Photos by author.
It used to be that if you decided that your motoring passion could only be assuaged by an Italian car, you went in one of two directions. Depending on the era, you might choose a reasonably affordable sporting piece such as a Bertone X1/9 or, even better, a Lancia Scorpion. If that didn’t work, it was time to look at one of the mega-screamers from Modena, or their equivalent. There wasn’t all that much that constituted a middle ground. And then things started strangely percolating in the Italian auto industry–and other places–as the manufacturers decided to broaden their product lineup and in doing so, hopefully shake some additional buyers out of the trees. It’s a phenomenon that still exists today: Been to a BMW or Mercedes-Benz dealer lately? Checked out a 1-series? Everybody, it seems, is trying to rake up some downscale market share.
Back in the 1980s, Maserati was doing something very similar. The Biturbo was an unlikely solution to finding additional customers, and in any number of ways, it was the perfect product for its times. Maserati was fabled for brilliant GT’s such as the Ghibli and Merak, so it had no choice other than to go comparatively downmarket when it was looking for new buyers. And at the time, Maserati had careened through a series of corporate owners in an ever-maddening array of changes. It all started out in the 1960s, when Maserati was first acquired by Citroën and then dumped about a decade later, when Citroën was forced into the arms of erstwhile rival Peugeot to assure its own long-term survival. The relationship did bear some fruit. Maserati supplied the 90-degree V-6 engine for the luscious Citroën SM, a powerplant that also found its way into several Citroën DS sedans prepped for rally duty. Bored out to 3.0 liters, the SM engine also found its way into the mid-engine Merak GT. As the first fuel crises hit the globe, the timing of the bigger GTs proved to be flawed. Rocketing fuel prices rocked the European industry, as Citroën went broke and lurched into what became PSA Citroën Peugeot.
At Maserati, things were far worse. Domestic sales accounted for about half its production total, a number that largely collapsed. In 1975, Citroën decreed that Maserati was to be liquidated. Long story short, that created something of a political crisis in Italy, whose Ministry of Industry quickly assembled a package by which a state-owned holding company, GEPI, took a majority interest in Maserati, the rest going to the irrepressible Argentine, Alejandro de Tomaso. The deal essentially allowed de Tomaso to fold Maserati operations into both Innocenti and his own eponymous line of GTs. With the market for mid-engine GTs drying up due to fuel costs, de Tomaso decided that Maserati had to make a major swerve away from past practices. In the future, Maseratis would be sold in greater volume, which meant coming up with something that was exclusive, but affordable enough to bring big production numbers.
The result was the Biturbo. Representing one of the first shots fired in the great turbocharged performance wars of the Eighties, the Biturbo boasted crisp, dramatic lines by Zagato, which mimicked the wedge shape of the then-new Quattroporte, and achieved immediate distinction as the first-ever production car with a twin-turbocharged V-6 engine, anywhere. The 2.0-liter SOHC engine boasted two oil-cooled IHI RHB-51 turbochargers, one for each cylinder bank. This unusual engine combination was allegedly chosen because twin turbos could spin up boost more quickly than a single unit, thereby minimizing turbo lag. Maximum boost was set at 11 pounds, controlled by a computerized wastegate. The Biturbo used three-valve cylinder heads: two intake, one exhaust. But at the outset, the fuel system consisted of a single Weber two-barrel carburetor.
What, ultimately, is a Biturbo? In de Tomaso’s view, it was a sophisticated, technically tasty sportster that could hold its own, and then some, with a growing array of downsized performance pieces such as the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3 and the BMW 3-series, among others. The layout and numbers were right: rear drive, great looks and 185 hp, very competitive, with a ZF five-speed initially the sole transmission. The first Biturbos, all two-door coupes, reached the public in 1981. Within two years, a bore increase to 91.6 mm brought the Giulio Alfieri-penned engine up to 2.5 liters for export models, the first of which came to North America in 1984 (and later, to 2.8 liters). In terms of U.S. sales, they slid, beginning in 1984, from 2,000 units annually to a bit over 1,000, as reliability and maintenance issues with the Biturbo quickly became evident. In 1987, the year our feature car was produced, Maserati only offered the Biturbo as a Spyder for our shores, again with Zagato bodywork.
