Issue No. 16


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Maserati Birdcage

Maserati 250F

Maserati Tipo 60 'Birdcage'

Back in 1954 Maserati designed and built a car which rocked the racing world. For many people, the 250F was one of the greatest front-engined grand prix cars of all time; with Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel, it won two races in its very first season. For 1957 the company developed a new chassis, based on a lightweight spaceframe - and it was so good that Fangio took the Formula One World Championship that year.

In 1959 Giulio Alfieri, the chief engineer, took the lessons learned from the 250F and devised another car which would become a motorsports legend: the Tipo 60, universally known as the 'Birdcage'. The nickname came from the complex lattice of thin tubes, between 10mm and 15mm in diameter, that made up the chassis; over 200 separate tubes were required.

The whole industry was moving towards what was known as 'monocoque' design for the chassis -- but Maserati achieved spectacular success, beating the competition. The Tipo 60 was yet another demonstration of the engineering excellence for which the company was, and is, renowned. The result was a chassis which was light, yet had exceptional torsional rigidity -- a vital quality, since it meant that the car would have predictable handling on bumpy circuits.

While the era of front-engined grand prix cars would soon be over, Maserati did all they could to maximize the handling of the car. The engine, based on the tried and tested straight-four 2-liter, had the cylinder head thoroughly reworked to make 200 bhp. The whole engine was mounted as far back as possible to optimize the weight distribution; the block was also tilted over at 45 degrees, both to reduce the frontal area of the car and also to lower the center of gravity.

Stirling Moss

The first chassis was made out of high quality chrome steel tubing, providing maximum rigidity -- but that very rigidity caused problems. Soon after the first chassis began testing, cracks were noticed around some of the numerous welds which made up the chassis. Ing. Alfieri, trusting to his intuition, took what appeared to be a retrograde step, building a chassis out of steel tubes of much lower quality. It proved to be exactly what was required, the tubes now absorbing the stresses without compromising the rigidity.

The Maserati factory team had withdrawn from motor racing, so the Birdcage was sold to private teams, although with full support from the factory. The car was an immediate success, taking a win at Rouen in 1959 with Stirling Moss at the wheel. Moss, in partnership with Dan Gurney, claimed victory the following year in the N¨rburgring 1,000km race, in a Tipo 61.

1961: Odoardo Govoni piloting his Birdcage in a hillclimb.

1961: Carroll Shelby took many checkered flags in his Birdcage.

In America, the series run by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) had a 3-liter capcity limit; to meet the transatlantic demand, the Tipo 61 used an identical chassis, with the engine bored out to the maximum possible. That took the capacity to 2.9 liters, and power up to 250bhp; this was enough for the Tipo 61 Birdcage to win its class in both 1960 (Gus Audrey) and 1961 (Roger Penske).

The Birdcage proved an incredibly flexible car, competing in everything from long-distance road-races to hillclimbs. It was a genuine two-seater, as navigators were required for the road races. One notable driver who campaigned a Birdcage was Carrol Shelby, who took numerous victories in America at the wheel of a Tipo 61 -- in fact, the last win of his career came at the wheel of a Birdcage, in Los Angeles in 1961.

Not even the engineering ingenuity of Maserati could hold off against progress for too long, and the move to rear-mounted engines meant that the Tipo 60 and 61 had relatively short competitive careers; but the factory used the expertise gained to develop a new, rear-engined tube-frame chassis -- the Tipo 63, also known as 'Birdcage'.

The factory's burning desire to be at the cutting edge, to bring innovation to the racetrack and to lead from the front, has always been evident. The MC12 supercar, currently racing and winning in the FIA GT Championship, is proof that the factory remains committed to motorsports, while the stunning handling and performance of the Quattroporte, Coupe and GranSport offer proof that this is not wasted energy, that what works on the track can be adapted and applied to the road cars to wonderful effect.