The Maserati Barchetta Is The ’90s Track Car You Totally Forgot About
Photography Courtesy Maserati Archive
As recently as 1992, Maserati sold about 1,000 cars worldwide. It’s now shipping more than 40,000 per year.
What you may not realize—and I certainly hadn’t for a long time—is that roughly until Citroën acquired them in the late 1960s, Maserati models were largely hand-built road cars via special order. If you wanted, for instance, a Frua or Vignale or Touring body draped over top of a race-derived V8 engine, Maserati would sort it out. Every bit the equal of what Ferrari was doing in the day, I’m talking about cars like the A6GCS, (original) 3500 GT, the opulent and very fast 5000 GT, and the quad-cam V8-powered Ghibli. Even though they hand built only a few vehicles every year, the cars tended to be great.
Nobody with the last name Maserati has owned the company since 1937—and so our impression of what the brand means has been evolved over the years. Even better news: as part of its current comeback, there’s a Maserati SUV on its way in March.
From 1975 until 1993, however, Maserati was run by Alejandro de Tomaso. They were lean years, and as part of Alejandro De Tomaso’s last push for Maserati success, it introduced the largely hand-built Barchetta. Inspired by the ungainly and unsuccessful Tipo 65 race car, the Barchetta was designed by Synthesis Design, a consultancy set up by Carlo Gaino who is best known for the Barchetta-based De Tomaso Guarà, all-carbon Lancia ECV II rally car concept, and Alfa Romeo 155 GTA.
What’s interesting about the Barchetta? It appears as though Maserati was hip to the track car business long before it became popular, envisioning a one-make series for Italian gentleman drivers that would run as support races for larger race series.
A great way to get exposure in front of racing fans, sure, but first you have to attract drivers. They could expect something special: a strong backbone chassis, mid-mounted twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre V6 engine from the Ghibli packing 315 horsepower, a six-speed transaxle—with straight-cut gears—double wishbones all ’round, with enough aluminium and magnesium parts sprinkled about the car to make you feel as though it was a special package.
The body was removable, cleverly, in just three pieces; aluminium honeycomb, fibreglass, and carbon fibre layers gave the panels strength. Total weight? Just 1,708 lbs (775 kg), putting the power-to-weight ratio closer to a Porsche 911 GT2 or Lamborghini Murciélago than anyone may care to realize. Along with its speed, it also had a sparse interior…and plaid seats.
The race series kicked off in 1992 with six races—Varano, Vallelunga, Bari, Pergusa, Varano—again—and Bologna. In its second year, the series was expanded to 10 races, picking up rounds at Zandvoort and in Denmark…with never more than 13 vehicles on the grid. (Not from lack of trying, but people weren’t buying the cars!) In addition to the gentleman drivers’ lack of interest in the series, Maserati’s other problem was John Nielsen, a semi-professional Danish Le Mans-winning sports racing car driver who was leagues faster than the other drivers. To prevent such domination, ECUs were allegedly swapped. Nielsen still won.
Only 16 Barchetta models were built in total, including a Stradale road-going prototype. A few others ex-racing cars have since been converted to road legal specification. If you want a modern, race-derived Maserati, the Barchetta is surely the way to go. More rare and interesting than the Ghibli Cup, Trofeo, or MC12 race cars—but no less exciting—I hope that Maserati’s latest owners from the Fiat empire take a stroll through the archives and discover this small forgotten boat.
Maserati itself says there were 10 built, but rightfully mentions that the car evolved into the De Tomaso Guarà. More plentiful than the Barchetta, the Guarà was updated with a number of different powertrains and body styles, including BMW V8s and Ford 4.6-litre V8s, and a fixed roof. The fastest would hit about 180 mph given enough space…surely enough to outrun whatever the Maserati SUV will do, right?
As they become more and more common, don’t forget: you don’t have to go back too far in time to find a rare and largely forgotten Maserati.