After 3 months at Jaguar Cars, my first proper job, I'm on the phone to my father in Rome, talking cars, as most obsessive males do. Flicking through multiple images of various sports cars, trying to picture what I'd like to own. The buzz was certainly there. I'm an engine man, ever since the early ages and being brought up amongst sportscars, just worsened matters. So I want a car that's got an engine with something special about it. "Exotic and Different" spring to mind. I want a car that's good to look at, has character and is possibly not commonly seen on public roads.
One car that appeals is a Lotus Elise. Plenty of performance, but most likely a nightmare on long journeys and with the prospect of trans-France journeys to Italy, a decent level of comfort is a must. I ventured to the local dealer in Warwick to have a look at some examples. Being just over 6 foot, the ease of access is somewhat limited. The sales assistant then proceeds to try and make me believe that people drive these cars across the continent (including luggage) with no hesitation. Whatever! The cherry is then placed on the cake with the ultimate insult to a prospective buyer: "You may wish to check if you can afford the insurance on this before even thinking of buying it. I expect you would be looking for finance?" To which I reply: "No thanks, as it happens I'm looking to buy cash" This of course, was really said just to annoy the assistant.
After my reply I proceed to thank him and clear-off, with my list relieved of an option.
Back on the phone with my father I ask him what his memories were of the Porsche 911SCs and C4s. What else was there about the car which I had not picked up in the drives to school on the Via Cassia and those fragmented Rome-England journeys we made every year to see my mother's relatives? The answer is simple. Very flexible engine, 4wd traction, but a load of electronic nightmares with the on-board computers. The main issue for avoiding early C4s is the inadequate clutch and flywheel fixing, which tended to come loose every 20,000 kms. A fault they supposedly sorted when they revised the car in 1991. So much for "Proven track technology migrated to the road". The interior styling was put on pause about 15 years earlier and had remained there ever since, with the minor tweak here and there to imply there had been changes as the model development went on. The interior is the major factor which puts me off this car. The pick of the bunch is a 964RS, as it makes no pretences to be what pre-996 Porsches are not; a GT car. However at over 80 million Lira it's basically detonated Semtex in my budget. I am narrowing down now to less than a handful. My mind is a complicated car park of Italian, German and British thrill machines. Ferrari is out of the question, Alfa too, thanks to whoever gave the direction to migrate a sports car firm to front wheel drive layouts. Unbelievable, but I suppose the after-lunch "Digestivo", usually Grappa or Amaro, can lead to all sorts of fantastic and irrational ideas, even cost saving on inviolable high-performance sports-car attributes.
Here we go, I'm now looking at Maseratis. Ghiblis and Shamals in particular. Two whole summers in '98 and '99 at Auto-In Maserati in Rome quickly came back to me. The most vivid memories of the cars are Craniotti's red Merak SS, Piacentini's black Shamal on black plates and a load of Ghiblis. Last of all, a new 'Grigio Alfieri' 3200GT coming in for it's post running-in check. Antonio, my trainer, was obsessed with the styling. "It's poetry on wheels" he would say about 100 times, whilst it was in.
Back to the real world, my dad opens the latest edition of 'Quattroruote' magazine (literally translated as four wheels) and turns to the 'Auto Usate' (used car) section in the back, past Ferrari, the Lamborghinis, past Lotus, then Maserati. So short is the list compared to others, that it's easy to miss. Ghibli 2.0L, Ghibli Cup, Quattroporte 2.8, Quattroporte V8 Evoluzione. 16,800 for a 1998 example of a Ghibli, 10,500 for a 1996 car. Right, that's it. Shortly after our conversation, I engage in abusive use of the internet for used car websites. Sure enough they start coming up. Mostly ABS and 1a Serie. Hardly any GTs, except for when I ventured into Germany and Holland. There were about a dozen, all in different colours ranging from a bright pink of an Auto 2.8-litre GT, to a "Blu Francia" Ghibli Cup. Automatics were out and manuals did not appear to be a popular choice abroad. The price range however was more than the book had originally suggested. Not giving up, I persisted to search for a GT as I wanted an end of line model version. You might ask "Why not a Cup?" The less sophisticated styling and a few articles on the cost difference for replacing the turbos between a GT and a Cup re-inforced my quest for a GT.
3 further months of web-search abuse started to yield their fruits. I was looking predominantly in Italy as the climate should have ensured a better condition of vehicle than in a wetter country. Having said this, it was certainly not reflected in the first few cars my father and I saw.
