Classic: Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage”

Cars, Features I By Ronan Glon I May 23, 2014
photos courtesy of RM Auctions and Ultimatecarpage.com
 
Maserati put an end to its successful factory-sponsored racing program in 1957 because it found itself in dire financial straits after enduring a challenging decade.  Racing boosted the company’s image worldwide, but it also drained precious resources that management believed could be better allocated to developing profitable road-going models.
 
The automaker presented a large coupe christened 3500 GT at the 1957 edition of the Geneva Motor Show.  Equipped with a potent 3.5-liter straight-six engine, the 3500 GT became Maserati’s most successful model and it almost single-handedly returned the company to profitability.  With the future looking brighter, Maserati saw an opportunity to capitalize on its extensive racing expertise by manufacturing a race car that it could sell to wealthy privateers in Europe and abroad.  Chief engineer Giulio Alfieri – the man responsible for the 3500 GT – began developing the Trident’s racer in 1958.
 
Alfieri designed an innovative frame made with about 200 steel tubes that were carefully welded together, a design that earned the car the nickname “Birdcage.”  The frame tipped the scale at just 79 pounds and it made the Birdcage more rigid than many of its competitors.  Weight was further kept in check by a body hand-crafted out of aluminum.
 
 
Officially known as the Tipo 60, the original Birdcage was powered by a heavily-modified version of the 200S race car’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.  It was tuned to generate 200 horsepower at 7,800 rpms, enough to propel the 1,267-pound car to a top speed of 167 mph.  Maserati chose to work with the 200S’ engine instead of designing a new unit from scratch because it was a proven design that was cheap to manufacture and relatively easy to tune. 
 
Most of Maserati’s competitors had switched to building rear- or mid-engined cars by the late-1950s but Alfieri stuck with a conventional front-mounted engine.  The mill was tilted at a 45-degree angle in order to lower the center of gravity, a setup that also allowed designers to give the Birdcage a low hood that quickly became one of its defining styling cues.
 
 
Power was sent to the rear wheels via a five-speed transaxle mounted at the rear of the car to improve weight distribution.  The suspension was largely cobbled together using bits and pieces sourced from the 250F and 300S race cars, and the Tipo 60 was equipped with Girling-built disc brakes on all four corners.
 
The Tipo 60 made its track debut at the 1959 Coupe Delamare Debauteville in Rouen, France.  Famed pilot Stirling Moss easily captured first place, putting the Birdcage in the international spotlight.  Orders soon arrived from all over Europe.
 
The Tipo 61
American racers got wind of Moss’ victory and asked Maserati to create a more powerful version of the Birdcage to compete in the D Modified class that was opened to cars with an engine displacement ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 cubic centimeters.  Maserati was happy to oblige and its engineers expanded the four-cylinder’s displacement to 2.9-liters, the highest the block could be pushed to.  Fed by two double-barrel Weber 48 carburetors, the four-banger made 250 horsepower and enabled the 1,322-pound Birdcage to reach a new top speed of 177 mph.  The upgraded Birdcage was introduced in November of 1959 as the Tipo 61.
 
 
The Tipo 61 attracted the attention of a wealthy Miami-based car dealer named Lloyd Casner who operated a team called Casner Motor Racing Division (Camoradi in short).  Camoradi fielded the Tipo 61 in a host of events around the world including the 1960 editions of the 1,000 kilometers of Argentina, the Havana Grand Prix, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the LA Times Grand Prix and Sicily’s Targa Florio.  One of Camoradi’s biggest victories came in May of that year when a Tipo 61 driven by Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss took first place in the 1,000 kilometers of the Nürburgring in Germany.  Camoradi repeated the victory the following year.
 
Casner’s Camoradi team boldly entered no less than three Tipo 61s with modified bodies in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans.  The cars were much faster than the competition but they were plagued with mechanical issues and not a single one finished the race. 
 
 
Most historians agree a total of 22 Tipo 60s and Tipo 61s were built from 1959 to 1961.  Original examples are few and far between because many Birdcages were crashed and either rebuilt, used for parts or destroyed entirely.  A lot of the remaining models were modified in the 1960s and 1970s with different bodies (including the aforementioned Le Mans racers) and more powerful engines ranging from Ferrari to Ford units.  Some cars were modified in-house, too.  Notably, the very first Tipo 60 that was built in March of 1959 was converted to a Tipo 61 in November of that year.
 
Legacy
The Birdcage’s success encouraged Maserati to build additional racers.  The subsequent models (called Tipo 63 and Tipo 64, respectively) used a tubular frame whose design was similar to that of the Birdcage but they were powered by more potent 12-cylinder engines mounted behind the driver. 
 
The ultimate evolution of the Birdcage was a one-off called Tipo 65 hastily built in just 30 days to compete in the 1965 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Equipped with a 430-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 engine, the Tipo 65’s career came to an end when it crashed ten minutes into the race.

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