DOUBLE TROUBLE

By Stuart Grant and images by Henrie Snyman

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Performance and Maserati go hand-in-hand, kicking off with Maserati brothers Alfieri, Bindo and Ernesto building Grand Prix cars for Diatto in the early 20th century. When Diatto stopped its racing programme in 1926 the trio upped the ante, highlighted by Alfieri driving one of their own cars to victory at the 1926 Targa Florio. Race cars of 4, 6, 8 and even 16 cylinders followed with the likes of Fangio, Louis Chiron and Prince Bira enjoying on-track success. But with the withdrawal from all racing following the Guidizzolo tragedy during the 1957 Mille Miglia, the focus shifted to road cars where it was all about ‘luxury, sports and style cast in exclusive cars’. Our favourite, the Maserati BiTurbo, sums up this tagline.

Before we get cracking on the bit of 1980s kit (in suitably cool period metallic brown paint) though, it is worth refreshing the Maserati story briefly. As mentioned, Maserati really took off in 1926 with the Targa Florio win, although the Trident logo we all know had appeared on their machines long before when Mario (another brother and artist) used this symbol in the logo at the suggestion of family friend Marquis Diego de Sterlich. It has nothing to do with the devil but rather is based on the statue at the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, and as Neptune represents strength and vigour, they felt it fitting for the style of vehicles they built – add into the mix that the statue is a symbol of the company’s original home city and it all made perfect sense.

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Alfieri Maserati passed away in 1932 but the brothers, Bindo, Ernesto and Ettore soldiered on building winning race cars. Come 1937 and the trio sold their shares to the industrialist Adolfo Orsi who moved Maserati to Modena, with the brothers staying on in engineering roles. Maserati racers did well against the might of the German Auto-Unions and Mercedes-Benz and even scooped back-to-back Indianapolis 500 victory with its 8CTF in 1939 and 1940.

Car production stopped during the war as the factory produced components for the country’s war effort but development of a town car for Mussolini continued with the hope of beating Ferry Porsche/Volkswagen and Hitler to the task. When this didn’t happen, the plan for a people’s car was scrapped and as war ended Maserati went back to their basics as race car builder, with the A6 model a popular and successful machine. Ten years on the contract between the Maserati brothers and Orsi came to an end and they went off to form OSCA.

Gifted engineers Alberto Massimino, Giulio Alfieri, Vittorio Bellentani and Gioacchino Colombo took up the reins at Maserati and continued focusing on the best engines and chassis for motorsport. Models like the 4CLT, A6 series, 8CLT and A6GCS proved successful but the crowning glory had to be the Maserati 250F that spearheaded the Grand Prix of the mid-1950s in the hands of aces like Juan-Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jean Behra and Luigi Musso, Louis Chiron, Prince Bira and Enrico Platé. It wasn’t all Grand Prix though for Maserati with sports car racing models such as the 200S, 300S, 350S and 450S built, raced and sold to customers by the firm.

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Factory-backed motorsport came to an end in 1957 when the Mille Miglia was banned following a crash in the town of Guidizzolo, where the Ferrari 335 S of Alfonso de Portago/Edmund Nelson suffered tyre failure and crashed, killing the pair as well as nine spectators. Maserati continued making customer cars but the focus at the factory swung to building luxury roadgoing cars. The stance was set in 1957 with the first ground-up grand tourer design and first series produced car, the Maserati 3500 GT, rolling out the works.

From there badges like Vignale 3500GT, 5000GT, Quattroporte, Bora, Merak, Ghibli, Khamsin, Indy and even Kyalami followed. Ownership of the firm moved to Citroën, and then Italian state-owned De Tomaso to Fiat, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo under the Fiat Chrysler Automobile umbrella.

Yes, I’d heard of legends like Fanie Viljoen racing Maseratis here in the 1950s and seen the odd luxury GT at various car shows over the years but as a product of the late 1970s there is only one Maserati that ticks all the boxes – the BiTurbo, built between 1981 and 1994. Under De Tomaso ownership the BiTurbo saw Maserati chucking out the idea of mid-engined cars as well as any remaining bits from the Citroën parts bin and designing a fairly conventional compact four-seater front-engined, rear-wheel-drive coupé. Where the creativity came in was in the power unit. Here a V6 engine, based on the 2-litre 90° Merak unit saw the addition of twin turbos – a world first for a production car. It was also the first production car to sport 3 valves per cylinder.

