The Maserati 450S

Ready to shake the earth: Maserati's magnificent Monster

I would like to thank 'THOROUGHBRED AND CLASSIC CARS' magazine for
their  kind  permission  to  reproduce  the  text  of  this  excellent  article  that
appeared  in  the  October  1989  issue  of  'Thoroughbred and Classic Cars'.

Motor racing is in many ways the art of achieving the totally unfair. It demands money, and stature, and the making - or taking - the best that 'luck' can offer.

Back in 1957 Maserati had the commitment and money to arm itself with the World's finest raciong driver, four-times World Champion Juan Fangio, and what were - at least on paper - two of the most potent competition cars around. The aim of Maserati's owners, industrialist Adolfo Orsi and his son Omer, was to mount a concerted attack upon motor racing's pinnacle titles: The World Championships in both Formula 1 and sports cars.

In Formula 1 they put Fangio into Ing Giulio Alfieri's latest 'Lightweight' Tipo 2, 250F cars, and backed his remarkable skills with the bravura of Jean Behra and (relative) reliability of Harry Schell. For sports car racing Alfieri's team had developed the biggest engine of its day; a 4.5-litre V8 which should have been able to outrun anything that it could not out-handle. In Maserati terminology, this model was known as the 'Tipo 54' or, more popularly the '450S'.

The history of World Championship sports car racing reached two pinnacles ten years apart 1957 and 1967. Both seasons marked the climax of a period of virtually uninhibited technical development producing ever larger and more powerful tailor-made racing engines installed in strikingly handsome sports racing chassis. In 1957 - of course - the cars concerned had their engines mounted in front of the driver; by 1967 they were mounted behind him. In 1957 the height of the 'big banger' front-engined sports racing car art was the Maserati 450S - in 1967 I believe the ultimate unlimited capacity sports-racing car of its era was the 4.4-litre V12 Ferrari 330P4, buy others make claim for the 7-litre Ford GT40 Mk IVs and the winged Chaparral-Chevrolet 2F.

Regardless, while this situation in '67 might be a matter of opinion, the V8 Maserati's stature in '57 was simply a matter of fact. It was the biggest and most powerful sports-racing 'bolide' (Large meteor, fire ball OCD) of its age, and when the CSI applied a blanket limit of 3-litres to World Championship sports car racing in 1958 the sport seemed diminished by it.

Meanwhile in 1957 Maserati had added to their already unfair paper advantage by employing not only Fangio to drive their sports cars, but also Stirling Moss. At that time the Englishman had just left Maserati's F1 team to join Vanwall, but since the British constructor had no sports car interests Stirling remained with the Modena team for the new season's World Championship sports car races.

Maserati's 450S design had been conceived as early as 1954 by the company's contemporary Chief Engineer, Ing Alberto Bellentani, and his staff. Their objective was to produce a car which could at least match the strongest opposition which near neighbours Ferrari (especially) could provide. In the period immediately following the 1955 Le Mans disaster, when the future of sports car racing was most uncertain, development work on the chosen V8 had been shelved.

It restarted when the wealthy American enthusiast Tony Parravano ordered an engine to power a Kurtis Indycar chassis which he was buying.

Maserati's own sports-racing 4.5-litre V8 was therefore completed, with the Indy 4.2 a potential dollar earning spin-off. The new engine had bore and short-stroke dimensions of 93.8mm x 81mm, to diplace 4,477cc. It breathed through four Weber 45 IDM carburettors mounted within the vee, its two halves per cylinder were actuated by four gear-driven overhead camshafts and the complete unit weighed a massive 425lb. As early as mid-1956, however, it was already developing over 400bhp at a thunderous 7,200rpm . . .

