OSCA 1600 GT Zagato: The Last True Maserati
The romanticism of Italian sports cars has permeated through the world with a religious fervor. Both auto enthusiasts and laymen are beguiled by the sights, sounds, and exploits of the marques and models from Milan to Maranello. Ferrari is as much a synonym for sports car as Kleenex is for tissue and Coke is for a soft drink.
This pervasive awareness of Italian cars, engineers, racers, and companies is why it’s so surprising that a small brand that lives precisely in the nexus of the often changing circles of the Italian auto industry has lived in such obscurity for so long. It was helmed by a cadre of the most respected men in auto racing of old, featured advanced technology from one of the best known manufacturers, bodied by great design houses, and with an impressive racing pedigree to boot. Yet OSCA is as rare a name as the most obscure brands from the far corners of the world.
The Maserati brothers sold their eponymous company in 1937 but signed a 10 year contract for their engineering services. At the conclusion of this arrangement they were clearly not interested in retirement and started OSCA – Officine Specializzate Construzione Automobili. The name recalls the acronym-turned-word ‘Alfa’ – though it never received the widespread recognition to repeat the feat. The headquarters were in Bologna, the original home of Maserati SpA, and the company quickly established other parallels with the early days of the Maseratis’ first company and halcyon days.
Prewar automobiles were as much an exercise in artisanship as engineering and the companies were more workshop than corporation. Their cars were gifted their character and potency by the practised hands and sharp eyes of the craftsman more than the disciplined pen of an engineering staff. In the 1950s and ’60s the industry was fortuitously expanding but the momentum carried it away from this business model. Marques were solidifying into companies and production numbers were growing by magnitudes.
But in Bologna, the Maserati brothers were continuing on in their finest traditions. They intended to focus on small displacement cars and found racing success with their lovely MT4, bowing in 1948 and continuing into the mid ’50s. A partnership with FIAT provided OSCA a 4 cylinder engine. FIAT benefited from the technological developments OSCA made with their humble block and an OSCA designed twin spark engine could be found in FIATs through the late ’50s and ’60s. OSCA was introducing lighter materials, tighter tolerances, and higher performance to the stalwart FIAT engine and turning the pedestrian into the progressive. OSCA engines and race cars were driven by some of the greats of the day, with the likes of Sir Stirling Moss and Carroll Shelby piloting various models in competitions across the globe.
After a decade of racing success and open sports cars, the Maseratis turned to the burgeoning GT market. First shown in 1960, the OSCA 1600 GT’s flowing but unassuming lines camouflaged the exotic nature of the car. Disc brakes could be found at all four corners and a tubular chassis encapsulated the hotrodded FIAT powerplant. In top trim the engine made a healthy 145 horsepower, a respectable specific output by any yardstick! Comparisons to Alfa Romeo GTs of the era are unavoidable but accounts indicate that the OSCA was a more ‘sorted’ car and had the feel of a carefully balanced and blueprinted Alfa Nord engine. Three different body manufacturers were enlisted, with much of production split between the sporty Zagato and the more comfortable Fissore. The Zagato’s clean lines and iconic double bubble roof created more demand than the other bodies, both then and now.
OSCA’s production was still more like that of a prewar company than many of their contemporaries. While the benefits of this methodology could be extolled at length it also led to constant variety and lack of documentation in the run of just over 100 1600 GTs. Without definitive records keeping the approximation of ‘just over’ is necessary. The technical optioning of each car was just as inconsistent with some cars even being fitted with live axles or dual spark heads. This has its frustrations but the OSCA community seems to relish in the challenge of finding documentation and the unique provenance it lends each example.
The 1600 GT wasn’t without flaws but it suffered most from poor timing. By 1962, OSCA was in talks with MV Augusta and in 1963 the famed motorcycle brand acquired OSCA. The Bologna company continued on for a few years doing design work for Augusta but the 1600 GT didn’t survive the transition and by 1967 they were shuttering the doors altogether.
The 1960s might be one of the most exciting periods for the Italian auto industry. It marks the rise of some of the greatest names and marques the world has known. But change begets compromise and a casualty of the times was workshops like OSCA. Perhaps the ever advancing technology was no longer manageable for such a small outfit. Or maybe the growing automobile market demanded better serviceability and more consistency. Regardless, the Maserati brothers took one last great stab at punching above their weight and produced a sculpted and sonorific car that can be enjoyed by enthusiasts as a moment out of time – if you’ve heard of it.
All image credits to Georg Sander, Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license without modification.