What might have been
With more development, Maserati’s mighty Tipo 151 trio could have been world-beaters. Octane drives the sole survivor
The epic tale of the Maserati Tipo 151 reads like a Greek tragedy. The factory had already closed its competition department by the end of 1957, its creations a distant memory when the new GT 4.0-litre prototype rules arrived for 1962. But it was those rules that triggered the birth of the Tipo 151, a car aimed squarely at a single goal: battle for victory at Le Mans.
Two teams would race them privately. Maserati France, owned by Paris resident, American Colonel John Simone, would field chassis 151-002, while Briggs Cunningham’s US team ordered two cars: 151-004 and 151-006. Further chassis were rumoured, including a third for Cunningham and another for French entrant Marchant, enticed by American wheeler-dealer Lloyd ‘Lucky’ Casner, but to no avail. As a result those cars never materialised.
The new racer drew inspiration from the 1957 Costin Zagato 450S, a car botched when its transition from drawing to metal was lost in translation between the different parties. Its 3944cc V8 was related to that of the ill-fated 450S but the block featured a smaller bore (91mm, down from 94mm) and an even shorter stroke (76mm instead of 81mm). Other changes included four gear-driven camshafts, a dry sump and four Weber 45 IDMs, all resulting in a power output of 360bhp.
With one exception, the Tipo 151 was a conventional design. It abandoned the Birdcage-type chassis of Maserati’s preceding sports-racing cars in favour of a sturdy ladder frame and a body shrink-wrapped over the mechanicals, its rear end extended early in the design process. At the early test sessions before Le Mans, however, a handling flaw emerged. That single exception was the reason. It was a somewhat over-ambitious idea by engineer Giulio Alfieri, known for his brilliance but also for over-complication. After all, he was the only person in the factory a few years later who wanted the Bora to use its chassis tubes as the fuel tank.He was overruled then… but sadly not when he came up with a ludicrously complex, semi-articulated de Dion rear axle for the Tipo 151. It was meant to keep wheel camber constant, but the system – which he’d tested inconclusively on the Tipo 64 – achieved nothing of the sort.
‘engineer alfieri had introduced an over-complicated element when time and resources were just not available’
Up to its closure in 1957, the Reparto Corse (Maserati’s racing department) had nine employees and a manager. By 1962 the few cars destined for ‘gentleman drivers’ were assembled by the Reparto Esperienze (the R&D department), where seven or eight employees had to find time to do so between other jobs and with a much-reduced budget. Alfieri had introduced an overly complicated element into the equation when time and resources to develop it properly were just not available. Another engineer involved in the project from inception was a certain 25-year-old Giampaolo Dallara, who would later rise to fame at Lamborghini and go on to develop his own racing car business. At the time he had just left Ferrari, where he shared an office with Mauro Forghieri. The brilliant pair had been given the task of, at long last, advancing suspension design at Maranello.
‘I arrived at Maserati from Ferrari in the middle of 1961,’ he says. ‘The Tipo 151 was my first work at Maserati, after a request from the French importer John Simone for the production of a car for Le Mans: front engine, gearbox and differential in the rear, engine and transmission carried over from previous models, with a tubular chassis. Alfieri was the design director, Giorgio Molinari the chassis designer, Guerino Bertocchi the test driver, and Aurelio Bertocchi was in charge of production.’ Logically, Dallara was tasked with responsibilities similar to those he’d had at Maranello. ‘My role was suspension layout and indoor testing. I did some computing work, especially on the rear suspension, and test evaluation on the track. The rear suspension was de Dion, modified so it acted like a swing-arm. The objective was to obtain a favourable camber at each corner.
‘The car had an aluminium body, conceived by Alfieri. The first example – 151-002, destined for the French team – was tested on the autostrada by Guerrino Bertocchi. I was on board to observe flow direction, with cotton strands attached to the body, and evaluation of air pressure over the body. The second car was a little more streamlined on the rear part.’ Maserati just missed the Le Mans test weekend, but on 9 April racing driver Colin Davis tested car 002 at Modena. In late May further testing and delivery took place in the presence of Cunningham and his team manager Alfredo, Walt Hansgen succeeding Bertocchi at the wheel of 151-004. The second Cunningham car, 006, was completed soon afterwards and all converged at Le Mans, the circuit for which the car had been conceived.
Practice soon revealed the handling flaw with glaring clarity. Bruce McLaren, one of Cunningham’s drivers at Le Mans, called it ‘the unguided missile’, while former 24 Hours winner Maurice Trintignant, who shared the wheel of Simone’s Maserati France car with Lucien Bianchi, told me in the 1990s: ‘Oh, it held the road, yes, the whole road! The rear outer wheel in any curve would have the right set but the inside rear wheel would toe out and drag like a dog resisting his leash, which would cause excessive rear tyre wear and strange handling.’
