New Frontier (Part Four)

What prompted Citroën’s buyout of Maserati?

Maserati’s Viale Ciro Menotti works during the early 1960s. Image: norskmaseratiklubb.no

By 1967, Pierre Bercot had secured an engine supply deal with Maserati for Citroën’s forthcoming Projet S. Yet within a year, not only would he have taken over the Modenese atelier in its entirety, but inked a far more wide-ranging deal with Fiat Auto in Turin. But was the Citroën-Maserati takeover a symbiotic coming together, or simply Monsieur le President’s Victor Kiam[1] moment?

Having traditionally confined the lion’s share of their sales effort domestically and within Europe, the pull of the US market became too lucrative for Maserati to ignore. However, by the mid-’60s, the regulatory environment in the US was becoming more hostile, with increasingly stringent crash testing mandates and emissions regulations, which for such a tiny outfit would ladle enormous costs upon an already stretched enterprise. By mid-decade, Maserati’s owners were already seeking a means to offload the business.[2]

Furthermore, both Adolfo and Omar Orsi were unwell; the former too elderly and infirm to administer the business and the latter suffering from a debilitating medical condition which often curtailed his day to day activities. Furthermore, it is also quite possible that the Orsi family, after so many years of struggle and financial commitment were simply losing the stomach for the job.

Quai de Javel’s interest was therefore welcomed at Viale Ciro Menotti, because with Citroën’s engine contract committing Maserati to the purchase of expensive production tooling, coupled with the significant bolstering of Maserati’s employee headcount required to fulfil the desired volumes (20-30 engines per day), the potential risk for the Tridente should matters undergo a reversal might otherwise have been ruinous.

For Bercot the rationale seems to have been threefold. Firstly, an equity stake would ensure Citroën had sufficient control over the supply chain – no small matter at Quai de Javel and an entirely prudent one. The second imperative behind his decision however appears to have been more sentimental in nature. According to Guy Malleret, Bercot’s chosen representative at Viale Ciro Menotti, the Citroën President, far from the cold technocrat he was often portrayed as being, “adored Maserati”, Bercot informing him that while Ferrari was to his eyes, “nouveaux“, Maserati was “une grande maison.” But not only was there a desire to return Maserati to what Bercot saw as its rightful place in the pantheon, he also wanted Malleret to oversee their return to the racetrack.[3]

The third compelling pillar behind Citroën’s interest lay with Bercot and Michelin’s broader commercial imperatives. Despite his oft-cited profligacy with regard to acquisitions, which were intended to strengthen the business, Bercot also recognised that even his much enlarged auto-empire could not continue into the 1970s alone – even assuming Michelin’s continued backing, itself no certainty. Like many of his fellow contemporaries, he began investigating potential partners.

In spite of some half-hearted discussions with both Peugeot and Simca,[4] Bercot and his Michelin masters are said to have favoured an alliance with a non-French European carmaker. By 1967, they were in advanced discussions with Fiat scion, Gianni Agnelli, but cognisant of the political ramifications surrounding a potential Franco-Italian merger, fleshed out a collaborative deal where Fiat would assume control of Michelin’s 49% stake in the double chevron.

Some chroniclers suggest that Bercot’s stake in Maserati was a spur for Agnelli, who shared a sentimental attachment to the Modenese carbuilder – albeit the latter’s involvement with Ferrari precluded any active interest he himself might have had in taking over the business. However, of more strategic imperative for Fiat Auto was likely to have been Agnelli’s interest in gaining a toehold upon Citroën’s Comotor operation with NSU; interest in Wankel technology at fever pitch during this time.[5]

Another interested party was none other than Alejandro de Tomaso, a figure who was already agitating around the peripheries of the Italian auto scene. The Argentinian businessman appeared to be in the running to gain control, but is said to have been thwarted by Tridente chief engineer, Giulio Alfieri, who saw in the double chevron, not only a valuable technological source for Maserati, but also an opportunity to bolster his own influence. Additionally, Alfieri is known to have harboured some ill-feeling towards de Tomaso, which undoubtedly coloured his opinion, but either way his council was to prove crucial, the highly trusted engineer advising the Orsi family to back the French bid, a matter which would have stark repercussions for him later.[6]

Once Citroën assumed a controlling interest in Maserati (shares changing hands in the Spring of 1968), Bercot appointed Malleret as his administrator at Modena with the injunction you report only to me; the Frenchman arriving at Viale Ciro Menotti in March 1968, with a letter of mandate from le President. Malleret stated that he was well received by Orsi, who continued (for a time) to take a role in the business, but less so by Alfieri, who viewed Malleret’s arrival with a certain dismay.

