Interview with Adolfo Orsi

Maserati in the blood

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Adolfo Orsi Gentlemen Drivers Magazine

To say that he has received the automobile passion as a legacy would be a euphemism. Adolfo Orsi is none other than the grandson of Adolfo Orsi and son of Omar Orsi, who headed Maserati between 1937 and 1969. From his earliest childhood, he was able to experience this passion for the automobile and more precisely for Maserati in the workshops of the brand, but also during the races in which he participated alongside his father. Despite the acquisition of Maserati, his love for the Italian firm remained intact. Since 1987, he has dedicated himself to car history and more particularly to that of Italian sports cars. His knowledge and conservatism about the preservation of classic cars in their original state, led him to be a judge at the Pebble Beach Elegance Competition, since 1997. Meeting with the man for whom classic cars and especially the Maserati have no secrets.

How was your passion for the automobile born?

It happened when I had barely opened my eyes, I had seen beautiful and noisy red cars and from that moment I was struck by this love and passion that have invaded my life, thanks to God!

Tell us about your first car?

As you will see in one of my pictures dated January 1957, I was not even 6 years old, I was driving a children’s electric car, which was also a miniature Maserati!

How did your family take control of Maserati?

At its beginnings, Maserati was based in Bologna, where it produced 8 to 15 racing cars every year, while maintaining its production of spark plugs in parallel. The Maserati brothers were very good technicians; but they were not wealthy, which is why they always had problems financing their business. They had to make very good racing cars to win, and then they were forced to sell the winning car to be able to produce the next one. In 1937, Maserati was already a well-known brand in motorsport, and my grandfather Adolfo took control of the company. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and he had the view “Winning on the track on Sunday and selling industrial products on Monday”. This was the idea behind the purchase of the company, while keeping the 3 Maserati brothers as technical directors until 1947. The Orsi-Maserati group was now producing racing cars, spark plugs, batteries, from 1941 electric vehicles and milling machines; from 1947 road-cars. In 1939, the company was moved from Bologna to Modena (40 kilometres away) where it now still operates.

What drove you to buy Maserati shares, were you a fan of the brand?

You know, my family was in charge of the company between 1937 and 1969 (with a minority share until 1971), so it was a matter of heart. When I was a child, I had the opportunity to make several trips with my father on different Maserati models. These cars throw me back into childhood and remind me of very good memories. My father, since taking over as CEO in the 1950s, was involved in the day-to-day business of the brand, beginning with relationships with customers, suppliers and technicians. In 1952 the Italian engine engineer Gioacchino Colombo joined Maserati. After having played a decisive role in the design of the Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158 and 159 L8 engine and the masterpiece for Ferrari, the 1500cc V12, he was involved in the development of the Maserati A6GCM, which became in 1954 the 250F Grand Prix. Later Ing. Giulio Alfieri became the Technical Director of the Company.

What do you think are the most important achievements of Maserati in your time?

My grandfather was a self-made man, who started his business at the beginning of the century. He was really poor, to the point of picking up debris and wrecks in the streets of Modena. He then succeeded in creating the very first steel plant in the Emilia Romagna region in the 1920s. In the automobile industry too, he integrated this world little by little, first continuing the production of a small number of racing cars a year, before becoming the producer of the most prestigious GTs at the time. Maserati continued to compete in races, winning twice Indianapolis 500 Miles in 1939 and 1940, achieving F1 world titles between 1954 and 1957 with Fangio. Unfortunately, the financial difficulties forced the brand to withdraw from the race at the end of the 1957 season, but the Birdcage (built in 1959) demonstrated the abilities and genius of the Maserati technicians.

Why did you initially become interested in the competition?

When you are passionate about cars, you naturally tend to become a fan of motor racing. When I was 20 years old, I participated in the Rally of Montecarlo, I really have good memories of this period. At the time Modena was really the heart of car racing and fast cars, and racing drivers were a real fascination for young people. We were so crazy about racing, that in 1966, with a group of friends, we decided to organize the 4 Hours of Velo Solex of Modena. For months, all under 25 years were busy preparing their “machines”. In reality they were very small mopeds, to which were transplanted a single-cylinder 50 cc engine to the front wheel of a normal bicycle chassis. On the day of the race, several machines exploded after two minutes of racing only while others were able to do a few extra laps but in the end the winner was the one who had the least modified his moped.

