Maserati Birdcage Tipos 60 and 61

The last of the great front-engined sports racers

During the 1950s, Italian manufacturer Maserati had come to terms with the harsh reality that building and campaigning competition cars alone was no longer a viable business strategy.

Fortunately, the company managed to save the best, not for the end but actually for well past the end with the Tipo 60 and Tipo 61. Both closely related models are better known by their very apt nickname “Birdcage.”

Designed with hill-climbs in mind, the "Birdcage" had very short overhangs.

Under the new ownership of the Orsi family, the first production road cars had already been introduced after the war, but the real turning point came after the 1957 Venezuelan Grand Prix. This was the final round of the World Sports Car Championship and a victory in the race would mean Maserati would win the title at the expense of Ferrari. It turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, with none of the four works cars reaching the finish and most of them quite forcibly removed from the race. Maserati had effectively bet the future of the company on this one race, and the World Championship and was almost literally left with a pile of smoldering remains that were once four top-end racing cars. Two weeks later, the company’s racing department, Officine Alfieri Maserati, was shuttered. That also brought an end to Maserati’s Formula 1 efforts in the year that Juan Manuel Fangio had won the World Championship with a Maserati 250F.

Once the proud builder of competition cars, Maserati now focused on the production of the six-cylinder engined 3500 GT and the very exclusive V8-powered 5000 GT road cars. Designed by the same people who had come so achingly close to winning the World Championship in Venezuela, these were both formidable machines. The sales success of the 3500 GT in particular provided the talented engineers, led by Giulio Alfieri, with a little more wiggle room, and within a year the once fabled competition department was back in operation. There was a distinct difference — while the Orsi family had given Alfieri the opportunity to produce a new sports racer, it was not to be raced by a factory team. Instead, the Tipo 60 was strictly intended for paying customers in an attempt to make the competition department self sufficient.

From this angle, it's clear why the Tipo 60-61 Maserati got its nickname.

There was a newfound modesty at the Officine Alfieri Maserati as the customer singled out for the new sports racer was the Italian gentleman racer competing in the 2.0-liter class of the local circuit races and hill climbs. The relatively low displacement limit of 2,000 cc, which was particularly common in Italy, forced Alfieri to, above all, make the Tipo 60 a very efficient machine. He concentrated on two areas: reducing the front area and with it the aerodynamic drag and keeping the weight down to a minimum. Even though a new chassis was created for the Tipo 60, Alfieri did not opt to follow his British rivals like Cooper by re-locating the engine from ahead to behind the driver.

The all-new chassis incorporated lessons learned with the lightweight version of the 250 F, which used a hybrid spaceframe chassis. For the Tipo 60, Alfieri took the spaceframe concept to the extreme by using around 200 short, small-diameter tubes welded together to form the chassis. The complex structure closely resembled a birdcage, which gave the car its legendary nickname. The chromium steel tubes were of different diameter, ranging from 10 mm to 15 mm. This allowed Alfieri to find the right balance between chassis rigidity and light weight. The result was an impressive reticular structure that tipped the scales at barely 30 kg.

To power the Tipo 60, Alfieri developed a four-cylinder engine that was loosely based on the unit used in the 200S. As before, the all-alloy unit featured twin overhead camshafts that actuated two valves per cylinder. The camshafts were driven from the crankshaft by gears at the back of the engine. The ports in the head were reversed and the new engine sported a bigger bore and shorter stroke. This allowed the engine to rev up to 7,800 rpm. Equipped with twin-spark ignition and a pair of Weber carburetors, the revised four-cylinder produced 200 hp. This power was sent to the rear wheels through a five-speed gearbox that was mounted in unit with the differential.

One of the surviving cars, this Tipo 60 is still raced in historic events.

The four-cylinder engine did feature an all-new, triangularly shaped crankcase. This allowed it to be mounted with a 45-degree slant in the spaceframe chassis with a substantial reduction of the frontal area as a result. The chassis was tightly wrapped in an aluminum bodywork. That the engine was mounted at an angle was evident by the very low panel between the pronounced front fenders. To circumvent the minimum windscreen height dictated by the regulations, Alfieri mounted the windscreen at a rather acute angle. Through the plexiglass, the unique birdcage structure was clearly visible. Designed to run on Italy’s tight circuits and hill-climbs, the Tipo 60 also had very short front and rear overhangs.

In May of 1959, the first Tipo 60 was ready. The very compact machine weighed just 570 kg. Even though it was not mid-engined, the near central location of the engine and rear-mounted gearbox meant that it did have near-perfect weight distribution. The prototype was entrusted to Stirling Moss for number of tests at the Modena Aeroautodromo and also in the practice sessions for the Nürburgring 1000 km race. Alfieri was particularly interested in determining if his ingenious chassis was up to the task. What he found was that it was too strong, resulting in hairline cracks at the welds. The solution was to switch from high-grade chromium steel to a very low-quality steel for the tubes. While this did not really affect the rigidity, the inferior steel allowed for just enough play to prevent the cracking.

Like many Tipo 61s, this one was sold new to North America where it was raced by Loyal Katskee.