Maserati's chassis and transmission specialist, Ing Valerio Colotti, designed a suitable tubular frame. He retained the usual sports Maserati-series independent front suspension with double wishbones and coil-springs but introduced a much reinforced de Dion rear-end, based around a new five-speed transaxle. This transaxle was mounted ahead of the de Dion tube and, unlike the 250F unit for Formula 1 and 300S 3-litre sports car type, its gearbox section extended ahead of the final-drive instead of being integrated on the right-hand side. Enlarged 300S-type drum brakes were adopted, with great attention to cooling, and during mid-summer 1956 a first prototype car was race-tested.

This V8 hack combined the undeveloped ex-Mille Miglia Tipo 53 350S chassis - which had recently hurled Moss and Denis Jenkinson off a mountaintop during the rainswept '56 Mille Miglia - with the first 4.5-litre V8 engine. This hybrid was taken to Monza for initial shake-down testing and then in July emerged at Kristianstad during practice for the 1,000km Swedish GP for sports cars on the Rabelovsbana circuit. Its in-vee Webers used tall induction stacks which demanded a huge bonnet-top clearance bulge, while cut-outs in the body sills just behind the front wheel arches each housed four brief exhaust stubs.

"The car looked ferocious and sounded absolutely Awesome, the V8's
exhaust blast literally shaking the ground beneath bystanders' feet

The team drivers found it was far from 'user-friendly'; though shatteringly quick in a straight(ish) line its brakes were inadequate, its cornering stomach-churning and its lap times inferior to its sister 300Ss'. It seems that this prototype was then scrapped, while back home in Modena Maserati began construction of four redesigned and stiffer new chassis to carry the revised rear suspension and greatly improved drum brakes of such diameter they had to be offset inboard from the road wheels to avoid fouling the inside rim ledge. It seems that alternative disc brakes were evaluated but discarded in view of the car's great speed and great weight. Maserati had no experience of disc brakes and were wary of the unknown... drums they understood, and their befinned, well-cooled drum brakes were probably the best in the world.

The first Tipo 54 chassis '4501' emerged initially with a 4.2-litre V8 installed, while '4502' was sold to Parravano as a full 4.5 in October 1956. His purchase-package also included 4.2-litre V8 engines '4201' and '4202' for the Indy project, but it would be stillborn. The third Tipo 54 chassis then became the works' first 450S, carrying a full 4.5-litre engine under the serial '4503'. It was joined by a sister '4505' and Maserati felt confident they possessed the weaponry necessary to dominate the new year's World Sports Car Championship.

As the series opened in Argentina on January 20, 1957, Fangio and Moss led imperiously in the Buenos Aires 1,000km, only to retire after early clutch failure, followed by a minor crash and final transmissiom breakage. Even so, the 450S had immediately proved itself to be in an uncatchable class of its own.

The Sebring 12-Hours was run in Florida on March 23. There Moss shared the back-up 300S with Schell, finishing second, but Fangio/Behra led throughout, and their 450S won at record speed.

For the Mille Miglia, the 1995 race-winning partnership of Moss/Denis Jenkinson used a 450S; clearly the most prodigious performer in the entire field. Maserati felt confident that here at last they could win their country's great classic race, but Behra smashed his 450S - '4503' in a road accident a few days before, then barely seven miles from the start on May 11, Moss had '4505's brake pedal shear off at its root - this shattering banal failure ending the 450S challenge before it had really begun.

That month saw the first customer 450S - '4504' - supplied to American Jim Kimberley, while in the Nürburgring 1,000km on the 26th, both factory 450Ss again seemed jinxed, despite demonstrating all their immense acceleration and speed. Moss's ex-MM '4505' this time lost its right-rear wheel, he and Fangio then switched to the sister '4503' originally assigned to Schell/Hans Herrmann . . . only for its tank mounts to break.

June 22-23 - Le Mans - Maserati fielded '4505' for Behra/André Simon plus a wicked-looking Coupé on chassis '4501' for Moss/Schell. This car should have carried an aerodynamic, closed bodyshell designed by Frank Costin, but Zagato had rushed the work at the last moment, much of Frank's design had been bastardised and the result was an impossibly claustrophobic, badly ventilated, noisome beast which Moss recalls as "the second-worst car I ever drove" (the V16 BRM having previously won the premier prize in perpetuity).