No.1 - Lavagna
The very first GT I saw was near Genova. I find the advert on the 'Porta Portese' website (the Roman Exchange and Mart type publication) whilst in England. On the advert it is described as Blue with Black interior, 1995MY, 84,000kms, full history and good condition – 14,000. When I speak to the dealers, the only problem with the car appears to be the back boxes which they say they will replace and include in the sale price. I am due over in Rome the following week, so I quickly arrange to travel up to the dealer and view the car the day after I arrive. We (my father and I) set off from Rome early in the hot afternoon and head for the A1. Ultimate destination: Lavagna on the Lugurian coast. We arrive late in the afternoon after only 4 hours autostrada drive (pretty good due to the clear roads) and catching up on how the job's going, etc.
The following morning we set off early from Lavagna to reach a small village in the mountains rising off the Ligurian coast where this "Maserati Specialist" is located. After a handful of mobile phone calls trying to understand the confused directions of the Gentleman, we finally arrive at the dealer...or at least this was where I thought we were going to end up…
To my surprise, at the end of a side-street we see a concrete platform built on the edge of a steep mountain-side with a building in the corner, which is yet to be finished. The platform, surrounded by low black railings, could have been big enough to host about 5 cars at best, in crammed conditions. Today though, there are only 2 Ghiblis. A "Primatist Blue" GT parked just behind the open gateway and a Black Cup on the side. Standing under the morning sun on the edge of this platform are two dubious looking characters in waist-coat quilted jackets, one of which is holding the phone we must have been conversing on. They greet us with smiles and waving their arms. "Where have we come, where have I taken my father?" I am asking myself.
We drive up to the platform and park alongside the road which looks like it leads up the steep mountain side all the way to the top. As we park the car, I stare at the vehicle we have come to view, hoping it'll be the one! However, it's not long before I spot a few things which aren't quite right! As it turns out, "a few things" mutates to "everything". To be honest the whole place has a strange feeling about it. No proper premises or offices and in the middle of nowhere. They introduce themselves, then show us the car: "Eccola qua!" The very first thing that catches my eye is the extremely pronounced public car-wash paint features (massive heavy swirls, probably better described as a jumble of scratches) all over the car. My dad chats to the gentlemen. I proceed to take my first look under the car from the Ghibli's unmistakeably high rear. I notice the differential's tubular mounting frame. This gives me more confidence that it actually is a GT, although the dashboard "Ghibli" script and the fuel supply hose to the injector rails (different to 1a serie and ABS models) confirms that this is not one modified to a look alike….
The "FSH" evidence doesn't look good though: leaking diff at the plug (obviously they even spared money by not replacing the copper seal) and the exhaust pipe sleeving is all torn and scraped. Hints of rust also catch my eye, though nothing major. The "gasket sparing" service is also confirmed on the front on the sump plug. Same leakage issues.
The car looks more and more of a dog at every further glance. A potential mechanical minefield and an industrial financial sewer. The car supposedly has about 84,000kms on the clock (what a joke!). My dad's Spyder iE has just over 70,000, so we know damn well what one should expect from a properly maintained example. The interior is in black and the front seats have been recently partially wiped over with some horrendous leather shine-renovator, a shine which black leather from Maserati never had. I sit in the driver's seat and quickly sink down in a seat which must have had a right hammering and has probably seen 184,000 kms as opposed to the 84,500 declared in the clock! The rear seats are a bit better, but the grey carpet is stained pretty much all over. I think it's fair to say that I have already made up my mind about the car... However I decide to have a proper look in case I can learn about any other things I'll have to take note of when scrutinising other Ghiblis.
Opening the engine bay (dreading what I'll see next), the "specialists" point out the new water pump (which probably means the cam-timing went hay-wire at some point and probably caused a few bent valves too). I ask to fire it up: "Possiamo accendere il motore?" "Certamente" the tall one answers… and amazingly it does first time round. I let the engine run checking for any signs of turbo bearing oil-related smoke from the quad exhausts. No sign, just wisps of steam, drops of condensation and a rumble typical of blowing exhaust boxes, which they repeatedly say they will replace with new ones. I think "Well, if you think that's the only problem I can see with this car you're having a laugh!"
I ask the tall one to take me out for a spin to see how it drives. Even though the car has been idling for the best part of 10 minutes, the 2.0L V6 is not yet warm, but all the same, he decides to nail it just as we set off from the low gate. He says "See? Sente come tira? (Feel how it pulls!) Le turbine ci sono! (The turbos are there alright!)" I answer yes, deciding to not cause any trouble and thinking "they'll migrate south, down the exhaust into those back boxes soon if this is how you drive it!"
