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Saving a Piece of Italy’s Automobile History

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Tags: Heritage
Why was Maserati on the verge of losing its heritage forever? And what have the iconic tridents got to do with organic cheese? You’ll find the answers here…
Janine Vogler, September 06, 2018
Janine Vogler Vintage cars related to ZF-products have been at the heart of the journalist. Outside of work, she enjoys to ride motor bike or to be accompanied in nature by her dog.
Following the saying "no future without a past", it has become common practice for auto manufacturers to flaunt their tradition when launching new models on the market. At Maserati, the idea that things that take time to grow conveys quality and strength attributes and create trust on the market was a popular marketing strategy, the subjects of which, i.e. its classic cars, were almost lost forever. Today, the iconic collection of cars once housed in the company's factory museum can now be viewed in all its grandeur in probably the most beautiful car museum in Italy. However, the museum itself is located on an organic cheese farm.

If you didn't know it was there, you would pass right by. Somewhere between Modena and Maranello, down a well-maintained dirt track and far from the hustle and bustle of the Lamborghini or Ferrari museums lies "Hombre" – a large ranch with wide open spaces. It covers 310 hectares of land on which a good 500 head of cattle can be seen grazing. They produce 6,000 liters of milk daily which is turned into the finest organic parmesan cheese. But hidden in an unnoticeable, barnlike hall flanked on each side by numerous tractors from the most diverse brands and manufacturers – almost welcoming incredulous visitors and letting them know that they are indeed in the right place – is Mecca for any true Maserati fan.
Hombre Collection: For anyone interested in cars or Italian automobile art, a visit to this museum is an experience not to be missed.

Around the corner, behind a glass door, is the largest and most exclusive Maserati collection that can be marveled at anywhere in the world: the "Collezione Umberto Panini (CUP)." An impressive starting field of historic race rarities such as the 250F, A6GCS Berlinetta or the legendary 420M/58 Eldorado is – to our amazement – headed up by the more modern Maserati Levante. Giovanni Panini, the youngest son of Umberto, explains why: "The Levante was shown with the classic car collection as part of a cooperation. Because the Maserati classic collection from the former factory museum is located here, newly launched models are presented to special guests by the manufacturer."

Almost any child who collects stickers is familiar with the name Panini, the company that kicked off the sticker trading and collection craze. Together with three of his brothers, Umberto Panini owned a small newspaper publishing company in the 1950s in Modena, Italy. Out of this business later grew the sticker empire. However, Panini actually worked as a trained welder and mechanic for the companies Stanguellini and Maserati. He initially went looking for his personal luck in Venezuela, where he worked from 1957 to 1964. He started there as a farm equipment mechanic, eventually becoming an absolute subsistence farmer and ultimately maturing to become a true "hombre". In the meantime, back home in Modena, the sticker album business was heating up. Once his brothers were barely able to keep up with demand, they had to build factories. They called Umberto back to Modena where he began developing highly innovative mixing and packaging machines for the stickers. However, he did not want to give up his dream of a life on the land, so he purchased this "Finca" or ranch in 1972 and named it "Hombre." Panini started out with 30 head of cattle, producing pure organic parmesan cheese, typical of the region, in a closed ecological system.

In 1989 the Panini brothers sold the entire sticker empire, which enabled Umberto to concentrate on his cheese production as well as pursuing his passion – collecting vintage tractors, motorcycles and cars. Inspired by the Schlumpf Collection at the Mulhouse Car Museum, he decided in the early 90s to construct a building on his ranch to house his auto collection. To this end, he searched painstakingly throughout all of Italy for the right antique vehicles to add to his inventory and spent two years setting it up.
Maserati 3500 GT: The successor of the A6G 54 was equipped with the three different ZF transmission.

His car-loving sons Matteo, Marco and Giovanni now manage the collection they inherited from their father who died in 2013. "My father was certainly a collector, but at heart, he was a simple man," explains Giovanni, who, meanwhile, gives tours of the museum with just as much enthusiasm as his father: "The satisfaction of the visitors was very important to him as well as the museum's ambience. This is a fantastic place and he wanted every visitor here to have a true experience for both the eyes and the heart – and to come away with fond memories." Originally, his father wanted to focus on collecting anything and everything powered by an engine. With his love of detail in designing the museum, it is almost as if Umberto Panini had already sensed at that time that he would one day provide a home to a very special treasure.