It must be said that Maserati had a serious advantage with a driver of the caliber of Fangio

Was it Maserati or Fangio who had an advantage? Normally, the best driver tries to choose the best car and vice versa. All I can tell you is that between Fangio and my family, there was always a very good relationship; also in the Sixties, every time he was in Italy, Fangio was visiting the factory. At Maserati, Fangio felt at home, which unfortunately did not happen for him at Ferrari.

Who were your direct competitors at the time?

On the track, it was all the other manufacturers. Quite naturally, the competition with Ferrari was stronger, because the two firms were based in the same city. On the track, there can be only one winner, the second is only a loser. As far as road cars are concerned, Maserati and Ferrari were not real competitors as each of the brands has a different type of customer. Ferrari produced flashy, aggressive and especially noisy cars (to have fun during the weekend) while Maserati was selling low-profile, reliable and comfortable cars for entrepreneurs who were going to use them on a daily basis to do long trips. Only 10 or 15% of customers were willing to move from Maserati to Ferrari, or vice versa. In the Sixties, Ferrari was more in competition with Lamborghini and Maserati with Aston Martin, Mercedes or Rolls Royce.

At the time, what were your ambitions for the brand?

It was winning races and producing good GT cars. And I think my family did a very good job. My family introduced in 1963 the Quattroporte, the fastest 4 door sedan in the world. They let born a new segment in the market. Still today Maserati is producing the 6th generation of Quattroporte.

Some models, like the Ghibli, were a real success. Why did your family decided to sell Maserati to Citroën?

You know, at that time I was 16 or 17 years old, I was a student. There were several regulations to sell cars to the U.S.A, like the anti-crash and air pollution rules and small Company as Ferrari and Maserati could not undertake the R&D costs alone. In 1965, Citroën had asked Maserati to develop a project for a new 6 cylinder engine for their new flag bearer (which was supposed to be the SM). They then asked to produce 25 engines a day. This meant a heavy investment for Maserati for the acquisition of new machines and the risk of having such a powerful customer would have been too high. Citroën had offered to support this reinforcement project and my family naturally accepted it. The idea was to remain as a share-holder, but after 2 years my family was not really satisfied with the Citroen management and simply decided to retire. On June 1969 also Ferrari sold its shares to Fiat. So that was the right time. Companies that had made the choice to continue on their own account as Bizzarini or IsoRivolta had closed and others like Lamborghini and Aston Martin experienced a very difficult period.

What do you think of Maserati today?

After the dark years of De Tomaso, the line of products finally found a good level of quality. But in my opinion, production should not be as high for Maserati, to retain its exclusive character.

Tell us about your son’s passion

My son is currently pursuing his university studies in the United States, but whenever possible, he accompanies me to the events of classic cars. Last year he was with me at Villa d’Este and Pebble Beach.

What is your favorite car?

I cannot answer that question:  I love many cars. Obviously my heart belongs to Maserati, but there have been some important cars that I really like a lot, starting with the original Mini, as well as the Citroen DS. Both represent the final fruit of very strong personalities, on one side Alec Issigonis and another André Lefebvre and Flaminio Bertoni. I like very much to study the personalities behind the birth of a car.

What are your favorite hobbies?

The passion for automotive history does not really leave room for other recreation. But, I like sports in general, local history and cuisine (which represents an important part of Italian culture).

Which car, past or current do you like the most?

Honestly, I do not use a car every day. As I have my studio at home in the countryside of Modena, so either I’m caught in my studio or I’m on a trip and usually I fly. When I have the opportunity, I drive one of my old Maserati GT cars, but the opportunities to take advantage of these moments are becoming increasingly rare.

Gerry McGovern Gentlemen Drivers Magazine

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