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Love and Rockets

That day has come after a long, stop-and-go history. Brothers Alfieri, Ettore, and Ernesto Maserati founded Maserati in Bologna in 1914. Looking for ways to improve the reliability of engines, Alfieri invented a new spark plug that used mica as insulation. Many innovations followed, from the way the brothers constructed the rear ends of their racecars to adapt to different tracks, to their 16-cylinder racing engine, to the famous “Birdcage” design—200 steel tubes welded together, which made for a chassis that was extremely rigid yet light.

Sales from the spark plug provided revenue as the brothers modified and repaired racecars before eventually building one of their own in 1926. Called the Tipo 26, it won the first race it entered. From there, Maserati forged a racing legacy that still resonates today, with its first world record in 1929 and dominance in the golden age of auto racing in Europe. Driving a Maserati, Wilbur Shaw won the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and 1940, and Maserati grabbed the F/1 championship in 1954 and 1957, with Juan Manuel Fangio, one of the all-time great drivers, behind the wheel.

The company started selling road cars in 1947, and it focused on that end of the business completely after it pulled out of racing in 1957. But while Maserati took its cars out of the race, it did not take the race out of its cars. Enthusiasts say the company’s devotion to racing can be seen—and felt and heard—in every corner taken faster than drivers think they should. Magnon’s 1975 Khamsin, for example, remains a joy to drive nearly 40 years after it was made because Maserati learned from its racecars to put the engine tight against the firewall to achieve the proper balance between raw power and delicate control. 

Geoff Sanderson, a Maserati collector in Tennessee, sees a direct line from the ingenuity that propelled Maseratis to victory to the engineering that makes it possible for his 17-foot-long Quattroporte to perform like a sports car with the comfort of a sedan on Tail of the Dragon, an 11-mile stretch of highway at the Tennessee and North Carolina border with 318 curves. “Muscle cars have always been stoplight-to-stoplight, drag strip–type things,” he says. “But life is not a straight line.”
The Maserati brothers sold the company in 1937 to Adolfo and Omar Orsi, and it has changed hands several times since then. The company endured a down period from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, and Maserati abandoned the American market from 1989 to 2001. But Maserati, now owned by Fiat, has emerged to face its next 100 years as healthy as it has ever been. 

The company rolled out the Quattroporte VI to favorable reviews last year and plans to start selling its first SUV next year. Drew Alcazar, CEO of Russo and Steele Collector Automobile Auctions, says strong new releases bring attention to vintage models,  “illuminating things they’ve done in the past.” Maserati expects to sell 35,000 cars this year and is aiming for 75,000 by 2018—figures unthinkable just a few years ago. Still, that is a small number relative to most marques, and Maserati will never be a mass-production machine.

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