The ex-Prince 'Bira'
1948 MASERATI 4CLT/48 1.5 LITRE SUPERCHARGED GRAND PRIX MONOPOSTO
Chassis No. 1598
Engine No. 1577
Italian racing red with black seat and cockpit trim
Engine: four cylinders, in-line, twin overhead camshafts, two valves per cylinder, Roots two-stage supercharger, 1,498cc, 260bhp at 7,000rpm; Gearbox: four-speed manual; Suspension: front, independent with coil-springs and hydraulic shock-absorbers, rear, quarter-elliptic leaf springs and hydraulic shock-absorbers; Brakes: four wheel hydraulic drum. Single seat racing car.
Following the transfer of the company from Fratelli Maserati to the Orsi Family just after the end of World War II, Officine Maserati continued to build racing cars based very closely on their machines from the 1939-40 season. However, prior to 1950 when the World Championship was inaugurated, Grand Prix races were run to the pre-war Voiturette formula of 1½ litres supercharged and they also permitted cars that were 4½ litres unsupercharged. With the shortages of both funding and raw materials for manufacturers, this era provided a great opportunity for privateers and amateurs to continue or to participate in these events with a wide variety of old and new-styled cars. The factory did not re-constitute an official Works-team until 1950, so it supported these customer/purchasers to a greater or lesser degree with back-up support in International races, and a number of cars were sold: two cars to the Automobil Club of Argentina, two each to the Milan-Team and to Scuderia Ambrosiana, both of which benefited directly from factory involvement, and others in Britain and Europe to well-known participants including Reg Parnell and Prince Birabongse Bhanubadh of Siam, or 'B. Bira' as he preferred to be known, who through close involvement with his cousin Chula, had made a successful impact in European Voiturette Races before the war with various cars including MG, ERA and Maserati.
Developments on the cars for 1948 included a new chassis design and replacing the old-style channel-sections with tubular longitudinal rails to give a lighter stiffer frame which, with alterations to both front and rear suspension details, gave both improved cornering stability and a facility for a lower center of gravity, enabling the designer Fantuzzi to produce a most attractive low-line body style. The front suspension improvements included replacing the old torsion bars with the combined Houdaille patent shock absorbers, while to the rear was added a new radius-rod location and Houdaille hydraulic damper units. Mechanically, however, the company had not developed any new powerplant so to improve performance output from the existing design, they added another supercharger in tandem which incorporated a two-stage system with one unit working at a higher engine-driven speed to increase the induction pressure. While the production cars claimed a power output of 260bhp at 7,000rpm, the specially developed engines used by the Maserati-Milan cars ultimately claimed over 300bhp, with specially developed cylinder head designs. But with such highly stressed developments came an element of unreliability. However, when first introduced in the spring of 1948, the type manufactured from that date was afforded the addition of a suffix to become the 4CLT/48, the additional letter 'T' stood for Tubolare describing the new tubular chassis frame which distinguished it from the earlier counterparts.
Scuderia Ambrosiana ran two cars for Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi. Villoresi finished second to Wimille's Alfa Romeo 158 on the car's debut in the San Remo Grand Prix, and thereafter 4CLT/48's were nicknamed 'San Remos'. Competition was becoming stronger from both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, but it is no small tribute to the success of the cars that they were able to attract the drivers of international caliber such as Fangio, Farina, Chiron, Taruffi, Bira, Parnell and de Graffenreid, all of whom claimed significant results with the type. Altogether the production accounted for 20 examples built during 1948/9 and two more modified cars for 1950.
Prince Bira competed in a 'San Remo' car for two or three seasons and entered several European Grand Prix races including the 1949 British event at Silverstone, which the previous year had been won by Villoresi with Ascari second in a 4CLT one-two; at one stage Bira was leading the race before mechanical problems ruled him out. He scored a number of second place finishes during the season including second to Fangio in the San Remo Grand Prix, second to Chiron in the French Grand Prix at Reims, he was 3rd at the Zandvoort Grand Prix and the car also ran very well at Albi where Bira was second again to Fangio in a sister machine. Bira alternated drives with both his own independently entered car and others. On occasion, he drove for the Enrico Plate two-car team. He competed in both British and Dutch Grands Prix in 1950 as well, but although he was the fastest Maserati behind the three new Alfa Romeo 159 cars at Silverstone, by now the car was somewhat outclassed and did not finish.
Subsequent events of a lesser nature were competed in, but with the advent of a change of formula for Grand Prix racing, the car had become obsolete and was replaced when Bira opted to race an OSCA. It is believed to have been sold to South America, where many of Europe's top Grand Prix contenders seemed to have ended their days. Here a period in its history becomes lost, until the car was identified in South America in the late 1960s and a few years later it was rescued by renowned car sleuth, Mr. Colin Crabbe. The 4CLT remains were returned to England and for many years it was assumed this car was either chassis number 1599 or 1598, however, the last digit was illegible owing to past damage. By a process of elimination, Maserati specialists knew that it was either the former Bira car or another car which had gone to Argentina. Just over a year ago the car bearing chassis number 1599 came to light and was then sold last year. This evidence therefore leads us to firmly believe that this car bears chassis number 1598, the same car which was first sold new to Prince Bira.
When found, it was missing the Maserati engine, having been fitted with a chevy unit and transmission. Most of the body was also missing, but in latter years has been restored to original specification after painstaking work to acquire original parts and patterns. It has now been fitted with engine no. 1577, which was originally in chassis no. 1579, having been built in 1946 and delivered to the Maserati-Milan Team. Much of the restoration work was undertaken by the highly respected Maserati racing specialist Sean Danaher in England. It was necessary to replace or fabricate new parts to re-constitute the mechanical elements including a new crankcase, the older one proving too damaged over the years to be practicable. On the other hand, the gearbox, transmission, axles and suspension parts are original Maserati components. The old body had been removed long since and all new panels have been made following the original design. Since restoration, for which many bills are available outlining work carried out, the car has performed admirably, racing at the Monterey Historic event and, most recently, at the inaugural Goodwood 'Revival' Circuit meeting in England. It is believed to be in race-ready preparation and with such history behind it, should receive a welcome at any such historic race-meet venue.