History/driving impressions originally published in AutoWeek April 1, 1985
I really had no alternative. The only reasonable thing to do was to down shift to second gear, moving the lever through the notchy pattern that felt like it should be gated but really wasn’t, and hit the buttons to lower both the passenger and driver side windows. Then, entering the long underpasses at 3000 RPM, I had the Maserati full throttle, running it up to five and half grand before shifting into third and squirting out into daylight.
What a sound! What a glorious, raucous noise, a deep, sub-larynx growl, hard, metallic, angry, hungry, more feline than any English cat, all contained, reverberated and amplified in US government-approved echo chamber. Your highway tax dollars at work. Six cylinders never sounded so good.
That’s the 1964 Maserati 3500 GTI Sebring I recently drove, courtesy of AutoMarque in Arlington, Virginia. It’s undoubtedly one of the sexiest sixes in the world. Or any cylinder count, for that matter. Which is only as it should be. After all, the power plant has direct lineage to the engine family that powered Maserati to an F1 world championship and missed – by one race – doing the same in sports car competition.
The series had its beginning in the A6/1500, a 1.5-liter touring model introduced in 1947. The single-carb SOHC in-line six was the last of the Fratelli Maserati designs for the company that bore their name, but had been bought by Adolfo Orsi in 1937. The brothers, who had agreed to stay on for 10 years, were good to the word, the left to form OSCA soon after the period expired.
Orsi assigned the running of the Maserati automobile division – the Maserati name also appeared on spark plugs, batteries, motorcycles, machine tools and farm equipment – to his son, Omer, and it was under the younger Orsi that Maserati bloomed in the glory years of the 1950s. It was not primarily as builder of road cars, but rather of racers. Best estimates placed total non-racer production for the years 1946 – 1957 that fewer than 140 cars.
For sports car and grand prix racing, however, something with more potential than the 1.5-liter six would be required. Such was to come with the arrival of Gioacchino Colombo in August 1952. Columbo, late of designing the Ferrari V-12 and chief engineer of Alfa Romeo, would join engineers Luigi Bellantani and Alberto Massimino at Maserati to design the two-liter twin-cam A6GCS, the engine that in varying displacements would, more or less, be the backbone of Maserati’s racing efforts.
It is no wonder, then, when Omer Orsi realized that racing and the sale of racing cars could not be financially sustained over the long run, without resorting to the production of road cars, that the by-then well-developed six-cylinder was the engine of choice. The project was begun in 1956, with chief design engineer Giulio Alfieri charged with laying out a fully streetable 3.5-liter engine based on the Tipo 350S racing motor. The result was a DOHC in-line six with a wet sump, triple Webers and dual ignition, the pair of plugs per cylinder sparked by a single Marelli distributor and two coils. It was an all-aluminum design with the seven bearing crank shaft. An unusual feature was the “semi-dry” iron cylinder sleeve, press fit for all but about the top 2 inches, which were wet. There was no head gasket. The sleeves projected 0.005 inches and fit against the head. A synthetic ring in a groove in the block provided a water seal.
Though the engine was made in-house, many of the assorted bits were bought out: ZF steering box and four-speed gearbox, Borg and Beck clutch, Salisbury rear axle, Girling drum brakes, Boranni disc-type wheels, Hardy Spicer driveshaft and couplings, and Alford and Adler front suspension.
The chassis was of steel tubing reinforced by welded steel panels and enclosed in a taught aluminum body by Touring of Milan. The 3500 GT appeared first at the Geneva show in March 1957, though full production didn’t begin until 1958.
“Full production” must, of course, be translated into terms of the Italian specialty builder. Peak production of the 3500GT was reached in 1961, with just over 500 cars. But for Maserati it was just what was needed. After they catastrophic ending to the 1957 sports car season at Caracas, where Maserati lost all four of its factory entries to accidents and the championship to Ferrari, the company returned home only to be greeted by the Italian version of Chapter 11, primarily because the problems with machine tool sales. This put bureaucrats at the helm, deciding what was essential and what was not; bureaucrats being bureaucrats, the factory racing team had to go. (Maserati would be allowed to build racers for sale, but that’s another story.)
Orsi’s ace up his sleeve, however was the 3500GT, and during 1958 Maserati made 122, all but three bodied by Touring of Milan. That shop would provide the majority of bodies for the series and would set the style, a 3500 generally being recognizable as such regardless of the builder. Vignale made a pair of spiders in 1959 and went on to become the primary builder of open 3500s.
Vignale also produced the Sebring coupe. First made in 1962, the Sebring came with improvements that had been made for the standard 3500s. Girling disc brakes replaced the original big-finned aluminum drums, and the four-speed transmission grew an extra gear. Lucas mechanical fuel injection running off the right camshaft took the place of the Webers in 1962, thereby changing the GT to GTI, the “I” for inezione, or injection. The Lucas system used port injection, and each of the six intake runners had its own throttle plate. With a compression ratio of 8.5:1, the 3485cc engine produced 235 HP at 5500 RPM.
The Sebring had other changes, most noticeable among them the quad headlights, which were met with faint praise, and the Borrani knockoff wire wheels, which were universally appreciated. The Sebring also sat on a wheelbase shortened by four inches and had a more rakish roofline than the Touring bodied cars, the C-pillar being slimmer and further back. Production ran from 1962 to 1966 – it was the last 3500 GT made – before being succeeded by the Mistral.
Though technically a two-plus-two, the rear seats leave much to be desired, i.e., legroom. There’s a nice pair of buckets for the driver and passenger, however, and a full set of gauges – speedo, tach, oil pressure and temperature, cooler temperatures and ammeter – and a typically long reach to the steering wheel.
At idle the engine is noisy, with enough clatter from under the cam covers to make you think something’s wrong. But it’s just the fuel injection drive. The engine will idle contentedly, but the temptation is to blip the throttle. Doing so causes the will take the fuzz off a mohair sweater. Doing it in gear with the clutch engaged produces acceleration: 0 to 60 takes about 7.6 seconds.
Over the road, the Sebring tracks as straight as an Eagle Scout. It’s an autostrada special. At 55 it’s not relaxed, it’s asleep. But find a winding road for complete change in personality. The front and sticks like pasta and the rear end, a live axle on leaf springs with a single radius arm for torque control, ranks among the best of this type of suspension. The car has a chronic case of power oversteer – a poke at the throttle in mid-turn turns brings the rear and out – but it’s so controllable that you’ll be doing it, as they say, just for the fun of it.
The Sebring sold for over $12,000 when new, back when that much money was worth a small house. As a result the Maserati 3500GTI Sebring, or for that matter any of the 3500s, didn’t make much of what you call market penetration in the U. S. Heck, there weren’t that many of them to begin with, less than 450. Maserati, despite its increased emphasis on road cars, was still better known as a builder of racers, and the average enthusiast of the day tell you more about the Tipo 61, the immortal Birdcage than the Sebring – and was more likely to have seen one. Perhaps that’s why a presentable 3500 GT will sell today for less than its original price. Or perhaps it’s because – unlike the V-12 products of another Italian carmaker – it’s only a six.
But the lines are classically and timelessly Italian. It’s a car that rock Hudson could have driven in the movies, a car to make Doris Day fear for her perpetual virginity. But take our word for it, Doris – it may be only six but yes it’s a Maserati, it’s good six.