To demonstrate the new racer’s potential, Maserati entered the prototype for Moss in the 7th Grand Rouen-les-Essarts on July 12, 1959. Interestingly, the report in MotorSport magazine about the race refers to the car as the “the new ‘spaghetti’ space-frame Maserati Tipo 60.” Having beaten Innes Ireland in a Lotus, Moss started the race in pole position. After Ireland’s Lotus failed to fire up, Moss quickly built up a healthy lead over the rest of the field, which MotorSport colorfully dismissed: “the whole lot put together could barely equal him for driving skill.” The English magazine did also have to admit that “the Maserati was more than a match for any 2-liter Lotus.” Moss won the race and this success had not gone unnoticed; all Birdcages Maserati had intended to build ahead of the 1960 season were quickly spoken for.

Interestingly, the demand for the Birdcage did not just originate in Italy – several Americans were also keen on racing the new Maserati. Among them was legendary entrant Briggs S. Cunningham, who raced one of two cars he ordered himself, and other legends of American motorsport like Roger Penske and Jim Hall. The most prolific Birdcage proponent, however, was American airline pilot Lloyd “Lucky” Casner. To run the five examples he would go on to order, he established the Casner Motor Racing Division, or Camoradi team. His ambitious plans included an international campaign for the Birdcage during the 1960 season, which would once again pitch Maserati against arch-rival Ferrari.

Noted sports car racer Marino Franchitti is seen here manhandling a Tipo 61.

To properly rival the Ferraris in international events, where a 3.0-liter displacement limit was in effect, Maserati created the Tipo 61 version of the Birdcage design. It was virtually identical to the Tipo 60 save for its engine, which was stretched to the absolute maximum allowed by the block and a reinforced drive shaft. Both the bore and stroke were increased to give a swept volume of 2,890 cc. The additional displacement helped boost the power to 250 hp. Despite the changes made, at 600 kg the Tipo 61 Birdcage was a mere 30 kg heavier than the Tipo 60. All five customer Birdcages completed in 1959 were to the Tipo 61 specification. The original Tipo 60 prototype – chassis 2451 – was also hastily upgraded, as Maserati was keen to have a car ready for its prominent new customer, Lloyd Casner. Eventually twenty-two examples were built, including the prototype and five further Tipo 60s.

The first Tipo 61 that was ready was chassis 2453, which was delivered to American gentleman racer Edwin D. Martin in October of 1959. He won in only his second race with the car, beating Jim Hall in a mighty 4.5-liter, V8-engined Maserati 450 S. There were more Tipo 61s at the season-ending Nassau Speedweek, where Dan Gurney and Gaston Andrey all scored class wins in minor races. For the Nassau Trophy Race, Gurney’s place in the Camoradi car was taken by Carroll Shelby but he did not make it to the finish due to an accident. At the start of the 1960 season, the cars suffered regular reliability issues, causing gearbox, con-rod and differential failures during the high-profile Sebring 12 Hours. Casner was furious and demanded upgrades to his cars before the European rounds of his program.

This Tipo 60 has survived in beautiful, original condition.

These changes clearly worked, as Moss and Gurney drove a Camoradi-entered Tipo 61 Birdcage to victory in the Nürburgring 1000 km despite losing time early on with a broken oil line. The ambitious Camoradi team took the Birdcage to places it had not been designed for, like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In order to meet the particular demands of the high-speed circuit, Alfieri created a special body work for the prototype chassis 2451. Entered for Masten Gregory and Chuck Daigh, it boasted a longer nose and tail, and had an even longer windscreen. This very slippery bodywork worked well, as the car was clocked at 285 km/h down the Mulsanne Straight. The all-enveloping windscreen did prove troublesome in rain, however, forcing Daigh to sit up and look over the screen to actually see anything. During the first stint, Daigh managed to grab the lead, but a succession of mechanical issues prompted the car to be retired, along with the other two Tipo 61s fielded by Camoradi.

The last two Tipo 61s were completed early in 1961 as Alfieri shifted attention to a new mid-engined variant of the same design, known as the Tipo 63. Later also raced with a V12 engine, the Tipo 63 was never quite as successful as the original Birdcage. The front-engined cars continued to be raced for several more years; among the highlights was a repeat win in the Nürburgring 1000 km, this time with Masten Gregory and Lloyd Casner himself behind the wheel. As had been intended, the Birdcage also raced in Italy. Odoardo Govoni won the Italian Hill Climb Championship three years running from 1960 to 1962 in his Tipo 60, and in 1963 the title went to Nino Todaro in another 2.0-liter Birdcage. That year Todaro also won the Italian circuit racing championship, which had already been won by Mennato Boffa in a Tipo 60 in 1960.

Two Birdcages running nose to tail during a recent edition of the Goodwood Revival.

Had development not been cut short by the switch to the mid-engined Tipo 63, could the original Tipo 60 and Tipo 61 have been even more successful? Perhaps – Alfieri was on the right track with his design as, in its day, the Birdcage was in a league of its own. Thanks to its slippery lines and light weight, it was far more efficient than its rivals, requiring fewer fuel stops than the larger-engined Ferraris. The Birdcage remains the last of the great front-engined sports racers.

Today, the Tipos 60 and 61 are highly sought after and many of the surviving Birdcages are part of major collections. Sadly, quite a few of the twenty-two examples built were scrapped in period, as the elaborate spaceframe chassis proved complicated to repair. Many of the surviving cars are still regularly raced in historic events for us all to enjoy.