GALLERY: Behind The Scenes On Our 1959 Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage Film Shoot
Join us this week for a special film as we follow along with Marino Franchitti for a track session in Nick Mason’s 1959 Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage.” Delicate and purposeful in single swooping package, this is the car that defines what it means to be ethereal, and it is the best looking bit of motorsport engineering to be housed in a web of chromoly steel.
The intricate but calculated tangle of tubing afforded more rigidity while also shedding some serious weight, and the Tipo 61 remains one of the most significant case studies of tube-frame construction. It was one in a series of five cars designed with this methodology by Giulio Alfieri, but it is by far the most recognizable of the lot.
If not the most efficient or safest method by today’s standards, its dizzying latticework will always captivate anybody lucky enough to stick their head in the cockpit, and it is a definitive step in the evolution of race car design on a broad level. Beyond its defining features though, it is simply a brilliant car to drive, or at least that’s what we hear from Marino:
“You don’t manhandle this car, it just becomes an extension of you, and it’s almost like osmosis—you just think about where you want to put the car, and it’s there.”
Stirling Moss agreed in the late-‘50s, as the first test driver of this car’s predecessor: the Maserati T60. As the story goes, it took just a handful of laps before earning his praises. Marino also has the kind of skill set that makes you listen up when he starts talking about cars, and we were more than happy to spend the day with him as he shared the history of this Birdcage and his impressions from the driver’s seat in the modern age.
He recounts the interesting history of the T61 for us as we unload it at the quintessentially English circuit of Castle Combe, telling how this Maserati earned its unique construction in pursuit of cost savings of all things. As the 1950s were becoming the 1960s, monocoques were being developed by the top teams, ushering in a new age of chassis design, but Maserati just didn’t have the money to go about building their own. So they tasked their chief designer Alfieri with building a relatively cheap car that could still keep up with the cutting edge of the grid. The result is somewhere in the middle of a traditional tube-frame in its composite pieces, and a monocoque in terms of its form.
The star car of our film was the final of the first six Birdcages produced, and it was finished two days before Christmas in 1959 when it was then promptly exported to the United States. The car is hallmark of Italian sports car design, but in fact the first six were all shipped directly to American privateers and customer teams. Though the manufacturer from Bologna had earned an F1 World Championship title as recently as ’57 with the help of Fangio’s magic in their 250F Grand Prix car, they were in a bit of a financial pickle in the late-‘50s, and the mandate for the Tipo 61 was in accordance with their situation: they had to be cheap to build, and they had to be appealing to customers. They had to sell.
Beginning with the 2.0-liter T60, the Birdcage series would see the three-liter cars following soon after on the advice of Moss to build something to the spec of the world sportscar championship, but before the Tipo 61s came out, Moss would take the early T60 to its first race and first victory at Rouen, in France. The 2-liter car had also set a new class record at the Nürburgring a few weeks earlier. Things were looking pretty auspicious for Maserati’s front-engined, non-monocoque car.
We take it you’ve already seen the film, and if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to watch Marino positively hurl this priceless car around the curves of Castle Combe. The car belongs to Pink Floyd drummer and man with exquisite taste, Nick Mason, and it features the three-liter, 250hp inline-four that followed the first two-liter units. The successive Birdcage T63 would see the design adopt a mid-engine layout, but the T61 is the one to remember, for its plucky reliance on the traditional FR layout and for its innovative approach to chassis construction.
On the on-track experience, Marino summarizes the car as being optimized in every way. Through an unwavering grin he has nothing but positive things to say about the drive after having not been behind the wheel for two too-long years: “This thing breaks like a modern car, never runs out of brakes.” “This car has a gearbox that’s better than any car I’ve driven.” “Everything is so thin, so light, yet it takes so much abuse. It’s such a killer car.”
Any machine that can make a seasoned racing driver get giddy like this is special, but there’s nothing like a Birdcage.