A railway engineer from Voghera, near Milano named Maserati had six sons: one, Marco, became a painter, and the others, Alfieri, Bindi, Carlo, Ernesto and Ettore became engineers. Carlo and Ernesto raced motorcycles around the turn of the century, and raced cars as well whenever they got the chance. Alfieri was a test driver for Isotta-Fraschini, and from time to time he was also employed to race their cars. Alfieri’s brothers Bindi and Ettore worked at the Isotta-Fraschini factory as well.
In 1914, Alfieri changed direction: he was still heavily involved with the racing side of Isotta-Fraschini, but the relationship was on more of a freelance basis, and he founded the Oficina Alfieri Maserati SpA in December of 1914. As well as continuing to work closely with Isotta-Fraschini on developing their racing program, serving really as a small semi-independent tuning shop, the little company was making spark plugs, the first automotive items actually to bear the name Maserati.
In 1919, brother Ernesto joined the company, and the first Maserati car was built. This, as one might have expected, was largely constructed from Isotta-Fraschini parts, and was in fact a shortened racing Isotta-Fraschini chassis originally intended to be powered by a conventional four-cylinder engine. Into this chassis was fitted an Isotta engine constructed from one bank of a V8 originally intended for aviation use. As you can imagine, the result was light and powerful, and proved to be quite rapid.
The tie with Isotta-Fraschini’s racing was overshadowed by the new involvement with the Diatto organization as the twenties began. The Maserati brothers were soon developing and racing Diatto cars with some success, and in 1924 the Diatto company commissioned a supercharged double overhead camshaft 2-liter straight eight engine in a Grand Prix racing chassis. In 1925 this hit the track for the first and, as it transpired, last time. Whether it would have developed into anything important became academic, as Diatto went bust in 1927 .
For one reason or another, the straight eight Grand Prix car remained with the Maserati brothers, and they carried on working to develop it. To qualify for the 1.5-liter class, they reduced the capacity of the engine to 1500 cc and relaunched it as the Maserati Tipo 26. It had been pretty well the Maserati brothers’ baby from day one anyway, so it was certainly justifiable to call it a Maserati. The blown straight eight was the first car to feature the three-pronged trident symbol seen on Maseratis ever since. The car did well on its first time out in 1927, winning its class and coming ninth overall. The following year it won.
The original car was developed into a 2-litre version in the form of the 26B (150bhp), and in 1929 the Maserati brothers built a monster for Formula Libre racing. Known as the Sedici Cilindri V4, the car featured basically two straight eight engines sharing the same crankcase and set in a V. In a straight line the car was capable of speeds in excess of 150 mph, although its performance was less impressive when anything other than a straight line was involved. Another double-engined monster, the V5, was built. Although very fast, it was as dangerous as the first and was abandoned after its second crash.
Throughout the Thirties, Maserati continued making spark plugs and hand-built sports and racing cars. They were unable to achieve consistent success on the track, however. To some extent this was because they were unable to generate the necessary investment capital to stay seriously competitive and to protect their place in the front rank: this is a problem for small racing car manufacturers that has existed for very nearly a hundred years. From the racing cars, a limited number of road cars were built, fitted with coach built bodies. The 4CS-1100 and the 4CS-1500 were available in 1932 and 1933.
In March of 1932 , Alfieri died, as a result of an operation on old injuries sustained in a racing accident some years previously. Ettore, Bindo and Ernesto carried on to produce the three liter 8CM 150 mph Grand Prix car. Financially, things continued to be relatively hard going, so the arrival on the scene of Commendatore Adolfo Orsi in 1937 was very welcome. Orsi ran an industrial combine that was involved in making machine tools and bus and railway systems, although the connection with Maserati may well have come about because the Orsi organization made spark plugs – as did Maserati themselves.
The Maserati brothers were bought out and signed up for a ten year consultancy deal, relieving them of direct money problems, thus enabling them to concentrate on making racing cars and the occasional spin-off road car. During this period, the A6GCS car was conceived and constructed, and the 2-litre Formula 2 car was designed and built, and that in turn developed and evolved into the legendary 250F (2493cc straight six, 270bhp, top speed 180mph). The gearbox was rear-mounted in a transaxle unit behind the seat: it was a four-speed unit at first, and later improvements included a fifth gear. The later cars also benefited from a redesigned and considerably lighter chassis.
With Juan Manuel Fangio in the driving seat, this beautiful and seriously quick Maserati won the World Championship in 1957: one of the high points for the Maserati company. As well as the racing cars, chassis were being shipped off to various coachbuilders for a variety of bodywork to be fitted: PininFarina, Vignale and Frua all made their own contribution with an assortment of sports and sports racing bodies.
When their ten year consultancy contract expired, the remaining Maserati brothers couldn’t resist the pull of freedom and independence, and went off on their own to form OSCA – Officine Specializzata Costruizone Automobili. The Maserati name stayed with the Orsi family. The 1600 Osca was a neat and attractive little car, resembling its bigger Maserati brothers in the elegance of its proportions on rather a smaller scale, and powered by a double overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine, with two huge Webers squeezed into the diminutive engine bay. The interior was typically Italian of the period: two big dials for speed and revs, a thin woodrim wheel and sparse interior comforts: after all, it was for going quickly rather than being cosseted in Grand Tourer style. Badgework on the car was limited to OSCA 1600 on the bootlid, Fissore Savigliano on the front wings and a round badge on the front bearing the O.S.C.A. legend and a coat of arms, with ’Fratelli Maserati Bologna’ running around the outside indicating that, although it wasn’t a Maserati as such, it had certainly been built by the Maserati brothers.
The Maserati name and the company’s racing ambitions were now firmly with the Orsi family. The 450S represented one of the many parallel courses steered by Maserati during the late Fifties: it was a full-bodied open racing car, with a swoopy, elegant body and a 90º four-and-a-half liter V8 kicking out a massive 400bhp. It was extremely quick, but the chassis and the brakes were never quite up to the standard demanded by the engine, although the chassis looked as though it should have been pretty effective, being a large bare tubular affair, with the central area built on two levels. However, its only notable successes were the 1957 Sebring 12 hour and the Swedish Grand Prix. When the entire works team of four Maserati 450S racing cars was written off in the race in Venezuela in 1957, there was a considerable rethink. With the Orsi organisation in financial trouble from other directions as well, 1958 saw an air of pragmatism in the company and an increasing interest in road cars: the 3.5-litre six-cylinder engine was fitted in a tube frame intended very much for the road rather than the track. They were still very fast cars and they might still be written off once in a while, but at least the car would belong to someone else when it happened, and they could always sell him a replacement.