The conclusion of the Citroen takeover was partially delayed by the politically motivated labour unrest in both France and Italy that summer, but by the close of the year, both it and PARDEVI accord with Fiat were completed, with Citroën emerging a vastly enlarged entity. It didn’t remain so however – that year, the Citroën business was also split – Bercot now President of a newly created holding company, Citroën SA, while Automobiles Citroën would administer the carmaking function, headed by Claude Alain Sarre.

Sarre would prove an unusual appointment for Bercot to have made, not because there were any questions as to his ability – he was in fact very well regarded – but he was, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic about either the Maserati acquisition, or indeed Projet S itself. With Bercot now even more remote from the day to day running of the various car businesses he had worked so hard to combine, these developments would come at a crucial time.

Furthermore, having effectively shut the carmaking operation out of his Transalpine venture, apart from one trusted lieutenant, Maserati would be managed very much by remote, but a further consequence is the possibility that the nascent Projet S, may have lacked sufficient oversight at board level. Certainly the testimonies of several old hands, both in Paris and Modena suggest that the car that would emerge from the various skunkworks that made up Citroën’s Bureau d’Études bore scant resemblance to what Bercot had requested. It is to this matter that we will turn next.

Sources and references – see part one.

[1] Victor Kiam was the US businessman who became a household name in the 1970s fronting a long-running TV ad campaign for Remington shavers, which contained the immortal line; “I liked it so much, I bought the company.” 

[2] Immediately prior to this time, representatives of the Orsi family approached Jaguar with a view to selling some or all of the business. It’s believed that Sir William Lyons briefly entertained the idea, but elected not to proceed. 

[3] In 1968, Bercot is reputed to have instructed Guy Malleret, as he dispatched him to Modena, ‘you must win Le Mans within two years.’

[4] Prior to Simca being bought out by the US Chrysler Corporation.

[5] According to author, and SM specialist, Stuart Ager, while there was little in the PARDEVI agreement to benefit Citroën, there was a lot in it for Michelin; the tyremaker gaining a highly lucrative exclusive deal with FIAT. In Ager’s estimation, the alliance died, not just because Citroën refused to collaborate fully, but by 1973, the lustre had decisively come off the Wankel engine – and of course by then, FIAT had problems of their own.

[6] Revenge is a dish best served cold. Having been thwarted in his ambition to helm Maserati under Citroën’s ownership, Giulio Alfieri would once again be wrongfooted by fate’s twist. Allegedly one of the first actions taken by Alejandro de Tomaso upon taking control of Maserati in 1975 was to sack the longstanding chief engineer. 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “New Frontier (Part Four)”

  1. A Jaguar-Maserati merger? Now there’s a thought. It could have made some sense from the BMH era onwards, given the eventual takeover of Innocenti.

    After being given his jotters by De Tomaso, Giulio Alfieri found work with Laverda designing a new engine range based around a one litre V6. Only two examples of the V6 were built, of which three survive…

    1. Indeed, I was intrigued by the Jag-Maser possibility. Did Lyons get as far as talking money? Leaving the Trident in Italy would have been expensive to manage, personnel-wise, but relocating the whole factory to England might have been vetoed by the Italian state.
      The (temporary) labour troubles would have been much the same.

    2. On the one hand it would have provided Jaguar with another V8 option (reputedly capable of being enlarged from 4.9-litres to 5.2-litres) besides the Daimler V8, Coventry Climax CFF/CFA V8 and hypothetical enlarged 4-litre+ Triumph/Saab V8 engines, on the other hand depending on the degree of Jaguar’s involvement with Maserati it would have butterflied away the Maserati V6 (that in Marc Sonnery’s Maserati – The Citroen Years was planned to grow to 3.2-litres) as well as the V6-based 4-litre Maserati V8 prototype engine.

      Sometimes wonder if both Maserati and to less extent Innocenti would have fared relatively better under Alfa Romeo compared to De Tomaso.

