Originally Posted December 23, 2018
Italy is very good at making small cheap cars (e.g. Fiat 500, Fiat Panda), they are also very good at making super-expensive exotics (e.g. Ferrari, Lamborghini). They suck at everything in the middle, as we saw with Alfa Romeo and as we shall now see with Maserati. The problem is they simply cannot hold a candle to vastly superior German competitors. The offerings from Stuttgart, Munich, and Ingolstadt offer more reliability, comfort, efficiency, and even value for the money than anything Maserati can muster. So how on earth has Maserati survived against all odds?
Maserati was founded in Bologna in 1914 by 5 brothers: Ettore, Bindo, Ernest, Alfieri, and Carlo. Alfieri, Bindo, and Ernesto were in the business building race cars for the company Diatto. In 1920, they adopted the trident as their logo, based on the Fountain of Neptune statue in Bologna. In 1937, the company was bought by the Orsi family and its headquarters moved to Modena, best known as Enzo Ferrari’s hometown.
Maserati did not start making road cars until after the war, having a similar origin story to Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. Their first car was the A6. It was a grand tourer with a 1.5 liter 6 cylinder engine producing 65 horsepower and a top speed of less than 100 mph. The A6 was a relic of the old ways of making super expensive cars. Maserati sold a chassis and engine to customers who would then find a coachbuilder for the bodywork. Most were bodied by Pininfarina.
The 3500GT, launched in 1957, was a much more serious attempt at a road car. It had a much bigger engine, 3.5 liters and fuel injected models could produce 235 horsepower. But it was still quite crude, with a live rear axle and tubular chassis with a separate body. But it was enough to make Maserati a fairly serious contender.
In 1959, Maserati brought out the 5000GT. It cost twice as much as the 3500GT and had a 325 horsepower 5 liter V8, 340 with fuel injection. Famous owners included Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli and actor Stewart Granger. Only 33 were built over 5 years, so this was a very serious exotic.
In 1963, Maserati brought out its first Quattroporte. “Quattroporte” was the name of the car, and in Italian translates as “Four doors”. The design is not all that attractive, with a greenhouse seemingly grafted on. In terms of performance, the 4.1 liter V8 could get it to 143 mph, making it a very speedy limo. A 2 door version called the Mexico was released in 1966. It was one of the first Maseratis with unibody construction.
1963 also saw the launch of the frog faced Mistral. The body was made from aluminum and the brakes were 4 wheel discs, which were needed. Both the 3.7 liter and 4 liter engines could get from 0 to 60 in less than 7 seconds and onwards to a 140 mph top speed.
In 1966, Maserati brought out the Ghibli, a very stylish 2+2 Grand tourer available in coupe and convertible models. The most powerful version could go 174 mph with the help of the aerodynamic pop up headlights, which I’m guessing never worked. The Ghibli was designed by Ghia and used a separate body and chassis once again. The Ghibli was the last new car that Maserati introduced as an independent company. In 1968, they were bought by Citroen.
Citroen’s fairly large coffers meant Maserati could let its hair down. In 1971, they brought out their first mid engined car, the Bora. With a V8 engine producing over 300 horsepower, it was a competitor to Ferrari and Lamborghini. The next year, they brought out a second version called the Merak. The Merak had a smaller 3 liter V6 engine. And the smaller engine allowed space for a couple of dinky rear seats.
In 1974, the Ghibli was replaced by the wedge shaped Khamsin to replace the Mistral. It had a powerful V8 engine and fully independent rear suspension. It was the right car at a very wrong time. In 1974, Citroen went bankrupt and Maserati was sold to small Italian automaker DeTomaso. Maserati would suffer the fate of seemingly every exotic carmaker during the 70s and 80s (Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Lotus). For the next 20 years, Maserati was constantly strapped for cash and making many terrible cars.
In 1981, Maserati brought out the Biturbo, a twin turbocharged turd that would underpin every single Maserati model unveiled until 1997. Biturbos rusted as they went down the assembly line, when it was slightly warm out, they overheated, just looking at the interior trim pieces would cause them to break off, and the electrical system was less trustworthy than one of Donald Trump’s promises. Worse, the car’s shape was fairly anonymous, it bore a strong resemblance to the BMW 3 Series, a much, much better car.
Perhaps Maserati’s lowest point came in 1988. Chrysler owned 15% of the company and CEO Lee Iacocca was a longtime friend of the late Alejandro De Tomaso. They decided to build a roadster called the Chrysler TC by Maserati. The result was nothing less than a disaster. The car utilized Chrysler engines and was built on the overused K-car platform. The styling was far too similar to the much cheaper Chrysler LeBaron and sales were abysmal. In 1991, Maserati left the US market.
In 1993, that Italian auto giant Fiat rode to the rescue, buying a 51% stake in troubled Maserati. With Fiat’s money, the dark ages were almost over.
Maserati’s renaissance started in 1998 with the 3200GT. It was the first new Maserati in almost 20 years and it once again made the company a style leader. In 2002, the Maserati Coupe replaced it, it was similar looking but very different underneath. 2002 was also the year the company returned to the US market.
In 2003, the Quattroporte was also given a new lease on life. The stylish coke bottle shape made it stand out amongst the bland competition. It featured skyhook adaptive suspension and a powerful V8 engine. But again, I’m going to say that German competitors offered the same performance along with much more comfort and durability.
In 2004, Maserati rejoined the midengined field with the MC12, based on the Ferrari Enzo. It was produced to comply with homologation for FIA GT racing which say that you need to build at least 25 road going versions of the car you race. It had a 630 horsepower V12 but was criticized in the motoring press for being too hard to drive, too big, and too expensive.
In the 2010s, Fiat has worked to broaden Maserati’s appeal. That goal was made easier by the purchase of Chrysler, giving access to the dealer network of America’s 3rd largest automaker. To that end, in 2013, they brought out the Ghibli, a competitor to the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E Class. It’s stylish and fun to drive, but has a cheap interior, a small rear seat, poor fuel economy, horrifying unreliablity, and shocking depreciation. It’s also woefully expensive, with a starting price of $75K. For that money, BMW will sell you an M550i with all wheel drive and an engine with 120 extra horsepower.
In 2017, Maserati joined the SUV craze with the Levante. The Levante combines all of Maserati’s… virtues with SUV versatility.
This is the first time I’ll end one of these diaries on a negative note. Maserati these days is trying to turn itself into a mainstream luxury brand. Its cars now offer all wheel drive, and Europeans can get theirs with diesel engines. This is a shameful comedown for what was once such a great automaker and is destined to end in disaster. It just goes to show that the Italians should give up on the anything between Fiat and Ferrari.