Officine Alfieri Maserati S.p.A. History
I-41100 Modena (MO)
Telephone: 011 059 230101
Fax: 011 059 222867
SICs: 5013 Motor Vehicle Supplies & Spare Parts
A Maserati sports car is one of the few automobiles in the world that immediately evokes images of wealth and prestige. The original clientele who purchased Maserati cars were part of a European social set that frequented the casinos in Monte Carlo and the beaches on the French Riviera. Although well known for its limited production of high performance sports cars during the 1920s and 1930s, the firm gained its reputation on the racing circuit. Like Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Ferrari, and Lamborghini, the early Maserati touring and racing cars are now expensive collector's items. Unfortunately, due to years of mismanagement and lack of direction, the firm deteriorated until it was purchased by Fiat in the early 1990s. Under Fiat's control, however, Maserati's fortunes are slowly improving.
The roots of Maserati can be traced back to the early years of the 20th century. Five brothers, Carlo, Bindo, Alfieri, Ettore and Ernesto Maserati, lived in Bologna, Italy, with their aging parents. The eldest of the brothers, Carlo, worked as a race car driver for Fiat and Bianchi, but died in 1911. The second-born Bindo, and the third oldest brother, Alfieri, worked in the assembly plant for Italian car manufacturer Isotta Fraschini. The younger brothers, Ettore and Ernesto, shared their siblings fascination with automobiles, and followed them into working for various car manufacturers in the area surrounding Bologna.
When the fortunes of Isotta Fraschini began to decline during World War I, Bindo and Alfieri began to manufacture spark plugs and other engine components for the Italian war effort. By the time the war ended in November of 1918, the two brothers were producing an entire line of engine components under the family name. Soon the two younger brothers joined them, and, by the mid-1920s, the Maserati brothers were designing and building racing machines for Diatto, another Italian car manufacturer. Alfieri was the impetus behind Diatto's racing success, and began to build a reputation within the racing circuit when he designed and produced an impressive straight-eight Grand Prix racer.
When Diatto dropped out of the race car circuit in 1926, the four Maserati brothers acquired the company's racing cars and began to redesign, update, and improve these models. Working in a tiny family garage close to the Ponte Vecchio in Bologna, the brothers formed their own company, Officine Alfieri Maserati S.p.A., and decided to use the ancient symbol of Bologna, Neptune's trident, as the logo for the firm.
The company's first great success occurred in 1929, with the creation of a Formula Libre racing machine. This car, with a pair of 8-cylinder engines mounted next to each other, was capable of dazzling speed. On September 28, 1929, a young driver named Baconin Borzacchini drove this car along a stretch of road near Cremona and reached a speed of 154 mph. When news of this accomplishment spread around the racing circuit, the Bologna Automobile Club arranged an enormous banquet to pay homage to the brothers who built the car and to the man who drove it. Even Enzo Ferrari, one of the most respected men in Italian racing and who would soon see the Maserati firm as his fiercest competitor, was in attendance at this festive event.
Tragedy took the Maserati brothers by surprise in 1932, and the firm was never quite the same again. Alfieri Maserati, well respected by his brothers and clearly the leader of the firm, crashed during a race at Messina in the early part of the year and died under the surgeon's knife from massive internal injuries. At the age of 42, Alfieri was in the prime of life and, with his broad knowledge in the field of automotive engineering, seemed destined to carry the name of Maserati to the highest pinnacle of race car success. Needless to say, his death was devastating to the firm, since the company manufactured only a few sports cars and single-seater automobiles annually.
After the loss of Alfieri, the remaining Maserati brothers attempted to continue manufacturing high-performance sports cars and racing automobiles. However, even though they were hardworking and skilled craftsmen, and able to produce superb machines, none of the brothers possessed the business acumen to develop the firm into an enduring and successful operation. By 1936, the Maserati brothers were able to manufacture only nine cars. One year later, following an intense period of deliberation, the remaining Maserati brothers, Bindo, Ernesto, and Ettore, sold their controlling interest in the firm to the Orsi family of Modena.
