Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s forgotten jewel

| 30 Jan 2023
Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

Reality has interrupted the daydream reverie. The vistas are scenic enough, but the romanticism of the moment has been eroded somewhat.

We are moving at the pace of a funeral cortège so as not to upset the owner of the only house in the locale, who descends into a splenetic rage should you thread your way past his home in something a bit noisy – say, a quad-cam V8-engined Maserati Khamsin.

Oh, and now we’re turning around in the entrance to a sewage treatment plant. It doesn’t scream hedonistic jet-set glamour, but who needs such superficiality when a car looks this good?

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

This uniquely liveried Maserati Khamsin was ordered as a UK demonstrator in 1976

This good? In Italian Racing Brown? With an interior bright enough to make your eyes water? Few cars could pull off such a combo, but the Khamsin does. And how.

Maserati is a marque with as many missteps as milestones to be found in its back catalogue, but if you had to absolutely, categorically pinpoint its last truly great model, this dart-shaped projectile must surely be a candidate.

Rarely has there been a more beautiful gran turismo, its outline having been penned by Marcello Gandini at his creative peak.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Maserati Khamsin was introduced as a wedge-shaped heir to the Ghibli

The Khamsin appears just as striking now as it did following its unveiling in concept form (minus Maserati badges) at the 1972 Turin motor show.

Replacing the Ghibli was always going to be a tough gig, but you could argue that Maserati didn’t really try. From the outset, the new model was meant to be something that bit more subtle and more refined.

After all, Maserati already had a stud in its stable in the form of the Bora supercar. Unlike the Ghibli, the Khamsin had all-round independent suspension and an altogether more opulent cabin, even if it was a bit of a stretch to label it a 2+2.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The quirky, Gandini-penned design is very accomplished

Nevertheless, while it might have been softer in character, the bloodline remained unsullied.

It retained the same large-displacement, low-stressed, Giulio Alfieri-designed 4930cc eight-cylinder powerhouse, each cylinder head topped by a pair of chain-driven camshafts. Four gurgling Weber carburettors nestled in the vee.

This was, of course, the final Maserati to feel – perhaps even benefit from – Citroën’s technical influence, the French firm having been custodian of this storied marque since 1968.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

A mighty 4.9-litre quad-cam, quad-carb V8 was carried over from the Maserati Ghibli

Some of the factory-claimed 316bhp (at 5500rpm) was lost to the hydraulic circuit that powered the speed-sensitive steering, brakes, clutch, pop-up headlights and seat adjusters, but there was a generous 354lb ft of torque (at 4000rpm).

The handbook quoted maximum speeds in all of the five gears at 6250rpm, and while the claimed 171mph was optimistic, it certainly looked as if it lived up to the billing.

And what looks. Gandini shaped the car at the height of the ‘origami’ styling epoch he largely initiated following the release of the Alfa Romeo Carabo show queen in 1968.

Even so, the Khamsin was far from angular to the point of being serrated, unlike many other ‘wedges’ from the period. There were curves, but of the subtle variety.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Maserati remains compellingly quick and, while its ride can be harsh, it handles exceptionally well

Reaction to the car from the media was mixed, mind, as was to be expected.

Road & Track, for example, described the new Khamsin as ‘striking’ and as having ‘beautifully balanced lines’, while a nonplussed CAR reckoned it was ‘unexciting aesthetically’. There is no accounting for taste.

Like most cars of this ilk, the Khamsin’s steel body was built up from – and welded to – a robust multi-tubular frame, which resulted in a simple but stiff body/chassis unit.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Khamsin’s steering becomes dramatically heavier at enthusiastic speeds

The whole of the rear end formed a separate subframe, attached at four points and containing a massive fuel tank, not forgetting the high-pressure brake and steering system.

However, for all the Citroën sorcery employed elsewhere, the suspension was otherwise straightforward: there were double wishbones and coil-sprung dampers front and rear (two per side out back), with anti-roll bars employed at either end.

