Curbside Classic: 1956 OSCA 750S Barchetta by Morelli – Masterly Miniature Maserati

I wasn’t kidding when I called this “Thoroughbred Week,” was I? It’s just that they come in all shapes and sizes. Shape-wise, this one is pretty extreme – the Morelli bodywork on this saucer-like OSCA is almost extraterrestrial. In terms of size, we’re talking knee-high and just 750ccs. The very definition of short and sweet, but pretty potent along with it.

This is the first OSCA that I think I’ve ever seen and we’ve not had a CC post about this marque yet, so a little bit of historical background might not be amiss. In 1937, the Maserati brothers (Bindo (1883-1980), Ettore (1894-1990) and Ernesto (1898-1975) sold their company to Adolfo Orsi, but stayed on as the firm’s engineering team for a ten-year contract.

In December 1947, the brothers left their eponymous firm and founded the Officine Specializzate Costruzione Automobili in their hometown of Bologna (Orsi had moved the Maserati factory to Modena in 1940). The timing was fortuitous, as Italian motoring was about to enter a golden age, allowing the Maserati brothers to have a second chance at racing success.

OSCA’s first chassis was the MT4, launched in 1948 with a 1.1 litre DOHC 4-cyl. providing 72hp. This little four was subsequently enlarged to 1.3, 1.4 and 1.5 litres through to the mid-‘50s. Most were bodied as lightweight open racers, like the Morelli above (bottom left), but some received more elaborate closed bodies from the likes of Vignale (top left) or Frua (bottom right). They were extremely successful in European and American racing events throughout the ‘50s thanks to their terrific power-to-weight ratio and reliability. OSCA also had a stab at Formula 1 (with far less tangible results) with a 4.5 litre V12, one of which was bodied as a coupé by Zagato (top right).

Covering all bases, the Maserati brothers also developed a 2-litre 6-cyl. engine in the mid-‘50s, then turned their attention to the lower displacement class. This called for a new chassis, both lower and slightly wider, to accommodate a new family of DOHC 4-cyl. engines. The Tipo S was born in 1956, initially at 750cc but soon also available in 950cc, 1100cc, 1500cc and 2000cc variants. The last Tipo S chassis were produced in 1960.

In 1957, OSCA teamed up with Fiat to develop a new twin-cam 1.5 litre engine, leading to the Fiat-OSCA 1500S that debuted in 1959. Fiat’s version of the engine was de-tuned to 80hp and clad by Pininfarina, though a few, such as this 1959 Bertone coupé (top left) wore sexy one-off coachwork. OSCA got a different version of the same engine for their own use, which led in 1960 to the 1600 GT. Those were designed mostly for road use in their tamer versions, with a live rear axle and 105hp, but there were twin-carb variants that produced 120 to 140hp and had a more sophisticated IRS. The OSCA 1600 GT was the darling of Italian carrozzerie, with specials made by the likes of Savio (top right), Boneschi (middle right) and Touring (bottom left). Zagato (middle left) provided lightweight bodies for performance-oriented models, while Fissore (bottom right) did what could be termed as the standard coupé.

Alas, the firm’s financial health, always on the tenuous side, was taking a turn for the worse by the early ‘60s. The brothers Maserati, now in their sixties themselves, were eager to reduce their workload and thus sold most of their OSCA shares to motorcycle and aircraft maker Agusta in 1963.

A final model, based on the Fiat 850, was attempted in 1964, but the looks of the car, especially the Touring Spider, failed to impress. Another prototype with a Zagato body and a 1.7 litre Ford V4 was shown in 1965, still without issue. The OSCA works closed down the following year.

Now that we have our bearings, let’s take a better look at our tiny 750cc spacecraft.

This car was part of the very first batch of Tipo S racers made in early 1956. Two chassis (#751 and #752) received an almost identical Morelli body and were entered at the Mille Miglia in April. Chassis 751 was driven by Louis Chiron and did not finish the race due to clutch trouble, whereas our feature car, piloted by veteran driver Ovidio Capelli, finished the race in 105th place – but won the 750cc class.

The little engine, with its 72hp, is more than capable of propelling this 450kg barchetta north of 180kph (110mph) – a testament to both OSCA’s engineering prowess and the coachbuilder’s mastery of both aluminium panel beating and aerodynamics.

Said coachbuilder is not the most famous of the bunch, by any means, but served OSCA very well throughout the ‘50s. The Morelli brothers were specialists in lightweight racer bodies. In fact, most of their output was OSCAs, though they did occasionally practice their art on other Italian chassis, such as Ermini, Fiat, Stanguellini and even one Ferrari.

No A/C in this convertible, for once! The tubular structure is barely covered by the body. Ah! those immodest Italians, always showing off their tubes…

All told, OSCA built 19 chassis of this variant of the Tipo S, which some call 750S and others (including the OSCA Owner’s Club) call S-187, this number indicating the centimetric displacement per cylinder, à la Ferrari.

One can only admire the commitment of the owner, who drives this minuscule and virtually unique exotic gem on the Crown-infested streets of the Japanese capital. Just a set of small indicators discreetly tucked into the grille and under the tail, a rearview mirror and a license plate, and you can Mille-Miglia your way through Tokyo traffic.

Until I saw this car a few weeks ago, I had never given much thought about OSCA. Having now taken a good look at one – both at rest and in-motion, heard its melodious growl and read up a bit on the marque’s short but outstanding history, you can count me as a tifoso.

Here’s to many more miglia in the Land of the Rising Sun, OSCA-san.