Rare by Design

Exclusivity was the hallmark of the Ferrari 500 Superfast and Maserati 5000 GT. We find, and drive, both.

Photo: Rare by Design 1
November 30, 2010

In the mid-1960s, wealthy individuals in search of the ultimate Italian GT needed to look no further than the Ferrari 500 Superfast. Launched at the Geneva Auto Show in 1964, the Superfast was the latest in a long line of exclusive, hand-built boutique cars with big V12 engines targeted at royals, celebrities and industrialists, the sort of people who felt an “ordinary” Ferrari was simply too pedestrian. Like its America and Superamerica predecessors, the 400-horsepower Superfast combined race-bred performance with continental-crushing comfort. Just 36 examples were produced.

Ferrari wasn’t alone in catering to the rich and famous, of course. Just down the road from Maranello, arch rival Maserati offered its own exquisitely couture model, the 5000 GT. The V8-powered Maserati promised the same mix of performance, comfort and exclusivity in a distinctly Trident wrapper. Between 1959 and ’66, Maserati built just 32 (or 34, depending on one’s historical interpretation) of the 5-liter machines.

In short, the Superfast and 5000 GT were truly in a league of their own, thanks to their fantastically high (if never independently verified) 170-mph plus top speeds, tiny production runs and steep price tags. Indeed, the cars’ prices likely inspired as much awe as their claimed terminal velocities: The Ferrari cost nearly 20 percent more than a Rolls-Royce Phantom V Limousine, while the Maserati’s sticker was the equivalent of two Mercedes 300SLs. Each car was built to order and, perhaps not surprisingly, many have since been identified with their first owner, from the Shah of Iran to Peter Sellers.


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The Superfast story begins in 1951, when Ferrari decided to build a road-going version of the 340 America race car that had just won the Mille Miglia. Powered by a 4.1-liter version of Aurelio Lampredi’s fixed-head Grand Prix engine, the 342 America appealed to wealthy clients who were more interested in high-speed touring than racing. These cars were delivered to a coachbuilder of the customer’s choice, and were thus bodied in a wide range of styles, both open and closed. A larger-engined version, the 375 America, appeared in 1954, and the still larger, 5-liter 410 Superamerica debuted in ’56.

In 1960, Ferrari replaced the 410 SA with the 400 Superamerica, which did away with the Lampredi engine in favor of a 4-liter version of the Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12 typically used in Ferrari’s road cars. The car’s mission remained the same, however, as did the wide variety of body styles.

The streamlined 400 SA Coupe Aerodinamico led most directly to the birth of the 500 Superfast. The Superfast refined the Aerodinamico’s styling with a truncated tail, exposed rather than covered headlights, and clean flanks devoid of fussy moldings. For the first time in this exclusive lineup, only one body style was available, and there were no one-offs. The Superfast also featured a unique engine, the Type 208, which combined the long-block Lampredi architecture of 108mm bore spacing with the removable cylinder heads of the Colombo design.

The Superfast’s steel chassis was very similar to the contemporary 330 GT’s, and featured Ferrari’s usual independent front/live rear suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Two series of cars were built over a 28-month period between 1964 and ’66, concurrent with the 330 GT. The first 25 Superfasts featured a four-speed gearbox with electric overdrive, while the final 12 featured a five-speed ’box. The only visual differences were the treatment of the air outlets on the front fenders and, on the inside, suspended rather than floor-hinged pedals.

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Our featured first-series Superfast (s/n 6661SF) was ordered by British stock broker Jack S. Durlacher. However, when the car was delivered in June 1965, it had so many problems—poor brakes, rust, noisy engine—that Durlacher sent it back, and had Ferrari build him a new one. He had issues with that car, as well, but s/n 6661 went on to have a happy life with seven subsequent owners, including Le Mans winner Richard Attwood.

In the haze of a Cotswold summer afternoon, I’m not sure the Superfast is an especially beautiful car—but I still love it. For a start, it’s unashamedly big, almost as long as a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. The Ferrari looks squat and self-assured on its deeply inset Borrani wheels, massively shod (for the 1960s, anyway) with 205-section tires.

More compelling, the Superfast has a real aura of craftsmanship, one which gives it a powerful feeling of occasion. The way the front fenders form one huge panel with the nose, and the way the fine shut lines of the hood barely interrupt the sweep of steel up to the base of the windshield, give the impression that these huge, seamless panels were teased out over a wooden master buck by hammer-wielding artisans, perhaps under the critical eye of Mr. Pininfarina himself. (Each owner received personal attention from Pininfarina, sometimes even from Enzo Ferrari.) The Blu Chiaro paint flatters the car’s soft curves and all its elegant details, like the slender bumpers protecting each corner and the jewel-like taillights.

