Curbside Classic: 1986 Maserati Biturbo Spyder – Do You Feel Lucky?

(first posted 5/3/12)   Oh, what could have been. Maserati had been producing very fast, very expensive sports cars for many years by the time the Biturbo debuted in late 1981. It was the first Maserati built in serious numbers, meant to compete in the newly-emerging sport sedan market that was being dominated by the E30 BMW. It was very contemporary and looked good on paper, but woe to the Yuppie plunking down his S&L money on one of these cars.

Maserati had a kind of roller coaster ride between the late 1960s and early 1980s. Known for building beautiful exotics like the Mistral and Ghibli, they were purchased by Citroen in 1968 and what had been a very small, near boutique operation expanded under Citroen’s (and by association Michelin’s) rule. Don’t get me wrong, they were never going to be GM, but there was still a substantial production and R&D bump. Among all these changes came the Merak (above) and Bora, which shared the hydropneumatic suspension with the far-out Citroen SM (Ate Up With Motor’s excellent piece on the SM is here).

It didn’t last. Gas Crises I and II beat up Maserati sales pretty bad. It was decided to go in a new direction. The Biturbo was their choice for a new beginning. The Biturbo was unlike any Maserati that came before. It was intended to be a much more mass-produced vehicle. While it was not as beautiful as say, a 1964 Mistral, it was handsome in its own way.

The Biturbo was introduced on December 14, 1981, the 67th anniversary of Maserati’s founding. Initially available only as a two-door coupe, the first cars came off the line in December of 1981. Demand was high, and two different factories had a hand in making Biturbos: the Innocenti facility in Milan, and the Maserati factory in Modena. Innocenti made the unit bodies and did painting and assembly, while Maserati built the engines and suspension components.

Early Biturbos were powered by a twin turbo 1996cc (2.0L) V6 with a single dual-barrel Weber carburetor that produced 180 hp at 6000 rpm in European form. In 1983 a four door Biturbo was added to the lineup with a longer 100″ wheelbase. They became available in the United States for the 1984 model year, with a larger 2491cc (2.5L) version of the V6 and a five speed manual; an automatic transmission became available in 1985. Although much less expensive than Maseratis of the past, these were not cheap cars, at about $27,000, just shy of $60,000 in 2012 dollars.

Also in 1984, a Spyder version appeared. Introduced at the 1984 Turin Motor Show, the Spyder was built by Zagato, who placed their logo on the front fenders. Strictly a two seater, it rode a shorter 94″ wheelbase.

Trouble was brewing, however. While the car was praised for its performance, luxurious interior and fine handling, owners had a somewhat different experience as time passed. The engine would develop leaks, and much like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dam, once one was plugged, another was likely to develop in a different spot.

When combined with a small (and frequently indifferent) North American dealer network, myriad wiring and electronic issues, and hit-or-miss assembly quality, these cars’ reputation went steadily downhill. While it was a mainstream Maserati, it was still an exotic, and if not serviced regularly, owners found themselves in big trouble in no time at all. Even vigilant maintenance would not completely keep trouble away.

Maserati did attempt to correct the Biturbo’s issues. The 1986 Biturbo i added Magneti-Marelli electronic fuel injection and electronic ignition. Power increased to 188 hp at 6000 rpm. Late in ’86 a sportier Biturbo Si (Capsule here) debuted, with blacked-out exterior trim, ground effects, a rear spoiler and 220 hp at 6350 rpm (European figures).

Whether the updated Biturbo was a better car was immaterial at that point, as many burned Biturbo owners likely moved on to 325i ownership by that time. The name ‘Biturbo’ in the mid-to-late 1980s was nearly as bad as ‘Vega’ was in the Seventies, and owners, in North America at least, went elsewhere. Maserati attempted damage control by renaming a further refined Biturbo the Maserati 420 after 1987.

To give the Biturbo some credit, they did have some beautiful interiors. The leather was extremely luxurious, genuine wood trim was in abundance, and the cool analog clock in the middle of the instrument panel was a classy touch. But all that could not save the surfeit of mechanical maladies these cars had. I imagine Maserati’s shift from 200-300 cars a year to 30,000-40,000 was a huge adjustment too. And after all, it is an Italian car!

I was not expecting to stumble upon a Biturbo. I actually saw one in the small Northern Illinois town of Lanark, probably fifteen years ago. It was a black coupe sitting in a driveway on the main drag. I thought at the time this was the most unlikely place to find a Biturbo, in a sleepy farming community. Apparently lightning does sometimes strike twice. I was on the way into Clinton for lunch. As I was passing through the river town of Port Byron, I spied our featured CC. At first, I was sure this was a late Eighties E30 BMW convertible, but as I got closer I saw the wheelbase was way too short. Whoa, it’s a Biturbo!

This may well be the nicest Biturbo left in the US. According to the information sheet, the convertible top was installed in 2011 and it has 61,400 miles on it. The interior, while somewhat worn, was in decent shape. I had a hard time getting interior pictures, as giant ‘For Sale’ signs were on BOTH sides of the car. I fear for any car guy who does not know about the Biturbo engine’s delicacy, and just sees a cool-looking, rare Italian convertible. True, by 1986 some of the bugs had been worked out, but can you imagine trying to find parts, or someone to work on this car? In Northwestern Illinois?

While the Biturbo/420/430 was pretty much done in North America by 1988-89, Maserati continued to refine – and build -the Biturbo. In fact, the same basic car lasted all the way to 1994. While some do not care for the angular 1980s styling, I do find these cars attractive.

From 1992 to 1997, the Ghibli II (a ’96 is shown above) and Khamsin utilized the same basic body structure as the Biturbo. This is a pretty mean-looking set of wheels. I have no idea what powered these last of the line Biturbo varieties, but I like the way they look, too.

Maserati had a huge opportunity with the Biturbo. If it had been better assembled and powered by a more robust powerplant, who knows what could have happened? Could a 2012 Biturbo have been a BMW 3-Series beater, in an alternate universe? Don’t cry for Maserati though. The current lineup is pretty sexy, and they have found their way back into the exotic class, maybe where they should have stayed all along.