Maserati, under the stewardship of Alejandro de Tomaso, introduced the Biturbo line in 1981 with the intention of increasing the brand’s production volume tenfold. Trading on the prestige of the Maserati name and offering a much lower price of entry to the brand, the Biturbo was a promising and modern design that unfortunately suffered from myriad quality and reliability issues. Maserati sales plummeted and with what little capital they had, Maserati was forced to offer countless permutations of the same basic car. The Shamal was the most exciting.
The manner in which de Tomaso kept spinning off new Maseratis from the existing Biturbo was more superficially reminiscent of a struggling independent automaker like Studebaker or American Motors than it was of Chrysler and its K-based family. As the 1980s drew to a close and Maserati continued to haemorrhage cash, the need for new product became increasingly dire and the funds to do so became increasingly scarce.
The Biturbo line had launched as a sedan, coupe, and the two-seat convertible Spyder, the latter of which was designed and assembled by Zagato. Alas, every subsequent Biturbo-based model, despite the best efforts of designer Marcelo Gandini, still looked very much like a Biturbo. To make the Maserati Karif, a roof was added to the shorter and stiffer Spyder body. The 222, 422 and Spyder i’90 were ostensibly “second-generation” Biturbos but looked nearly identical.
Even when Maserati had the money or inclination to develop new sheetmetal, the end result still looked like a Biturbo. The Maserati 228 was longer and wider than the Biturbo and shared no body panels but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it.
Unsurprisingly for a car that offered the first production twin-turbocharged engine, the Biturbo family was available in numerous high-performance editions. The most overtly sporty model lines were the 1992 Ghibli and this, the 1990 Shamal, the last model developed under de Tomaso’s ownership of the company.
Where the Ghibli had a subtly updated version of the Biturbo coupe body, the Shamal looked aggressive with its bulging fenders and three headlamps on each side, including then-novel projecter headlights. There were also sharply angled rear wheelarches, a Gandini design cue also seen on the Lamborghin Countach. An unusual touch was a spoiler below the windshield, installed not for performance reasons but to aid the wipers.
Like the Karif, the Shamal used the shorter, 94.5-inch wheelbase of the Biturbo Spyder; doors, interior and basic body structure were all reused. This body was used as the structure was stiffer; this was aided by a rollbar disguised as a dark gray, AMC Concord AMX-esque targa band.
Unlike the Karif, the Shamal had a second row of seats but there was very little legroom due to the short wheelbase.
Where the Ghibli had a version of the Biturbo’s twin-turbo V6, the Shamal upped the ante with a twin-turbocharged 3.2 V8 with double overhead cams, four valves and fuel injection. Up until then, twin-turbo V8 engines had been the sole domain of Ferrari.
Maserati had named the Shamal for a violent desert gust that blows over Iraq and the Persian Gulf states. That name seemed appropriate for a car that roared to 60mph in 5.3 seconds thanks to its boosted V8 and 3124-pound curb weight. The AM 479 engine was derived from the existing Biturbo’s six and produced 326 hp at 6000 rpm and 320 ft-lbs of torque at a low 2800 rpm and with a top speed of 170 mph. Power was sent to the rear wheels via a Getrag 560G six-speed manual, novel at the time and the same transmission used in the BMW 8-Series.
The Shamal wasn’t some simplistic, Italian muscle car, a Biturbo with a bigger engine under the hood. Mechanical tweaks outside of the engine bay were abundant, with the aim of enhancing the cars grip and handling. Koni electronic shock absorbers were used, the driver able to select from one of four driving modes. The differential, called Ranger, had a series of central gears surrounded by six satellite helical gears. All the gears worked on a common axle and all available power could be transferred to just one halfshaft. Then there was Meccanica Attiva, an interactive lever system which worked to keep the lower suspension arm and steering arm parallel at all times. It was some comprehensive performance hardware that elevated the Shamal above lesser Maseratis.
You might think the Shamal was somewhat of a mongrel, a hastily renovated Biturbo masquerading as a performance flagship. Be that as it may, the Shamal was a terrific driver’s car. The sonorous twin-turbo V8 had plenty of low-end torque and was a screamer higher in the rev range. The Shamal steered with alacrity and rode with surprising compliance. Its handling was precise and poised, aided by the trick electronics.
The interior may have looked dated – which it was, being reused from the Biturbo – but Maserati wrapped almost every surface in buttery soft leather including the center console; suede was used for the headliner. Also upholstered in fine leather were the grippy Recaro bucket seats, regarded as being both sublimely comfortable and reassuringly supportive. Sure, they didn’t really match the warm, burled wood-lined Biturbo cabin but they were an appropriate addition for a bona fide performance Maserati.
