It is true that failure can lead to success. By Formula One's first season in 1950, Maserati was Maserati in name only. Financial trouble led to the brothers selling the company and moving on. But when a person's hand is applied to what the person is born to do there will be an impact. And in this case, the whole band of Maserati brothers was born to build racing machines. Yet, while having to sell and ultimately leave their namesake, their final designs would still play an important role in Grand Prix racing and Formula One's inaugural season.
In 1914, Alfieri and Ettore Maserati decided to establish their own race-tuning business. Almost as soon as they started they had to suspend activity due to World War I starting. Upon cessation of hostilities, in order to promote their work, the brothers would tune their own cars and then would race them. This caught the eye of the Diotto company. Diotto then approached the Maserati brothers, which by this time included another brother Ernesto, about designing Grand Prix cars. The brothers agreed and, in 1925, went to work. However, the design the brothers would create would end up never being built. Very soon, the brothers decided to start their own company and only design and build cars of their own. And so, one of Maserati's first cars would be the design Diotto decided not to have built. The Maserati brothers ended up building the car and would enter it in the 1926 Targa Florio.
Not too many teams start out at the top. Often times, teams will compete for years and have to settle with top-ten or top-five finishes. But when someone is meant or destined, for something, the norm changes. When it is a whole family of brothers focused on one thing, special events can take place and the 1926 Targa Florio was no exception. While the Maserati brothers may have been confident about their first chassis bearing the family name there was still an aura of uncertainty that surrounded the untested entity. Yet, in its first-ever race the car would go on to win. And for Maserati, as a team, that was one race entered, one win—100% efficiency. And so it began. To fund their racing endeavors the brothers would design and build custom cars, but always with the intent of being able to get back on the track and compete.
The problem, when starting out from the top, is that it's very easy to realize that only two options remain. Either the team maintains its level of success and performance or it is destined to slip back into the clutches of the competition. What makes declining easy to do is that there are so many variables that can come and disrupt what possibly could have led to further success. And it seemed those variables started to work against the Maserati brothers.
In 1932, tragedy struck as Alfieri died due to kidney problems. Besides the impact this tragedy surely had, the competition also improved making victories harder to come by due to having to battle the likes of Alfa Romeo and the surging German companies like Mercedes. This then meant the larger amounts of money awarded to the winner was also harder to come by. Thus Maserati, despite its immediate success, was facing financial trouble. Due to the financial woes the brothers signed a deal where Adolfo Orsi, an industrialist, would come in and own the company but the brothers would retain technical control for the next ten years. This was a blessing, in a way, for them. Since the bills were being paid all they had to do was focus on racing and their chassis designs. This proved to be beneficial as they were able to design some cars that enabled them to score a string of victories at the Indianapolis 500. Yet, despite the success, another variable would come along and truly spell the end for the Maserati brothers at Maserati—another world war. World War II, and the lack of any racing, meant the brothers were unable to try and regain control of their own company. Once again, a world war disrupted the Maseratis. However, with the end of the war in 1945 there was still time for the Maseratis to leave their mark with the very company that bore their name.
Just prior to the war, in 1939, Ernesto designed the 4CL as a competitor against the Alfa Romeo 158 and others. The 4CL's chassis had the appearance of an upside-down T due to the twin box section spars running the length of the chassis. A large rectangular radiator inlet dominated the nose. To save weight in the construction, the 4CLs were designed to utilize more aluminum alloys than any previous Maserati chassis. Also, ladder construction was used which helped save weight by using smaller cross-section pieces to provide strength and rigidity. Ernesto designed the car to utilize wishbone suspension parts and large drum brakes. Along the left side of the chassis ran the exhaust pipes from the two exhaust ports per cylinder. The individual pipes blended into a singular pipe running the length of the chassis back past the cockpit. Interestingly, like many other chassis of the day, the exhaust pipe ran right by the cockpit and, therefore, needed a shroud fitted over the pipe to protect the driver from burning himself. One sign of the technology of the day was the drum brakes employed on the 4CL. Drum brakes was really the only practical solution at the time. To dissipate the excessive heat built up during braking, fins were machined into the brake housing to expel the heat to the cooler air rushing by. The stability of the 4CL was better than that of Maserati's previous designs due to the fact the 4CL had repositioned springs that allowed the car to sit lower meaning the car's center of gravity was also lower.
Due to the increased stability and performance, in its debut year, the 4CL was able to earn five victories before the outbreak of the war. However, the outbreak of World War II delayed the chassis from being able to show its full promise and rescue Maserati from slipping out of the hands of the brothers.
When racing resumed after the war the 4CL was a front runner. In fact, the 4CL proved to be in a class all by itself. 1947 was to be a year when the 4CL proved how good a chassis it really was. Despite the improved Alfa Romeo 158, and other competitors' chassis, the 4CL was proving to be the class of the field and would score 10 victories. The 4CL proved itself so well in competition that many privateer teams in Formula One's inaugural season would still be using some modified versions of the 4CL chassis years after it was first designed.
Though some of the Maserati brothers were still with the company into 1946, their influence, specifically their design of the 4CL, would continue to live on in the form of the 4CLT. The antiquated inline 1.5 liter 4 cylinder engine was upgraded with twin-superchargers, which increased power up to around 260hp. However, to deal with the increased power and torque the chassis needed to be strengthened. Maserati would employ the new tubular chassis to help with torsion strength. The tubular construction, which is what the 'T' denotes, helped to provide better rigidity to the chassis to counteract the effect of the power increase. Another change was that the CLT had been designed to utilize hydraulic dampers with forged (instead of cast) suspension components at the rear of the car. The updated engine, construction and components were all meant to take Maserati to the next level of competition. And it would be some version, or form, of the 4CLT that would take part in Formula One's first season.