Unfortunately, the timing of the car’s launch in production form at the 1973 Paris Salon was inauspicious.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

Unveiled in concept form at the 1972 Turin motor show, the production-ready car appeared the following year at the Paris Salon

It coincided with the fuel crisis, and demand for profligate exotic GT cars had fallen off a cliff by the time its manufacture belatedly got under way a year later.

Then there were political and industrial ructions at local and national level in Italy, and it didn’t help that a cash-starved Citroën axed its subsidiary in 1975.

The ever-opportunistic Alejandro de Tomaso then acquired the marque from the receivers with government money.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The lurid interior is an acquired taste

He would go on to chase volume sales thereafter, but the Khamsin survived the chop until 1983, by which time 421 had been made.

What’s more, it still appeared striking rather than dated. There had been relatively few styling updates during its lifetime, the most obvious being the additional slats inserted into the nose for cooling purposes on post-1976 cars.

Nevertheless, it is only relatively recently that the Khamsin has emerged from the shadows of its more widely exalted stablemates.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

Inside, the fascia and switchgear feel somewhat low-rent

‘Our’ car is one of the later, mildly facelifted models, ordered new by Maserati stalwart Mario Tozzi-Condivi.

As principal of MTC Cars, which then held the marque concession for the UK, in 1976 he ordered a new demonstrator in Luci del Bosco (‘woodland lights’) with a Verde (green) interior.

It was the only right-hand-drive Khamsin that was ever made in that colour combination (yes, we are just as surprised as you).

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Maserati’s striking cockpit is pleasingly comfortable

On arrival, the car was registered with Tozzi-Condivi’s private plate, MAR 10, and it subsequently appeared in Autosport, CAR and Autocar, making it on to the cover of the latter in November 1978 where the unusual interior hue was clearly visible.

Once it was no longer of use for promotional duties, Tozzi-Condivi attempted to sell the Khamsin. He came up against a degree of resistance, to the point that it remained unshifted, only for a mechanic to then prang the vehicle.

Cue a trip back to the factory, where it was repaired and simultaneously received a more conservative makeover in red with tan interior.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The five-speed gearbox has a dogleg shift

The current owner acquired the Khamsin in 1986, and more recently had McGrath Maserati restore the car to its original splendour.

And it really is splendid, or at least it is once your eyes have adjusted to the assault. The visuals – as with any Khamsin – remain the big draw.

Gandini wasn’t above cutting-and-pasting previous designs for a new paymaster, but that wasn’t the case here, even if the glazed ‘floating’ tail and the location of the fuel filler cap in the offside C-pillar louvre had hitherto appeared on the Lamborghini Espada.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Gandini shape carries echoes of his earlier Lamborghini Espada in its striking tail

The Khamsin isn’t a pretty car in the conventional sense. It has quirks, and looks all the better for them.

The asymmetrical bonnet vents are a case in point: they are in place to provide a visual break and stop the Khamsin from appearing to be all bonnet.

Unfortunately, the USA lost out in that impact bumpers and repositioned tail-light clusters disfigured it somewhat, but there really isn’t a line wrong on European-market cars.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

For a while this Khamsin reverted to a more conventional colour palette, but the original brown with green trim was reinstated by the car’s current owner

It’s hard to think of a vehicle styled by Gandini since that was as accomplished. You could argue that he never bettered the Khamsin’s design.

Inside, it is perhaps not quite so impressive. See past the super-groovy upholstery and there are compromises.

The boxy fascia is in keeping with the era but not overly attractive. Then there are the synthetic fibres covering the dash top, and the exposed screwheads.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

There’s luggage space behind the comedic rear seats

The switchgear is also a bit low-rent, being randomly situated in the centre console.

Ahead, some of the instruments are obscured, but on the flipside the adjustable steering column and hydraulic seat adjustment ensure you can find a comfortable driving position.

That certainly isn’t always a given in 1970s exotica; it’s more the exception.

