(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.
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.”
When this piece ran on TTAC in 2009, it led me to recognize the sheer genius of Paul Niedermeyer style writing. As writing goes, it is as classic as the tale of the car. A perfect marriage of cars, dreams, hopes, sensuality, and poetry. It made me understand that there’s something more to car buff journalism than mere facts and comparisons. It’s poetry in motion down a loop of winding serpentine roads.
One day there’ll be an anthology (hopefully available as a “coffee table” sized book) of your best work, and this piece will surely be in it.
You are lucky to have such a wife my friend!
As usual, beautiful writing of a beautiful car and the maxim mentioned, never leave home without your camera! So true!
This is the kind of stuff I enjoy reading along with the other automotive entries as well.
As Weegee the photographer once said…”f/8 and be there”
Awesome story Paul and an Awesome car, a great addition to your library.
There would have been one point there where my (soon to be) wife would have stepped between us and flashed her engagement ring. But then with my lady to paraphrase a Jeremy Brett quote (as Sherlock Holmes); “She loves with a passion that only those women whose ancestors come from hot climates can muster.”
Although I do have to admit that the car would likely be more “pornographically” ectched in my mind than the girl. I don’t believe that I’ve EVER seen a Maserati in the flesh.
Great Dream Car piece!
And props to the Aufderheide mention. I knew I recognized that river.
I drove the McKenzie in the R107 on the way home from (victory! at) the Monte Shelton NW Classic Rally a few weeks back… thought of you Paul as we passed a wheezing vintage camper. Could not take the Jaguar this year as I discovered a blown u-joint and a trashed set of tires a week before the event.
The invitation remains open for wheel-time in the 65E and/or the R107 should you ever get over the mountains!
As for the Maser… I prefer the Mistral wrapped around that engine. There is one that I see on occasion at car events here in Oregon.
Have you been up to Portland to see the “Allure of the Automobile” exhibit yet?
Going on Thursday. Congratulations on the Rally win. Very busy summer here, no time for getting over the hill. But we are going to Glacier NP on about the 10th. A long-overdue break.
Nice, but I’ll take the Toronado next to it. I guess I’m old school.
Such vivid writing is the next best thing to photos, Paul. I could see all the imagery in my mind’s eye. Here’s a “beater” 3500 I saw at Lime Rock Park in 2010….
Genius writing. Nice job, Paul.
A classic in the CC canon. I’ve only seen one 3500GT in the metal myself, but it was enough to place it firmly in the highest levels of my automotive pantheon.
Wow,what a beautiful Maserati.Back in the late 1960s/early 1970s in the city of Launceston,Tasmania,I often saw a beautiful Maserati Quattroporte,quite a rarity in Tasmania.It was the original four door Maserati.The story re that car was interesting and quite a scandal which resulted in a worldwide hunt for a wealthy married man and member of Tasmania’s elite who had absconded with huge sums of money from his wealthy friends and customers.He was a pillar of society,married with children,but he also had a secret male partner.He bought the Maserati as a gift for his male lover.A reporter from our national tv broadcaster managed to track him down in New York city and on the rear bumper of his chauffeur driven black Cadillac limousine was a Tasmanian government tourist bureau sticker, “you can make it in Tasmania” which led to much mirth as many people said it should have read “you can take it in Tasmania”,several million dollars back then and a fortune in the money of today.
You didn’t by chance sample any of the wild mushrooms indigenous to the forest?
Actually a very admirable and picturesque piece.?
I don’t have too much useful to add, other than that thimbleberries are delicious! I recently had the opportunity to pick a few handfuls while at Copper Harbor, Michigan.
Amazing piece – loved every word. I love it when a real-life account reads like a piece of extraordinary fiction. Beautifully recounted, Paul.
+1 nothing else to say. Lovely piece, elegant ending.
Saw this Maserati last weekend at the Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace – a 1954 A6 GTS Berlinetta – I think it’s the most sensuous car I have ever seen
Everyone with money has a Ferrari and Lamborghinis are so over-the-top. I’ve dreamed about Maseratis ever since I saw Britt Eckland blackmail a Barcelona car dealer out of a new Baby-Blue Mistral Spyder in the 1967 Peter Sellers comedy ‘The Bobo’.
Had the chance to drive a ‘beater’ ’62 3500GT about 20 years ago – only around the block, so unfortunately, not much of a test drive. Car was weirdly optioned. Manual steering that should’ve been power, and faulty power windows that should’ve been manual. Beautiful twin-cam straight-six.
Despite it’s faded old orange respray, a gorgeous car!
Happy Motoring, Mark
I remember spying one of these (Superlights) from the Swiss Autobahn around Lucerne, so I took the next exit and wound my way back to the shop. It was a weekend, so nobody was there. But outside there were two original examples, one white and one blue, perhaps in for service, or restoration. Inside there was one on the lift and maybe another, my memory is not clear on that. This being in the days before iPhone cameras, I only have the memory.
(This reminds me of visiting a body shop in the area of St. Gallen, and in the process of chatting with the owner about the American muscle cars he was restoring, I learned that he had several DeTomasos in the celler. There were 2 Panteras and 2 big Pantera era coupes (I forget the model name, but they had, IIRC, the same tail light assys.). Also, the images of that day exist only in my mind…
A very enjoyable and well done entry, Paul.