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The Superfast’s cabin is, as you would expect, very refined. The handsome instrument panel holds five dials, and the headliner is classic quilted Pininfarina. There are few distractions. While the car could be ordered with air-conditioning, power steering and rear seats, this one has only a rather basic radio and electric windows. It is the quality of the materials and their assembly that is deluxe, rather than the specification.

The engine fires with a turn of the key, and I drive slowly until all its fluids are warm. The Superfast’s steering is heavy at low speeds, and its turning radius is huge; I guide the car in big, crude sweeps. Luckily, Ferrari fitted a large steering wheel so I can put plenty of leverage on the helm, which is well-placed in relation to the assertive-looking gearshift jutting from the center console.

The Ferrari’s brakes and clutch are equally meaty in their demands, but the sense of effort falls away as speed builds, and the slight vagueness becomes absolute straight-line stability. I can now guide the Superfast with small hand movements, and precisely change gears with a mere flick of the wrist.

While the Ferrari will reach 70 mph in second gear, it’s more in keeping to hum along in fourth using just two-thirds of the available 6,500 rpm, knowing that three-figure speeds are available without really trying. The Superfast is relatively quiet at 120 mph, allowing me to sit back and cruise along comfortably, gazing down the long hood. But when I drop down a gear and hit the throttle, the Superfast lunges forward, engulfing me in a roar of deep-lunged combustion as 12 cylinders—each “the size of a Chianti flask,” according to Enzo Ferrari—instantly take their cue from the big Weber carburetors.

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When the road begins to twist and turn, I discover that the Superfast’s handling is pretty vice-less, considering that it’s a large, 45-year-old car, and even pretty good on smooth surfaces. The Ferrari tells me everything that’s going on, although it’s just that little bit too big, that little bit too heavy, to ever to let me completely disregard my inhibitions.

There is, however, something deeply satisfying about guiding the Superfast spiritedly—but never rashly—through the curves, riding a silken wave of torque on the effortless gear ratios. I romp between corners in third and fourth, then slice down into second and feed in just enough power to kill the understeer. The wood rim of the Nardi wheel slides between my fingers as it self-centers, and I note that the horizon has stayed fairly level, my position in the generously sized seat mostly unaltered.

When all is said and done, of course, the Superfast is really all about big roads, big destinations and motoring as a glamorous adventure. And for that, there were few better machines back in its day. Except, perhaps, the 5000 GT.

5000 GT 101

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The Maserati has a more complicated biography than the Ferrari. While there was just one basic Superfast, the 5000 GT lineup included eight different coachbuilders and two distinct technical specifications. Interestingly, it took a king to get the ball rolling.

In 1958, the Shah of Iran asked Maserati’s owner, Omer Orsi, to build him a unique road car powered by the 4.5-liter quad-cam 90° V8 engine from the mighty 450S sports racer. Orsi agreed, and the 5000 GT was born.

Maserati chief engineer Guilio Alfieri was tasked with developing the car. His first act was to increase the engine’s swept volume to 4,937cc. He also lowered the compression ratio from 9.5:1 to 8.5:1 and swapped the dry sump for a wet one, but retained the helical gear drive for the four camshafts, along with the roller cam followers, hairpin valve springs and twin distributors for the 16 spark plugs. With four twin-throat Weber carburetors, the reworked engine produced 325 hp. It was placed in a strengthened 3500 GT road-car chassis, which had front disc/rear drum brakes and a four-speed ZF gearbox.

Only the first two 5000 GTs were built to this “pure” 450S specification, however. After that, Alfieri reworked the engine to improve its civility. The V8’s bore was reduced and its stroke lengthened to flatten the torque curve (overall capacity increased slightly, to 4,941cc). The noisy camshaft gear drive was abandoned in favor of chains, and conventional valve springs and cup-type tappets were used. Perhaps most significant was the adoption of Lucas fuel injection, which improved driveability.

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These second-series engines produced 340 hp as of 1961, and featured green camshaft covers (in magnesium alloy, like the sump). They were placed in chassis which received the improvements seen on later 3500 GTs, principally a five-speed gearbox and disc brakes all around.

Carrozzeria Touring of Milan bodied the first three 5000 GTs, but other coachbuilders soon got interested. Pininfarina built a muscular coupe for Gianni Agnelli, while Ghia, Bertone and Michelotti each bodied one car apiece. Monterosa built two, and Frua did three which predicted his direction for the forthcoming Quattroporte.

