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Adolfo Orsi: Guardian of the lost treasure

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Tags: Heritage
MASERATI stands for sensual emotion, for pure understatement as tradition. 80 years ago, the successful entrepreneur Adolfo Orsi from Modena bought the company Maserati from the charismatic brothers.
Janine Vogler, October 26, 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.
There is only one person who can answer this question: Adolfo Orsi jr. is the grandson of this famous entrepreneur with the same name and guardian of this historic legacy. Today, he is one of the most popular personalities in the vintage car scene. With diligence but without pomp, he dedicated his life to classic cars. In an extensive interview in his hometown Modena, he told us about growing up under the charismatic banner of the trident, his message to all aficionados of the scene and the future of vintage cars...

Adolfo, more than 80 years ago, in 1937, your grandfather Adolfo Orsi Sen. bought Maserati. You have lived your whole childhood under the mystic symbol of the trident. How would you describe this experience and how did it influence your life?
For sure it influenced my life, because from the day I opened my eyes, I saw red cars – very noisy ones – and that impressed me. Honestly, I was born in the Orsi-family, but it could have been another family and Maserati was part of the family in some way. Therefore I did not realize how lucky I was until I became much older, because for me it was absolutely natural to be involved in the business in some way, following my grandfather’s and father’s steps. I consider myself today to be a very lucky person, as cars have been the passion of my life and I was lucky enough to become professional in this field. My passion became also my profession and I work 365 days a year without any problems – therefore I consider myself to be a very lucky person.

Under the management and the outstanding missions of your father Omar, such as hiring Tarzio Nuvolari and Juan Manuel Fangio or the first woman in the World Championship, Maria Teresa de Filippis, the 1950s became a very successful decade for Maserati and its brilliance seems to have returned. Has it ever really faded during the past decades?
Yes for sure – Maserati had a very dark period during the DeTomaso-years and naturally the image of Maserati faded together with the quality and the production. I have to say as you know Fiat took over the company in 1993, and - not immediately but after some years - they were able to take it back to good quality production standards. I think that today the image of Maserati is much better than in 80s or 90s. I would say that the Maserati image during the 1950s and 1960s was still much more brilliant, not only because of the racing history but also for the quality and because of the Gran Turismo models, which were the ones used by the VIP-persons of that time. If you take the 1960s, Maserati were the cars for the kings, for the major personalities in the industry, in the movie business and that probably has been the best period in the Maserati-history ever.

More than 60 years ago, in 1957, J.M. Fangio had already won the second F1 championship with Maserati. One year later in 1958, Stirling Moss was successful with the famous 420M/58 Eldorado, the first non-automotive promotion campaign in motor sports. Do you see it as a mission that the brand name Maserati has to lead the way to innovative ideas?
The Eldorado has been the very first in European races, because this custom, to name cars with a sponsor name, was already used in the States during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Yes, Maserati has always been innovative, and I will say it has also later been innovative, because in the winter of 1958/59 was built the prototype of the Maserati Type 60, which the people called the birdcage. This was a real innovative car and also in the production of the GT cars, Maserati has been the very first manufacturer in Italy and I would say the second in Europe to use a full injection on the cars. While other manufacturers have always been followers, Maserati has always been in advance for fitting new technologies or fitting new materials.
Advertising icon: Maserati 420M/58 better known as „Eldorado“

Maserati is one of ZF’s most faithful clients: Since the 1950s nearly every model has been fitted with – at least optional – ZF gearboxes. Do you remember how the partnership with ZF began and who initiated it?
No, I don’t remember. I was born in 1951 and therefore in 1955 or 1956 I was still a boy, I don’t remember the fact. I studied a lot the history of Maserati, especially of that period and I understand why this collaboration was born. Maserati was building, I think, the most advanced gearbox and differentials for racing. These have always been a very strong Maserati point for racing and they were so good built that Aston Martin, when they decided to build their own Formula One cars, they asked Maserati to sell the Maserati gearbox to Aston Martin. Just to give you an idea of how Maserati quality was considered. But racing is one thing and the production of GT cars is another matter. Maserati has started to produce the GT cars already at the end of the 1940s and 1947 with the A6 1500 and then the 2-litre, but they were very little numbers – and the A6G 2000 were fitted with the Maserati gearbox. But in 1956 the company decided to start to produce a car in a bigger number, which was the 3500 GT. Maserati decided not to build everything at home, but to try to find the best suppliers for many components. For example the brakes: Maserati was building its own brakes for racing cars, which were the most advanced drum brakes built at that time. But when they decided to start the production of the 3500 GT, they contacted Girling for the brakes and they contacted ZF for having the ZF gearbox. Therefore, when they decided to start with a larger production model in order to have good quality and to have a clear cost of all the parts fitted on the car, they decided to contact the best possible suppliers of this parts and to focus Maserati only on projecting the car, building the engine and assembling the car, as the bodies were built outside the company like Touring or other companies. The contact between ZF and Maserati started then for this historical reason, because Maserati wanted to find the best possible supplier for the gearbox and they chose ZF to be their supplier. The relationship started at the same moment as the production of the 3500 GT and for the last small series of the A6G 2000. The last 2-liter cars built with a body by Frua and Allemanno were fitted with ZF-gearboxes.

