Is the A6G/54 the best all-round Maserati ever made?

| 27 Nov 2013

Private underground city car parks conceal some secret motors, but few are as surprising as this early-1950s Maserati coupé. As we drop down to the basement storage, the lift doors opened to reveal a subtle grey Zagato-bodied beauty conspicuously placed among bland moderns. Even under the sterile neon glow of its stark hideaway, this sleek, compact exotic looks like a pert supermodel among dinnerladies. Amazingly, there are no barriers to protect its delicate, hand-formed aluminium body, and you can’t help feeling that this rare 1954 GT should be displayed across the river in the Tate.

Ugo Zagato’s team of artisans at the Via Arese works in Milan had a great eye for natural form and pretty much defined the classic coupé look in the early 1950s. None of the 20 Zagatos were identical because details and trim continually evolved and just one chassis, 2121, had the signature ‘double-bubble’ roof. “Great designs don’t come from wanting to produce a good shape,” Zagato claimed, “they come from making cars faster and more intelligent.” The house of Zagato may have lost that defining ‘Grinta e Sportività’ purity in its later years, but the only route for the Italian gentleman racer in the early ’50s was via the famous Milanese carrozzeria. Rivals Allemano and Frua both bodied the updated 2-litre coupé between 1954 and ’57, but none of the 60 built matched Zagato’s seductive fastback.

The owner of this twin-cam, straight-six jewel – the only 2000GT in the UK – has generously entrusted me to deliver the car solo from London to respected Norfolk-based Maserati specialist Steve Hart for its annual service. And there are few more dramatic places to start up the Vittorio Bellentani-revised 160bhp motor than a silent underground car park. Twist the key, push the button and this thoroughbred heart – with chain-driven cams and triple Webers – barks instantly into life. The throaty exhaust boldly fills its concrete-walled lair. Close your eyes and it could be a 250F revving up in a Monza pit garage. Once the engine is warm, I point the car’s shapely snout towards the ramp, and can’t resist stretching the revs in first gear as it heads up to the barrier. The strident howl sounds even richer around the narrow tunnel. Out into the Sunday night city traffic, the Maserati soon gets approving interest, none more so than from a Ducati rider who follows me for miles. He pulls alongside at every set of lights and soaks up its alluring shape and boisterous tone. Well I’d do the same, because the chances of seeing another like this on British roads are minimal. Even in the ’50s these Maserati gran turismos were mainly sold in Italy, where wealthy owners battled with rival Lancia Aurelias, Fiat 8Vs and Alfa 1900SS Zagatos for the popular GT championship.

Out on to a deserted dual carriageway, the 2000GT – better known as the A6G/54 – starts to come alive. The gearbox, via the tall alloy-ball-topped lever, is a treat to work with its rewarding mechanical feel as you slice through the gate, while the steering’s initial deadness transforms into a silky, precise action at speed. You sense that the handling is beautifully neutral on clear roundabouts, as the ‘six’ delivers strong, smooth punch. You need no excuse to hold the revs right to 5000rpm through the gears for the buzz from that addictive yowl as the chassis holds its line neatly. It’s not crying wolf, either: this ’54 GT is as quick as it sounds thanks to a healthy power-to-weight ratio and will give most hot hatches a challenge up to 80mph. The flat leather seats offer little support, while the low roofline creates a widescreen view of the road that all adds to the period character. My only concern is the lack of outside mirrors as the suspension crashes painfully over London’s cursed potholes.

It’s easily the most valuable car ever stashed at my home, so I’m up long before the rush hour and the protracted warm-up predictably upsets the neighbours. I choose the North Circular rather than the M25 slog, and again the pre-dawn darkness fuels Mille Miglia fantasies. 

Potholes aside, the ride is surprisingly comfortable and there’s little roll through turns. As I gain confidence with this glorious machine, the big gap between first and second becomes more apparent, but more disturbingly – as the early daylight fills the Spartan cockpit – I note that the oil-pressure gauge needle regularly fluctuates. Thankfully, I later learn that it’s only the relief valve that causes this worrying symptom. The cabin is pretty minimal but better fitted-out than most competition Ferraris, with bold Jaeger speedometer and rev-counter dominating the layout behind the classic three-spoke Nardi wheel. Interior door trim is enhanced with delicate aluminium handles, while the headlining is leather. Italian gents clearly demanded a certain refinement for their drive to events. 

By dawn, having diverted off the A1(M), I’m out on familiar Hertfordshire roads and once more the car’s inspiring balance rewards as it blasts through favourite bends. Only sleepy wildfowl worry my press-on pace because not even the Maserati’s searing charge stirs them, and I’m relieved to reach wider roads. Fortunately, the brakes are strong – with no hint of pull or locking up – while the pedal is reassuringly firm. 

Over breakfast at Duxford I review the history file. Like several A6G 2000s, chassis 2118 was sold through the Rome Maserati dealership of Guglielmo ‘Mimmo’ Dei, who later launched Scuderia Centro Sud. Finished in ivory, with stylish blue trim, the car was sold to hot-shoe Luigi Musso’s brother Giuseppe in January ’56. Musso never competed in the car, but Dei drove it at the Corse Lanciato hillclimb and possibly several other events. The following year ‘2118’ was sold to Count Maggi Diligente, who ran a property business in Milan. Diligente was clearly a Trident fan because he also owned the fabulous A6GCS Pinin Farina Berlinetta. 