However, Carrozzeria Allemano built the lion’s share of 5000 GTs, 22 examples in total. In many ways, this body, styled by Giovanni Michelotti, was the most conventionally attractive of all, with its distinctive wraparound rear window and Citroen Ami headlamps. Indeed, this version became the “standard” 5000 GT, complete with its own brochure, although none of the individual cars are identical.


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Sold new to a Signor Belponer in January 1964, this 5000 GT (s/n AM103.026) went to a second owner in the United States early on. Musician Joe Walsh of The Eagles bought it in the 1970s, but the car later spent 20 years with collector Ken McBride in Seattle. In 2000, it was sold to a UK owner.

Compared to some of the gruesome styling efforts perpetrated on this chassis, Allemano’s all-steel body is a model of restraint. It looks imposing, distinguished and powerful, with only a certain richness of detail and finish to distinguish it—at least to the untrained eye—from lesser Maseratis.

Inside, the car is severe, and, once again, there is little to differentiate it from the six-cylinder Masers of its day. While the Shah of Iran’s 5000 GT featured gold-plated dials and switches, among other finery, this one is understated in black leather. There is nothing as effete as ergonomics in evidence, just a wooden Nardi steering wheel and a handful of beautiful instruments set in a dashboard of leather and brushed stainless-steel trim.

I fire up the V8, and discover that while the 5000 GT’s engine looks similar (apart from those lurid green cam covers) to the V8s Maserati built for its series-production models in the ’60s and ’70s, it feels quite different. It’s grumpy and edgy and a little ragged low down, like a racer, and its throttle responds instantly to my foot, thanks to its Lucas fuel injection, a technology Maserati pioneered on its road cars in the early 1950s. The throttle is so responsive, in fact, that it takes a while to learn how to move with the car, how too relax a bit.

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Striding out onto the highway, the V8 makes a loud, expensive, resonant growl, a complex weave of race-hardened brutality and the lush burble of a motor boat. It’s a noise that makes me think of the oil-stained racing heroes who grappled with the unforgiving 450S, and it’s accompanied by a greedy lurch as the car reels in the horizon.

Despite its age, the 5000 GT still belongs in the outside lane. I slot the ZF gearbox into fifth and cruise along at 100 mph. That equates to around 3,000 rpm, and with the engine’s full 7,000 available, the claimed 170-mph top speed should be within its grasp—aerodynamics willing.

The Maser is not so happy on twisting country lanes. All of its controls (steering, brakes, shifter, clutch) require man-sized inputs, and driving it turns into a bit of a workout. Hanging onto the slim, cool wooden steering wheel is required in the corners, as the seats don’t embrace my torso much, and the car really begins to feel its size. I have to pour the Maserati carefully into slow corners, then crack open the throttle a bit to help it through and cancel out the understeer. But then I get a promising taste of those slightly mean, slightly unkempt horses as the car punches past the apex, accompanied by the V8’s rising thunder.

The 5000 GT rides well, but its chassis—a rugged collection of oval tubes—doesn’t seem altogether stiff. And, like all Masers of the era, this one’s underpinnings are nothing but a well-honed international melting pot of quite ordinary components: Dunlop discs, Salisbury axle, ZF steering and gears, etc. They work wonderfully together, though.

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Despite their very similar missions and audiences, the Ferrari and Maserati are very different machines. The Allemano-bodied 5000 GT is visually simpler, a brutal shape with instant authority in its assertive nose and long flat hood, and its fuel-injected 325-hp V8 barks and snaps with the intemperate feel of a racing car flexing its muscles. In contrast, the Pininfarina-penned Ferrari is long and sensual, with curves that invite a caress, and its 5-liter V12 growls with silken confidence.

So which one would I prefer to have in my garage? Overall, the Ferrari is probably the more accomplished car; it’s more refined and more usable (as if that really matters with cars like these). The 5000 GT, on the other hand, offers more authority and an additional element of intrigue that is difficult to define. They are both noble cars.

Honestly, though, if I was in a position to purchase just one of them, I would immediately regret it and want the other. The Ferrari and the Maserati are oddly complementary, so I reckon the Aga Khan had the right idea—he simply bought one of each.

Also from Issue 107

  • 458 Italia first drive
  • F1 race report
  • Gerhard Berger interview
  • Novitec Rosso 430 Scuderia
  • ALMS: Season finale
  • Market Update: The Classic V12s
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