Continuing the story of the Biturbo and the models developed from it.
The 1982 Maserati Biturbo was a fundamentally sound design, but a rushed development programme and hasty scaling up of production to meet strong initial demand had damaged its reputation for build quality and reliability.
In a later interview(1), Giorgio Manicardi, Maserati’s International Sales Manager, laid the blame for the Biturbo’s early quality and reliability issues firmly at Alejandro de Tomaso’s door. Manicardi had wanted to launch the Biturbo at a price of 22 million Lira, but it was de Tomaso who insisted on the sub-20 million Lira starting price. “As a result we lacked the [profit] margin to implement quality controls,” Manicardi contended. Moreover, de Tomaso allegedly maintained an iron grip on the project, to the extent that he rejected importers’ pleas for a cover to conceal the unsightly looking spare wheel, visible beneath the car’s rear valance. According to Manicardi, “not one sheet of paper got moved unless he had said so.”
Despite this early setback, Maserati continued to develop the car. The first significant change was the introduction in 1983 of a larger 2,491cc, 200bhp (149kW) version of the V6 engine specifically for export cars, where Italy’s punitive tax rate on larger engines did not apply. The increased capacity was achieved via an increase in cylinder bore from 82.0mm to 91.6mm. In December 1983, a more powerful 205bhp (153kW) version of the 1,996cc engine was introduced, with a compression ratio raised from 7.8 to 8.2 to one and turbo intercoolers installed. Cars equipped with this engine were given the designation Biturbo S.
Also in December 1983, a four-door saloon version of the Biturbo was introduced. This involved an 86mm (3¼”) stretch in the wheelbase to 2,600mm (102¼”) and a 250mm (9¾”) increase in overall length to 4,400mm (173¼”). The saloon was powered by the larger 2.5-litre engine and was designated Biturbo 425.
In 1984, Maserati commissioned Zagato to build a convertible version of the Biturbo. The coupé’s wheelbase and overall length were shortened by approximately 114mm (4½”) to 2,400mm (94½”) and 4,040mm (159”) respectively. The body needed extensive modification, both to improve structural rigidity and to create a well in the boot for the folded hood. The Biturbo Spyder was a pretty looking car, but very much a 2+2 with its shortened wheelbase. Customer deliveries did not commence until the spring of 1985.
Frustratingly for potential customers in the British Isles, there was still no sign of the Biturbo and its variants being produced in RHD form. With long waiting lists for the models in Europe and the US, de Tomaso had little interest in answering the pleas of UK Maserati dealers. Hence, Car Magazine left it to its Italian correspondent, Giancarlo Perini, to sample the Biturbo S and 425 saloon. His findings were published in the September 1984 issue(2) of the magazine.
The Biturbo S was visually distinguished by the insertion of two NACA(3) ducts into the bonnet to supply air to the intercoolers, black wheels and black-painted lower bodysides. It is a moot point as to whether or not either modification improved the appearance of the car. Inside was largely familiar, although the instrument cluster was now better integrated into the dashboard.
The additional power of the engine was most noticeable above 3,500rpm after which “the little V6 then races on to the 7,000rpm mark with tremendous smoothness and alacrity.” There was little noticeable turbo-lag because the “two small turbos have less inertia to overcome than one big one and spin quicker, thus improving throttle response.” More power made the S model “a slightly more demanding car to drive than the standard Biturbo coupé” especially in wet conditions where “great circumspection is needed to go fast on winding roads in the rain.” The 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was 6.2 seconds and the top speed was “nearing 140mph” (226km/h). The unassisted steering was criticised for being “extremely heavy in slow speed manoeuvring” and becoming “rather vague and imprecise” at high speed.
Moving onto the 425 saloon, Perini observed that the body aft of the A-pillars was new and, despite the resemblance, shared nothing with that of the coupé. Entry through the back doors was “poor – but once inside passengers are likely to enjoy the space.” Performance was only slightly weaker than the Biturbo S: 0 to 60mph (97km/h) was achieved in 6.5 seconds and the top speed was around 135mph (218km/h). The power delivery was “quieter and smoother” although the saloon felt “less lissom and responsive on tight roads than the shorter, lighter coupé.”
