MOTOR MOUTH: Fast lane to mediocrity

MOTOR MOUTH: Fast lane to mediocrity - Before The Name of the Rose made him famous, Umberto Eco used to run a literary-philosophical seminar at Bologna University. His speciality was interrogating everyday objects. I have a little fantasy about this maste

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Before The Name of the Rose made him famous, Umberto Eco used to run a literary-philosophical seminar at Bologna University. His speciality was interrogating everyday objects. I have a little fantasy about this master of the enlightened insight struggling, even under the influence of alcohol and tobacco, to extract any worthwhile meaning from the semiological (or 'brand') proposition of Maserati.

But if academics can't cope, car nuts can. Rich Taylor, the US authority on sports cars, explained the company's predicament perfectly: 'Jaguar was always the cheap car that could be legitimately compared to the high-priced competition; Maserati is the expensive car to compare unfavourably with Jaguars.' Hmmm.

The root of the problem is that Maserati, founded by five brothers in 1926, never actually wanted to make road cars. The commitment was to racers and was such that by 1937 two of the brothers had been killed in action and the survivors sold out to the Orsi conglomerate. Ten years later the brothers had done their earn-out and, disenchanted, returned to racing cars with OSCA (Officine Specializate Costruzione Automobili Fratelli Maserati), leaving the Maserati brand behind them. Perversely, Maserati then began making racing cars itself, the most successful of which was the magnificent 250F of 1954, engineered by Gioacchino Colombo, who had earlier made the reputations of Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari. Nearly 40 of these handsome Formula One cars were produced for privateers, including a certain Stirling Moss, who won Grand Prix in them.

Later in the '70s, the greatest car designer of recent years, Giorgetto Giugiaro, did some of his best work for Maserati - bold, clean shapes like the Bora. But, despite all these interesting bloodlines, a happy image refused to stick.

The problem was, the wrong sort of people bought them. In fact, the wrong sort of people owned the company. Although it is a truism of marketing that image long survives any change in the reality that gave rise to it, by the time a dodgy Argentinian called Alejandro de Tomaso acquired Maserati in the '70s, much of the image capital built up in the'50s had been squandered.

Under de Tomaso, Maserati struggled a dreadful thing called the Biturbo into production: the sort of car chosen by men who like to wear woven shoes and have a disinclination to do up buttons. An example I tried in 1984 was probably the worst car I have ever driven.

Ferrari, itself owned by Fiat, now owns Maserati, so at least the marketing proposition is clear: Maserati is more wiggle-your-bottom than Alfa-Romeo, but less so than Ferrari.

Sadly, propositions defined in the negative rarely work. I have an unconditional adoration of all things Italian, from the Palazzo del Te to mostarda di Cremona, so I desperately wanted to love something called a tre mille due cento gran turismo. Alas, it was difficult. The Maserati 3200GT has got, as J Mays, Ford's influential vice-president of design, said to me, interesting rear lights ... After that, you struggle for something positive to say.

Giugiaro has done a fair job on the styling - it has a certain butch elegance - but lacks finesse or novelty, although it has got four seats.

Whether you want to sit in them for any length of time is another question.

In fact, you sit on them, which is unsettling in a car capable of going so very fast.

The discomforts do not stop there. Many sports cars have poor rear vision but the 3200GT is unique in having poor forward vision as well. This handicap makes a travesty of 'high performance'. If you are too visually ill-informed to know whether it is safe to overtake, you are better off staying at home.

I don't want to go on, but the steering is too light and lacks self-centring, characteristics that may suit the wrong type of person but are not productive of confidence in the right sort. The auto in the car I drove was ill-adapted to the violent characteristics of the engine: you press and wait and then it's a case of 'Oh my god!'. Stopping and the scary effects of going forward are made worse by the brake and accelerator pedals being much too close together. Hilariously for a pounds 70,000 car, the unsuppressed electric mirrors interfered with the radio.

So, I'm as perplexed as Umberto Eco might have been, although the clarity of Rich Taylor's judgment is ever more impressive. Maserati compares unfavourably with Jaguar.

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