Maserati’s natural history came to an abrupt halt in 1975. Survival meant change – not just a new model, but an entirely fresh approach.
It’s tempting to view evolution as a continuous series of gradual mutations, but events throughout history have demonstrated it only takes a single catastrophic event to send it in an entirely different direction – or stop it entirely. The 1973 oil embargo for instance was the motor industry’s very own fiery catastrophe and 1975 the year when the conflagration really took hold, consuming a swathe of specialist marques including Jensen and Iso.
Maserati too was in serious trouble. Hammered by torrid post-crash economics, the Modena factory closed its doors. The outlook was equally frigid throughout the Italian specialist car business; Lamborghini was bankrupt and even Ferrari faced stockpiles of unsold cars as buyers evaporated in the ensuing panic. Enter noted fixer and notorious wheeler-dealer, Alessandro de Tomaso, under whom Maserati would steer a course away from outright exotica into more pragmatic realms. Having wrested control in Modena under highly beneficial terms, De Tomaso appointed Aurelio Bertocchi to run Maserati, prompting incumbent Giulio Alfieri to depart in the ensuing schisms.
Alfieri had been responsible for generations of superbly engineered Maserati road and race cars, and prior to De Tomaso’s arrival had spearheaded Tipo 124 – a forward-looking 2+2 coupé intended to replace the Indy model. Tipo 124 was based on the mechanical layout of the existing Khamsin model, but with a new sheet steel unitary body, unlike the Khamsin’s tubular affair. Body styling was by Ital Design, heavily influenced by Giugiaro’s Boomerang and Medici concepts. In truth, the resulting shape was not one of Giorgetto’s finest, looking incomplete and oddly proportioned. The new car required investment and this factor, coupled with Alfieri’s departure saw Tipo 124 axed in favour of a more pragmatic (and cheaper) solution.
De Tomaso already had an eminently suitable GT in the Tom Tjaarda-penned Longchamp, a sober looking coupé in the Mercedes SLC idiom. Long time Maserati tailor, Carrozzeria Frua was retained to oversee its transformation. The resultant design was christened Kyalami and launched in 1976 with Maserati’s fine 4.2 litre V8 under it’s restyled bonnet. Despite the physical resemblance, there were in fact few external panels shared between them. The Kyalami was longer, lower and wider than the Longchamp and while the resultant design was probably not what Maserati aficionados were hoping for, remains one which has aged with considerable dignity.
Maserati’s divergence from exotic styling to a more upright, sober line was underlined by the 1979 Giugiaro styled Quattroporte III which followed and even more so in 1981 with the sackcloth and ashes Biturbo. It was an aesthetic that suited the times – it being an era of recession, political unrest and violence. Whatever its merits, it was a styling trope that kept Maserati in business and one they have broadly maintained since. Now, some forty years on, Maserati looks set to return to its pre-crisis path with the 2018 Alfieri GT. Is the species about to mutate once more?