A Mighty Wind [Part One]

Behold the Anti-Miura.

Image: premierfinancialservices

On November 3 1971, the 53rd Salone del l’Automobile di Torino opened its doors. With exhibitors from 11 countries, including 64 carmakers and 15 coachbuilding firms, there was no shortage of interest, intrigue, new models or arresting concepts for the home contingent to whet their collective appetites over. Yet it was upon the premier trio of Modenese exotic car builders that most eyes were fixated, each showing dramatic mid-engined supercars on home soil for the very first time.

Ferrari’s prototype 365 GT4 BB made its public debut on the Pininfarina stand, whereas Bertone’s Countach prototype had already poleaxed all comers at Geneva that Spring. Meanwhile Maserati was showing the production-ready Bora, fresh too from its Palexpo premiere, but in case anyone felt inclined to a pang of déjà-vu about this state of affairs, Giugiaro’s Maserati-based Boomerang concept could be gasped over on Ital Design’s stand.

Never before had these three rival exotic ateliers offered such conceptually similar, yet in executional terms, wholly different offerings almost simultaneously.[1] Each would personify its host marque: Maserati, the consummate gentleman awash with provenance and heritage; Ferrari, the brash, if finely tailored, race -proven arriviste and Lamborghini, the newly fashioned and fashionable disruptor.

While St. Agata Bolognese’s Miura had lent the rival ateliers of Piedmont a sharp intake of breath in 1966, time had marched on and the aesthetic had shifted. Furthermore, the fact that initially at least, the underdeveloped Bertone-designed beauty would prove a rather unsavoury and evil handling device on the field of play meant that the goal remained open for something at least as arresting but considerably more resolved and user-orientated.

Maserati had long been in the business of producing alluring, tastefully appointed and suave grand turismos for a wealthy European elite, mostly clothed in discretely restrained tailoring by the likes of Vignale, Frua or Ghia. It was the latter who was responsible for the beautifully realised and classically proportioned Ghibli of 1966, courtesy of Giorgetto Giugiaro.[2]

However, under its ravishing skin, the Ghibli was anything but state of the art, maintaining a rigid leaf sprung rear axle[3] and traditional tubular chassis; by then, even Ferrari’s rival 275 GT offered more sophisticated underpinnings, so while it was as quick as it was beautiful to behold, the Ghibli was, in dynamic terms, something of a vintage experience by the late 1960s.

The Tipo 117 Bora came about therefore, not simply as a statement, but a means of moving il Tridente into the modern era. The brainchild of Giulio Alfieri, Maserati’s difficult if gifted technical director, who had been considering a mid-engined GT for some time. Such matters were always at the mercy of resources, but following Maserati’s acquisition by Citroën in 1968, much-needed investment in plant, facilities and product brought official sanction and backing from Citroën’s simpatico President, Pierre Bercot.

An additional factor which stood in favour of the Bora’s development was the desire of Monsieur le Président for Maserati not simply to regain its pre-eminence as un grande maison, but also to return to motorsport – in this case to the mythic asphalt of le Sarthe and the 24 Heures du Mans. The development of a high performance mid-engined model was therefore perceived as a crucial stepping stone towards this ambition.[4]

A key component in understanding Maserati’s business at the time lay in the carmaker’s relationship with its customers. At Viale Ciro Minotti, they knew their customers personally and ingenere Alfieri took care to ensure his designs were tailored specifically to their requirements. By consequence, Maseratis were (by Modenese standards at least), tractable, reliable and largely untemperamental to own and operate.

By contrast at Maranello, the customer seemed barely a consideration, and as for Mr. Ferrari himself, it seems he really couldn’t have cared less. This lofty attitude helped lay the foundations for the Ferrari legend, especially amidst the swelling numbers of well-heeled customers arriving to pay homage, then forced to humiliatingly cool their heels at the gatehouse until the Commendatore deigned to receive them.

Ingegnere Alfieri conceived the Bora as a docile, comfortable high-speed continent-crosser, its mid-engined layout being largely incidental – albeit for marketing purposes, a necessary gambit to illustrate Maserati’s technical prowess. One consequence of this rationale was Alfieri’s insistence on practicality, emphasised by a long wheelbase (for stability and passenger accommodation), and the provision of a large, well-shaped luggage compartment, located in the nose. This requirement entailed a new design of front suspension – one Alfieri was required to redesign rather hastily when it proved woefully inadequate in practice.[5]

Image via Pinterest

Technically, the Bora was a combination of the tried and true[6], and the radical, the latter by dint of a little creative borrowing from Maserati’s newfound Parisian benefactors. This latter point raises a frequently cited shibboleth amid some Maserati aficionados – that Citroën imposed the use of their oleopneumatic systems upon Viale Ciro Minotti. According to testimony from those involved in the car’s development, author and historian, Marc Sonnery was able to definitively refute this assertion; the truth being that Alfieri was in fact an enthusiastic proponent of their use.[7]

The Bora would employ powered hydraulics for its braking system – a perennial Maserati bugbear – employing ventilated discs all round with high-pressure assistance à la Citroën, and also for the adjustment of seats and pedals.[8] The rack and pinion steering however remained unassisted.