The Shamal may have lacked the beauty of past Maseratis like the Bora and the Khamsin but it was a resolutely capable performance flagship for the brand. Maserati’s US dealers were eager to get their hands on it or, for that matter, any new product that would have arrested the torrid decline of their sales. From a height of 2023 sales in 1984, Maserati scampered out the door after selling just 240 units in the US in 1990. North American buyers were never to feel this hot desert gust. And back home in Italy, the winds were changing for Maserati: de Tomaso sold 50% of his stake to Fiat in 1990 and the rest in 1993.
Despite the sale to Fiat (and later sale of part of the brand to Ferrari), the Maserati brand languished throughout the first half of the 1990s with little new product. There would be one final Biturbo derivative, the 1994 Quattroporte. This fourth generation of Maserati’s flagship sedan line also offered the twin-turbo V8 previously exclusive to the Shamal.
As for the Shamal, it was withdrawn from price lists in 1996. Over six years, just 369 were produced. That I was able to find one to photograph in Australia was some kind of fluke – lord only knows how many were actually sold here.
Some may draw parallels between the Biturbo era of the 1980s and 1990s and today’s Maserati. It’s true the Modenese marque is chasing volume as it did then. It’s also true their reliability, by many accounts, seems to be at the bottom of the luxury car barrel. But, in a sign of solid progress, Maserati reliability doesn’t appear to be catastrophically bad. Fiat and Chrysler engineering and componentry may actually be helping them.
Today’s Maserati also has the money to visually differentiate its products. De Tomaso-era Maserati was much more strapped for cash but they were able to pull together the Shamal, by far the most aggressive-looking, dynamic and exciting Maserati ever spun off from the Biturbo platform.
Photographed at Cars & Coffee in Jindalee, Queensland, Australia on 21 July, 2018.
CC Capsule: 1999 Maserati 3200 GT – The Trident’s Return To Form
Curbside Classic: 1986 Maserati Biturbo Spyder – Do You Feel Lucky?
Curbside Classic: Maserati Kyalami – Time To Revisit My Teenage Dream Garage
Nice article – I can remember this period in Maserati’s history – I thought they should have named the Bitubo the “Kaboom” – I don’t think I ever saw one running, but up on jacks or off on the shoulder usually listing to one side, sometimes with half-shaft or something else sticking out from underneath….
A rare find! I for some reason find myself drawn to all offspring of the Biturbo line and the Shamal has always been one of the most special. Then again I do love me that Quattroporte version as well from the end of the line, maybe it’s Gandini’s style that I like… For such a small company to keep introducing more and more versions of the same basic architecture in such volume was a joy to watch and read about over those years.
The styling on the original Biturbo just “worked”, like an edgier BMW E30, and all successive efforts based on that did the trick for me, being a big fan of 80’s blockishness in general.
The interiors sometimes were a bit much but never less than absolutely opulent, although that center console armrest kind of looks like someone left their North Face puffy jacket in the car, that bit hasn’t aged as well. Eh, I’d live with it I suppose…
Nice writeup William. I’ve got a curbside Zagato and Ghibli, but haven’t found the enthusiasm to bring them to CC.
I’m really in two minds about this styling period for Maserati. In one sense, it returned them to the mid to late 1950s in having a three-box shape (albeit svelte) along the lines of some A6 models, 3500 and first Quattroporte. This was effectively the start of their roadcar period, an element of their heritage that is overshadowed by the wedgy Mistral, first Ghibli and Indy – from which they presently derive their general configuration.
On the other hand, these are such a bland body. When they were first shown, my mind immediately labelled them as just a fancier-looking E21 BMW. They still seem to have their following based on the nameplate, and what’s sitting under the hood. They sit in that hallowed place where reliability is forgiven against visceral performance.
It is quite the find, a long way from home. I know there is (or was) at least one other in Aus, because it raced in the Bathurst 12-hour endurance race for production cars in ’94. It was whoppingly fast, well outpacing the M3’s and Porsches, and led the whole race until very close to the end, when something fairly minor gave way. Poor thing ended up coming in 8th, behind a Toyota MR2 in 4th and an EB Falcon XR6 in 6th. For shame!
I should add, the only part I remembered was the entry of it and that it was super-quick (the rest I just looked up now), for who on earth watches a whole 12-hour race? That said, the field was vastly more interesting to me than the Supercars, with Corolla Gti’s, Suzuki Gti’s,Lancer Gsr’s, not to mention factory Citroen BX and Nissan Pintara TrX (no, really!) and I did watch a few hours of the event. The Shamal sounded quite special.
Looked like a kit car, though. Not a Maser high point.
I’ve seen one down here in Victoria too, at Motorclassica in 2014.
The 12 Hour races in the production car era had something a bit more special in my opinion than the current GT3 ones.
This one is new to me. I vividly recall looking at a couple of Biturbos at a dealer in 1984. The Italian concept of luxury/sport was completely different from the German/Swedish approach that was taking over the U.S. market then.
After the Biturbo bombed I stopped paying attention. I actually prefer the styling of the Biturbo to this one. But a twin turbo V8 would be a blast – if a high maintenance one.
