by Dave Williamson
The year was 1954, I was standing at the wire fence at Auckland’s racetrack, Ardmore, and watched as Stan Jones won the first NZ Grand Prix. On that day, I heard the V16 BRM screaming for almost three hours – an experience now embedded in my brain. At age 10, I was instantly hooked on motor racing. The following year, Siamese Prince Birabongse, known as “Prince Bira”, shipped his Maserati 250F from the UK for the race. Painted blue and yellow and with twin chromed exhausts, it was immaculate.
I knew little about Maserati, but quickly realized I was seeing a “modern” racing car, in contrast to the multitude of Kiwi home-built specials… as good as they were. I was mesmerised by the look, the sound and the smell of a 250F Maserati wailing down the long back straight for nearly three hours, to win.
The following year, I was excited to learn that my hero Stirling Moss was coming to New Zealand for the Grand Prix with his Maserati 250F. I followed the newspapers fervently, reading every item relating to the upcoming event. Together with cars from Australia, Moss’s Maserati arrived by ship in Wellington for the event. The photograph of the cars after unloading at the wharves is a treasured possession.
Moss drove a smooth race, but with a few laps to go, a fuel leak forced a pit stop. Alf Francis, his famous mechanic, stopped the leak, quickly added eight gallons of fuel and sent him on his way. Moss easily caught the pack to win – ah my hero.
Around this time, stocky local wrestler Fred Zambucka purchased not one, but three Maseratis from the factory in Modena. One was a tired 1934 8CM model, the others were two 8CLT models, specifically built for the 1950 Indianapolis 500, though they never raced there. A pair of monsters with their 3.0-litre twin supercharged straight 8s, these beasts could top 200mph in a straight line but were awful in the corners. On arrival, the fuel lines were found to be clogged with old methanol, so Zambucka gave the car to McLaren Motors to remedy the fault. A young Bruce spent many days getting it ready.
Les McLaren, Bruce’s father, towed the Maserati round the Remuera streets until it finally thundered into life, scaring most of Auckland with the noise. Today, Jan McLaren, Bruce’s sister, still remembers the incredible sound.
More Maserati cars came to NZ to live. The Ex-Owen/Brabham 250F gave young Chris Amon his first drive of a serious race car. The Moss car was leased to Ross Jensen, then sold on to Johnny Mansel.
In 1959 Temple Buell, a wealthy American, shipped out three Maseratis to NZ, to be driven by Jo Bonnier, Harry Schell and Carroll Shelby. These were destined to be the last models from the factory before Maserati’s racing department closed. The bodywork of two of the cars had been shaped by Modena’s best bodyworkers Gino and Medardo Fantuzzi. They created radical noses and tails for the cars, known as the “Piccolo” (small) versions.
Being lighter than previous versions, the team were hopeful of success in NZ. However, the best the Schell/Shelby car could manage was fourth in the GP – the other two retired. In my friend Richard Sisler’s Morris 8, we were driving on the Auckland motorway to the track, when Maserati’s top mechanic Gino Bertocchi, his cap on backwards as he thundered passed us, in Shelby’s Maser. I still replay the sight and sound of that scene in my head today.
My mates and I would scour the garages around Auckland before each Grand Prix, looking for race cars from overseas, often discovering some beauties hidden away.
Local driver Ross Jensen then purchased a “Piccolo” 250F, albeit one of the many Maseratis “re-hashed” at the Modena factory during that period.
Auckland milkman Brian Prescott later bought this car from Ross Jensen. Brian won three times at Levin over the next couple of years. My best mate Richard Sisler became Prescott’s race mechanic. Recently Richard reminded me of the day they had been preparing the car for a race meeting at Ardmore. Some friends helped push start the car, Brian bellowed off loudly, going through the gears around his local streets. As he approached some traffic lights the car stalled – at the lights. A cop in a Mk1 Zephyr pulled up and told Brian off for “driving an unregistered Formula One car on the road”. However, as a crowd of shoppers arrived – and with Brian having the gift of the gab – the cop finally asked a couple of onlookers to help him to push start the car. The cop then yelled: “Get that thing back home and keep it there”.
This car was sent back to Modena to be re-hashed (again). It returned to NZ with a Chev V8 motor… and now owned by Johnny Mansel. At Western Springs in Auckland, I watched him as he thrashed the car at a sprint meeting held on the rough speedway track.
Another 250F was imported, to be driven by various Kiwi racers, the most impressive being Chris Amon. Chris drifted the car so neatly at Ardmore that it really impressed UK driver Reg Parnell, so much so that he opened a pathway for Chris to go to the UK… the rest is history.
Many more 250Fs raced in NZ driven by both UK and Australians: Reg Hunt, Arnold Glass and Stan Jones were always up in the placings. Overseas, Fangio and Moss et al regularly showed what could be achieved in such cars. In 1954, Shellmex/BP and Moss’s father combined to purchase a brand new 250F for Stirling. Stirling’s mechanic Alf Francis worked overnight in the Modena workshops to move the accelerator from the middle position to the right hand side, much to Gino Bertocchi’s displeasure. This car, chassis 2508 has been rebuilt many times. I last saw it at the Museum Enzo Ferrari in Modena. It looked brand new.
I have been lucky enough to have visited the Maserati works in Modena many times over the years. During the first visit I met Sig. Ermanno Cozza, the historian (now 98 per cent retired) who started working at Maserati in 1951. Now in 2023 and at 90 years old he goes to the office for a few hours each week. His replacement is the wonderful Fabio Collina, who exudes the same passion about Maserati.
Ermanno is perhaps the most polite and gentle man I have ever been lucky enough to call a friend. Over our many dinners he tells fascinating stories about his days in the factory as a youth. He went through every stage of the factory processes and in much later years his amazing memory was fully utilised when he became the archive manager. I once asked him if he still had any drawings of 250F parts. He said: “Of course, what would you like to see?” I mentioned the 250F steering wheel, as I wanted to make one exactly as per the original. Within five minutes he produced an original factory drawing and photo-copied it for me.
Back in Sydney, my good mate Bruce Mansell, kindly offered to allow me to use a milling machine at his factory so I could I cut out the aluminium centre shape. It took many weeks to cut, shape and fit the 10 wood pieces – but I was happy with the end result. I took the steering wheel to show Ermanno Cozza in Modena, then over to the Goodwood Revival to show it to Sir Stirling Moss, who kindly signed it for me.
I met the charming Dr Adolfo Orsi Jnr, the grandson of the late Adolfo Orsi Snr, Maserati’s owner since 1937. Adolfo is one of the most important international experts in restoration processes and worldwide auction information of historical vehicles.
Every year he publishes a huge catalogue, showing results of car auctions from around the world. His house is amazing. A MotoGuzzi motorbike sits in the foyer, a large room is full of race-car movie posters. His office is gigantic, complete with samples of Maserati spark plugs, posters and various motor pieces. In one corner is the Maserati 250F pedal-car he was given as a child.
Umberto Panini is another Maserati fanatic and in 1996, to save 19 cars that were about to be sold by the factory to the UK, he purchased the lot for display in his wonderful museum. Located only 15 mins from Modena, the Panini museum is an absolute MUST GO if you visit Modena.
I could write many, many more pages about my passion for Maserati. The cars. the history the races, the racing tragedies, the talented engineers at the factory… but most of all the passion and kindness shown by the Maserati people whenever I visit.
I am so lucky.