Car Show Classic: 1990-96 Maserati Shamal – The Wildest Biturbo

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.

First-generation Biturbos

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.

(clockwise from top) 422, Spyder i ’90, Karif, 222

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.

Shamal (top), Ghibli (bottom)

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.

Photo courtesy of Tim Bomford

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.

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