The centerfold poster of that red Shamal was hanging of the bedroom wall in my dormitory when I was studying automotive mechanical engineering back home in Eastern Europe. Other posters were of BMW Nazca M12, Bugatti EB110 Super Sport, Ferrari 456. All were courtesy of Russian newspaper Auto-Review.
Is it just me, or does that Quattroporte have hints of Ford Tempo around the C pillar? I really like the Shamal. The wide fenders make the car look completely different than the narrow-body Biturbos which always seemed awkwardly proportioned and rather dull looking to me.
Box flares always help!
Looks too much like a dually, or a Renault R5 Turbo 2. In other words, it looks dumb.
The saying that “everything old is new again” really seems to be hitting Maserati. The BiTurbo variants all looked so similar, even though they may not be mechanically the same, but it was hard to tell the players apart without a scorecard. Today, other than the obvious difference in the shape of the Levante SUV, the other models are too similar to be able to tell one from another. The Ghibli looks so much a 7/8ths version of the Quattroporte that I have to see badging to tell the difference. I can see that working when paying $20-30K for a car, but when a Ghibli starts at $75K and the Quattroporte a over $100K, it seems that they could style them with a few more distinct styling cues. At least make the more expensive one have something to allow a callout that the owner paid more for it. That seems to be the point of marketing, right?
What do you think of the Levante? My opinion is that it looks way too boring, could easily be a Nissan Rogue or Chevy Equinox or something at less half the price. For some reason I think the Alfa Stelvio is much more interesting to look at, even though they are on the same general platform.
Maybe it’s just because I see a Levante regularly that someone in the area bought (or leased), they seem to have chosen either an entry level or maybe mid-range at most in black, it just looks kind of underwhelming with no sense of occasion.
I had arranged a test drive of Biturbo when they went on sale in the United States. The salesman had to drive Biturbo out of the forecourt to the designated site for my turn to drive.
As he floored the throttle, I felt a very loud grating noise coming from the engine then a massive thump. After coasting to stop, we looked at the engine and saw the right-side cylinder head cracked open and its carcass spilling out to the ground.
I told the salesman that I decided against buying Biturbo…for good.
Is there any truth to claims the Biturbo and related derivatives made use of a platform derived from the De Tomasto Deuville / Longchamp?
It is unfortunate that De Tomaso was unwilling to acquire the rights to the 4-litre Maserati V8 that was developed under CItroen, along with the Biturbo not featuring an entry-level 130-150 hp 2.0-2.5 V6 naturally aspirated variants.
In terms of styling (if not much else) the Biturbo and related models had potential via the later Biturbos, Shamal, 2nd gen Ghibli and (rear-end aside) Quattroporte IV. Not a fan of later styling on Maseratis post-3200 GT.
The Gandini rear wheel arch treatment looks horrible applied to this type of car; it ruins the overall appearance. For whatever reason, this car reminds me of the E30 BMW 3-series, with the Shamal as the M3 equivalent.
Stunning car and great article.
A trip back in time, and a very well done one at that. But I’m afraid the whole Biturbo era was a bit lost on me, as I fund the first one too much of an abrupt transition and looking too much like the BMW 3 series. And I was developing a serious antipathy to DeTomaso.
But I respect the limitations the company was working under at the time, and it was certainly a somewhat ballsy move tn the first place. It did keep the lights on during a difficult time, if only barely so. But I was glad to stop reading about another permutation of the same basic body, although as you so well pointed out, these later cars had a lot going for them in terms of performance and a well appointed interior.
My memory banks have been refreshed.
The Anglo-French progressive rock band Gong (mostly noted for their excellent Radio Gnome Invisible album trilogy) released an album called Shamal in 1976.
“Shamal” – sounds like an early-90s hip-hop/R&B artist
In all honestly, I kind of lost track of all the Biturbos after the originals. I’ll be honest, Maseratis of any era just have never done it for me. They may have competitive performance and luxury, but their only appealing quality to me is that they are less common. Despite this, Maserati has capitalized on this too much, making their current models tacky mockeries, fit for the shadiest of businessmen and the most spray tanned of reality TV stars (I know I’m being over critical but it’s just the impression I get).
On a related note, anyone else see that the newest high-performance model of the Levante is called “Trofeo”? Reminiscent of the Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo 🙂
Fascinating, well-researched piece, Will – thank you!
For what it’s worth, “BiTurbo” always sounded so much meaner and badder than the actual car. Just say it with me: Maserati BI-TURBO. And then you see it what it actually looks like.
My 50 Cents: the five speed gearbox we bought from the many scrapped bi-turbos is an excellent gearbox for use in a classic rally car like a RWD Ford Escort, Opel Manta or Fiat 131 Abarth.
The only positive thing I can say about this premium Italian Ford Taunus / Cortina !
Mmmmmmmm…. Fiat 131 Abarth…. tasty
This Italian cavaliere which has a wonderful youtube channel, made a review of the Biturbo:
And Don… going down the rabbit hole there’s a 131 Abarth in there.