The most prominent 4CLT model in Formula One's first season was the 4CLT/48. Denoting the year 1948, the model 48 first debuted at the Sanremo Grand Prix. The chassis of the 4CLT/48 compared to the older 4CL was similar in a few ways but quite different in many others. Right away it is observed that the nose had been changed in dramatic ways. Instead of being rather rectangular in shape, the radiator inlet became wider. The upper ridge of the engine cowling was redesigned running almost horizontal to the ground. This redesign led to a more dramatic 'ramp' of the bodywork just prior to the cockpit. By lowering the cowling the angle of the upward flow of the nose increased to be able to clear the engine and its components. The use of a tubular-framed chassis meant the 4CLT was much more contoured, more aerodynamically efficient. The overall shape of the chassis gradually became more tear-drop shaped toward the rear of the car. The 4CLT/48 also utilized coiled springs as part of its suspension. Most other teams were using leaf springs, but the double wishbone arrangement made coil springs a good option. The redesign of the nose and chassis over the engine on the 4CLT further lowered the center of gravity of the car. This leant greater stability to the increased horsepower the driver had available. The lower nose led to a cowling more tightly fitting over the inline 4 cylinder engine. Overall, the chassis design was not as tall as the 4CL. The 48 variant, in true Maserati fashion, would score victory in that debut appearance at Sanremo and would become a sought after version for many teams. In fact, in the 1950 Formula One season it would be the 48 variant that would score the best finish for Maserati in the driver's championship. Despite the fact the 4CLT would take part in Formula One's first season its model reference would always be based around its debut at the Sanremo Grand Prix.
The model 48 wasn't the only variant of the 4CLT however. Like most cars in Formula One today, the 4CLT was going through constant updating. The next variant was practically the same as the 48 but with a few important changes. The fins machined into the brake drum that were used for cooling were replaced with a drum that had slits in it to help cool the drum from the build up of heat during braking. Some of the other small changes made included changes in the layout of the oil header tank and some of the controls in the cockpit. Despite the fact the car underwent some rather minor modifications those changes were made in 1949 and constituted the need for another model variant—the 4CLT/49. The model 49 improved upon the success the 48 achieved the year before. It would end up taking the victory in nine of the first fifteen races. Although the early part of the season was successful the last half of the season was a bit more of a struggle. Despite winning three more races in the season, competition from Ferrari and Talbot-Lago denied Maserati of more success. This would be a sign of what was to come next year during Formula One's inaugural season.
The Formula One World Championship began in 1950. Due to the increased competitiveness from the Alfa Romeo 158, as well as, other chassis like the Ferrari and Talbot-Lago, Maserati needed to respond and, thus, updated the 4CLT chassis making it into the 4CLT/50. Some of the most dramatic changes between the 50 and the 49 or 48 were those that went mostly unseen. The crankshaft on the 50 was changed, to where it was comprised of many pieces. The engine was equipped with a more powerful pair of superchargers. The ignition timing was even adjusted. All of these changes to the engine meant the output was increased to 280hp. Maserati found it was even able to lighten the overall weight of the chassis by some 22 pounds when it updated the chassis construction and design. All of these improvements meant the Maserati 4CLT/50 was almost on an even plane with the championship winning Alfa Romeos when it came to performance.
The performance gain, however, proved to be short-lived as the performance tweaking really stretched the old chassis and engine too far. The 50 proved to be too fragile over long distances. And in fact, the best result a Maserati chassis would achieve throughout the season was one third place, and that achieved by a 4CLT/48. Race-after-race the engines just kept failing. Though the 4CLT didn't seem to have the endurance anymore it still had the speed and handling that made it a threat to the competition. Though not official Formula One races, the 4CLT/50 was able to take victory at the Pau Grand Prix and the Richmond Trophy at Goodwood. Unfortunately, the first season of Formula One for Maserati made it clear the successful, dominant days for the 4CLT were behind it.
Many times there are events or happenings that will repeat; a seemingly perpetual starting over of events. The Maserati brothers started out by tuning racing machines for other people or companies. The ignorance, lack of belief in the brothers, or whatever reason would lead to the Maseratis striking out on their own building extremely good race machines. However, there would be some event, usually a world war, that would delay and hinder them. In the end, the Maserati brothers would end up back working for another despite the fact the company still bore their name. The brothers, after losing technical control, would move on and would start OSCA. Interestingly, the Maserati company knew the brothers, and their OSCA company, produced superior engines and, in fact, modified one of their 4CLT/49s to be able to accept the larger OSCA V12 engine.
Sometimes it's hard to measure success. Perhaps it is difficult to say an endeavor was successful when it ends up that the very people the company is named after end up having to sell their company, walk away to start another, and yet, their own name can't go with them. Based upon what happened to the Maserati brothers it is easy to say they were failures, that they were not able to achieve success. But perhaps the greatest, most enduring compliment (and proof that the Maseratis did it right) that could be given was the fact the name 'Maserati' lived on without them. And at least, racing wise, it was their 4CL, which led to the 4CLT, that made existence for Maserati possible.By Jeremy McMullen