He then receives a call on his mobile from some villager who has broken down and proceeds to turn the test-drive into a search for a white Peugeot 205. "Vede una 205 bianca per caso? (Can you see a white 205 anywhere?)" When he finally finds it he proceeds to double-park the car and attend to them! I take an opportunity to scrutinise the service book in detail which appears to have been stamped by Candini all the way through to 80,000kms. However it does not take much to wind 10K off the clock every time before taking it in for a service. Back at base my dad is shown the Cup. This car is not much better than the GT and is certainly classifiable as a dog. On our return, my dad asks what I think of the car and at the same time desperately trying to pull a serious face. I nod, trying to refrain any facial expressions which could hint I'm amused at the seller's cheek! I must say though that despite all the compelling evidence of abuse, the engine did pull 1st and 2nd quite well, which I suppose is a good indication of it's inherent robustness. Having said that, any lack of engine power might be disguised by the short gearing in 1st and 2nd. We ask him when the next MOT is due. He is pretty certain it's in 2004 which means that it must have missed a year, as in Italy you MOT a car every 2 years. Hence if the car is registered in '95, it should be MOT'd in sunsequent odd-numbered years. Another tick in the "Dodgy" column. I think we have almost completed it! After a brief conversation we thank them, ask them to let us know when the exact MOT date is and leave, almost amused by the fact they described it as "Beautiful and in good condition… must be seen". We should have suggested they took a trip to the optician and then, ultimately, somewhere else...
Next stage is Bologna…forgot to mention…I've arranged to meet another seller (hopefully more reputable than the pair we'd just dealt with – "Peggio non si puo'!" - Can't be any worse!) to view a '96 GT in Blu notte with cream leather. Unfortunately the owner can't make it before 6 p.m. so after arriving in Bologna early in the sunny afternoon we wonder down the long porticos of the old town centre and sit down in the main square for a drink. After some time spent reading the paper, making notes on extra things to look for in the next car, and observing a few somewhat colourful examples of Bologna University students, we decide to start making our way to the car-park on the outskirts of the town, which is our rendez-vous. Funnily enough the seller was already there, showing the car to another interested individual. The owner's embarrassment becomes apparent when I text him to wave to the silver Leganza at the other end of the car park, when he has finished with the potential customer. The official story was that he couldn't make it before 6 as he was out of town…
Nevermind! His wife looks bored rigid though. I bet she's thinking "These men and their bloody cars!" The colour (of the car) is beautiful and deep. Really suits the car. The leather is a nice colour too, although presenting significant bolster wear on the driver's seat for 56000kms. These rear boxes need replacing too! The test drive can't prove much as it's now rush-hour and Bologna's by-passes are getting pretty busy. Compared with the car we say earlier this morning, it feels slightly better kept and maintained, although not worth the 17400 Euros which the owner is hoping to get. Interestingly the car has a spacesaver in the boot. Something which would come in useful given that due to the carbon can and diff frame you can no longer fit the underbody spare as you could with the earlier Maseratis.
I know I want a car in better condition than this. Disappointed, I try not to despair and tell myself it's only the second one for sale I have actually seen.
We thank the couple and leave tired but full of comments and views which accompany us in our journey back to base. Through the Apennines, past busy Florence (most Florentines use the A1 as their ring road) and down though Umbria, into Lazio and back to Rome.
I feel disappointed but then at least I have 2 cars and prices to benchmark against.
The following Monday I have an appointment at EUR in Rome to view the now ex-Piacentini Shamal. The owner also advertised on Porta Portese and I'd made arrangements with the gentleman before departing from England. Black and now with 136000kms on the clock, a meticulous owner whom my trusted ex-offcial Maserati mechanics know. A good base to start on when you know who has serviced the car and done all the maintenance work on it. We (my patient father and I) arrive in the warm easter sun, roof down in the Spyder. In the middle of the square, just alongside a parking area, a wide, black, sharp-edged squatting object immediately attracts my attention. "Eccola la! That's it there…" We drive round the square and up behind it. The car is so wide it's unbelievable. Even wider than I remembered. Gandini certainly achieved on-road presence as with the Lamborghinis and still today after 12 years looks a beast. After the "Buongiornos" I take an 'inspecting' walk around the car. Meanwhile the gentleman and my father discuss the fact that they use the same mechanics and how they each positively rate them for various jobs carried out on each of their cars, etc. etc. etc. I catch the odd bit of the car's history and all the jobs which have been undertaken: Turbos, piston rings and crank bearings at 90000kms, diff gear at 110000kms, full exhaust replacement at 130000kms, all accompanied by an extensive pile of receipts. He insists that he will change the front tyres anyway which are a bit low on the tread, but apart from that, I can see no obvious flaws with this car which is in remarkable condition given the mileage, it's 10/1991 registration and it's previous owner's occupation. The interior is pretty immaculate and the body presents no evident rust.
