Featured: Remember The Maserati Birdcage 75th Concept?

Remember The Maserati Birdcage 75th Concept?

By James Gent
March 17, 2020

In late 2004, when Pininfarina went looking for a base on which to build a concept celebrating its 75th anniversary, few options were better than the Maserati MC12 GT1. It was an absolute weapon, after all.

Built to return the Trident to motorsport for the first time in 37 years, the racing version of the MC12 – ‘Maserati Corsa, 12-cylinder’ – made its competitive debut at the latter end of 2004 in the FIA GT Championship. A hell of a part-campaign it proved too, the MC12 winning two of its three entered races and placing 2nd and 3rd on its maiden outing.

One year later, and with FIA ‘negotiations’ regarding homologation now behind it, the Maserati MC12 GT1 romped to championship victory in its first full FIA GT Championship season, securing four wins and 14 further podium spots to claim the Manufacturers’ Cup with almost double the points of 2nd-placed Ferrari, as well as a 1-2 finish in the GT1 Teams’ standings. From 2005 to 2010, Maserati runner Vitaphone Racing went undefeated in the teams’ title picture, only once was a Maserati driver beaten to the drivers’ crown, and the MC12 GT1 won 19 times, including three times in four years at the vaunted Spa 24 Hours.

Why so strong? Well for starters, the MC12 ‘Stradale’ on which the GT1 was built was the fastest Maserati road car ever built, and thus had the aerodynamics to match. Cue gaping side-mounted air inlets, stunning aero-optimised (and heavily wind tunnel tested) curves, a roof-mounted ‘snorkel’ that feeds air to the V12 while simultaneously obscuring rear visibility, and a rear spoiler two metres wide for maximum downforce, cantilevered to give the side mirrors any hope. All from the pen of Frank Stephenson and based on an original idea by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

For another, the MC12 was developed alongside, and thus borrowed heavily from, the Ferrari Enzo, including suspension, carbon ceramic brakes, and Ferrari’s six-speed semi-automatic gearbox. True, there were differences. Under the all-Trident bodywork for example, the dimensions ballooned out in every direction on the MC12 in an effort to reduce drag co-efficient, while the Enzo’s 660hp 5,998cc V12 was detuned to 630hp (can’t have the MC12 outgunning big brother now, can we?). Crucially though, at the base remained that carbon fibre and Nomex honeycomb sandwich monocoque, a platform so strong that, roll cage aside, was largely unchanged for either the racing ‘MC12 GT1’ or the track special ‘Versione Corsa’. A perfect base then for a concept boasting “extreme lines and performance” that also aimed to “achieve maximum impact on the public’s imagination.”

That it certainly did upon its debut at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show. Even by Stephenson’s standards, Pininfarina’s ‘Birdcage 75th’ was pure mental!

While dimensions were comparable to the GT1, it was Pininfarina’s typically voluptuous bodywork that set automotive headlines ablaze. Designed under the direction of Ken Okuyama, who also boasts the Enzo, the first gen NSX and the P4/5 on his resume, the Birdcage 75th Concept offered “extreme lines”, yes, but was also a fleeting homage to automative design of the 1950s. Hence the aerodynamic flow from the low horizontal “eyes” past barely visible side mirrors (read cameras) and heavily undulating rear wheel arches to the GT1’s well-hidden carbon diffuser. The MC12’s enormous rear wing? Also gone in favour of hydraulic winglets rising out of the rear bodywork just above twin stacked hexagonal exhaust pipes.

The pièce de résistance? In true Ferrari 512 S Modulo / Holden Hurricane fashion, the Birdcage 75th Concept featured no doors, and passengers instead alighted via a giant glass canopy that rose up and slid over the front axle. With Pininfarina having ditched the MC12’s removable roof panel (largely pointless anyway, given that there was nowhere to stow the panel on-board), the single-piece Perspex windshield stretched the length of the roofline, meaning visibility, even in the seemingly ludicrous tight cockpit confines, was surprisingly good.

There were a few questions posed to Pininfarina’s CEO and namesake, Paolo though after the silks were dropped. A few concerned the canopy and the greenhouse effect such a concept would inevitably inflict on its passengers in lieu of air conditioning (“we just drive with the top open in high temperatures,” came a matter-of-fact response). Others concerned the name ‘Birdcage’, which paid tribute to Maserati’s Tipo 60/61 racer of the late 50s/early 60s and its innovative space frame made from approximately 200 small-section tubes, arranged in triangular formations and reinforced in high-stress areas. Lightweight but remarkably strong, the Tipo 60/61 was a hill climb phenomenon during the 1960s and even took back-to-back wins at the Nürburgring 1000km in ’60 and ’61. It also starred in a Petrolicious production back in December 2017, details of which you can check out HERE.

Lastly, there was the big one: why a Maserati, given Pinfinfarina’s long-standing relationship with the prancing horse? “We did a Ferrari concept a few years ago,” CEO Paolo explained at the time, referencing the Ferrari Rossa the company unveiled to mark its 70th birthday in 2000 and which would later become the 550. “We are also currently working on an entirely new model range for Maserati, so we thought, ‘Why not them?’ Solid reasoning. Much of the exterior on the Birdcage 75th Concept after all went on to inspire the GranTurismo launched two years later.

The interior? Well, that was a different matter. The gel-coated carbon fibre, blue leather and BrighTex fabric for the seats (sorry, “sleds”), exposed roll-over bar, and black-painted bulkhead were all gone (neither model boasted a stereo), as was the instrument cluster in favour of a transparent head-up display developed by Motorola, which spanned the length of the dashboard. There was no stereo – that hadn’t been one in the MC12 either – but in a neat touch, the display did feature Maserati’s analogue clock in digital form, a nod to one of the Trident’s design staples. Bizarrely, despite standing less than 5ft tall, journalists invited for a ride at the time were amazed how much head and legroom the Birdcage 75th afforded. Another MC12 throwback.

So, it looked gorgeous, paid homage to Maserati’s racing tradition, celebrated Pininfarina’s 75th anniversary, was built on the chassis that would win the first of six consecutive GT world championships that year. But could it shift?

Theoretically, yes. This was a Ferrari-derived V12 capable of at least 755hp, remember. However, the MC12’s 3.8 second, 0-100kph shredding pace was never going to be on display when the “extreme” Birdcage 75th Concept made its dynamic debut at the 2005 Goodwood Festival of Speed. On Lord March’s famous hill, the run was completed at, what commentators at the time called an ‘elegant’ pace by Maserati’s CEO – the late Karl-Heinz Kalbfell – 5th Gear TV presenter Tom Ford and, oddly, Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason. If that final name stands out a bit, remember that the Nick ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ Mason was also an owner of an original Tipo 61.

Today, 15 years to the month after its unveil in Geneva, and minus a quick stop at the 55th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2015, the Birdcage 75th Concept now resides in Torino, Italy, as part of the Museo Pininfarina collection. A stark though sometimes forgotten reminder of the “maximum impact on the public’s imagination” the Italian design legend can have.

Does make you wonder what Pininfarina could do with the new MC20, doesn’t it? And with the company’s 90th anniversary just two months away…

*Images courtesy of Pininfarina and Maserati

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