S is now temporarily based in East Anglia is for fettling by Steve Hart, a leading Maserati specialist, for dealer Fiskens.

Walking into Hart’s Norfolk workshop is a treat for any fan of historic racing, but particularly admirers of the golden years of Orsi-era Maseratis. As well as three more examples of the 300S including 3067, which also ended up in Brazil with a modified yellow body, there’s a clutch of 250Fs in various stages of work.

It was the restoration of Hart’s first 300S back in 1991, while working for historic racing specialist Neil Twyman, that kick-started a love affair with post-war racing Maseratis.

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

‘The performance and sound of this 780kg rocket are awesome’

More than 30 years ago Hart took me for a test drive around a Hertfordshire industrial estate in the ex-works 300S ‘3056/3077’, and the sound as we drifted around roundabouts on a summer evening left an indelible memory.

As well as a respected specialist, Hart is also an impressive driver. “Like a lot of things, I’ve learnt to love them,” enthuses Hart. “Everything about the design and construction is beautiful – you can tell the factory mechanics were very proud of their work.

“The 300S is really well designed, too: the deep chassis has great stiffness and, thanks to the transaxle, the weight balance is perfect.

“With the original set-up of soft springs and stiff Houdaille dampers it’s a lovely thing to drive, particularly at my favourite tracks, Spa and Dijon.”

Classic & Sports Car - Maserati 300S: in Fangio’s footsteps

Fangio dominated in the 1957 Brazilian Grand Prix © Fiskens

Frustratingly, the increased development of Jaguar-powered ’50s sports-racers has deterred 300S owners from racing them, and even on the Mille Miglia retrospective they are rarely seen.

Only by driving a 300S do you get to appreciate its greatness, so maybe it’s time the Goodwood Revival staged a Supercortemaggiore-style grid for 1950s Maseratis, Ferraris and Oscas to lure them back to the track.

Had I millions to indulge, I’d be knocking at the door of Fiskens’ London mews showroom.

Images: Tim Scott/Fluid Images

Thanks to: Gregor Fisken; Steve Hart; historian Walter Bäumer, author of the definitive book on the Maserati 300S published by Dalton Watson


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