‘Eldorado’ Was Stirling Moss’ Insane 217 MPH Ice Cream Billboard
I can only imagine that when growing up as a motorsport-obsessed kid in 1950s America, it was far easier to recognize your favorite racing car in a flash, as its sponsor-laden skin flew past your young eyes.
In Europe, we had only single colors to distinguish our ‘hero’ cars, and trust me: as a young boy that was often taken to vintage race meets at Silverstone throughout the ’80s, it took me a long time to distinguish a Ferrari 625 from a Maserati 250F. I could imagine the problems my father’s generation would have had carspotting—with black and white TVs to boot. In person, however, it was very much a case of simply: liking the green ones for Britain, the red ones for Italy, or silver cars for Germany.
This wasn’t the case in America. Going back to the early ’50s, racing cars were a blank canvas on which to personalize, with any number of stickers, slogans, and sponsors. Plus, the ever more elaborate hand-painted license plates—all helping to make them all totally individual. It was a far cry from the plain colours of European racing.
There were “crossdressers”, though, and that is where this car comes in. Once you’ve laid eyes on the “Eldorado Ice Cream” Maserati Tipo 420/M/58, I think you’ll agree that it’s one of the factory’s most recognisable cars.
Rather than being dressed in its usual sharp, red Italian suit, this Maserati was all rhinestones and ten gallon cowboy hats, dressed up to take on the fastest circle-track drivers from America.
The Race Of Two Worlds
The story starts in 1957, when it was decided a profitable exhibition race would be watching the fastest American cars compete against the fastest European cars on Monza’s fearsome banked oval. Seeing the cars hurl around at godforsaken speeds earned the event the name “Monzanapolis,” fitting as well because Americans Jimmy Bryan and Jim Rathmann won the only two events held.
In 1957, Maserati entered a 250F and reworked 450S for French ace Jean Behra, but the effort was withdrawn during practice due to lack of competitiveness. Special note here goes to the other European team for 1957, Ecurie Ecosse, who drove its Jaguar D-Types straight from the winner’s circle at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and entered all three in the well-publicised event, making it one of the few (if only) times European sports cars competed against American Indy cars on equal footing.
By 1958, though, Maserati’s financially struggling factory had officially withdrawn from both Grand Prix and sports car racing, so to compete, it had to find a sponsor.
Thankfully for us, it did, and with Eldorado ice cream’s backing, the entry was one of the very first sponsorship liveries seen in Europe—cowboy and all. The “cherry” on this petrol-fueled superspeedway sundae? Stirling Moss was behind the wheel. And the backup driver was Carroll Shelby. No big deal.
It’s reputed that the car took just twenty days to build, which makes me wonder: how did the team find the time to design and paint the livery? Having read about the ever-so-slightly shambolic, last-minute nature of the project, I imagine the signwriter had to paint around mechanics as much as louvres.
Maserati says the car was good for 217 mph, which means that when the car’s steering collapsed at 160 due to stresses experienced on the banking, it’s miraculous that Moss walked away largely unhurt. He must have kept a lucky charm in his pocket, for the incident happened during the final heat of the event. Rightfully so, the incident helped to galvanize those who opposed the treacherous course.
That said, there wasn’t enough damage that couldn’t be fixed by the Maserati factory…in time for the 1959 Indianapolis 500.
Maserati at Indy
Vintage Indycars are slightly odd-looking when their bodies are off-centred, but in any case, the largely “homebuilt” cars sported a truly American look. Before Hot Wheels started making life-sized promotional cars, I think that Indycars were the closest you’d get to a life-sized toy car. Repainted red for the famed Indianapolis event, the Eldorado Maserati with Ralph Liguori behind the wheel certainly would have fit that description.
Thanks, in part, to the added fins and Halibrand alloy wheels—required for their greater strength—Indy cars dazzled most due to their individual paint schemes. We’re still too early to call them racing liveries as such, but this style of paint job certainly was a reminder of what truly separates both sides of the Atlantic in racing today: the U.S. gives fans a far bigger dose of “showtime”. Circle track racing is entertainment on a North American scale, and thus needed cars with as many stars and stripes as the flags that adorned the circuits.
Maserati’s first attempt wasn’t bad, I’d say, but still ended in practice when the team couldn’t get enough fuel to the engine. After just two races, “Eldorado” was retired.