“Each of the Maseratis here tells a small piece of Maserati history.”

Actually, how he came to own this unique collection of Maseratis is the stuff movies are made of. In the early 90s, about a year before the Fiat Group bought out Maserati, Alejandro de Tomaso, the government-appointed CEO at the time, split the company into two: Maserati S.p.A and Officine Alfieri Maserati (OAM) where this company's factory also had a small museum that housed the almost 20 iconic Maserati classic cars. To be on the safe side, he first removed these vehicles to have them restored, so for a while they disappeared from the picture. When he then sold Maserati S.p.A. to Fiat in 1993, the collection of valuable vehicles was not included in the deal. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Maserati, a small exhibition was planned for the Bologna Motor Show in 1994. For this occasion, De Tomaso loaned the company a few chronologically arranged models and several engines. The company wanted its true customers and visitors to at least be able to enjoy a sampling of this piece of Italian automobile history. Two years later, De Tomaso wanted the cars back, but offered Maserati the opportunity to purchase the 15 engines, which were then acquired to be exhibited at the company's headquarters.

De Tomaso then secretly shipped the rest of the vehicles along with the true milestone vehicles of Maserati auto history, to London where he wanted to auction them off. Some of the workers who were initially involved in restoring the vehicles – the project commissioned by De Tomaso – found out about his dreadful plan and informed Adolfo Orsi Jr. He was the clever grandson of the former company owner and sounded the alarm by informing the press, the minister of culture, the mayor and also the Stanguellini family. Sure enough, the very next day, De Tomaso was surrounded by an angry mob of Modenans in front of his house. In fact, the entire city was in an absolute uproar about the idea that their inherent automobile history was about to be taken out of the country and scattered around the world, to be lost forever. The pressure was so great that De Tomaso had no other choice than to withdraw the vehicles from the auction and return them to Modena.
Part of the collection: ZF S4-17 Synchroma transmission.

At the same time, Umberto Panini, who had become very rich due to the success and sale of his company, was able to persuade Adolfo Orsi and his allies to sell him the entire collection. Panini made an arrangement with the auction house, paid the commission and brought an important piece of Italy's auto heritage back to Modena, to his ranch. Two years later, Maserati offered to sell him the surprising remnants of the collection, which included many spare parts and special car chasses. I say surprising because they were unexpectedly discovered on the top floor of the old factory museum. This was quite a find! Everything had to be cleaned out and there were enough parts and materials to build four additional cars. The discovery included a 250F with V12 engine. The V6 variant of the model helped Juan Manuel Fangio become the F1 world champion in 1957. Also among the findings was a Type 63, the successor to the Type 61, known as the "bird cage", whose chassis was produced out of 200 thin lattice pipes. Not only that, the treasure revealed a beautiful 6A54 (the first Maserati equipped with a ZF transmission) and the world's only 420M/58 Eldorado! "Each of the Maseratis here tells a small piece of Maserati history," explains Giovanni with a look of pride on his face.
Maserati 6C 34: Tarzio Nuvolari started with the Monoposto at the Grand Prix of Modena.

"The Eldorado, for example, was built for the 100-mile race in Monza. At that time, the company – an ice cream manufacturer – that sponsored this Maserati project wanted an American style race car, which is how the small Eldorado cowboy logo ultimately ended up on the car. In fact, this Maserati race car was the first ever in Europe to advertise the products of a company that had nothing to do with cars."
Along the sides of the museum are exhibited more well-known production models such as the 3500 GT, Bora, Ghibli, Quattroporte or Mistral; the upper gallery also houses interesting prototypes like a Simun, which went into volume production as an indy with three ZF transmission models (S5-20, S5-325 and S5-24/3) or a Chubasco. You can even see a flange-mounted ZF transmission S4-17 there.

For anyone interested in cars or Italian automobile art, a visit to this museum is an experience not to be missed. Entry is free, but you must call ahead of time to schedule your visit. In addition to the fascinating journey back in time as you tour this unique collection, a visit may also entice you to make a small financial contribution toward the upkeep of this legendary Italian automobile treasure trove and walk out the door with a warm sense of satisfaction.
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