Diligente crashed the car while competing in the ’57 Coppa della Consuma, and it went back to the factory for repair. Both ends were crunched in the spin because those hillclimb road courses left little room for error. The invoice details two new wheels, electrical work, a front suspension rebuild and a radiator, as well as the bodywork. The repair took close to three months and Diligente must have been shocked by the 700,000 Lira bill. With his firm already in financial difficulties, Diligente had no option but to sell the Zagato. At that point ‘2118’ was renumbered 2189, possibly to match its new engine, or just to sway the next customer that the car was mostly new. Still painted grey, ‘2118/2189’ continued racing with third owner Vincenzo Ossi, mainly in Italian hillclimbs including the Bologna to San Luca event where it came seventh in class. 

The car then had a succession of Latin owners before it ended up in Sicily, where it stayed for 14 years with Luigi Manzumi. From 1973, a lady doctor drove the sleek Maserati around Rome after which it went to Charles Reid in the USA. Eventually New York collector Sam Mann acquired the car and during restoration had the body repainted red. Subsequent owners included such discerning enthusiasts as Skip Barbour and William ‘Chip’ Connor. The car then returned to Europe where its next German owner had the prudence to finally return the bodywork to its original colour. After a renovation by Conulato in Italy, ‘2118/2189’ successfully completed the Mille Miglia. Luckily for British Maserati fans, this fabulous coupé was next sold to a UK enthusiast who loves driving it. As well as starring at last year’s International Maserati Club Rally at Goodwood, the Zagato has regularly been driven on European road-trips including to the owner’s wedding in France. Well, wouldn’t you?

Fans of the A6G/54 coupés included Denis Jenkinson. Motor Sport’s ‘continental corres-pondent’ called at Maserati’s Modena works on the way back from Sicily in ’56 to pick up a Mille Miglia practice car for co-driver Moss. The situation at the bustling factory couldn’t have been further removed from the slick, efficient preparations of the previous year at Mercedes-Benz. ‘In every corner of the works were sports Maseratis in various stages of repair and disrepair,’ reported the bearded scribe. ‘There were 2-litre A6Gs, 1½-litre 150S, 3-litre 300S and 2-litre 200S models varying from a bare chassis frame to a complete car. Rows of engines were being assembled, others were on the test-beds being run-in or power-tested. The activity was obviously going to go on all day and night.’ 

This colourful description perfectly conjures the chaotic atmosphere at Maserati, which had too many commitments stretching the accommodating team. If it had focused ruthlessly on the works racers, the results would have been far better. Predictably, Jenks’ new 350S wasn’t ready for testing, so Francesco Giardini offered him the only available car, a once-pretty Zagato A6G coupé ‘that was now a very weary and dirty-looking car having just completed seven laps of the Mille Miglia in various hands’. Chief mechanic Guerrino Bertocchi drove Jenks out to Modena autodrome in the coupé on a wet Sunday morning, and proceeded to blast around for four fast laps to check that everything was in order before waving him off to collect Moss from Milan. Jenks adored the little Maserati’s ‘light and positive steering’ and its ‘lovely’ gearchange. The roadholding was so good that it was ‘difficult to reach anywhere near the limit’, while the engine ‘is so lively that an eye had to be kept on the rev-counter all the time to avoid going over the 5500rpm limit’. Jenks reluctantly gave the car to Moss at the airport, but the only consolation was to see how well it could really go. During their recce, Jenks calculated that the 2-litre Maserati set a higher average than the 130mph 300SL test car in 1955: ‘Without exceeding 5500rpm (98mph), the Maserati was so much more manageable. It could be flicked from side to side of the road with the minimum of effort, and in and out of the traffic with little space required while the gearbox would keep the revs up.’ After one 1000-mile lap, they arrived back at the factory having ‘developed a great regard’ for the A6G. Such was their pace on open roads, Jenks calculated that they’d have finished third in the previous year’s 2-litre class. Both wanted to take the car for another lap’s practice but it had to be prepared for a privateer, with a new engine, ’box and rear axle!

There are few hills on our route, yet it’s easy to relate to Jenks’ vivid report. The brakes and steering never fail to inspire while the sure-footed handling encourages ever-faster runs through long, open sweepers. Not once does it feel unsettled. The sun is setting fast by the time we arrive at Hart’s workshop – tucked away down a West Dereham back-lane – but I could have driven long into the night. Inside this isolated unit is a Trident treasure-trove. As well as several ‘Birdcages’, including the ex-Gregory/Daigh Camoradi 1960 Le Mans streamliner, there’s the dramatic remains of the last racing coupé.

Hart enjoys working on all classic Maseratis, particularly A6Gs: “They are beautifully made and the front suspension design carried right through to the 250F and 450S. The synchro is weak and the gap between first and second can be frustrating on the track, but it’s fine on the road. With around 160bhp in such a light car, it’s no surprise that the performance is so strong.”

It’s a real wrench to leave the A6G and Hart’s fascinating shop. Riding home in a soulless modern, I miss the Maserati’s raucous exhaust and the cold alloy of the chunky gearstick. As we head south, a magnificent sunset unfolds across the Fens. Just imagining that fading orange light kissing those sleek, hand-crafted Zagato curves is almost too much.

FACTFILE – Maserati 2000GT A6G/54

Sold/number built 1954-’57/60 (20 Zagatos) Construction steel tubular ladder chassis, with aluminium body Engine all-aluminium straight-six, with dual overhad cams driven by triplex chains, two valves per cylinder, twin-plug ignition, fed by triple Weber 40DC03 carburettors Bore & stroke 72x80mm Compression ratio 8:1 Max power 160bhp @ 6000rpm Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, quarter-elliptic leaf springs; Houdaille lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar front & rear Steering worm and sector Brakes finned drums all round Length 13ft 5in (4089mm) Width 5ft 1/4in (1530mm) Height 4ft 4in (1321mm) Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2540mm) Weight 1800lb (816kg) 0-60mph 8 secs Top speed 130mph Price new £3200

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Tony Baker