Comedy rear seats aside, there is relatively little room to stow your bags beyond the rear luggage platform.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

Some Maserati fans dislike the Khamsin simply because of its Citroën influences

A spacesaver tyre mounted below the radiator in the nose frees some space out back, but it isn’t overly generous.

Nor is there much space for general bits and pieces beyond a shallow glovebox. However, that rather goes with the territory.

Fire up and you are definitely aware that the Khamsin is awake, but it is far from deafening. At manoeuvring speeds, something that is normally a chore in vowel-laden GTs of old, the Khamsin impresses immediately.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Khamsin’s steering is high-geared, with only two turns from lock to lock

The Citroën SM-derived steering arrangement ensures that you can shunt the car around with almost performative nonchalance. It is that easy.

Or at least it is once the car tells you it is safe to move off.

You can’t depress the clutch until the light that reads ‘STOP’ goes out, signifying the necessary hydraulic pressure has built up. This serves as another reminder that this isn’t your typical old-school performance weapon.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

‘The Khamsin isn’t a pretty car in the conventional sense. It has quirks, and looks all the better for them’

The steering set-up dominates the Khamsin driving experience because, aside from being high-geared with only two turns from lock to lock, it also returns to the straight-ahead position once the wheel is released.

It feels a bit odd to begin with, but you soon acclimatise. In essence, you guide a Khamsin, the steering becoming appreciably – and dramatically – heavier at enthusiastic speeds.

Then there are the brakes. Only slight pedal pressure is required to scrub off speed. It’s a bit eerie to begin with, smooth modulation seemingly an alien concept, but, again, you acclimatise with familiarity.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

It can take a little time to adjust to the Maserati’s idiosyncrasies, but it rewards with a hugely enjoyable driving experience

With a 50:50 front-to-rear weight balance, the Khamsin is one of the best-handling cars of its generation.

If you think that is over-praising, consider Autocar’s verdict in period: ‘Maserati has achieved notable empathy between the chassis and the engine… It can be thrown into slow-ish smooth corners like a big Elan.’

Without pushing particularly hard, the Khamsin feels composed; it doesn’t pitch, dive or wallow.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Maserati’s engine note is evocative; the higher the revs, the better it sounds

Prior experience informs me that the car is ultra-stable at naughty speeds, but the pay-off is that the ride quality is on the harsh side.

There are jolts through the structure, overlaid with intermittent clonks and hisses as the hydraulic system maintains its operating pressure.

The engine note, however, is pure blue-blooded Italian at its very best.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

The Khamsin still feels quick; it completes the dash to 60mph in 6.5 secs

This jewel of a V8 is the polar opposite of a pushrod Detroit unit, in that it is relatively muted at a cruise but bellows with a crisp and resonant sharpness when pressed. The higher the revs climb, the better it sounds.

Not that you really need to pile on the revs, given the available torque.

Below 100mph it’s just lollygagging, but it’s all too difficult to resist downshifting, and blipping while you’re at it, just to hear it snarl.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

This Khamsin featured on the cover of Autocar in 1978

The five-speed ’box has a dogleg shift, and movement across the gate is well-defined, but there is a pronounced ‘ker-klunk’ as the lever is slotted into position.

It’s geared for 26mph per 1000rpm in top, the claimed maximum speed requiring you to stray well beyond the conservative 5500rpm redline to get there.

It feels quick, too, albeit with all the usual qualifiers and caveats regarding its age: 0-60mph in around 6.5 secs is still rapid.

Maserati Khamsin: Marcello Gandini’s Italian jewel

‘If you categorically had to pinpoint the last great Maserati, this dart-shaped projectile must be a candidate’

The Franco-Italian gene-splicing here makes for a compelling overall package. However, the Khamsin remains misunderstood even half a century since it first broke cover.

There are some Maserati types who dislike it precisely because of the Citroën influences, but it is a hugely enjoyable drive once you overcome your initial reservations and get in sync.

It might not be widely touted as a landmark Maserati, but that’s only because it takes some people longer to cotton on than others.

Images: Luc Lacey

Thanks to: Andy Heywood

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