Maserati is looking awfully sensible these days. The products aren’t perfect, but the brand seems to have its shit together. Owned by Fiat since 1993, the famed Italian company doesn’t currently build any outlandish sports cars, but does have an SUV in its range, a diesel option for all its models, and is - rather sagely - investing big in EVs.
Sure, there is the mid-engined MC20 and an all-new Gran Turismo to consider, but the company was a very different entity back in the early 1990s. Fiat wasn’t yet in full control, although it had taken a 49 per cent stake in the company. Behind the wheel was, as it had been since 1975, De Tomaso.
In a bid to cut costs, every single one of Maserati’s products at this point were derivations of the old BiTurbo. Ideally, a cash injection was needed to refresh its dated and slow-selling (about 1000 units a year) portfolio, and yet, it was decided that the brand really ought to make a highly bespoke mid-engined supercar. Right.
There were no half measures with the ‘Chubasco’, either. Lamborghini Miura, Countach and Diablo designer Marcello Gandini - who’d worked with Maserati previously on two of the BiTurbo’s facelifts - styled a body that was to be built on a ‘backbone’ platform. The suspension was a motorsport-style inboard-mounted, pushrod-actuated setup, and power came from a fettled version of the Shamal’s 3.2-litre twin-turbo V8.
It looked wild in a way only an early 1990s supercar could, but the accountants - in this case rightly - had their way, with the project cancelled due to the potentially enormous costs involved. The Chubasco should have become little more than a footnote in Maserati’s history, but no, it was decreed that this struggling company needed its own one-make racing series, and its stillborn supercar could provide the platform. The Barchetta was born.
It dropped a couple of cylinders relative to its forefather, but the car’s 2.0-litre turbocharged V6 - pinched from the Ghibli - was plenty powerful with an output of 315bhp. It’s not like it had a whole lot of weight to propel, either - removable bodywork made from aluminium, fibreglass and carbon fibre layers, and a lack of a roof helped keep the bulk down to just 775kg.
A creation like this wouldn’t have been feasible in-house, so a third-party was drafted in - Synthesis Design. This concern was run by Carlo Gaino, who’d previously worked on the Alfa Romeo 155 GTA.
An inboard, double-wishbone suspension layout was retained. The V6 was mounted longitudinally in the middle, powering the rear wheels via a ZF straight-cut gearbox and a limited-slip differential.
It was a gamble, particularly since this was being launched slap bang in the middle of a recession. And no, it didn’t pay off. The Grantrofeo Monomarca Barchetta Maserati lasted just two seasons.
In 1991 there were six rounds in Italy, expanding to a ten-race calendar in 1992 mostly in Maserati’s home country but incorporating a couple of events in the Netherlands. Grids were small in both years, and Maserati never managed to get more than 13 cars on track.
There was supposed to be 25 racers and a series of Barchetta Stradale road cars, but in the end, there were just 16 competition cars and one road-going prototype. A smattering of Barchettas were converted for street use, including an example auctioned via RM Sotheby’s in 2018 (above) with an estimate of £220,000 - £240,000, although it failed to sell.
The cancellation of the Grantrofeo Barchetta Maserati wasn’t quite the end of the car’s history. Its platform lived on to underpin the De Tomaso Guarà, produced the year after the Argentine/Italian plan had walked away from Maserati.
Carlo Gaino and Synthesis Design were once again called in for the design - initially a coupe. A spider and - just like its Maserati relative - a Barchetta eventually followed. For early versions, De Tomaso broke with its tradition of using Ford V8s, using instead an M60 V8 4.0-litre V8 from BMW. This was later swapped for a Blue Oval-sourced 4.6-litre supercharged eight-banger.
Its volumes were low too, but De Tomaso at least made more of them than the 16 completed Maserati Barchettas; a total of 50 were built, most of them coupes. Production lasted from 1994 until 2004, ending when De Tomaso went bust.
The year before De Tomaso’s demise, Maserati had another crack at the one-make series thing, and actually made it stick with the Trofeo Maserati, which ran for over a decade. However, the success of the 4200 and Gran Turismo-based racers can’t hope to rival the intriguing story surrounding the Trident’s first attempt.