The Birdcage: Maserati’s Last Great Racer

Maserati

Source: RM Sotheby’s

Even the most casual gearhead is familiar with Ferrari’s history. It’s Enzo’s company, and he only ever got into making road cars to fund the racing program. It dominated Le Mans in the ’50s and ’60s, and has been building some of the most desirable cars in the world ever since. But what about Maserati, its one-time rival, and now corporate cousin? Its current lineup is pretty and powerful but underappreciated, with the Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans topped by formidable but aging GranTurismo (and GranCabrio), and soon to be buttressed by the Levante SUV. Over the years, it sold models ranging from the beautiful to the bewildering, and spent decades in and out of financial trouble. It’s an exotic automaker in every way, but it just doesn’t have the same type of cachet as its former — and now, sort-of — competitor.

Or does it?

Maserati’s history goes back far beyond Ferrari’s. The company was founded by the Maserati brothers in 1914, raced against titans like Auto Union (now Audi) and Mercedes in the 1930s, and became the only Italian manufacturer to ever win the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and ’40. In the 1950s, it and Ferrari had one of the most ferocious rivalries in motorsport history, ending only after a tragic accident at the 1957 Mille Miglia killed 10 spectators (Ferrari almost quit racing after the accident as well).

Source: RM Sotheby's

Source: RM Sotheby’s

It was only then that Maserati began turning its attention to road cars — a full 10 years after Ferrari starting taming its race cars for customers. In the decades since, Maserati has built some fearlessly unique road cars like the 3500 GT, Ghibli, and Bora among them. But it couldn’t give up racing or its rivalry that easily. In 1959, the company debuted its “Birdcage” cars in spectacular fashion. It would come to define a brief but innovative era in motorsport history, and give rise to a legend that continues to influence the company today.

Source: RM Sotheby's

Source: RM Sotheby’s

After the 1957 accident, the official directive from company brass said no more racing. But it didn’t say anything about building race cars for private teams. Design director Guido Alfieri had been experimenting with a new type of construction, and by 1959 had completed his first car. The ’50s were an era when competition cars either had a tub chassis or a ladder-frame one. The car, known as Tipo 60, had neither; it was constructed of over 200 sections of tubing (generally 1 to 1.5 to centimeters thick) welded together to create a flexible, incredibly lightweight space frame chassis, which reminded the team of a mangled birdcage. It was woven around the suspension (a similar setup to the iconic 250F racer) and engine, a 250-horsepower 2.9-liter mid-mounted inline-four, and skinned in a sinewy aluminum body. The car was impossibly low, and incredibly light — just 1,300 pounds — and despite skepticism from company director Omer Orsi, the first Birdcage car, known as Tipo 60, went racing in July, when Sterling Moss drove the car to a commanding victory at the Delamare-Deboutteville Cup in France. It set the racing world on fire.

As world-class racing began to take root in the United States, the Birdcage’s light weight and high speed made it seem like the ideal candidate to racers from the new world. Driven by Dan Gurney, Gus Audrey, Roger Penske, and Lloyd Casner, Birdcage cars dominated SCCA events in 1960 and 1961, defeating legends like the Porsche 718s and Ferrari 250TRs. It proved successful in Europe too, winning the ’60 and ’61 1000-kilometer races at the Nürburgring.

Source: RM Sotheby's

Source: RM Sotheby’s

Despite having no official presence in motorsport, the successes of Birdcage cars were enough for Maserati to finish in third place in the Manufacturer’s Championship title in ’60, and second in ’61. But it wasn’t enough to keep it in the international sports car conversation. A smaller company even when compared to Ferrari and Porsche, Maserati’s brass refused to lift the official racing ban, stunting growth at a time when its competitors were evolving on the track at a fantastic rate. Reliability issues meant a trio of Birdcage cars failed to finish at the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the issues only got worse in the ’61 season. By 1962, the Birdcage cars were history.

But Maserati’s groundbreaking racer isn’t just some historic footnote. Tubular space frame designs began to gain in popularity in the 1960s, and in the decades since, they’ve shown up in everything from Formula 1 to kit cars. The car seen here, a Tipo 61 from 1960, was part of that famous Camoradi team, and wears the colors that have come to represent the best of Maserati. It fetched $2.09 million at RM Sotheby’s 2013 Monterey auction, and if it changed hands today, would probably fetch much more.

Maserati’s last great racing push hasn’t gone unnoticed by the company either. It may not be a racing powerhouse anymore, but its MC12 supercar was only available in the white and blue livery used on the Camoradi racing team’s Tipo 61s, and its 2005 Birdcage 75th concept was built in tribute to the racer, as well as Pininfarina’s 75th anniversary. Maserati may not be the no-compromise sports car builder Ferrari is, but it has plenty of authentic Italian performance in its blood — too much to be ignored. And the 22 Birdcage cars, Tipos 60 through 65, are some of the most revolutionary race cars to ever come from Italy.

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