"Vuole fare un giro? Vuole guidare lei cosi' si rende conto? – Would you like to go for a spin? Would you like to drive so you feel what it's like?" Given the Roman traffic's reputation I thank him and let him take his own car through it. We get in whilst my father reads the paper in the Spyder. Apart from the front seats, and 2.0L biturbo-style dials, this car is a Karif inside. He turns the engine over and it fires up with a rumble and vibrations which bellow "crude power". It pulls away with no judder. On our way to the dual carridge-way which takes the city traffic west towards the sea we pass the Luna Park (the Amusements Park in Rome) which lies along a very wide and straight bit of road. Just as we come out from the corner preceeding the straight, the owner proceeds to drop it into third, with the usual effort required from your left leg to action the wooden clutch (a friend of mine reckons you need to be Robocop to depress it – "E' un pezzo di legno!") and absolutely floors it… The loud and intoxicating bellow from the exhausts and engine is probably comparable to the growl of a lion. It's a V8 alright, one with a Maserati aural signature to it. The dated stick-like white speedo needle, also common in Lamborghinis of the era, is shifting quick. "Sente che terza?" – "Feel what 3rd gear's like?" the owner exclaims. I'm looking at the road now and we're in 4th at full whack – "A tavoletta". The acceleration is relentless and it seems to go through the higher gears as easily as the lower ones. We lift off just before a bridge which we use to do a legal u-turn, a novelty in Rome. This car is a beast in it's category. Strong and progressive power delivery as long as you are above 3000rpm, crude and non-refined. I like it. I'm grinning like a hyena and on the way back I scrutinise what I can see of the interior. The car has been fitted with wood in place of the Carbon-fibre trim. Somehow it does not seem to work as well on the Shamal as it does on the Ghibli… The shocks are all working. It turns out they have been refurbished too…Good.
Back to the square in EUR where we started off, the car shakes as it idles. That's DeTomaso refinement for you...but who cares. It's character and it definitely resembles it's styling. My dad realises I like the car and although he dislikes cars on steroids, he seems keen on it. We exchange a few words. My dad tells him that I'll be doing a few financial calcs and we'll let him know. At this point my only concerns are the mileage and the lack of ABS, which in damp England might prove tricky. You can't rely on the weather being good all weekend if you're out and even in the dry you can't guarantee that some idiot won't create a dangerous situation when you least expect it. At 20500Euros, it's well beyond what I had originally budgeted. Other Shamals in Rome had swapped hands for half of that, but who knows in what condition. The missing service book does not worry me too much as both Auto-In and Candini can back-up the services that have been carried out.
A few hours later, after consulting the mechanic and thinking about the mileage (hence re-saleability) and lack of ABS, I make up my mind that it's not the car I can afford to invest in.
Following the Shamal I see a Ghibli GT in Capua. The car is Burgundy – Beige with only 22000kms on the clock. It is as new, but at 26000 Euros it's barking mad. No negotiations for him. He can keep it.
A week later the relentless search continues. As this goes on I learn more and more about these cars and like many other lucky people, I bump into Enrico's site. A mine of resources to say the least. So please keep it up!
Phone the dealers
Next phase are the dealers. I phone every dealer in Italy on the official website. The most controversial was Naples, which answered "We don't deal with that sort of stuff." Whatever. It appears that GTs are in high demand. Plenty of 1a serie and ABS models but no-one has any GTs except from Piacenza and Arezzo. Piacenza's offering is on the expensive side, but Arezzo has a Sicilian client who is wanting to sell his Black GT to move to a 3200. However, this person never made it to Rome until after I had finally bought the car I now own today. Typical! Turns out Ferasin had still got a headache the chap in Capua (the 26000Euros car) had given him. He also wanted to sell his 26000Euro GT to move onto a 3200, and had been phoning all the dealers in search of an unrealistic price to be paid for his car. At least I wasn't the only one to think he was in dreamland! Ferasin would have a Grigio Argento (slightly different to Silver as I will discover) – Black Leather GT coming in in the next few weeks, 40000kms 2 owners and immaculate.
