Maserati Barchetta

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As a kid, I used to laugh. Actually, as a kid I used to point and laugh at Maseratis.

Here in Canada, you don't exactly see Ghiblis and Boras kicking around—you see, if anything, a BiTurbo or flavour of. And that's what I was laughing at—a great, Formula 1-dominating marque that had been reduced to assembling pretty ratty cars.

Were they all that bad? Probably not. But when Porsche rolls out the 959, Ferrari introduces the F40—and the Japanese carmakers are in the middle of a 276 horsepower arms race—whatever Maserati was up to looked a little daft.

Buyers thought so, too. As recently as 1992, the company sold about 1,000 cars worldwide. (They're now on track to hit a record 20,000 sales.)

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What you may not realize—and I certainly hadn't for a long time—is that roughly until Citroën acquired them in the late 1960s, Maserati models were largely hand built road cars via special order. If you wanted, for instance, a Frua or Vignale or Touring body draped over top of a race-derived V8 engine, they'd sort it out.

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Every bit the equal of what Ferrari was doing in the day, cars like the A6GCS, (original) 3500 GT, the opulent and very fast 5000 GT, and the quad-cam V8-powered Ghibli. Even though they hand built only a few vehicles every year, the cars tended to be great.

Nobody with the last name Maserati has owned the company since 1937—and so our impression of what the brand means has been co-opted over the years. 

Even better news: as part of their current comeback, they're introducing an SUV.

As part of Alejandro De Tomaso's last push for Maserati success, they introduced today's Car of the Day, the largely hand-built Barchetta.

Inspired by the ungainly and unsuccessful Tipo 65 race car, the Barchetta was designed by Synthesis Design, a consultancy set up by Carlo Gaino who is best known for the Barchetta-based De Tomaso Guarà, all-carbon Lancia ECV II rally car concept, and Alfa Romeo 155 GTA.

What's interesting about the Barchetta? It appears as though Maserati was hip to the track car business long before it became popular, envisioning a one-make series for Italian gentleman drivers that would run as support races for larger race series.

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A great way to get exposure in front of racing fans, sure, but first you have to attract drivers. They could expect something special: a strong backbone chassis, mid-mounted twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre V6 engine from the Ghibli packing 315 horsepower, a six-speed transaxle—with straight-cut gears—double wishbones all 'round, with enough aluminium and magnesium parts sprinkled about the car to make you feel as though it was a special package.

The body was removable, cleverly, in just three pieces; aluminium honeycomb, fibreglass, and carbon fibre layers gave the panels strength. 

Total weight? Just 775 kg (1708 lbs), putting the power-to-weight ratio closer to a Porsche 911 GT2 or Lamborghini Murciélago than anyone may care to realize.

A sparse interior…and plaid seats. Be still, my beating heart.

A sparse interior…and plaid seats. Be still, my beating heart.

The race series kicked off in 1992 with six races—Varano, Vallelunga, Bari, Pergusa, Varano—again—and Bologna. In its second year, the series was expanded to 10 races, picking up rounds at Zandvoort and in Denmark…with never more than 13 vehicles on the grid. (Not from lack of trying, but people weren't buying the cars!)

In addition to the gentleman drivers' lack of interest in the series, Maserati's other problem was John Nielsen, a semi-professional Danish Le Mans-winning sports racing car driver who was leagues faster than the other drivers.

To prevent such domination, ECUs were allegedly swapped. Nielsen still won.

Only 16 Barchetta models were built in total, including a Stradale road-going prototype. A few others ex-racing cars have since been converted to road legal specification.

If you want a modern, race-derived Maserati, the Barchetta is surely the way to go. More rare and interesting than the Ghibli Cup, Trofeo, or MC12 race cars—but no less exciting—I hope that Maserati's latest owners from the Fiat empire take a stroll through the archives and discover this small forgotten boat.


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