The Bora’s body employed a central monocoque with tubular elements, while the entire engine/ gearbox/ final drive and rear suspension (fully independent for the first time on a Maserati) was mounted on a carefully mounted detachable subframe, to the benefit of NVH, also quickly removed to allow easy servicing and repair. In addition, both a carpeted aluminium internal engine cover and a double-glazed rear window separating the cabin from the engine bay further impeded the transmission of unwanted noise to the occupants.

An initial flight of Alfieri fancy was the provision of fuel tanks within the chassis tubes, borrowed from racing practice. This he reasoned would lower the centre of gravity, liberate internal space and improve weight distribution – the latter an important consideration on a heavily rear-biased design. However, it was never really a viable proposition and wisely, he allowed himself to be talked out of it.

The Bora’s 1971 Geneva debut, with veteran Motor Sport journalist, John Bolster looking on. Image: classiccarcatalogue

The Bora was set up to be a safe, predictable handler, with a neutral bias to its road behaviour, tending towards initial understeer. However, more advanced drivers found when pushed harder, the tail could be brought into play, lending the car a somewhat double-sided character. Lacking a sympathetic proving engineer – Maserati’s own (Guerrino Bertocchi) being vehemently opposed to mid-engined designs on principle – Alfieri called upon noted motor journalist and racing driver, Paul Frère, who carried out a good deal of the pre-production dynamic proving.[9]

The first truly modern Maserati of the era, the Bora would mark a radically new, more forward-looking face to the fabled Tridente di Bologna. And it is to this aspect that we turn next.

[1] The Ferrari BB would not enter production until 1973. Lamborghini took until 1974 to productionise the Countach.

[2] Giugiaro was lead designer at carrozzeria Ghia at the time of the Ghibli’s conception. We will consider his work on the Bora in a forthcoming piece.

[3] Despite its on-paper antiquity, Alfieri ensured the Ghibli had a well-sorted chassis (in the GT idiom).

[4] Maserati general manager, Guy Malleret was at pains to emphasise to his Paris-based master that racing success could not be achieved overnight. As it happened, Maserati’s Le Mans return would not occur. 

[5] The Bora’s front suspension underwent several iterations before a definitive layout was reached. Initially tried with longitudinal torsion bars, these were subsequently abandoned. Alfieri then investigated the use of very short wishbones (to allow for a more commodious luggage area). When shown the drawings, a highly sceptical Malleret surreptitiously (so as not to antagonise ingegnere Alfieri) obtained copies and sent them to the Bureau d’Études in Paris for their opinion. However, matters took their own turn – Alfieri scaring himself silly on a test drive of a prototype, thus equipped. Cue a more conservative design, a (slightly) smaller boot and problem solved. 

[6] The longitudinally mounted four overhead camshaft V8 of 4719 cc, fed by four twin-choke downdraught Weber 42DCNF carburettors, producing 310 bhp and 325 lb ft of torque and mated to a ZF five-speed manual transmission was largely carried over from the Ghibli.

[7] Citroën’s policy was one of non-interference. As long as Maserati was profitable, Bercot (and his successors) were content to leave designate, Guy Malleret and Alfieri to get on with matters as they saw fit.

[8] One unfortunate consequence of this was the fact that hydraulic fluid leaks from the pedal box ruined the fine Italian leather of several owners’ shoes; one US Maserati dealer saying he spent a great deal of money purchasing replacement footwear for his customers.

[9] Frère rated the Bora highly, describing it as “a very well balanced car”. He also backed Alfieri’s use of Citroën’s high pressure hydraulics.”

Source: Maserati // The Citroen Years 1968-1975: Marc Sonnery. Eau Rouge Publishing ISBN 978-0-9573978-0-4

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “A Mighty Wind [Part One]”

  1. That’s a lovely insight into the development of the Bora, Eóin. Never knew about the ruined shoes and involvement of Paul Frère.

