1959 Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage

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The Maserati Birdcage Tipo 61, with proper team preparation and organization, would undoubtedly have won more classic races. It led every round of the 1960 World Sports Car Championship – at Buenos Aires, Sebring, the Targa Florio, Nurburgring and Le Mans – but only won a single event, and was sidelined by mechanical failure in the rest. Some fine results in Europe included the great 1960 1,000 km Nurburgring victory in the hands of Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss for “Lucky” Casner’s Camoradi team and its fortunate follow-up in 1961 driven by Casner and Masten Gregory. In reality, the Birdcage was most successful in the hands of customer teams in the United States. Only 22 were built, of which six were two-liter Tipo 60s, one of which, the prototype 2451, was quickly converted to a 2.9-liter Tipo 61, making a total of 17 Tipo 61 Birdcages – a very small number to establish such a large reputation.

One of the best Tipo 61 Birdcages was 2452, pictured here, with an exemplary three-year record in hotly contested West Coast races. 2452 also is the first production Tipo 61 Birdcage, commissioned by Joe Lubin during a meeting with Maserati’s Technical Director Ing. Giulio Alfieri in the offices of David Brown at Aston Martin. Without Lubin’s order of chassis 2452 and promises from other Americans, financially-pressed Maserati, barely back from the brink of bankruptcy, very well might never have continued with the legendary series of larger capacity sports-racers, nicknamed “Birdcage” for their intricate multitubular-frame chassis.

Started in 1926, Maserati successfully competed in Grand Prix events with founder Alfieri Maserati himself behind the wheel in the golden era against the Alfa Romeo P2 and P3, in later years regularly making Enzo Ferrari’s life as head of Scuderia Ferrari difficult. Following World War II, Maserati, now led by Omer Orsi following the officine’s pre-war sale to his family, came up with a winning prescription: lightweight, powerful, simple and rugged cars with superb handling, a formula that all racing car builders to this day struggle to emulate. For the 1960 season, Maserati’s Ing. Alfieri proposed a customer-only sports racer, the Tipo 60. Originally conceived as a two-liter car for European series, it quickly became apparent the real market was in the U.S.; and in the States the serious money and competition was in the 2,000-3,000 cc D Modified class. Orsi endorsed Alfieri’s increase in the Tipo 60’s bore and stroke, bringing its displacement up to nearly 2.9 liters. The commercial wisdom of the decision is witnessed by the fact that all seven of the first Tipo 61 Birdcages built (2452 to 2457) were delivered to U.S. customers.

Racing drivers crave a concept they express as “balance,” loosely explained as predictable performance of the car in every attitude and situation. While a superb racing driver can extract exemplary performance from an unbalanced racing car, in a customer car expected to be driven by a variety of pilots of widely differing talent, balance is the crucial ingredient, allowing each driver to realize maximum performance within his or her envelope. The Birdcage Maserati provided balance in abundance.

The example discussed here, 2452, in addition to being the first production Birdcage, was immediately successful in the hands of Joe Lubin’s regular driver, Bob Drake, finishing second in a shakedown race at Riverside less than two weeks after it arrived in Los Angeles and scoring the first of a long history of wins at Palm Springs on January 24, 1960, followed by a win at Willow Spring and a DNF at Pomona. After taking pole (beating Krause by over a second and two seconds faster than Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby), he suffered a cylinder liner seal failure in the feature race, at the Examiner Grand Prix at Riverside on April 3. He went on to win at Vaca Valley and Santa Barbara, and took second place at Laguna Seca. 2452 was then sold to Stan Sugarman whose driver, Jim Connor, finished second at Pomona in his first race and won two consecutive meetings at Santa Barbara and Cotali. Both were remarkable results as the car had starter/clutch problems and had to be push-started from the back of the grid. By this stage the Sugarman Birdcage was called “the hottest car on the coast.” The real test would come in the next two professional races at Riverside and Laguna Seca. While running in a fine 8th place in the Los Angeles Times GP, Connor retired when the transaxle failed. One week later, Jim Hall borrowed the car (fitting the transaxle from his car) and qualified on the front row, beating all later Tipo 61s, and only Stirling Moss was faster in a Lotus 19. Hall finished second in heat one (including beating Augie Pabst in the legendary Scarab) and was forced to retire in heat two while in third place. Throughout the Lubin/Sugarman era, the car was prepared by Bill Rudd’s speed shop.

Sugarman then sold 2452 to Harry Finer, owner of Maserati Representative of California, who put Billy Krause in the car. Krause had raced against 2452 for two years and put the Birdcage to good use in 1962. He led his first three races before minor mechanical failures forced him to retire and returned to the winning rostrum at Pomona (twice), Oakland, Santa Barbara (in successive features) and Reno. Krause then turned it over to former Mercedes-Benz team driver Ken Miles for the October 14 Riverside Los Angeles Times GP, where he finished a credible sixth. He also ran a week later in the Pacific Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, where the engine let him down.

The thoroughly used-up original engine was replaced in 1963 by the 2.9-liter Tipo 61 engine from Loyal Katskee’s Birdcage 2454, acquired from Don Skogmo. In a final race in 1963 Krause did finish third at Dodger Stadium for the new owner, Steve Diulo. In the late ’60s, it is believed 2452 changed hands in the Chicago area before moving to England. It is thought that there it resided in the famous Nigel Moores collection (Littlewood Pools heir), but saw little use. In the early 1972, Joel Fynn returned the car to the U.S. and around 1976 it passed to Steve Earle, who had the car fully restored in the Stephen Griswold shop in Berkeley, CA. Steve raced the car infrequently before selling to Bill Zeiring around 1981. During a race at Laguna Seca, Bill had a slow-speed accident and after contacting the soft tire wall the car rolled over. The frame was undamaged and Steve Alcala undertook a gradual restoration with great care taken to save the original bodywork. Shortly afterward the car was sold and briefly went to the Bay Area and the specialist Nino Epifani carried out a major engine overhaul. The car later passed through the hands of Bob Rubin and then joined a prominent Japanese collection before returning to the U.S., once again, in recent times. During the past two years, the car has seen very limited use and again, Nino Epifani has carried out routine maintenance and most recently has carried out a full overhaul/rebuild of the transaxle. The engine is still said to be very strong and healthy. Most old race cars quickly disappear into fields or barns to molder into a heap of oxide, but Birdcage Maseratis were great chasses, easy to drive and with excellent brakes. That earned them a special fate: Tipo 61 powerplants disappeared, either from racing accidents or simple neglect and they got better, stronger, lighter engines. They were then driven into the ground. Again, 2452 has avoided that, remaining a pure Tipo 61 Maserati throughout its life and importantly appears to have retained a large portion of its original bodywork. Indeed, on a close inspection the inside panel work bears witness to numerous repairs and much evidence of its early battle scars. This is one of the most historic and recognizable sports racers, correctly powered with clearly defined provenance. It also is one of the most satisfying, balanced sports racers ever made, an ideal mount for international historic races where it will attract enthusiastic attention and is still capable of proving a fast front-runner today as when it was new. In 1960, the legendary Ferrari TR59 was at the top of its form, yet Joel Finn quotes Dan Gurney saying of the Tipo 61, “the Ferraris can’t begin to touch it.”