With the introduction and sales success of the road-going 3500GT, however, the company's health improved drastically, prompting a renewed interest in creating a sports car that could be raced, not by the factory, but by privateers. Credit for the resulting Tipo 60/61 goes to engineer extraordinaire Giulio Alfieri, who, during 1958, created this stunning sports racing car. Its "Birdcage" nickname comes from its unique and very innovative trellis chassis construction, made of a plethora of small tubes between 10 and 15mm thick. Once welded together (all 200 of them!) they created a structure as rigid as it was light, weighing just 36 kgs, clothed in a svelte wheel-hugging aluminum body - a true work of art and testimony to Maserati craftsmanship! Into this structure was fitted the Tipo 60's 1,990 cc, inline two-cam, four-cylinder engine, which is very far back towards the cockpit. Independent front suspension provided superb turn-in, while the deDion rear axle with transverse leaf spring and coil over telescopic shock absorbers made the car easily controllable. Six Tipo 60s were sold before the 1961 upgrade to Tipo 61, which benefited from increased capacity of 2,890 cc and delivered 250 hp - more than enough horsepower for a 600 kg heavy car. In all, 17 were built, including one Tipo 60 that had been upgraded. From the beginning, Birdcages were very popular with American competitors. The car offered here, chassis 2470, was no exception. The third-to-last Birdcage built, it was sold new to Jack Hinkle, who was not just the proverbial wealthy amateur racer. A laid back, unassuming and popular Texas oilman, banker, and then-president of the SCCA, he was described as "One of the fastest men in competition today." Hinkle eventually sold 2470 to a friend, Tracy Bird. A fire in Bird's garage did some damage to the front of the car, and to repair it properly, he bought the ex-Roger Penske Birdcage (chassis 2471). 2471's rear end had suffered in an accident, but it had an intact front end. Bird thus repaired 2470 using the factory-correct parts from 2471, after which the chassis was scrapped. As a result, 2470 is the second-to-last Birdcage extant.

SCM Analysis


This car sold for $3,343,648 at the RM Sporting Classics of Monaco auction on May 1, 2010 (lot #292).

In the late 1950s, Maserati found itself in a terrible corner. From its beginnings in the early 1920s, Maserati had always defined itself exclusively as a racing car company.

It wasn’t until after World War II and the departure of the Maserati brothers (to form OSCA) that the company bowed to the inevitable and produced its first road cars. Up until then, it had prospered, or at least survived, by selling racing cars to privateers. This is not unlike Lola in recent times. Maserati also did rather well building machine tools, but that’s a different story.

In the mid-1950s, Maserati abandoned this approach and got sucked into a classically Latin battle with Ferrari for factory dominance in the world sports car championship. That ended during the catastrophic year of 1957, when the costs and misfortunes of international racing conspired to effectively bankrupt the company.

Maserati permanently withdrew from racing. However, the passions remained, and by 1958 the revenues from the 3500GT allowed the competition department to start dreaming about getting back in the game. It would be different, as the company would go back to building racing cars for sale to customers instead of supporting a factory team.

The Birdcage arrives

Giulio Alfieri was given the task of designing an all-new racing car chassis. This was a daunting project because it was clear that the rules for competitiveness were rapidly changing. The ladder frames of the past, even tubular ones, were too heavy and too flexible for the future, and the writing was on the wall about engine placement.

The problem was that Maserati didn’t have the money or the technical savvy to address all the issues properly. The story I have heard is that Alfieri and his team knew that a monocoque chassis (like the Jaguar D-Type) was what they should do, but that they had no idea how to build one in sheet metal.

Being experienced tube fabricators, they decided to stay with their strengths and create an equivalent structure out of tubing instead of sheet. They intentionally used small diameter tubes and low-grade steel – not to save money, but to get enough flex in the tubing to protect the welds and to make the structure work as a unit, much as a monocoque does.

Maserati was too conservative for a mid-engine approach, but they pushed the front engine as far back as they possibly could and laid it over 45° to keep frontal area down. Suspension was lifted more or less directly from the last of the 250F GP cars, the transaxle was completely new, and the bodywork was stretched as tightly over the components as possible to keep the package small.

The result dropped jaws when it was introduced in 1959 and has done so ever since.

Originally the car was developed for European racing in the 2-liter class (Tipo 60) but the American market wanted a 3-liter version for their class break, so the engine was stretched (some bore, mostly stroke) to 2.9 liters in the Tipo 61. It was about 75 pounds heavier due to engine bits and transaxle strengthening, but it had 50 more horsepower (250 versus 200) so the tradeoff was worth it.

Both the 60 and 61 were spectacular racers in their time, fast, light and wonderful-handling cars, but they were notoriously fragile, particularly in the longer distances of European racing. Americans tended more toward sprint races with time between to fix things, so Birdcages had a better record in the United States.

Fifty years of development and problem solving, supported by spiraling collector values, have long since resolved the reliability issues, and, in today’s vintage events, Birdcages are as dependable as anything racing.

Birdcages are beautiful, Italian, iconic, rare, and extremely competitive racers – and at more than $3 million certainly not cheap. But their value still is a fraction of what obvious comparables like Ferraris, Jaguars and Astons are bringing today. This poses an interesting question: Why?

Unusable on the open road

I think the answer lies in one of the “firsts” that Maserati accomplished with this car. In the Birdcage, Maserati managed to anticipate the future and create arguably the first European road-racing automobile that was utterly and absolutely unusable on the open road.

The Ferraris. Astons, Jaguars, and earlier Maseratis of the era were excellent, demanding road cars as well as racers, but nobody in their right mind would consider street use of a Birdcage. They’re simply too basic and too brutal. The 2.9 liter four will rattle your fillings out. And they’re also too fragile to use anywhere but the track. This limits what you can do with the car, and thus what the market will pay. Being able to take your wife or brother- in-law on a high-status rally seems to be a prerequisite to a car reaching the stratosphere of collector value.

The Birdcage Maseratis may qualify as the ultimate weapons-grade, front-engine sports racers, and they need to be understood as such. They carry all of the attributes of collectible greatness save one, so the market is limited to those who will race them. This, and the issues surrounding selling pure racing cars in auctions that I have discussed in earlier musings in SCM, conspire, I think, to hold auction values down relative to private sale. I have been told of private offers well in excess of $3.5 million for a somewhat better example Tipo 61 having been turned down cold, which suggests that the fundamental market value is above what this car sold for. In this example, I think the auction approach, however high profile and glamorous, served the buyer somewhat better than the seller. Well bought.

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