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And it was this engine that won the hearts of some and disenchanted others. Initially a carburettor-fed 2-litre (mainly for Italian market consumption and skirting a value added tax ruling in the country) was used but a 2.5 carburettor version for export followed and then a 2.5 fuel injection and 2.8-litre fuel injection hit the ground running.

Unfortunately, the early cars set a trend for unreliability as they were prone to overheat and blow turbo so that the carbs needed constant adjustment and turbo lag was dominant. The odd BiTurbo caught fire too and many refused to start on hot days. Even though the later versions sorted these issues out the mould was set in many stubborn motorists’ minds. On the upside those fans that don’t listen to the negative talk are able to pick up a real performance machine with bucket loads of pedigree for a decent price nowadays.

The tested 1984 model you see here is such an example. With its fuel-injected 2.5-litre motor fed by a brace of Garrett turbochargers it gets up and goes strongly. Find first gear on the ‘dogleg’ 5-speed manual gearbox, pull off briskly and listen to the glorious sounding 6-pot’s exhaust note. As the turbos spool up a new acoustic joins the concerto and acceleration increases noticeably, pushing you back into the cream velour seats. Zero to 100km/h is completed in 6.6 seconds and the top speed is in the 220km/h ballpark. Compare that against a 1982 Ferrari 308 GTB QV at 6.7 seconds and you can see that the Maserati is bang for your buck.

With only 62 000km on the odo from new (still sporting the plastic protection on the velour door cards) this particular car is devoid of slop in the gear linkage or rattles and shakes from the suspension. It felt like a modern car with only the interior decor giving it away. But how awesome is the interior with the comfortable seating and abundance of wood trim and stitched leather?

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Externally the Pierangelo Andreani (Chief of Centro Stile Maserati until 1981) penned bodywork is period fashionable hard-edged boxy in style and said to have been influenced by the Giorgetto Giugiario-designed Maserati Quattroporte III released in 1979. Initially a good seller the BiTurbo did however have to move with the times and the first of two facelifts by Marcello Gandini occurred in 1987. Here he tried to soften the hard lines, added a taller and more rounded grille and more aerodynamic side mirrors. For revision two in 1991 he again fettled the grille, by making it slimmer and more integrated with the bonnet. An aero kit was added too, which saw a rear spoiler and side skirts added as well as a shield that sat at the base of the windscreen and hid the wipers from sight.

The BiTurbo engine found its way into a saloon in 1983. Known as the 400 Series it used the same underpinnings but saw a longer wheelbase to accommodate the extra doors. A two-seater Spider was added to the mix in 1984 while 1986 saw the firm trying to harp back to the day’s genuine four-seater GTs like the 3500, Mexico and Kyalami with the 228. They did this by employing the 400’s long wheelbase but only fitting two doors. Fewer than 500 of these were ever made.

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When the 2.8-litre engines, which also saw 4 valves per cylinder and dual overhead camshafts, arrived in 1988 the export market BiTurbos took on the 222 name. By 1990 222SE model was added which had the mentioned more rounded or smoother body kit but more importantly put the Maserati even higher on the performance car ranks with 225 horses on tap. Even better was the ultra-rare 222 4v, which made 279bhp and was good for a whopping 255km/h – impressive for the time, especially considering its diminutive engine capacity when compared to the supercars of the day.

At the start of the ʼ90s the BiTurbo enthusiasm waned and sales started tapering off. To combat this, some special models were made. Stuff like the Karif (222 units), another short wheel base like the Spider but with a fixed hardtop and the Racing (230 units) which were basically 2-litre test beds for the Shamal and Ghibli II models which rounded out the BiTurbo era in 1997, when the modern 3200GT was launched.

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In total, in all formats from the regular to Spider, Saloon and special versions just under 40 000 BiTurbos were manufactured, which is a reasonably large number when talking performance classics. With teething troubles sorted out early in its long lifespan, heaps of style and performance to boot, the boxy offering from Italy has to be one of the most underrated collector cars at the moment.

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