DTW marks the fortieth anniversary of the Biturbo, a car that sired a range of more affordable Maserati models.
As seems befitting for an Italian company manufacturing sports cars, grand touring coupés and luxury saloons, Maserati S.p.A. has had a colourful and occasionally tumultuous history since its establishment in 1914. One brief period of relative calm began with the company’s takeover by Citroën in 1968. The deal was predicated on a joint-venture project whereby Maserati would design and build a new V6 engine for Citroën’s forthcoming flagship, the SM. Financed by French investment, Maserati introduced a new range of models, notably the 1971 V8-engined Bora, the company’s first mid-engined supercar, its smaller brother, the 1972 V6 Merak, and the stillborn SM-based 1974 Quattroporte II saloon.
Unfortunately, the Middle-East Oil Crisis of 1973 caused a collapse in demand for the sort of cars in which Maserati specialised. Citroën, struggling with its own mounting losses, put Maserati into receivership in May 1975. Political pressure to save the 800 jobs at risk in Modena was intense.
Alejandro de Tomaso, an Argentinian of Italian extraction and a businessman and former racing driver, saw an opportunity. De Tomaso had established his own eponymous luxury and sports car company in 1959. He approached Citroën with an offer to purchase a minority stake in Maserati, providing that he would be given full control of the company. With no other offer on the table, in August 1975 the Italian government agreed to assume ownership of Maserati via GEPI(1), a state-owned holding company, with a shareholding of approximately 90%. De Tomaso, with the remaining 10%, was appointed CEO. The deal, which was greatly advantageous to Maserati’s new boss, was completed in January 1976.
De Tomaso’s initial move was to rationalise Maserati’s model range, replacing existing models with new ones based on de Tomaso platforms(2). These included the Kyalami GT coupé and Quattroporte III luxury saloon, based on the de Tomaso Longchamp and Deauville respectively. However, de Tomaso had much bigger plans for il Tridente: he wanted to expand Maserati production greatly by introducing a smaller and much more affordable coupé that would compete with the top end of upmarket mainstream manufacturers’ ranges. The budget for the new model was reported to be around £20 million.
That car was launched in 1982 as the Biturbo, its name referring to the twin-turbo 1,996cc 90° all-aluminium V6 engine that powered it. The rationale behind the engine was that a ‘proper’ Maserati needed to have more than four cylinders, the V-formation was compact enough to fit in a small coupé and the sub-two-litre capacity would avoid punitive Italian tax rates(3) on larger engined cars. The twin turbochargers would lift power output and performance to those expected from the marque.
The newly designed engine featured three valves per cylinder(4) and a single overhead camshaft for each bank of cylinders. It was fitted with electronic ignition but, surprisingly, just a single Solex carburettor. Maximum power was quoted as 180bhp (134kW) at 6,000rpm. The engine was the technical highlight of an otherwise quite conventional front-engined, rear-wheel-drive coupé. It was mated to either a ZF five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. Suspension was via MacPherson struts with a front anti-roll bar and semi-trailing arms at the rear. Disc brakes were fitted all round, with additional rear drums for the handbrake. A 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 6.5 seconds and top speed of 134mph (216km/h) were claimed by Maserati.
The Biturbo’s engine would be built at Maserati’s works in Modena. The car’s steel monocoque bodyshell would be manufactured at the formerly BMC-owned Innocenti factory in Milan, where final assembly would also take place. The Biturbo was designed in-house by Pierangelo Andreani but took its styling cues from the Giugiaro-designed Quattroporte III. Dimensionally, the Biturbo was a little shorter and lower than the contemporary BMW E30-generation 3 Series model, which it resembled to a significant degree, looking rather more like a two-door saloon than a coupé. Its wheelbase and overall length were 2,514mm (99”) and 4,150mm (163½”) respectively. Kerb weight was quoted as 2,389lbs (1,085kgs), roughly 100lbs (45kg) lighter than the BMW in 323i guise.
The interior was luxuriously trimmed, although the seats were upholstered in velvet-cord cloth rather than leather, which was optional. The instrumentation and secondary switchgear were contained in a separate black binnacle that sat (somewhat incongruously) atop the brown or beige colour-keyed leather-trimmed dashboard which, together with the doors and rear quarter panels, featured deep walnut veneer inlays.
The Biturbo’s price at launch in Italy was 19.55 million Lire, about £8,200, but it was expected to cost from around £12,000 in the UK. That would have made it roughly 50% more expensive than a BMW 323i, but still 35% less than the next cheapest Maserati, the Merak. The Biturbo would be a direct competitor on price with the Porsche 924 and Audi Quattro.
The Biturbo was first unveiled to the press on 14th December 1981, the 67th anniversary of the founding of Maserati. At the launch event, de Tomaso was in typically ebullient form, announcing that “Today is the real beginning of Maserati’s industrial era.” Abrasive as ever, he couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the unions, with whom he had many conflicts while attempting to modernise Maserati and replace workers with automation. He allegedly said that “Today is also the day of my revenge upon the unions…after six years of being insulted in every possible way.” De Tomaso had enormous ambitions for the Biturbo, forecasting that it would increase Maserati’s output ten or twelve-fold from the current rate of three cars per day.
Car Magazine’s Mel Nichols drove the new Biturbo at launch in Italy and reported his findings in the March 1982 issue of the magazine. Nichols described its appearance as “a sort of cross between a Lancia Delta and a BMW Three Series, with a touch of Alfetta thrown in.” The driving position was described as “excellent, the ergonomics more German than Italian.” Apart from the “very thick” A-pillars, visibility was good.
The engine idled evenly, sounding “like a big BMW straight six” rather than a small V6 turbo. Under acceleration, there was “just modest turbo whine” and the engine was “smooth and well-mannered” throughout the rev range, albeit with a noticeable increase in power above 3,000rpm as the turbos got to work.
The car’s response to driver inputs was described as “quick and accurate” and it drove “with an air of stability and balance”. Nichols was not, however, able to test the limits of its handling and roadholding because of icy road conditions and a wheel imbalance problem on the pre-production example he drove. Nichols left Modena with a very positive impression of the new Biturbo and it seemed that Maserati had a winner on its hands.
The Biturbo was formally launched at the Geneva Salon in March 1982, with customer deliveries beginning two months later. Such was the demand for the new, more affordable Maserati that a long waiting list soon built up. Production was ramped up on de Tomaso’s orders to meet demand. Unfortunately, this (and the car’s accelerated development programme) caused numerous build quality defects which quickly began to undermine the car’s reputation, as did the susceptibility of the engine to damage from over-revving, especially if not allowed first to warm up to its correct operating temperature, then allowed to idle before switching off. Maserati was faced with the considerable challenge of fixing these problems and re-establishing the car’s reputation.
The Maserati Biturbo story continues in Part Two shortly.
(1) Società per le Gestioni e Partecipazioni Industriali, established to buy up troubled private-sector companies so they could be restructured and ultimately returned to the private sector.
(2) De Tomaso, having tried and failed to take over Maserati in 1968, was alleged to have been pathologically opposed to retaining any Citroën influence once he finally gained control. He even disposed of a couple of Dyanes that were being used as factory hacks.
(3) A VAT rate of 38% was applied to new cars where the engine capacity exceeded two litres. This was double the rate that applied to smaller engined cars.
(4) There was a single exhaust valve and two inlet valves, a smaller one primarily for light loads and a larger one to create a ‘swirl effect’ and improve combustion efficiency. De Tomaso patented this design.
Sources: Car Magazine/ Maserati-alfieri.co.uk