The Black Maserati by Bill Jackson.
An article published in the Spring 1999 issue of Trident - the official magazine of the Maserati Club.
Perhaps the most famous Maserati in the world is the fabulous Ex Birkin - Whitney Straight 8C-2500, which raced at Brooklands in the early 1930s. This car was later owned by Bob Rubin for many years and rebuilt in the USA, but has recently been acquired by Dean Butler and was brought back to Brooklands last year for the Auto Italia Festival. It was the sensation of the event, competing in the runway section on the Saturday and on the hill climb on Sunday, winning the overall 'Trofeo Adolfo Orsi'. We also had the pleasure of seeing the Black Maserati at last year's Maserati Classic International in Holland, being superbly driven by both Ed McDonough of Auto Italia and Dean Butler on the Zandvoort circuit.
The first record of 2544 at Brooklands was in November 1931 when Sir Henry Birkin broke the flying lap time on the Mountain Course. He had bought the Maserati direct from the factory, but the following year Birkin sold the car to Whitney Straight, a wealthy young American undergraduate who was at Cambridge University. Straight's first race in the Black Maserati was in February 1932 at the Swedish Winter GP in which he crashed while trying to pass the leading Mercedes. In May 1932, Straight took his Maserati to Brooklands and on his first outing was not only second to Earl Howe's Bugatti, but broke the Mountain lap record for all classes. Later in the month he lowered the record again on a clear track. He was to lower it again the following April in the same car and again the following year, but then in one of his newly acquired 8CM GP Maseratis.
The 1933 season was much more active with the Straight Maserati now fitted with a Wilson 'coffee grinder' preselector gearbox, installed by Thomson & Taylor, giving better acceleration, a stronger gear change but less top speed. Whitney Straight was first and second in the first two Mountain Handicaps at Brooklands in April and in October won the Mountain Championship. In the Maserati he also won at Shelsley Walsh with a new record, and at Mont Ventoux Hill Climb beating Caracciola's 1932 record by over forty seconds. There were also many good placings in European events throughout the year. By 1934 Whitney Straight had bought two 8CM racing cars from the factory with which to compete more seriously in Europe. The Black Maserati was held in reserve but was not raced at Brooklands again, though it competed in a few hill climbs in the late 1930s.
Whitney Straight was typical of many of the gifted amateur drivers of the pre-war period. He was rich, handsome and fearless and though born in America, he was educated in England at Dartington Hall, the school his mother founded, and then at Cambridge University.
By the age of 17, Straight had learnt to fly, which proved most useful whilst at Cambridge, as undergraduates were forbidden cars, but the college regulations said nothing about aircraft. He confounded the university authorities by flying all over Europe to race meetings on Friday afternoons and would be back in time for classes on the Monday.
Until 1934 all Whitney Straight's racing cars were painted black which included the Magnette and Riley as well as the 8C Maserati, but the 8CM Maseratis purchased for the 1934 GP season were painted in white and blue American racing colours. With a team of three cars and drivers, three transporters and offices and workshops in London and Milan, his resources must have been greater than many of the factory teams of the time except the Germans. The cars were all converted to the Wilson preselector gearbox and the chassis boxed by Thomson & Taylor to give better road holding and cornering. The trademark of Straight team cars was the stylish heart or pear shaped radiator cowl which gave the flat slab like radiator of the 8CM a sleeker more streamlined look. It was a wonderful adventure with some success, Whitney was 2nd at Vichy, 3rd at Comminges and 4th at Casablanca and Montreaux. Hamilton and Heatherstonehaugh scored a 1-2 in the Albi GP where Straight had finished 2nd the year before in the 8C. Whitney's greatest moments were racing against the great Nuvolari, whom he was convinced he could beat in the wet when both were driving 8CM Maseratis. 'He was the man I most wanted to beat and I found that I could always be quicker if it was wet because he was frightened of the wet, but in the dry he was faster than I was . . . . 'But there were also tragedies, particularly with the death of one of the team drivers, Hugh Hamilton.
By the end of the year Straight was engaged to be married and promised his future wife that he would retire from motor racing even though he had been offered a works drive with Auto Union for the following season. 'I don't think the prospect held much in the way of life expectancy. The Auto Union was a tricky car to handle, a 16 cylinder with 600 horsepower that weighed 12 cwt and spun it's wheels up to 160....'
The Black Maserati was certainly run in hill climbs in the late 1940s and then was in the USA for many years. It is wonderful to see this car being used so much today. Dean has no inhibitions about the car being driven and well used by friends. At the Goodwood Festival of Speed last year it started to rain when many valuable and unique cars were in the open. Covers were pulled over, but not on the Black Maserati. Dean remarked, 'A little rain is not going to harm the car and anyway the public have paid good money to see the cars, not rain covers'. Long may the Black Maserati stay in this country for our continuing enjoyment. (March 1999)