Dallara adds: ‘I was present at the first race at Le Mans, working with the cars of the Cunningham team. The problems encountered by Hansgen and McLaren included steering effort that didn’t correspond to the steering angle. This was caused by too acute an angle in the steering column line, solved using a homokinetic joint suggested by Bruce McLaren. There were ventilation problems for the driver, and excessive rear tyre wear. The car was potentially a winner but it did not show that potential due to the absolute lack of testing.’
Even so, the three Trident cars were extremely quick, with Dick Thompson and Bill Kimberley qualifying third overall in 006. Only two cars could beat the fastest 151 in practice and they were major royalty: the one-off factory Ferrari 330 TRI of Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill, and the 4.0-litre factory 250 GTO of Mike Parkes, both of which benefited from much more testing. So it wasn’t bad for a barely bathed newborn. McLaren and Hansgen lined up fifth, Trintignant and Bianchi qualified in seventh.
In the race itself the three Maseratis started off well, running in the top five. The Kimberley/Thompson car even reached second place, but improperly mounted brake pads had the car off the track right after a pit-stop and it had to retire after 62 laps with radiator damage. The French entry started experiencing excessive rear tyre wear, made worse by a slight ‘off’ that damaged the rear suspension, forcing tyre changes every ten laps until the suspension began tearing itself apart. Simone retired the car after 152 laps to avoid an accident. The Hansgen/McLaren entry lasted longest, up to fifth by 6am. Then the transmission failed, after 178 laps.
After the race, all three 151s were trucked to the factory for servicing, and the two Cunningham cars were flown to the US in late summer. But while the three Tipo 151s continued to race, they scored no significant results because of under-development, lack of reliability and organisational mishaps. Neither Cunningham nor his supposed wizard Alfredo Momo attempted to sort out the ghost in the machine: the infamous articulated de Dion. Instead, Momo wedged a 5.7-litre Maserati marine V8 into 004 for Riverside in October 1962. It had out-qualified 006 during the only time they both raced on the same day after Le Mans, but it was not running so well now and finished 11th. Sister car 006 managed seventh.
What next from Momo and 004? For the February 1963 Daytona American Challenge Cup he shoehorned a 7.0-litre Ford V8 into it. Cue massive axle wind-up to the left when accelerating, to the right when lifting, and an almighty barrel-roll out of the banking east turn. The car finished upside-down and ablaze; driver Marvin Panch was dragged out mere seconds before the tank exploded.And so 004 was written off, scavenged for a handful of parts and buried in a California landfill now under a USC football field. Meanwhile, 006 was raced on by the team of Bev Spencer in Vacaville, Califonia, where driver Stan Peterson went from the lead to a ditch on the first lap thanks to ill-sorted brakes.
Then Chuck Jones’ Meridian team took it over with the talented Skip Hudson at the wheel. In a 1995 interview, Hudson explained to me that, while racing it to two third places at Vacaville with the doors off for ventilation, he developed his own way of handling it. ‘I was driving it like on a dirt track. I used to drive it Sunday morning around Lake Matthews and would practise driving down to the dairy. It had a smooth engine, handled pretty good, if only it had been developed as it deserved.’
At that point 006 was retired. No buyers materialised so Jones turned it into a road car, installed one of the spare 4.2-litre motors given to him by Cunningham, fitted a clamshell nose like an E-type’s, and painted it ruby red. He scared LA drivers with it for a while before it ended up stored in the back of a dealer’s premises in San José. The Maserati France effort was no better funded, but it was more serious and helped somewhat by the factory. For 1963 its Tipo 151 received a new 4941cc engine, was fitted with Lucas fuel injection and – at last! – the strange rear axle became a standard de Dion. Its moment of glory came at Le Mans in 1963, when the mercurial André Simon stormed into the lead, stunning spectators and Ferrari’s might and led for two hours, holding the Trident high: John Simone was beaming. Alas, soon after taking over, ‘Lucky’ Casner had the gearbox jam in second. It was game over for 151-002 until the following year.
In 1964 came a longer wheelbase, wider tracks, output increased to 410bhp and a completely new body: longer, more aerodynamic and altogether more handsome. Trintignant and Simone got it up to third at le Mans, helped by a 192.6mph top speed and lower fuel thirst, but it retired after 99 laps with electrical and brake problems. In April 1965, with revised front suspension and a 450bhp, 5044cc fuel-injected engine, the obsolete beast arrived at the Le Mans test day. There, tragedy struck. Casner, out of practice on a damp track, lost control at top speed on the Mulsanne bump, spun into a tree and barrel-rolled in what looked like an aircraft crash. Neither driver nor car survived, a sad end to so much promise.
