|Maserati Tipo 63 Birdcage|
After a brief break, Maserati returned to racing in 1959 with the sophisticated and highly successful Tipo 60/61 'Birdcage'. Designed by Ing. Giulio Alfieri, the four-cylinder engined machine earned its nickname because of its spaceframe chassis that was constructed from a large number of short small-diameter tubes. Rapid developments in racing car design, specifically the mid-engine revolution, nevertheless forced Alfieri to start work on a replacement for the 'Birdcage' little over a year after it had been introduced.
Dubbed the Tipo 63, the new Maserati racer was one of Italy's first mid-engined sports racers. Despite moving the engine from ahead of the driver's compartment to behind it, Alfieri did carry over many of the mechanicals of the still hugely competitive Tipo 60/61. The key component of course was the sophisticated spaceframe chassis that had the front-engined machine its nickname. Due to the nature of its construction, the chassis design was relatively easily modified to suit its application. Simply put, the driver's seat and the engine were swapped around.
The compact double wishbone front suspension was carried over virtually unchanged. At the rear there were substantial changes as the DeDion axle with a single transverse leaf spring was replaced by a more straightforward double wishbone setup. Coil springs with Koni telescopic shock absorbers were fitted on all four corners, as were solid, hydraulically operated disc brakes. With the space behind the driver's compartment now filled with the engine and gearbox, there was no room left for the fuel tank. This was split into two separate tanks, mounted laterally on either side of the cockpit.
Alfieri intended the Tipo 63 to be powered by a three-litre variant of the V12 originally developed for the 250F Formula 1 car. By the time the first prototype was completed, the new engine was not yet available and the car was fitted with a 'four' from the earlier Birdcages. This was mated to a five speed gearbox. Like the Tipo 60/61, the new Birdcage was tightly wrapped in a curvaceous aluminium skin. Despite the mid-engine configuration the car only had a 2200 mm wheelbase and as a result was remarkably compact. Testing commenced late in 1960.
Maserati's return to racing was strictly limited to the construction and development of the cars, so privateer teams had to be found to actually race the new Tipo 63. Both Briggs Cunningham and Team Camoradi from the United States and Italy's Scuderia Serenissima showed an interest in the new Maserati and an initial run of four cars was built early in 1961. These were again fitted with the 2.9 litre four cylinder engine while Alfieri continued work on the V12. The two 'American' cars were completed in time for the Sebring 12 Hours in March.
Piloted by talented drivers like Bruce McLaren and Stirling Moss, the Tipo 63 had a troubled debut with both cars retiring. Next up for the new Maserati was the Le Mans Test where the three examples entered set the third, fourth and fifth fastest times. Scuderia Serenissima brought their two examples, still powered by the four-cylinder engine, to the Targa Florio where they finished fourth and fifth. They also campaigned the two cars in the Nurburgring 1000 km but engine failures ended the race prematurely for both 'Italian' Tipo 63.
At the Maserati factory the cars were then fitted with the new V12. Derived from the engine briefly used in the 250F and 350S in the 1950s, the three-litre unit featured twin overhead camshafts, and two valves and spark plugs per cylinders. Fuel was fed to the twelve cylinders through six twin-choke Weber carburettors. According to the official figures, the new 'Tipo 58' produced 320 bhp. At the same time, the cars were also fitted with slightly revised bodies with longer noses to improve the stability. The first V12-engined Tipo 63 had made its debut at the Le Mans test where it finished fourth.
Four examples, two each for Briggs Cunningham and Scuderia Serenissima, were entered for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all equipped with the V12 engine. Unfortunately only one of the Serenissima cars was ready in time for the race. The cars proved blisteringly fast and the quickest was on the pace with the Ferraris. Sadly the race ended early for one of the Cunningham cars and the Serenissima entry due to an accident and head-gasket failure respectively. The sole surviving example clinched a commendable fourth position; the best ever result for Maserati at Le Mans.
Briggs Cunningham brought one of the Le Mans cars to the United States and soon after took delivery of a new example, with a slightly longer wheelbase. Walt Hansgen and Augie Pabst raced the cars to two victories in the highly competitive USAC championship. Meanwhile Serenissima only fielded their Tipo 63s once more, at the Pescara 4 Hours. Reliability issues sidelined the cars early once again. Leased from the factory, both of these cars were returned to the factory after this final outing.
Back in Modena, Alfieri continued to develop the design with the help of a young Gian Paolo Dallara. The result was the Tipo 64 with a DeDion rear axle and a completely revised bodywork. Two cars were built and raced by Serenissima and Cunningham but suffered from a lack of development. A final version was the hastily thrown together Tipo 65, which combined one of the Tipo 63 chassis with the mighty V8 engine from the Tipo 151. The car was only raced at the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans where it, not surprisingly, failed to finish.
That Alfieri was on the right path was ironically underlined by arch-rival Ferrari, who continued their dominance with the mid, V12-engined 250 P from 1962 onwards. Whether the Tipo 63 and subsequent Tipo 64 could have ever matched the might of Ferrari, we will never know. The ambitious project could have certainly benefited from more development and direct factory involvement in the form of a works team. Today all cars are accounted for, although rebuilt and renumbered several times, they have caused much confusion among historians.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on December 18, 2006
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