The Orsi family, headed by the father, Adolfo, and his son, Omer, had earned a fortune in steel mill production, agricultural equipment manufacturing, and a trolley car system which they operated in Modena. The Orsi family purchased Maserati to continue manufacturing racing cars, and to expand the production of Maserati spark plugs, which was the one part of the firm that had always been profitable. All the Maserati brothers were hired by Adolfo and Omer to a ten year management contract. Under the terms of the agreement, the Maseratis were given the freedom to design and produce high-performance racing cars. But, in spite of its appearance, the contract relegated the Maserati brothers to no more than highly paid employees, without any genuine influence over company policy or decision-making.
Despite these restrictions, with the largesse of the Orsi family funds, the Maserati brothers began to create a number of impressive racing machines. In May of 1939, an American named Wilbur Shaw, driving a supercharged Maserati 8CFT, won the Indianapolis 500. Shaw won the same race in 1940 driving another Maserati car, and was on his way to a third consecutive victory with a Maserati model in 1941, when a rear wire wheel broke near the end of the race. The Indianapolis 500 was the one race in the United States that all the Italians followed with great enthusiasm, and the Maserati victories assured the company of lasting prestige in the automobile industry.
In the fall of 1939, the Orsi family decided to reorganize the Maserati firm, and moved the entire factory, including unfinished cars, tools, spare parts, and management offices to Modena. Adolfo Orsi assumed the position of president of the company, while Alceste Giacomazzi, Adolfo's brother-in-law, become the new general director. Orsi and Giacomazzi were also able to entice Alberto Massimino, the designer of Ferrari automobiles, to leave that company and become chief designer at Maserati. With these changes, the Maserati brothers were left without any real say as to how the company should be developed. Bindo Maserati was appointed head of the Maserati racing operation but marginalized when company policy was decided upon.
Part of the Orsi family strategy to reorganize the Maserati firm involved the perception that war was imminent, and that the company could take advantage of the Italian war effort. Adolfo planned to expand and increase the Maserati business by mass-producing spark plugs, batteries, and electric delivery trucks needed by the Italian Ministry of War. The president also envisaged a lucrative contract with the government to refit and overhaul military trucks and cars during the war. When World War II started in Europe, the Maserati firm was prepared for any manufacturing requests from Benito Mussolini's Fascist government.
When the war came to an end in the spring of 1945, the Maserati operation had not been severely damaged like other automobile manufacturers in Italy. As a result, the firm resumed the production of automobiles almost immediately. In May of 1945, Maserati entered and won the Indianapolis 500, while also placing third and seventh in the overall field. By May of 1946, Massimino had designed a brand new A6 sports car that rivaled the best of the models produced by Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. In 1947, Maserati cars were recording victory after victory on the racetrack, and began to take away some of the customers who had purchased Ferrari cars for years.
In 1947, the Maserati brothers finished their ten-year contract with the Orsi family and decided to form a new automobile company, Officina Specializzata Costruzione Automobili, in their hometown of Bologna. Producing high-performance cars on a limited scale, the brothers garnered a reputation for manufacturing quality automobiles. The end of the Maserati family involvement in car production came in 1967, when the aging and frail brothers sold their interest in OSCA to MV-Agusta.
In February of 1949, the Orsi family suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from racing competition. Rumors of financial problems provided the backdrop for another sudden announcement by Adolfo Orsi that the Maserati firm would close its doors until a comprehensive reorganization was completed. When the company finally reopened for business, Adolfo announced that Maserati would place greater emphasis on the development and production of touring cars. At the same time, the company would also continue its production of machine tools and small electric trucks for the commercial markets. These decisions were to have long-term effects on the direction and prestige of the Maserati firm. No longer competing against Ferrari and Alfa Romeo in the elite sports car market, the Maserati firm began to lose the luster of its honored past.
Throughout the decade of the 1950s, the Orsi family operated Maserati as a diversified manufacturing firm. Emphasis was still placed on the production of machine tools and electric trucks, but the company's involvement in the racing circuit was minimal. As the Orsi family finances began to decline because of mismanagement, and promising ventures in places like Argentina and Western Europe turned sour, it turned more and more to mass-production items. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Maserati was manufacturing high-volume touring cars and just a smattering of sports cars and racing automobiles. The company's original purpose, and the Maserati brothers' goal, was to build high-performance sports cars. Hopelessly directionless, the Maserati firm began to lose money, and the Orsi family searched for a solution.