  2. Good morning Eóin. Thank you for sharing this history. The Bora (and Merak) is one of my very favourite ever designs and, temperamentally, I think I would have been a Maserati customer. I would have found Lamborghini a bit vulgar and both it and Ferrari a bit intimidating. Masetati’s (relatively) friendly character would have suited me perfectly (in my alternative universe, of course!)

    Here’s a beautiful studio photo of the Bora:

    1. That’s a gorgeous photo and striking colour.

      I’ve always liked the Bora, it has an air of solidity and sophistication & doesn’t shout “look at me”.

  3. A very memorable drive in a Khamsin has left me in no doubt whatsoever regarding the merits of those Citroen components incorporated into that generation of Maserati models. The brakes in particular were completely unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a car of that vintage. Alfieri’s reasoning hence seems perfectly logical to me – the additional weight being a very acceptable trade-off for those superior breaks (and steering, in the Khamsin’s case).

  4. Good capture of the difference in character. A drive in a Bora left the confirmed impression of there being no difference between 50 and 100mph – none that you could tell at least. Well dampened and isolated is one thing, but the only change was accelerator position, nothing else. Striking accomplishment.

  5. A very nice start to this series. It’s a car that I remember from my childhood but actually know quite little about. It’s certainly beautiful and that studio photo sourced by Daniel especially sets off its alluring lines. I don’t mean to lower the tone, but I wonder whether that particular hue from the colour palette was the inspiration for Mazda’s Soul Red Crystal.

    Anyway, the article is also a reminder that these were heady times for the Italian marques, immediately pre- the early-to-mid 70s oil crisis, when all three had a credible positioning in this market. Could one argue that we are approaching such a time again with what could be a sustained, Stellantis funded resurgence at Maserati?

  6. Thanks for bringing up this Story here!
    I always had a soft spot for the Bora, most probably because I got one when I was about ten years old. Well, not an original one, but a plastic assembly kit in 1:24 scale…

    Although I was growing up a Citroën fan, I didn’t realize the connection at the time. But probably my Citroëniste dad was well aware of it when he chose this particular model.

    A Bora could also be my choice of a sports car from this era – although I must admit, an original, unspoiled Countach has its own charm…

  7. How pleasant to be reminded of Maserati’s output in this era. The Bora itself is a lovely thing but the story of its ancestry also brought back a childhood memory of seeing a black-and-white picture of the original Ghibli in a classic car tome and falling for it immediately.

    Maserati is one of those marques that engenders a more-than-rational affection in me: I always want to like their products in advance of knowing anything about them; something I don’t have with their competitors as referred to in the article. Perhaps Daniel’s comment about ‘temperament’ can explain this somewhat.

  8. If Joe Walsh’s Maserati did One-eighty-five in 1978 which model could he have been talking about?

    1. Probably a Bora – obviously the speedo was optimistic, it wasn’t quite as fast as he thought…

    2. Walsh did buy the car pictured below, though some time after the song was released.

      The 5000GT is said to be capable of 170mph, Walsh reported losing his nerve around 140.

      Below we see the car in 2018 when it was impounded by the Australian Border Control so it could be checked for the presence of asbestos.

  9. FunQOTD: do you know which car the 5000GT pictured above by gooddog shared its headlights with?

    1. Oui, mon ami… trop facile.

      I counter with a QOTD for you. What was the first production car with a single windscreen wiper?

    2. puh, gooddog! beats me! probably the one who introduced the concept of windscreen-wipe to the automotive world? 😁

    3. I think you are correct…

      but I meant: in the postwar era.

    4. OK, nobody really wanted to play the wiper game today, I was wondering where the 5000 GT’s most obvious competitor got its headlights from, or did Ferruchio go all out for bespoke glasswork?

      Prototype 350 GTV (1963), body design credited to Franco Scaglione

      Production 350 GT, body design credited to Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera

  10. Ah, the Bora, possibly one of my favourite cars of all time: sleek, exotic, utterly seventies retro futurism, but with a classic flair that the Countach (wonderful though it is) misses. I think I like its little brother the Merak even more, but it’s close.

    There is of course the Top Gear challenge which showed these cars in their best light (the Uracco is quite beautiful as well).

    The Maserati Ghibli played a part in the wonderfully atmospheric French movie La Piscine:

    The main antagonist of the story drives one as proof of his wealth and arrogance – not necessarily what you’d expect the “classic” Maserati customer to be.

    The later Biturbo models aren’t remembered as good cars, but they were around as I was becoming aware of cars and I’ve alsways liked them. A sort of mad, parallel universe version of the BMW 3 series for triple the money (or however much it was). Even then, though, as soon as I found out about the Bora and Merak, they were my favourites.

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