  2. This is one soap opera I eagerly await the next episode. You can almost hear the sighs on Malleret’s entrance, turning to the roar of pain from Alfieri. Throwing in Victor Kiam in the ad break just sets up the anticipation levels, more so. Wonderful story, expertly delivered – not like any soap opera I’ve heard of

    1. Absolutely! The personalities and politics in this story are fascinating. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  3. A ride in a Maserati Khamsin has been among the most impressive I’ve ever experienced. Its power was impressive, but it was the braking that left me truly astounded – and illustrated why Alfieri was so keen on getting his hands onto Citroen technology. In terms of performance and handling, the Khamsin felt like a far more advanced car than its vintage suggests.

    1. I envy you, Christopher.
      My only experience was in a Biturbo, a boring car to look at — too anonymously angular. Inside, only the clock had been preserved to tell you it was a Maserati. At that point Ferrari overtook the Trident, and has never looked back.

    2. I have a huge, and hugely irrational, soft spot for the Biturbo. The very fact that, grille aside, it could be take for an 80s 2 door 3-series endears it to me. I have never been inside one; perhaps that would cure me of my delusion.

  4. “attachment to the Modenese carbuilder – albeit the latter’s involvement with Ferrari precluded …”

    For me, that needs a bit of elaboration. What was the “involvement”?

    1. During the mid-late Sixties, Sir William Lyons received a number of offers from carmakers. For instance, in addition to Maserati, Colin Chapman is believed to have got as far as agreeing terms with Lyons over a Jaguar takeover of Hethel, before getting cold feet and aborting the deal.

      The overtures from Modena didn’t get far. As I recall from Lyons’ biography, (which is not to hand, so I cannot confirm with direct quotes) it’s stated that representatives from the Orsi family made contact, saying they would be willing to sell. Lyons requested full accounts of the business and valuations on property and assets. These were not forthcoming, and given that Lyons’ sources were telling him that there was little value in the enterprise, he terminated discussions before terms were discussed. I think what is interesting here is the extent to which the Orsis were casting about to divest themselves of some (or all) of the business.

      My reference to Agnelli and Ferrari referred to the collaboration which was in place over the Dino programme, and the fact that virtually as soon as Enzo rebuffed Ford’s overtures, Agnelli entered the fray, with the aim of gaining a financial interest in the business. A deal between Ferrari (the road car operation, not the Scuderia) and the Pope of the North was signed, as we know in 1969.

      It does appear (and is borne out by testimonies from old Viale Ciro Menotti hands that Alfieri (who was a man with considerable ego) and de Tomaso had what Italians call ‘ruggine’, and when he got wind of the Argentinian’s attempt to purchase Maserati (with the aid of Ford) he used his influence with Orsi (who rated Alfieri highly) to favour the Citroen bid, and that de Tomaso never forgave him. It seems that de Tomaso was a man who held grudges. Allegedly, such was de Tomaso’s subsequent distaste for the double chevron he couldn’t excise it from the Maserati operation quickly enough. There were allegedly a couple of Dyanes knocking about the works in 1975, which were used as delivery hacks. They too had to be disposed of. Immediately.

  5. A few tangential thoughts that this fascinating account has thrown into my head:

    What does PARDEVI actually mean, is it an acronym? It sounds like it should really be an onboard Citroen system, rather than a shared project. Diravi, the power stearing in the Cx, is a word with the same “Shape” for me.

    A common light commercial vehicle and a Citroen developed gear box for the Lancia Beta are often quoted as the main successes of PARDEVI. Was there more to it though? I’ve always thought the Beta berlina looked very Citroen and it strikes me as the right size body shell to plug the chasm that still existed between the GS and DS. Are its design origins known? I can imagine it maybe starting out as a Citroen design study that lost it’s urgency when it was decided to replace the DS with the smaller (Yet larger looking) CX.

    Citroen was probably right to look for an overseas alliance, a domestic arrangement would probably have resulted in cutting production capacity and design capabilities and the axe would have fallen amongst the weakest partner. And eventually of course…

    1. Richard, that’s an interesting hypothesis. I looked into this quite a number of years ago when I was researching the Gamma story, and could find comparatively little apart from speculation. My recollection of what I unearthed was the possibility that it had been conceived as a joint-programme, pre-dating the acquisition of Lancia in 1969. Allegedly, the CX and Gamma were originally intended to share platforms and for the Gamma to employ hydropneumatics for the rear suspension. Both were envisaged to use the Comotor twin rotor Wankel, but as we know, none of those things occurred.

      Speaking of Betas, I met a tidy looking Coupe Volumex yesterday on the road between Cork and Kinsale*. So that’s a Thema, a Trevi and now this. There’s a Lancisto out there somewhere, I only have to track him down…

      *I wasn’t breaking restrictions by the way. I was attending a necessary medical appointment.

