Auto-Biography: Maserati Dreamin'

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

I find myself floating above an endless sea of thimbleberry bushes. The berries are all ripe, infinite delectable crimson caps punctuating a sea of green. I can’t see the trail, but somehow distant and hidden legs carry me along and know where to go, while I gorge on the fruit. Now I’m behind the wheel of my car, watching an endless movie loop of a winding serpentine road, with a rushing river to my left and a wall of towering firs on my right. I have no awareness of actually driving; the car knows what to do while I gorge on the scenery. The road through Oregon’s deep woods is utterly deserted. Then an image confronts me, so unexpected, so surreal, that now I know I’m dreaming.

There, on a little dead-end spur off US Forest Service Road 19, set against a backdrop of emerald firs, sits a glistening white Maserati 3500 GT with its hood open. A beautiful young woman with auburn hair wearing shorts and a summery top is peering into the engine compartment. The autopilot in my car reflexively pulls me over. The scenario is so unlikely, I simply accept it as an actor in a movie. Where are the cameras, lights and the director?

The Maserati 3500 GT is not just a truly exquisite exotic, it also has a special place in the history of its maker as well as mine. It was the car that saved the Trident from bankruptcy, and established the marque as the slightly-more “affordable” alternative to its Modena rival, Ferrari.

Prior to the 3500 GT, Maserati was struggling to support its racing efforts building small numbers of sports-racing cars. The 3500 GT was its desperate bid for survival and volume production, if you can consider some 2,000 GTs built between 1958 and 1964 as volume. Carrozeria Touring won the design contest and resulting contract to build the Superleggara (super-light) alloy bodies, draped so elegantly over the built-up tube frame. The 3500 quickly developed a reputation as an exceptionally beautiful and fast (145mph) gran tourisimo that was also solid, reliable and tractable. TTAC contributor Stewart Dean’s reminiscences of driving his father’s 3500 GT are here, although the photo at the top of his excellent write-up is not correct.

I had a very brief but infinitely vivid encounter with a 3500 GT at the age of five or six that left a permanent cleft in my heart; my first Italian crush. We were in a family friend’s Fiat 1100, on an Alpine road in Austria. Behind us, I heard the sound of a horn like none ever before: an intense command to attention; an unmistakable intonation of superiority. I turned around to see the distinctive face of this Maserati come screaming up, and then flying past us and a half dozen or more cars on the winding, narrow two-lane road.

My first Baruthian encounter shook something loose deep inside me, and opened a whole new field of possibilities. I’ve replayed that very scene countless times, watching the Maserati disappear around the next bend. And now, after chasing it for fifty years, I’ve finally caught up with it, in the deep woods of Oregon, broken down from its super-automotive exertions.

As I approach, I’m overwhelmed by the radiant beauty; from both of them. “It’s not every day one stumbles on a 3500 GT in these parts” I say. Especially one in concours condition, all by itself, and driven by a girl, I think to myself. “Having a problem?”

“It’s overheating; it’s been running hot since I drove over from Bend yesterday to a car show in Cottage Grove. But then the temperature gauge went out, and now it overheated in a cloud of steam”. I looked into the engine compartment dominated by one of the most beautiful engines ever made, a detuned version of Maserati’s 350S F1 racer.

I have a really big thing about classic DOHC straight sixes. Think Jaguar XK engine, but even better: twelve spark plugs lined up in perfect two-by-two formation like soldiers at attention; three huge dual-throat Webers extending perpendicular to one side; twin ceramic-coated long-sweep headers on the other. I pry my eyes away from this cathedral of an engine to take in the cooling system: bone stock, right down to a most pathetic little four-blade steel fan. And not a coolant overflow container or auxiliary electric fan to be seen; just the original radiator.

My thoughts go to Chuck Goolsbee’s XK-E , which recently paid us a visit on its way to LA. It sported a huge custom radiator and (at least) a brace of big electric fans. When I spot the original Maserati emblem on the radiator cap, I know again I’m dreaming. “You go on long trips often?” is all I can come up with.

Yes, I’ve driven it to concours d’elegances and shows up and down the coast, from Seattle to California. Most folks trailer cars like this to shows, but I like to drive it. This was my grandfather’s car, and he took me to shows all over the West in it when I was little. I’m keeping the tradition going. And I want to keep it original. It’s never overheated before.” It was an unusually cool late-summer day, barely seventy degrees.

I lost myself in endless perfect details while we waited for the engine to cool enough for a drink. Her bottle of water didn’t begin to slake its thirst, so I grabbed my empty hiking bottles and we walked to the babbling river and filled them. It took it all and more.

She started the engine and I automatically slid under the front to look for leaks. But the symphony of fine Italian parts all working in concert kept distracting me, even at idle. As did the odd little pump hung below the crank pulley, driven by its own belt. I slid my finger along the hoses emanating from it: one to the crankcase, the other to the right of the radiator. An auxiliary pump for the oil cooler, I assume.

No leaks anywhere. The beautiful radiator cap was holding pressure. Hmm. A blown head gasket? I keep that expensive thought to myself. A discussion about the options ensues. She had pulled off Hwy 126 just before it begins the serious climb over McKenzie Pass. It’s a steep narrow road with iffy shoulders at times. It’s also going to be dark soon.

I suggest driving carefully back down to Eugene, where there is an excellent shop that she has heard of. She warms up to that idea. I tell her

about my childhood obsession with the 3500 GT, and about Curbside Classics. I head for my car to get my camera. Suddenly, a stray cloud obscures the late-afternoon sun, and the sparkle on the Maserati and the trees is gone. The dream now takes an ugly turn: I don’t have my camera with me! And the driver has decided to call a tow truck to take them both back to Bend. I want desperately to hang on to this dream, this car, its driver, and take pictures to have proof that they were real. But it’s all slipping away.

I wake up in the morning grumpy; I’ve tossed and turned with the Maserati all night. But after thirty-one years of marriage, Stephanie knows exactly what I need to hear: “Paul, I understand how you feel. It was a real dream car, and she was exactly your type. If you were twenty-five years younger, and if I and her boyfriend hadn’t been there, the whole thing could have been the dream of your lifetime. I’m sorry. And I keep telling you: don’t leave home without your camera.”

Postscript: Three years ago, I stumbled unto TTAC. It would have been a dream then, if I could have seen how that fateful encounter evolved. A few months later, I tentatively sent Robert Farago a draft that became Chapter 1 of the Autobiography. With Robert’s encouragement, it took on a life of its own. And it hasn’t ended yet.

Now, Robert is moving on, and my son Edward is taking the helm of TTAC. Who could have dreamt that? The Niedermeyers owe Robert a pre-bailout GM-sized thank you, for the unwavering support you’ve shown both of us, and the opportunities to make our dreams become realities. I dedicate this Chapter of the Auto-biography to you, Robert; and may all your dreams come true.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Paul Niedermeyer Paul Niedermeyer on Sep 24, 2009

    David, No, he wasn't. But there always was, and is still, lots of cross-fertilization among designers. Clearly this Maserati shows Pininfarina influence, but then most good designs of the time did. He was the top dog then.

  • Rocket88 Rocket88 on Sep 28, 2009

    I was stationed in north Italy with the US Army in the late 60s. i had and have a similar love affair with the successor to this vehicle, the Maserati Mistral. Especially the Spyder.

  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)
  • 1995 SC I'm likely in the minority, but I really liked the last Eldorado best. That and the STS.