In summary, Perini concluded that both Biturbo models were “impressive cars which should further justify Alessandro de Tomaso’s faith in the principle of a mass-made Maserati.” He did, however, note that the price in Italy of the Biturbo S was now the equivalent of £15,000, almost double what the coupé had cost at launch.
1985 saw the 2.0-litre engine, in both standard and S forms, introduced to the four-door model for the Italian market only, where they carried the model designations 420 and 420S. 1986 brought a significant mechanical change in that Weber-Marelli fuel injection was introduced, denoted by an i suffix to the model name. A year later, an enlarged 2,790cc engine was introduced, first to the saloon, then to the coupé in 1988. In December of that year a four-valve per cylinder version of the 2-litre engine was introduced, designated 2.24v in the coupé and 4.24v in the saloon.
Finally, in the autumn of 1986, Maserati got around to building RHD versions of the Biturbo for the British and Irish markets. The introduction of the Biturbo marked Maserati’s return to the UK after a five-year absence. Car magazine’s Richard Bremner tested the car in 2.5-litre form on British soil and reported his findings in the November 1986 issue of the magazine. By this time, the UK list price was £23,500, almost double the amount quoted when the car was launched just four years earlier. However, Bremner pointed out that, with only 400 examples earmarked for the UK in the following year, it was “something of a bargain” for such exclusivity.
Build quality had certainly improved since the early days: “the Maserati gives a strong impression of being a beautifully built car. The bonnet, boot and door pressings all sit snugly, the chrome trim is neatly lined up, the paint finish deep and even.” Dynamically, it was something of a curate’s egg, with a “smooth and potent engine [and] a grippy and supple chassis.” However, “the vague steering, the wayward gearchange [and] “the slightly soft brakes prevent you extracting the Maser’s best.” Overall, it was “a svelte long-distance tourer…more suited to the open road than sinuous off-the-beaten-path back routes.”
As the decade progressed, the geometric lines of the Biturbo were beginning to look somewhat dated so de Tomaso commissioned Marcello Gandini to facelift the car. The first makeover was introduced progressively between 1987 and 1989 and included a taller, more rounded front grille, deeper bumpers and side skirts. In May 1988, the Biturbo name was dropped. In future, the cars (excluding the Spyder) would be designated solely by a three-digit number. Confusingly, all coupés, irrespective of engine size, were designated 222, whereas the saloons were designated with a 4 followed by two digits indicating the engine size; 420, 422, 425 or 430(4).
A more comprehensive Gandini facelift was introduced in 1991, which featured more aerodynamic aids including an aerofoil at the base of the windscreen which partly concealed the wipers, deeper side-skirts and a boot spoiler. The most immediately recognisable feature in this facelift were new round projector-style headlights and rectangular driving lamps that sat uneasily together within a moulded plastic surround. The effect of these modifications was, to my eyes, rather disfiguring, giving the car a tacky ‘aftermarket’ appearance(5).
Despite all these (and many more minor) changes(6), sales of the Biturbo-based models continued their slow decline and the model range was rationalised until the saloon was discontinued in 1993, followed a year later by the coupé and Spyder. This, however, is not the end of the story for Biturbo-based Maserati models.
The story of the Maserati Biturbo and its derivatives concludes in Part Three shortly.
(1) Maserati – The Citroën Years 1968 – 1975 by Marc Sonnery. ISBN 10: 0957397801. ISBN 13: 9780957397804.
(2) On the pages immediately following the Maserati report, Car Magazine printed a review of the new Hyundai Stellar, a Giugiaro-designed car that was a virtual clone of the Biturbo saloon! One imagines that de Tomaso would not have been amused, either by Giugiaro’s cheeky impersonation or Car’s juxtaposition of the pieces.
(3) A low-drag air duct designed by and named after the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA.
(4) Except that the 1988 422 model featured a 2.0-litre engine and the 1987 430 model was fitted with a 2.8 litre unit. No, I don’t know either!
(5) Colloquially referred to in the UK as a “ram-raid on Halfords”, the country’s largest chain of motor accessory stores.
(6) There is little unanimity amongst different sources of information regarding the timing or other details of the multitude of changes introduced during the lifetime of the Biturbo-based models.
Sources: Car Magazine/ Maserati-alfieri.co.uk