In 1966, the Orsi family reached an agreement with Citroen, a French automobile manufacturer, to jointly produce both touring cars and sports cars for the general market. Initially quite promising, the joint venture wasn't able to capture enough of the market to stay financially afloat. With family finances at their lowest, the Orsi family decided to sell the Maserati operation to Alejandro de Tomaso, an Argentina businessman who garnered a reputation for acquiring bankrupt companies. De Tomaso already had taken control of Benelli and Moto Guzzi, two Italian motorcycle manufacturers, and Innocenti, a maker of mini-cars. But de Tomaso's ideas about how to design and manufacture automobiles were not successful, and the Maserati firm suffered as a result. The Maserati BiTurbo was a poorly designed car, and its performance was much less than expected. Sales continued to spiral downward, and the firm's reputation sank lower and lower.
During the 1970s, for many of the American and European car manufacturers, over-capacity resulted in a loss of revenues and profitability. In the United States, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler reported record-setting losses during the mid-1970s. In Europe, the situation was even worse. British Leyland, Chrysler UK, and Citroen were kept afloat only through government assistance. The European high-performance car manufacturers were also experiencing hard times: Jensen in Britain and Iso in Italy filed for bankruptcy and disappeared from sight, while Jaguar was taken over by British Leyland, Ferrari was acquired by Fiat, and Lamborghini was passed from one owner to the next.
Throughout the 1970s, Maserati's fate was much the same. After numerous but unsuccessful attempts to design and manufacture new models for wealthier clientele in America and Europe, and ever-larger infusions of cash from de Tomaso, the Argentina businessman soon began to see his fortune slip away. Maserati's production capacity dwindled to almost nothing. In 1984, de Tomaso found a friend in Lee Iacocca, the man serving as chairman of Chrysler and responsible for its remarkable comeback from financial disaster. De Tomaso convinced the head of Chrysler to finance the development of a Maserati luxury sports car, with Chrysler selling the cars through its own dealerships.
Iococca projected sales of between 5,000 to 8,000 of the Maserati-Chrysler sports cars at a minimal price tag of $35,000. Profits would be huge, and the coupe would help to upscale the American car manufacturer's product line. But the joint venture started off on the wrong foot when de Tomaso and Iococca agreed to place a Chrysler engine in a Maserati body. Combining the worst of both cars, the machine was an engineer's nightmare. The car was underpowered, there were gaps between the fenders and the doors, the power windows didn't work well, the chrome trim around the wheel base kept falling away, the car leaked, and the convertible top didn't fit properly. Maserati employees fought with Chrysler employees about everything, including whether the steering wheel should be natural wood or fake wood grain. All the while, de Tomaso requested more and more money from Chrysler.
Projected for sale in 1986 and then in 1987, the Maserati Touring Coupe wasn't close to being finished by the beginning of 1988. Iococca, growing impatient with de Tomaso, sent a team to Milan to assess the situation. The team discovered only 35 of the initial 200 cars manufactured suitable for sale. When the Touring Coupe finally arrived in Chrysler showrooms, it looked very similar to the Chrysler LeBaron coupe--but the LeBaron was less than half the price of the Maserati. When the figures were totaled, Chrysler lost nearly $400 million on the joint project with Maserati, and in 1989, after producing a little more than 7,000 of the cars, Iococca decided to end his partnership with de Tomaso.
With the loss of Chrysler financing, de Tomaso could not continue to underwrite Maserati's operating costs all by himself. As a result, de Tomaso decided to sell Maserati to Fiat, Italy's largest car manufacturer. After lengthy negotiations, in the spring of 1993 Fiat purchased Maserati at a cost of $51 million. Fiat had experienced severe financial losses during the early 1990s, primarily due to a loss of market share in Italy and Europe in general. However, under new management, Fiat rebuilt its position in both the domestic and foreign car markets, and Maserati figured prominently in its owner's resurgence. After a period or incorporation and reorganization, the Maserati division of Fiat began to sell high-performance sports cars once again in the 1990s.
- "Fiat Auto Buys All of Maserati," Automotive News, May 24, 1993, p. 2.
- Rossant, John, "The Man Who's Driving Fiat Like A Ferrari," Business Week, January 23, 1995, pp. 82--83.
- Yates, Brock W., Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Cars, The Races, The Machine, New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 13. St. James Press, 1996.