Maserati makes grand plans for revival at its 100th birthday party

Maserati makes grand plans for revival at its 100th birthday party

Slip-sliding around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with Derek Hill in the world’s last Maserati Tipo 151 – a vintage honey that tore through LeMans in the early ‘60s – it’s possible to imagine that Maserati’s glory days were all in the past.

But seeing the alluring Alfieri concept car unveiled for North America, it’s clear that Maserati has more in mind than being a nostalgia act.

At the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – the world’s most prestigious vintage race and classic car show – Maserati finds itself in a historically high gear. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the brand was the Honored Marque at both the 64th annual Pebble Beach event; and the Motorsports Reunion that put a century’s worth of historic race cars through their ripping, romantic paces around Laguna Seca – rather than sitting in a dusty museum.

For Maserati, those included Faberge-rare Grand Prix or Formula One cars such as the 1939 4CL, 250F’s from the late ‘50s, and a 1960 Tipo (or “Type”) 61.

Another Maserati 250F demonstrated how vintage cars continue to fuel the mystique of today’s showroom Maseratis, Ferraris and other deluxe brands – and to fuel mad heights of spending at Pebble Beach. At the Gooding & Co. auction, eminent racer Sir Stirling Moss took the stage to see his Monza-winning 1956 Maserati 250F fetch $4.2 million. Even that paled before the $38.1 million bid for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta at the Bonham’s Quail event. That set a new auction high for any automobile, ever.

The Modena-based Maserati is used to being overshadowed by Ferrari, its former rival just down the road in Maranello. But now Maserati and Ferrari must play nice as kissing cousins in the big Fiat Chrysler family. With technical backup from Ferrari, including engines built in Maranello, and a growing lineup — including the Levante SUV for 2015 and the Alfieri sports coupe in 2016 — Maserati plans to churn out 75,000 cars a year by 2018 from a new factory in Turin. By Maserati’s exclusive standards, that’s the equivalent of the unlimited pasta at Olive Garden.

A question will be whether Maserati can deliver its budget-Ferrari bravado and luxury in relatively affordable cars. But Maserati is clearly benefiting from its sugar daddies in Fiat Chrysler, following their transatlantic marriage. Led by the roughly $67,000 Ghibli sport sedan, the most affordable Maserati in ages, the brand has more than quadrupled its North American sales this year, moving nearly 6,900 cars through July.

In the billionaire’s bathtub of Pebble Beach and Monterey, where fantasy cars float like so many rubber duckies, Maserati’s place remains secure.

That becomes clear when I meet Lawrence Auriana, the owner of Fratelli Auriana Racing and a noted collector of Italian automobiles. That includes the Tipo 151 I’m about to experience on track.

Auriana, 70, is the epitome of the self-made man, a veteran investment manager who built and co-runs the Federated Kauffman mutual funds. Growing up in East Harlem, Auriana remembers his older brother parking a model of a Ferrari Barchetta on the family radio.

“He told me it was the fastest road car in the world,” Auriana says. “I was hooked.”

Maserati's 100th anniversary at Pebble Beach
Maserati's 100th anniversary at Pebble Beach

Auriana bought his first car in 1957 at age 12, paying $65 for a 1929 DeSoto and towing it to a Bronx garage. From that humble start, he’s built his renowned collection, including the 1928 Tipo 26B on display here – likely the oldest running Maserati in existence. Yet for sheer crowd appeal, it’s hard to top his restored Maserati team transporter (a ’53 Fiat) that ferried crewmembers and a pair of Maserati F1 cars in the ‘50s. Its cargo included the 250F that Juan Manuel Fangio, at age 46, drove to the last of his five F1 championships.

Auriana came to realize that “I wasn’t just an American, but an Italian-American. So my collection is a tribute to Italy’s contributions to the industry, in design, engineering and sportsmanship.”

Auriana bought the last surviving Tipo 151 in 2006 and restored it to race at such vintage events as Monterey, Monaco and England’s Goodwood Revival. Today, as I arrive in the paddock, the team is working furiously on a broken suspension piece that forces their withdrawal from the race.

Despite the huge disappointment, Auriana and his team couldn’t be more gracious. They shore up the Maserati and briefly consider letting me whip the priceless machine around Laguna Seca between races. Clearer heads decide that it’s best to let me ride shotgun with a team pilot.

Damn — that close.

Maserati Tipo 151 at Laguna Seca from Peter Leahey on Vimeo.

As voluptuous as an Italian screen siren, and roughly as volatile, the Tipo 151 was born when LeMans created a new experimental prototype class for 1962. Only three were built, two for American gentleman racer Briggs Cunningham.

While the three Maseratis retired before the end of the 24 Hours of LeMans, they were the fastest cars on track before they broke. That’s straight from Auriana Racing driver Derek Hill, a man who should know: His father Phil Hill won LeMans that year, driving for Ferrari. By 1963, the Maserati was hitting 196 mph on LeMans’ famed Mulsanne straightaway, a remarkable height for cars of that technological era — in a 24-hour race that runs through the nighttime French countryside and often in the rain.

While he’s a fine driver in his own right, Derek will always be introduced as the son of the late Phil Hill, the storied racer who remains the only American-born Formula One champion, driving for Enzo Ferrari in 1961. (Mario Andretti was the other American champ, but was born in Italy).

The California-bred Hill won that championship by one point, when his Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips was killed in the season’s final race. And hundreds of cars running here at Laguna Seca – including the 4.0-liter, 400-plus-horsepower Maserati I’m about to climb into – vividly recall an era in which death shadowed every corner and straightaway. The Tipo 151 is basically an aluminum-bodied can with a tube frame, a monster V-8, a five-speed gated manual transmission and four Weber carburetors slurping fuel below a bulging plexiglas bubble on the hood.

“It’s a bit of a throwback in safety as well,” Auriana says, with some understatement.

I learn the reason one of the three Tipo 151’s was scrapped: During LeMans testing in 1965, driver Lloyd “Lucky” Casner ran out of luck, dying when he crashed the car on a wet track.

Maserati TIpo 151
Maserati TIpo 151

Putting that anecdote aside, I climb over the sizzling side exhaust pipes and cram into the tiny passenger seat, my 5-foot-11 frame barely fitting. Hill takes the wheel, and onlookers gather to snap photos and flash thumbs-up as the Tipo 151 rolls onto the track.

“Aesthetically, it’s like nothing else,” Hill says of the Maserati. “It’s got this cute little face with red lipstick, but it’s really mean. And you’ve got to drive it at the limit to go fast. You just hope it all stays in one piece.”

Hill proceeds to demonstrate. The Tipo may shred eardrums like a modern racer, but it handles like the relatively primitive car it is, including skinny 16-inch wire wheels and tires with limited traction. Hill steers the car as much with the gas pedal as the steering wheel, essentially drifting it through Laguna Seca’s tricky turns and catching it when it threatens to spin.

It’s a remarkable display of driving skill. And it shows, yet again, that these were real men racing back in the day, pushing the limits on every lap and stoically accepting the risks and a stream of tragedies.

Yet the Maserati also shows the rewards of mastering such a beautiful, visceral, hard-charging beast. As Auriana says, it’s why owners and drivers fall in love with vintage racing.

“New cars are a bit like video games,” he says. “You don’t get the same feeling. It’s a real challenge to get the maximum out of these vintage cars, and I love the competition.”

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