Auto-Biography: Maserati Dreamin’

(first posted 9/27/2011)

I find myself floating above an endless sea of thimbleberry bushes. The berries are all ripe, infinite delectable crimson caps punctuating a sea of green. I can’t see the trail, but somehow distant and hidden legs carry me along and know where to go, while I gorge on the fruit. Now I’m behind the wheel of my car, watching an endless movie loop of a winding serpentine road, with a rushing river to my left and a wall of towering firs on my right. I have no awareness of actually driving; the car knows what to do while I gorge on the scenery. The road through Oregon’s deep woods is utterly deserted. Then an image confronts me, so unexpected, so surreal, that now I know I’m dreaming.

forest road

There, on a little dead-end spur off US Forest Service Road 19, set against a backdrop of emerald firs, sits a glistening white Maserati 3500 GT with its hood open. A beautiful young woman with auburn hair wearing shorts and a loose summery top is bent over and peering into the engine compartment. The autopilot in my car reflexively pulls me over. The scenario is so unlikely, I simply accept it as an actor in a movie. Where are the cameras, lights and the director?

The Maserati 3500 GT is not just a truly exquisite exotic, it also has a special place in the history of its maker as well as mine. It was the car that saved the Trident from bankruptcy, and established the marque as the slightly-more “affordable” alternative to its Modena rival, Ferrari.

Prior to the 3500 GT, Maserati was struggling to support its racing efforts building small numbers of sports-racing cars. The 3500 GT was its desperate bid for survival and volume production, if you can consider some 2,000 GTs built between 1958 and 1964 as volume. Carrozeria Touring won the design contest and the resulting contract to build the Superleggara (super-light) alloy bodies, draped so elegantly over the built-up tube frame. The 3500 quickly developed a reputation as an exceptionally beautiful and fast (145mph) gran tourisimo that was also solid, reliable and tractable.

I had a very brief but infinitely vivid encounter with a 3500 GT at the age of five or six that left a permanent cleft in my heart; my first Italian crush. We were in a family friend’s Fiat 1100, on an Alpine road in Austria. Behind us, I heard the sound of a horn like none ever before: an intense command to attention; an unmistakable intonation of superiority. I turned around to see the distinctive face of this Maserati come screaming up, and then flying past us and a half dozen or more cars on the winding, narrow two-lane road.

My first encounter with a true supercar shook something loose deep inside me, and opened a whole new field of possibilities. I’ve replayed that very scene countless times, watching the Maserati disappear around the next bend. And now, after chasing it for fifty years, I’ve finally caught up with it, in the deep woods of Oregon, broken down from its super-automotive exertions.

As I approach, I’m overwhelmed by the radiant beauty—from both of them. “It’s not every day one stumbles on a 3500 GT in these parts” I say. Especially one in concours condition, and driven by a young woman, I think to myself. “Having a problem?”

“It’s overheating; it’s been running hot since I drove over from Bend yesterday to a car show in Cottage Grove. But then the temperature gauge went out, and now it overheated in a cloud of steam”. I looked into the engine compartment dominated by one of the most beautiful engines ever made, a detuned version of Maserati’s 350S F1 racer.

I have a really big thing about classic DOHC straight sixes. Think Jaguar XK engine, but even better: twelve spark plugs lined up in perfect two-by-two formation like soldiers at attention; three huge dual-throat Webers extending perpendicular to one side; twin ceramic-coated long-sweep headers on the other. I pry my eyes away from this cathedral of an engine to take in the cooling system: bone stock, right down to a most pathetic little four-blade steel fan. And not a coolant overflow container or auxiliary electric fan to be seen; just the original radiator.

My thoughts go to Chuck Goolsbee’s XK-E , which recently paid us a visit on its way to LA. It sported a huge custom radiator and (at least) a brace of big electric fans. When I spot the original Maserati emblem on the radiator cap, I know again I’m dreaming. “You go on long trips often?” is all I can come up with.

“Yes, I’ve driven it to concours d’elegances and shows up and down the coast, from Seattle to California. Most folks trailer cars like this to shows, but I like to drive it. This was my grandfather’s car, and he took me to shows all over the West in it when I was little. I’m keeping the tradition going. And I want to keep it original (I see no signs of seat belts in the blue leather interior). It’s never overheated before.” It was an unusually cool late-summer day, barely seventy degrees.

I lost myself in its endless perfect details while we waited for the engine to cool enough for a drink. Her bottle of water didn’t begin to slake its thirst, so I grabbed my empty hiking bottles and we walked down the bank to the babbling river and filled them. It took it all and more.

She started the engine and I automatically slid under the front to look for leaks. But the symphony of fine Italian parts all working in concert kept distracting me, even at idle. As did the odd little pump hung below the crank pulley, driven by its own belt. I slid my finger along the hoses emanating from it: one to the ribbed alloy crankcase, the other to the right of the radiator. An auxiliary pump for the oil cooler, I assume. Or?

No leaks anywhere. The beautiful radiator cap was holding pressure. Hmm. A blown head gasket? I keep that expensive thought to myself. A discussion about the options ensues. She had pulled off Hwy 126 and unto the spur off FR 19 just before it begins the serious climb over McKenzie Pass past the Three Sisters. It’s a steep narrow highway with iffy shoulders at times. It’s also going to be dark soon.

I suggest driving slowly back down to Eugene, to the Sports Car Shop, which she has heard of, and that I would follow her. She warms up to that idea. I tell her about my childhood obsession with the 3500 GT, and about Curbside Classic. I head for my car to get my camera. Suddenly, a stray cloud obscures the late-afternoon sun, and the sparkle on the Maserati and the glow on the trees is gone. The dream now takes an ugly turn: I don’t have my camera with me! And now the driver has changed her mind and decided to call a tow truck to take them both back to Bend. I want desperately to hang on to this dream, this car, its driver, and take pictures to have proof that they were real. But it’s all slipping away.

I wake up in the morning grumpy; I’ve tossed and turned with the Maserati all night. But after thirty-one years of marriage, Stephanie knows exactly what I need to hear: “Paul, I understand how you feel. It was a real dream car, and she was exactly your type. If you were twenty-five years younger, and if I and her boyfriend hadn’t been there, the whole thing could have been the dream of your lifetime. I’m sorry. And I keep telling you: don’t leave home without your camera.”