Far-from-perfect Maserati Birdcage lacked financial backing to succeed

The magical Maserati name has been attached to some of the most beautiful and successful race and road-going cars ever made. At, or near the top of that list is the uniquely designed Birdcage roadster.

Despite producing only 22 examples between 1959 and 1961, the Birdcage is perhaps the best-known and most desirable of the competition Maseratis. One look at its offbeat construction and sensuous bodywork and it's easy to see why.

Although the company, founded by the six Maserati brothers in the early part of the 20th century, was frequently in financial difficulties, it has, in its troubled life span, managed to produce a number of significant low-volume, high-priced classics. These include the 3500GT, Sebring, Mistrale and Ghibli front-engine cars, as well as the midengine Bora and Merak models with their distinctive "flying buttress" bodywork.

As was the case with Ferrari, the Modena, Italy-based Maserati was first and foremost a constructor of racing cars (a division of the company also produced spark plugs). Carlo, the eldest of the six Maserati brothers, first began racing in 1907 at the age of 26. His younger brother Mario was behind the wheel of the very first car to wear the company crest in competition in the famed Targa Florio road race in 1926. Two other brothers, Alfieri and Ernesto, also actively maintained the Maserati racing tradition throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The marque's many victories have included two wins at the Indianapolis 500. And in Formula 1, a Maserati 250F helped Juan Maunel Fangio earn his fifth and final world championship in 1957.

As successful as the company was in racing, the sport proved to be a constant drain on cash. In the days before lucrative big-time sponsorships, participation in racing was an expensive proposition, requiring significant offset from the sale of exotic road cars to well-heeled European and North American buyers. However, Maserati's Argentine-based owners, who had purchased a majority interest in the company in the late 1930s, were determined to use auto racing as a way to enhance their firm's reputation as a builder of high-performance machinery, and remained committed to competition.

Even as the Tipo (Type) 60, as the original Birdcage was officially called, was nearing completion, the company was in the throes of receivership proceedings. Maserati's perilous financial condition meant there were no funds to field a factory-backed race effort. As a result, the Birdcage was marketed mainly to private teams -- at around $11,000 a copy -- that received limited factory support in the way of spare parts and technical assistance.

The car was tagged the Birdcage for its unique tubular chassis, referred to as a "spider web" by the factory. This skeletal-like shape was designed to support both the engine and suspension components as well as the car's sheetmetal. Each of the 200 lengths of tubing was welded together in an intricate pattern to create an extremely light (66 pounds), yet rigid platform able to withstand the tortures of road-course competition. The finished product, complete with its 200-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, huge 14-inch disc brakes and melt-in-your-mouth body, weighed a mere 1,100 pounds. That's less than half the weight of a Mazda MX-5 Miata. Top speed was around 145 mph.

As was the case with most highly specialized, low-volume race cars, no two Birdcages look alike. To begin with, the first six cars produced carried the two-liter powerplant, while the final 16, designated the Tipo 61, were fitted with a larger 2.9-liter four-cylinder engine that generated an additional 50 horsepower. There were also minor variations in styling, depending on each car's intended use.

The first Birdcages were readied for the 1960 World Sports Car Championship season, competing against cars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lotus, Cooper and OSCA. One of the first Birdcages, driven by the legendary Stirling Moss, managed to win its very first race at a circuit in France.

For the next couple of years, many of auto racing's top pilots of the day would drive these lightweight powerhouses, including future Cobra inventor Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Roger Penske, Masten Gregory, Jim Hall and Briggs Cunningham.

With a huge power-to-weight ratio advantage over its competitors, Birdcage drivers should have, on paper at least, won virtually every race they entered. But the simple fact was that the car was far from perfected, since the down-on-its-heels Maserati organization lacked the means to properly sort out the car's numerous teething problems. As a result, breakdowns were a regular occurrence. These quality issues became apparent when all of the Birdcages entered in the 1960 Le Mans 24-hour race failed to finish. In its two years of production, the car failed to win the coveted manufacturer's crown for Maserati.

It is a tribute to the Birdcage's speed and toughness that it remained competitive for many years after its limited production ended in 1961. Today, a few priceless examples can be spotted at a few vintage racing events as well as in museums.

Had Maserati been healthier and able to invest more heavily in the Birdcage's development, who knows how successful it could have become. However, the Birdcage's groundbreaking design and awesome performance have assured its position as one of the greatest race cars to ever turn a wheel.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.