The Birdcage Sings The Music Of Maserati
If you’ve ever seen a Maserati Tipo 60 or 61, you’ll immediately understand why they were nicknamed “Birdcage”—there’s simply no ambiguity about it. Though any low-production, mid-century Italian race car is worthy of note, the ‘Cage’s famous calling card would likely have remained concealed beneath its impossibly low scuttle were it not for a Le Mans regulation change dictating minimum windshield height; by pushing the windshield base beyond the bulkhead, chief engineer Giulio Alfieri kept the car’s overall height low while creatively skirting the rule.
Arguably the ultimate evolutionary form of superleggera construction, the 60/61’s trademark frame of about 200 small-diameter chromoly tubes was designed for extreme light weight and high strength—cutting-edge tech in the days before extensive use of aluminum honeycomb, carbon fiber, and other structural composites.
Thanks to Maserati’s typically relaxed (read: utterly chaotic) take on office administration and record keeping, the Birdcage’s history is a bit less obvious than its nickname; in fact, it’s downright murky in spots. Initially conceived as a privateer racer for wealthy domestic playboys, it was designed, engineered, and built on a budget. Consistent with much of their history, Maserati was struggling at the time to simply keep the lights on and the payroll checks from bouncing like an over-inflated Pirelli.
Though housed in a newly-designed chassis, the Tipo 60’s two-liter DOHC four cylinder was cribbed from the 200S, and with a few slight revisions made a nice, round 200 HP, or about 14 more than in its original form. Canted at a 45 degree angle and tasked with motivating only 1,260 pounds, the 60 was not slow, but was nonetheless soon outclassed by more powerful competition.
Combining the 60’s miraculous handling traits and bantamweight frame with the 250S’ more energetic 2.9 four, the Tipo 61 was capable of nearly 180 MPH on long straights, while adding only about 60 pounds out front—a weight gain that would have negligible effect on steering response thanks to a front-mid layout. Piloted by Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss, this newly beefed-up Birdcage placed first at the Nurburgring 1000 not once, but twice—beating out Ferrari in both 1960 and 1961.
Alfieri and Co. were so pleased with these results that a decision was made to expand on the 60/61 concept, resulting in a handful of spectacularly beautiful, fast, but ultimately failed prototypes. It all started with the Tipo 63, essentially a mid-engined 61 that later morphed into a V12-powered monster, thanks to the mighty 250F’s powerplant. The following Tipo 64 was similar to the 63 in that it shared a mid-mounted 12-cylinder, yet despite a heavily revised, smaller, lighter chassis, it never matched even the limited success of its predecessor, which managed a fourth place finish at Le Mans in ’61. The final V8-engined Tipo 65 crashed at La Sarthe and retired with roughly 23 hours and 50 minutes racing left.
The Tipo 61 featured here is the very same car Moss and Gurney drove to victory in Nurburg, 1960. Claimed by RM Auctions to be the most successful example of any Birdcage made, it is also credited with a Le Mans entry (DNF) later the same year. It’s intricate, beautiful, and shot through with the kind of history that very, very few vintage race machines can claim. Bidding is estimated to reach three to four million dollars, and that doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable for everything that’s on offer.
Photos courtesy of RM Auctions.