Curbside Musings: Maserati and Me

Let me start by saying that I’ve never owned a Maserati; in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever sat in one, even if only at a car show. But seeing this Quattroporte parked at Costco a few months ago stirred all kinds of memories. It all started in Venice, in 1964 …

In  the summer of 1964 our family traveled around Europe in our European delivery Volvo 122S station wagon, previously shown here. Since even before my first visit to Europe in 1960, I was obsessed with cars and in particular die-cast “toy” cars. I already had a decent collection of Matchbox, Dinky Toys and Corgi’s before we arrived in the UK in January 1964, and my collection had grown over the six months before we got to the Continent. Once in France, and later Italy, I was overwhelmed by the availability of exotic brands of both the toy makers (French Dinky, Norev, Solido, Mercury and others) and the cars themselves (Ferrari, Porsche, Alfa Romeo) which I’d rarely seen in England. At the time, my dad smoked, so we regularly went into the small tobacconist stores, or tabacchi (seen above in a modern photo from the ‘Net) which also sold stamps, phone tokens, postcards, newspapers and postcards. These were items my parents seemed to always need, but for me, the draw of these shops was the die cast cars always on display. And what I wanted was a die cast Ferrari, red of course. Finally, in Venice, my mom gave in to my whining.

But what she bought me wasn’t a Ferrari. It was Italian, it was red, and exotic, and made by a brand I’d never heard of (at least in the context of toy cars), Mercury. It was a Maserati 3500GT. I still have it, a bit worse for wear. In fact, I took this photo just for this post, having dug it out from a box in the basement after seeing the Costco Ghibli. Under the hood is what looks like the longest straight six in history, though with its twin-spark head, maybe it’s to scale. Unlike Paul Niedermayer, who has revealed his appreciation of the 3500GT here and here, I never warmed to it and always thought of it as “not a Ferrari”.

Over the next few years, I’m not sure if I got any more diecast Maserati’s, though quite a few Ferrari’s joined my collection. But despite the emergence of Lamborghini, Maserati suddenly seemed less in Ferrari’s shadow with cars like the Mistral, and Ghibli. More about the Mistral soon, but the AM115 Ghibli, with its V8 and long, low, and wide stance, finally elevated Maserati up to the level of Ferrari and almost up there with Lamborghini. Since the first 350 and 400GT’s, and then the Miura, Lamborghini was still unchallenged for the top step of the podium in my eyes. But as an American, there was something special to me about the fact that the Ghibli had a V8.

Not the greatest photo, but I took this black and white picture of a Ghibli at an outdoor car show in the early seventies.

And because we can never have enough pictures of Ghibli’s, here’s another shot, from Wikipedia, in Italian red.

After the Ghibli, to me Maserati started its decline. The angular style of the Ghibli’s front engined successor, the Khamsin, looked awkward to me, and the mid-engined Bora, was well, boring compared to a Miura or Ferrari BB. With the BiTurbo, I didn’t think things could get any worse. But they did.

I’ve never been a fan of the Citroen SM, but at least Citroen and Maserati brought some interesting technology to their partnership. Chrysler and Maserati? Not so much. In my long Silicon Valley career, I only worked for one startup. The founder drove one of these. Nice guy, and very sharp, but I didn’t stay there long. Maybe it was the car.

Fast forward a few decades, and I wasn’t really paying much attention to exotic cars. I was vaguely aware of some relationship between the former rivals Ferrari and Maserati. I knew Fiat was in there somewhere too. But suddenly I started seeing new Maserati’s on the streets again.

First some Coupes and Spyders, but then the four door sedan somewhat incongruously named Ghibli. To me the Ghibli will remain a front engined V8 GT, so I’m glad Maserati still uses the Quattroporte name on at least one four door sedan. Though to be honest, I just assumed the Costco car was a Ghibli until i checked some photo’s and realized it had the longer wheelbase and rear quarter window of the Quattroporte.

And even considering where I live, these were not just occasional sightings in upscale neighborhoods or on Sand Hill Rd near the VC headquarters. I think I finally realized the Ghibli was starting to eclipse the E Class or 5 Series as a Silicon Valley status symbol when I saw a realtor’s Ghibli parked in the driveway at a residential Open House. Over 3000 Ghibli’s were sold in the US in 2016 and over 5000 in 2017 before sales dropped. Well over 100K Ghibli’s have been sold worldwide in less than a decade. Does that make it a success, or has the volume devalued the brand? Probably irrelevant …

By then, Maserati even had an SUV! The Levante has gained some fame as the car of West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. On a recent cross country ski trip, I saw two Levante’s in short order on snow-covered roads in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

I haven’t been able to find recent Maserati sales figures, but according to a recent Automotive News article, Maserati’s “Brand Loyalty” is way up. Slightly more than Tesla, but below Genesis.

I mentioned earlier that I would revisit the Mistral. Here is picture I found online, and it was in fact recently covered by Paul here. But if I hadn’t for once forgotten my phone on a recent trip to the grocery store, I could be showing my own pictures of a Mistral. For parked in a stall at my local supermarket, tucked among Tacoma’s and F150’s and Priuses and CRV’s, was a red Mistral coupe just like the one in the photo above. Clean but not concours-perfect, stunning alloy wire wheels, skinny little 185 or 205 section tires – it looked petite and so out of place. And absolutely gorgeous.

I’ll wrap up with another shot of my 1/43rd scale 3500GT, taken using portrait mode on my iPhone. After seeing that blue Quattroporte at Costco six months ago, these memories and thoughts came slowly bubbling up. When I saw the Mistral at the market, I knew I had to write them up. Never a Maserati owner, and not really a fan or even a follower, but it’s a brand that has left its mark on me.