How come that some models (e.g. Indy, Quatroporte I, 5000 GT) fitted with several ZF-gearboxes?
Because there was a development in the model. Some models started with 4.2-litre and then were fitted with a 4.7 or 4.9-litre engine, and therefore the power was different. Most probably there was a technical reason behind the possibility to have one gearbox instead of another because it was only given by the fact that ZF probably developed a more modern gearbox or Maserati needed a gearbox which was able to accept more power.
Your father sold Maserati in 1968?
Yes, the agreement was probably in 1967 but for the reason Citroën asked my family to keep it frozen for a year, the contract started on January 1, 1969 but the agreement was signed more than one year before.

Can you tell us a bit about the background situation and how did you experience the sale of the company from a teenager’s perspective?
The background of the reason was multiple I would say. My grandfather was already old at that time and my father had some healthy problems and there were already some new problems with trade unions, with the social surrounding around the manufacturing - which arrived at the end to the famous 1968 student-revolution. That was the situation inside of the family and outside. For the production in 1965 and 1966 the US-government established new rules for crashes and air pollution, which forced all the manufacturers of small production cars to make anti-crash tests. Therefore Maserati was forced to take one car for each model to test in crash tests and that was very expensive. At that time Maserati was producing 600 to 700 cars a year and making four to five different models, and to take one car of each model for crashing was quite expensive. But also for air pollution: because it was necessary to fit all the cars with a catalytic converter and to make a test of 20.000 miles and check afterwards that the catalytic converter is still working, therefore was really very expensive - and you need a kind of development and research division to do that. At that time this US situation hit not only Maserati - but hit also Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Iso Rivolta, Bizzarini – all producers of small production cars were hit by this situation.

It was just in time that Citroën contacted Maserati, because they had in mind to produce a new admiral for the company, which should have been the Citroën SM and they asked Maserati if they were interested to study a new engine for this model. Maserati has built immediately a couple of prototypes which were tested by Citroën and Citroën said “ok, we are very happy with your project and now we would like to make an order of 30 engines a day.” Having such an important customer for the Maserati company, because 30 engines a day was probably 50 percent of the monthly turnover at that time, would have been too dangerous for Maserati, to invest a large amount of money in new tools, new machines etc. So Citroën told Maserati that they could be interested in financing the project by buying the majority of the shares of the company also. The offer of Citroën came in a moment when my family was searching for a new horizon for the company. My grandfather was old and my father was the only person active in the company. My father had two sisters, but they had no interest in the company – both had two sons but they were also not interested at all in the company.

Therefore there was a period of about 10 years in which no one of the family could have taken over the place of my ancestors. The offer felt exactly the right moment. I have to say that looking from today you can say it was not successful. But looking from the eye of time it was a very good collaboration, because Maserati would have given his heritage, his knowledge of cars and engines and Citroën was a very advanced company at that time. If you look at the history of Citroën, it has been the most advanced company of the ’30s until the ’50s. There was a lot of potential. But unfortunately, then what happened, was that there was the petrol crisis in 1971 – 1973 which hit a lot the sales of the high performance cars. Furthermore, Citroën was part of the Michelin-family, was owned by Michelin at that time and Michelin decided to sell the company, and it was purchased by Peugeot. Peugeot on the other hand found itself in front of big problems, for the reasons I told you before and they decided to put Maserati into liquidation in 1975. That was what happened. But already in 1971 my family was totally out, because Citroën moved to Modena some managers, who were taken from the big industry, they were missing a bit the feeling of understanding this very narrow niche of the market of sport cars.

As my father was still in the board – he was in charge of the commercial – he decided, that the managers were not taking to the goal that they had seen at the beginning, therefore my family came out totally in 1971.
About my feeling… ok, I think that it was a smart decision, taken at that time - in order to give Maserati a possibility of surviving in this difficult times. If you consider, that also Ferrari made an agreement with Fiat a few months later, and what happened with the people who did not have a marriage with bigger companies like Aston Martin or Lamborghini – they closed, one year later they opened and closed again a.s.o. – I think it was the right decision to take at that time.

Naturally, I would have liked to own still the company, but most probably my family could not have survived the difficulties of that period. Therefore, I think this was good for the company. And my family never put their interests before the interest of the company, they always looked after the company, because the company is not only a name. The company means – in case of Maserati – that there were 400 people working, that were 400 families - therefore it was important for all that people that the company will have a continuation in the future. And that is what happened – because if we are speaking about Maserati today, we are speaking about something that does still exist.
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