So with 002 written off and scrapped by Simone and the factory, only one Tipo 151 remained: 151-006. Now we fast-forward to 1983 when German collector Peter Kaus tracked it down asleep in that San José garage, acquired it, took it back across The Pond and displayed it for 23 years in his Rosso Bianco museum in Aschaffenburg. As he explained to me during a 1995 visit, he had always been fascinated by the 450S Costin Zagato and the Tipo 151s and managed to buy both, having pursued them for years. To be thorough, Kaus also recreated a 1965 version with a new German-made chassis, a new body and a few original parts, but it isn’t a genuine Tipo 151. Eventually he closed the museum and sold 006 at the 2006 Bonhams auction in Gstaad.
There it was acquired by a major collection based in Connecticut. As its manager and main driver, Joe Colasacco, explains: ‘The car was in fairly good condition, complete, but it hadn’t been used in a while so it needed to be completely gone through. The engine was rebuilt, we went through the gearbox, the drivetrain; the suspension was crack-tested, the brakes, everything you would imagine.’
Lots of testing sorted out its Achilles’ heel and more. ‘The rear axle was the most difficult part to sort out. We did not want the rear end to move around on its own, we wanted to control it. Now it is not able to articulate during cornering, as it was unpredictable. We figured out where we wanted it to stay and locked it.’ Derek Hill, son of 1961 World Champion Phil, joined the team for four Goodwood Revivals starting in 2011. In that year’s Tourist Trophy he stormed to second place in monsoon weather and can be seen in an onboard video constantly sideways for the whole lap while steering with one hand. Hill and co-driver Colasacco finished third. ‘I found it very precise to drive round Goodwood,’ says Hill, ‘because you want to steer a car around that track with the throttle as much as with the wheel in the fast corners. That was one of the most memorable drives I ever had, but I had to be very delicate and careful racing against a GTO. By then they had locked up the rear differential. It felt so much better.’
The pair also had mechanical failure at Goodwood, likely caused by the grip and associated strain generated by today’s vintage racing tyres compared with those in period, but they finished second in 2014. Then, with the TT getting ever faster and more frenetic, it was decided to retire 151-006. Derek had also raced it at Le Mans during a pre-24 Hours morning race in 2013. ‘It felt special to be there, but it’s probably a good thing there are chicanes now. Going down the Mulsanne Straight must have been terrifying in this car. Truly for daredevils.’ He led before being passed by a pair of Lotuses and retiring with fuel starvation. Hill won a final race in 2015 at Laguna Seca, but that moment of glory was preceded by a stub-axle failure in practice. It seems Giulio Alfieri, perhaps used to lighter Birdcages, miscalculated how robust the 151 components needed to be. The car then rested for a few years – until Joe reawakened it for Octane.
And so there it stands for me in the Lime Rock paddock on a crisp, sunny day, the sole remaining Tipo 151. Let’s say it has an aura that encourages circumspection… and then the engine is started for warm-up. The beast roars its willingness to do battle, a bellow like a Can-Am car’s.
From the snug, rigid bucket seat the view could not be more evocative, eight Plexiglas-shielded velocity stacks sprouting from a bonnet framed by steeply raised wheelarches. You actually look through that Plexiglas dome. The dash is basic, but modern oxygen sensors ensure the carburation is correct.
The clutch bites sharply and I trundle out of the pitlane. Enormous torque is instantly obvious, the pedal layout allows exact throttle blips when downshifting through easily slotted ratios, and lifting off generates more backfire noise than a World War Two air raid. With the rear axle frozen in place, it is devoid of the infamous unpredictability of its early life. It feels trouble-free and allows enough roll to let you know what it’s doing, along with the big surprise: the front end’s amazing willingness to turn-in.
In the twisty bits of Lime Rock I could slide it around as Skip Hudson did back in the day, aided by the light steering. The brakes allow mighty retardation, and any preconceived notion of an understeery battleship at ease only on the Mulsanne Straight is blown away. Skinny rear- or mid-engined rivals would be faster in these twists, especially uphill where you keep the car in line and right foot cautious as it gets light at the crest while still under lateral load, but they wouldn’t feel as visceral.
Nor, at under a tonne, does it feel unwieldy. At Le Mans in 1962 the three cars weighed in at 973kg (004), 975kg (006) and 981kg (002, the first one built). Once familiarised, you gingerly unleash that almighty motor and instantly it howls up to the 8300rpm redline like a mother Tyrannosaurus Rex seeing her nest under attack, propelling you towards your destiny at an eye-bulging rate. No wonder speeds of 195mph were reached on the autostrada and the Mulsanne 57 years ago. Never have I driven a more charismatic, gravitas-oozing machine. And then Lime Rock management drop hints about the decibel meters and I’m waved in. My smile actually hurts.
So the saga of the Tipo 151 ended before it really had a chance to begin. There simply is no greater what-might-have-been tale in motorsport history. It was the Trident’s last stab, but what a mighty and alluring one it was.