The most successful race car in history? It came from a bankrupt Italian company. It had a broken engine. And its first race was almost its last.
In motorsports, drivers cheat death in every race, hoping to achieve immortality in a dangerous sport. With luck, a great driver can have a career lasting decades. The cars they race, meanwhile, are disposable. They have a shelf life that barely lasts a season. Advancements in technology can soon render them obsolete. They break. They crash. Their useful lives quickly end – on a scrap heap, in a collector’s garage, or in the best-case scenario, a museum.
But one race car stands out in the history of the sport, for the longest, most successful career anyone can recall: Its successes spanned parts of three decades! And it was a threat to win, just about every time it raced.
But started out as a flop.
For the 1938 Grand Prix season, German juggernauts Mercedes and Auto Union came out with new cars so powerful they crushed the competition. In Italy, the cash-strapped Maserati brothers turned out the 8CTF, a straight-8 roadster they hoped could at least serve as a placeholder until they could answer the Germans with a much more powerful model for the 1939 season.
The 8CTF was promisingly quick, but at its debut in the 1938 Tripoli Grand Prix, it broke. The disappointed, nearly broke Maserati brothers saw no choice but to park it. The failure nearly bankrupted them. Again.
The cash-strapped Maserati brothers had already sold the company to a local businessman, Adolfo Orsi; they stayed on as consultants.
The struggling company ultimately scraped plans for the 1939 model. (Compounding their bad luck, the 1940 8CL came out two weeks before Italy entered World War II; the dozen cars that were produced were hidden near Milan until after the war, when they re-appeared as “1946” models.)
But fate intervened. The Maserati brothers received an order from colorful Indy car team owner Mike Boyle for a new car. Gloom turned to joy when the Maserati brothers hatched a plan to sell him the 8CTF – essentially, emptying their trash can – and they were unspeakably happy when Boyle agreed to the staggering sum of $15,000 for the car. That was about three times the going rate for a top Indy car then.
They crated up their unloved 8CTF and shipped it off to America so quickly, then didn’t even drain its fluids.
This would prove to be a near-fatal error.
During the wintry voyage, the water in the radiator froze, and the straight-8’s cylinder walls split. That should have been the end of it. There was (then) no spare engine.
But Boyle’s clever chief mechanic, Cotton Henning, saved the day. He took the engine completely apart and figured out how to make a repair he hoped would hold.
Umbrella Mike, who earned his nickname as a Chicago labor boss who collected “tribute” cash in an umbrella, had bought the car for 1937 Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw. He was taking Shaw up on his boast that he could win Indy again, if only someone would buy him a Maserati like the one he had raced in the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup. (He had passed 30 cars with it, to finish ninth.)
Though Boyle wildly overpaid for the 8CTF, shed no tears for him. The Maserati would earn back in prize money many, many times what he had paid for it. It became a cash register on wheels.
And the Maserati brothers would become forever proud – if not completely incredulous – when the 8CTF went on to rule Indianapolis. This misbegotten machine became, by far, the most storied Maserati ever.
Though the car mechanically was poorly suited to the demands of on-off-the-throttle grand prix races on road courses, it was uniquely well designed for wide-open, full-throttle racing on big ovals.
The 8CTF’s 8-cylinder engine was actually two straight-4s bolted nose to tail, with separate superchargers for each. Reliability was such a concern for the 350-horsepower setup, the heads were cast right into the top of the block, eliminating the need for a head gasket – an area of feared weakness. Equipped with Roots-type blowers, which were effective at any speed, the 8CTF was also able to keep accelerating through corners – where other Indy racers were slowing down.
The Maserati also had big brakes, purpose-built for grand prix racing. Wilbur Shaw quickly learned how to use them to great advantage in traffic and cornering. Other Indy cars had passenger car brakes that were so bad, the racers could barely use them; they just slowed down dramatically for the corners.
Shaw ran away with the 1939 Indianapolis 500. He came back in 1940, and won it again. It was unheard of that the same car could win twice!
The Maserati was on its way to winning its third consecutive Indy 500 in 1941 when Shaw crashed, while leading in the late going, under mysterious circumstances. The explanation, which some find dubious (to this day), was a failure of a defective wheel had been put on during what was to be Shaw’s last pit stop. The wheel supposedly had been found to be defective before the race; to keep it from being used, it was marked with chalk. But a fire on race morning had destroyed much of the speedway’s garage area; when the firemen were hosing the burning buildings, it was said the chalk mark on the wheel was washed off.
Shaw suffered a broken back in the crash, and that essentially ended his driving career. (He went on to become the track’s president.)
When World War II came around, racing at the speedway stopped until 1946; that year the Maserati was brought back out to race again, with Ted Horn, who finished third. Horn came in third with it again in 1947, and fourth in 1948. It broke again while leading in 1949, with Lee Wallard at the wheel. Bill Vukovich passed his rookie test with it in 1950. The car was still being raced competitively in 1953, when it was 15 years old.
Correct me if I’m wrong, dear readers, but apparently only three 8CTFs were built; oddly all three ended up in America. At least two still exist. Louie Unser won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb twice in one of them.
In its latter days, the Maserati had an Offenhauser installed, but its original engine (and a backup) was retained, and reinstalled in the car when it was placed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. (An “Indianapolis” engine on display at Maserati headquarters in Modena, Italy, is actually from an 8CL, I’m told.)
The 8CTF was the crown jewel of the speedway’s collection of just six cars when it opened in 1956. (Wilbur Shaw, who was instrumental in acquiring the Maserati for the speedway’s collection of winning cars, had died in a 1954 plane crash).
The maroon Boyle Special roadster, emblazoned appropriately with the number “1”, still occupies a place of honor there, even though the speedway’s collection has grown to more than 400 vehicles.
“It was, without a doubt, the most successful race car in the history of the track, says Donald Davidson, the speedway’s historian.
Asked specifically if he could remember any car in racing history that had as long a career, or greater success, Davidson answered, “Nothing that I know of.”
September 19, 2016
(For more on this amazing race car, check out my previous post.)