Behra's open car led Le Mans, until a rear UJ seized soon after Simon had taken over. The awful Coupé suffered similarly after Moss had uncomfortably held second place.

That month also saw '4506' despatched to American entrant John Edgar, and then by the time of the Swedish GP at Kristianstad on August 11 '4507' joined the factory team. The Swedish race regulations allowed limitless driver swopping, so Maserati planned to use only its three best drivers - Fangio/Moss/Behra - for '4503' and '4507', the former car winning while '4507' lost second-place when its trasmission seized.

The outcome of the 1957 World Sports Car Championship then depended on the final Venezuelan 1,000km in Caracas on November 3. Two works 450S cars - '03' nad '07' - were supported there by a special 4.7-litre customer car '4508' freshly-delivered to American entrant Temple Buell. Moss/Behra/Schell were to handle the works cars, Masten Gregory/Dale Duncan would drive Buell's. Maserati ran a 300S for Jo Bonnier as insurance but the race became a famous Maserati disaster . . .

On only the second lap, Gregory flipped Buell's car. Moss led until lap 33 when a slow back marker wandered into his path, demolishing '4503's front end. Its sister '4507', then ignited during a pit stop, burning Behra, after which Moss and Schell took over in an attempt to fight back against Ferrari. Incredibly, Bonnier's 300S then lost a front wheel just as it was being overtaken by Schell in the already charred 450S. Both cars crashed heavily; Schell's big V8 burning out while Bonnier's 300S demolished itself against a streetlamp.

So four front-line Maseratis had started this Championship deciding race, and all had crashed - leaving the World title to Ferrari.

The loss of the three factory cars was a final straw for Maserati finances. The 450S programme alone is said to have cost $400,000. Caracas now coincided with other desperately hard times for the company, and the Orsi family was forced to withdraw Maserati's factory team from racing threrafter.

The factory concentrated upon supplying money-earning cars and parts to wealthy customers; mainly of course American. Two final 450Ss were despatched, '4509' for Eb Rose of Houston, Texas, and '4510' for J Frank Harrison of Chattanooga, Tennessee. A number of enlarged 450S-series V8 engines, taken out to 5.7 and even 6.6-litres, were also supplied respectively for US sports car and power-boat racing.

In America the 450Ss with 4.5 or the enlarged 5.7-litre engines were raced by Carroll Shelby, Jim Hall, Masten Gregory, Walt Cline and Eb Rose, but as the original Maserati engines - which had proved totally reliable in 1957 Championship racing - were consumed, so replacement Chevy V8s and GM gearboxes became popular as the cars shuffled into obscurity and obsolescence. J Frank Harrison's car, '4510', apparently totalled its original V8 engine early in its career and was fitted instead with spare engine '4514' and a Chevy gearbox. The car was acquired by Colin Crabbe in England in 1971. It then passed to the Hon John Fellowes as a stable mate to his '4509', and he had it restored close to original condition with Maserati transaxle while also fitting front disc brakes. From him the car returned to America, from where it was sold recently at the Monaco auction, for 1.1-million . . .

Looking back on Maserati's biggest works car, thirty years later, Stirling Moss told me bluntly how it was: "Really a case of brute force and ignorance, lacking any of the delicacy essential in most road races . . .".

Experience it and one can understand how the works mechanics simply burst into tears when they heard Moss and Jenks limping their brakeless '450S' back to the Brescia garage just minutes after setting off into the '57 Mille Miglia. And their elation at the great win at Sebring, and mortification after the bonfires at Caracas. This great beast encapsulates all the spirit and majesty and disappointed failure that made Maserati the great marque it was. Crude? Maybe. Impressive? Ceratainly. There are not very many racing cars of which we can say 'When it didn't break it won' - but take it from me, the 450S is certainly one of them.


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