Meanwhile a GT turns up on Autoscout. Being back in England, I delegate my dad (who is now on tranquillizers due to this car business) to see this black "sanitised" (apparently they were cleaning and sanitizing it as the previous owner had smoked heavily in it) GT which would be driving across from the Adriatic to Rome for viewing. 4 hours late, the broker turns up and upon first inspection at the workshops, the vehicle appears tatty and certainly with at least double the recorded mileage showing on the clock. Franco, the mechanic, also spots frontal accident repairs, carried out by some cowboy. The broker says; "Ah yes, the previous owner recently ran over a rabbit". Franco replies that it was more likely that a rabbit had run over the car. The broker starts to get edgy.
All of the under-bonnet and rear of the car is covered in white dirt-track dust & salt. Franco also comments on this to which the broker replies: "You just think about doing your job and I'll think about doing mine!" At this point Franco and my father take the car for a spin. Although it drives reasonably well, this has been another waste of time, which the broker will not admit to. Needless to say that he is sent to hell and elsewhere too with a few colourful Italian phrases.
In June, Ferasin send me a nice email to let me know that the GT he was on about is being traded in the following week. After lengthy emails and phone calls for information on the car I ask him "How much?" He says there will be no problem regards the price. We will surely reach an agreement – "sicuramente vedra' che ci metteremo d'accordo"….I'll believe that when the deal's done!
Anxious not to let a good opportunity go, I once again delegated my now exhausted dad to see the car in Vicenza, accompanied by Franco the mechanic. By the way, it's not as if my dad was sitting around all the time, waiting for action. Their journey: an 8 hour ordeal which commences in Rome on a Friday morning at 5:30. They don't get to Vicenza till 13:30 thanks to an accident featuring an overturned lorry on the Apennine stretch just after Firenze. The workshops are shut till 14:00. I have a 30 minute wait in the office at Jaguar till when they can get to see the car. I'm really hoping this car is going to be the one.
Finally at 14:35 I receive a text message. It says " Colore interessante, Interni ottimi". As Franco further inspects the car on the ramps I receive more texts saying "freni nuovi, compressione OK, gomme posteriori consumate" So no expenses to take into consideration apart from the rear tyres.
After a further and everlasting 15 minute interval my phone then rings. "Franco la sta ancora guardando. Dice "il fondo non e' sdruciato" (the underside is not scraped). The car is good, what shall we do?" I ask what the price was: "21,000 including the transfer tax." Ouch!!! "Have they knocked off something for the tyres?" "Yes" my father replies, "he knocked off 500!". "Good" I think. "I can get them for half of that". I then ask: "is that the lowest price he'll let it go for? Have you tried knocking it down further?"
"Yes, we have but he won't budge". I then ask "Would you pay that money for the car?". He answers "If you like that sort of car, then yes". "Can I have a word with Franco then?" "Eccolo!" and he passes me onto him. "Ciao! Allora?" "Com'e'? Li vale i soldi che chiede?" ("Hi! So what's it like? Is it worth the money he's asking?").
Franco: "La macchina e' nuova!" ("The car is like new!").
"Ok, passami papa' allora. Grazie eh!" ("OK, pass me over to father! Thank you!").
Franco: "Va bene, allora ciao!" ("Fine, bye then!").
"Gli chiedi di mandare delle foto?" ("Could you ask him to send me some photos?").
Father: "Ok, aspetta che ti passo il venditore." ("OK, hang on while I pass you over to the salesman.").
Dealer: "Buongiorno Ingenere!"
"Buongiorno. Volevo chiederle di mandare qualche foto cosi' decidiamo." ("Good morning. I wanted to ask if you could send me some photos while I decide.").
Dealer: "Ok, gliele mando al'email a lavoro?" ("OK, I'll send you an email at work?").
"Si grazie, ci sentiamo tra un po'". ("OK, I'll be hearing from you soon then.").
Finally the photos arrive. The interior looks immaculate and infact, as-new. The paint is an interesting colour as my dad said. A perleascent silver (with, as I later discover, has a hint of champagne!). The colour seems to change according to the viewing angle. "I send a message saying "OK" and shortly after I get a reply saying "Were driving it back, speak to you later". Talk about not wasting time! I breathe a sigh of relief, but at the same time think "have I really done this and spent all that money on a car???!!"
At first I don't realize about the champagne tinge, but shortly after I give my dad the final OK, my work colleague points out that I have just bought a champagne car! "No it's silver" I say. "It's not" I say. But then, compared to the silver alloys you immediately see that the paint has infact got a hint of Champagne. Needless to say how the piss-taking took off in the office! Still today it's inflicted on me when talking of the car.
For the next few days I automatically fire-up the used car websites to then realize that I no longer have to do this…I can't wait to see & drive it…