    2. Citroen’s Projet Y (or Citroen Prototype Y) was to have shared a number of components in common with Fiat, early studies employing the floorpan of the Fiat 127 (and other accounts even claiming a Fiat engine was also used though always thought Citroen Flat-Twin/Four engines were envisaged from the outset).

      Do not know if any additional Fiat/Citroen collaborations were planned.

    3. As far as alliances are concerned, while it would not prevent NSU being being acquired by Volkswagen or make the Rotary engine a greater success compare to real-life, would both Citroen and NSU have benefited from a greater involvement by Mazda in the Comotor Wankel project?

      * – Also NSU have been in a better position in terms of production capacity had they not sold their then recently completed Heilbronn car factory to Fiat in the Great Depression? To what extent were NSU handicapped by the loss of Heilbronn when they decided to once more produce cars again prior to partnering with Citroen on the Rotary engine?

    4. There were two car manufacturers in Germany that had the same name but absolutely nothing to do with each other. One was NSU-Fiat, producing Fiats under license since the late Twenties and partly funded by Fiat. The other was NSU, the motorcycle factory that started car production in 1958 with the NSU Prinz and started a legal dispute with the other NSU company that resulted in NSU-Fiat being renamed. Therefore NSU can’t have sold a Heilbronn factory to Fiat.
      Mazda never was involved in Comotor. Mazda bought a Wankel licence from NSU and went their own way with no technologicyl feedback to NSU or otherwise. For any contribution of Mazda to Comotor NSU would have had to buy licences from Mazda.

    5. From the information that is available so far. NSU did produce cars until 1931 when production of the NSU 7/34 PS ceased though not before NSU sold its car business to Fiat in 1929 which became NSU-Fiat later Neckar, before NSU re-entered the automotive market in 1957 with the Prinz.

      So it is not accurate to say they were completely separate entities until the late-1920s, when the deal with Fiat left two businesses producing vehicles with similar names located barely 7 kilometers (4 miles) apart that were frequently confused with one other.

      The question still stands as to whether NSU would have benefited from retaining its pre-war car business (at least in terms of additional production capacity) into the post-war Wirtschaftswunder era, had the car business not been sold to Fiat to form NSU-Fiat / Neckar.

      Mazda indeed did pursue its own path with the rotary engine, at the same time its relative success with the engine layout compared to efforts by other carmakers inevitably leads to the hypothetical question of Citroen and NSU’s collaboration being both a relatively successful and significantly less ruinous affair for both companies had Mazda been involved in the beginning and had a greater say in the path of the rotary via a more patient and thorough development programme (instead of the rotary engine being prematurely released to catastrophic results a la Citroen and NSU) as well an earlier pre-fuel crisis epiphany of the reality that the rotary would have only been suitable in niche sportscars.

    6. Neckarsulmer Fahrzeugwerke AG, which initially used “NSU” only as a trademark for its products and was only later named so, was one of the largest producers of motorbikes, small vehicles and trucks in the 1920s.
      Around 1925, another new factory was built in the neighbouring town of Heilbronn to expand production capacity.
      After the (history says here: forced; the background is unknown to me) takeover of a car body factory in Berlin “NSU” got into economic difficulties. Deutsche Bank and Fiat helped to overcome these economic difficulties.
      In 1929 a joint company called “NSU-Automobil AG Heilbronn” was founded, in which Fiat had a majority share. “NSU” brought in the Heilbronn plant (and some vehicles) as a shareholding, and Fiat started licensed production of its own vehicles at this plant under the name “NSU/FIAT”.
      From the very beginning of this (joint) venture there was displeasure about the use of the name “NSU”, as Fiat advertised his cars with the sporty NSU motorbikes from Neckarsulm.
      When at the end of the 50’s NSU in Neckarsulm began again with the building of automobiles there were two cars of different manufacturers with the same name on the German market.
      After an out-of-court settlement, the “Vereinigte Fahrzeugwerke AG Neckarsulm” was renamed “NSU Automobil AG”, the “NSU-Automobil AG Heilbronn” was renamed “Neckar Automobilwerke AG Heilbronn, formerly NSU Automobil AG”. In 1966, Fiat abandoned the brand name “NSU” in its logo. From 1968 they also stopped using the name “Neckar” and produced under their own names.

      So, did NSU sold his factory in Heilbronn to Fiat? Yes and no.

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