About those issues: Maserati, to its credit, instituted a dizzying series of running changes during the Biturbo’s lifespan in an effort to correct them. Oil leaks abounded, and failure to let the original oil-cooled turbochargers spin down before shutting down the engine was an assured death sentence. Not a few surviving Biturbos have been retrofitted with 1986-spec water-cooled IHI turbos that alleviate the problem. The handsome cast plenums can be prone to cracking on early, carbureted cars. As a result, collectors tend to seek out later-model Biturbos–production ended in 1990–as the more desirable of the bunch. That’s what Tony Ungaro did when he picked his 1987 Spyder, which represented the sole available body style in North America that year. It was also when Maserati switched over to a less persnickety Weber/Marelli electronic fuel injection setup, jettisoning the carburetor.
Tony lives in Prospect, Connecticut, and wasn’t necessarily looking for a Maserati–although his son, Chris, drives a Merak–when Chris suggested they check out a dealer named Forza in Gaylordsville, Connecticut, which specialized in pre-owned exotics. That was in 2002, and it didn’t take much looking-over to persuade Tony to become the Biturbo Spyder’s second owner. “The mechanic that we use in New Milford recommended this dealer, whose name was Peter Sweeney, and he had this Maserati and a TVR convertible. They were about the same price, and Peter said the whole make had some issues, but he still recommended the Biturbo. I drove it around and just fell in love with it.”
One of the positives that come with Biturbo ownership is that if you do your homework, the price of admission isn’t that intimidating. Tony told us he paid about $11,000 for his Spyder, which had about 24,000 miles on it and by all indications, was in excellent shape. He managed to trace its ownership and maintenance records back to a Maserati dealership in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, saying, “The previous owner was from Greenwich, and he kept it maintained really well. The amounts that he paid for service were just so high. Just for an oil change, inspection and tune-up, it was something like $800, and that was more than 20 years ago. I took it down to the mechanic that I use, and he knew the car and found no major issues with it. He did recommend that I change the water pump and the timing belt, which was the only really major expense I’ve had since I bought it. That was right around $900. There have been no oil leaks or problems with the turbochargers. I did have a problem with the steering rack; I went over a bump and bent or cracked it. That cost me something under $2,000. But other than all that, no problems.”
That includes the Swiss-movement quartz clock, which quit working. Tony and Chris found an aftermarket supplier that wanted more than $600 for a new one. Others were found online for at least $100. On a whim, Tony removed it from the center of the dash and took it to a local jeweler, who quickly determined it had a battery that needed replacement. Cost: $16.
Let’s be clear: Tony loves to tool along in the Biturbo. It can prove to be a scintillating driver’s car. He adds about 2,000 miles per year, many of them on trips to Vermont. “It accelerates quite well through the gears, very smooth. If you really want to accelerate in the lower gears, the turbos kick in and it kind of throws you back in the seat. If I’m in fifth gear and I want to mash it, it just goes. I would say that the turbos really come in at about 3,000 RPM and it can be kind of abrupt. But it goes. Several years ago, Chris and I were going up Interstate 91 to Bellows Falls, Vermont, for breakfast and the state troopers caught us. They clocked Chris in the Merak at 85 MPH and me in the Biturbo at 82. Wrote us for the full amount. The fine was $10 per mile over the speed limit, so it was an expensive breakfast.
“It’s impressive to drive, especially in Vermont with the top down,” Tony continued. “I generally prefer the back roads when I’m driving it. It’s a pleasure to drive. If you’re doing 50 or 60, it’s just fine. The interior is comfortable and very good to look at. I just recently put on a new set of tires, so the handling is fine, and the brakes work perfectly well even in the mountains, or coming down a long grade. The only thing I’ve noticed is that 14-inch tires are getting harder to find, and some of the replacements are going for something like $300 a tire.
“When I went shopping for the Maserati, I was looking for something that was realistic, something that I could afford. I didn’t do a lot of shopping around. Some of Forza’s cars were just out of my price range: Ferraris and Lamborghinis, plus they require a lot more maintenance that isn’t cheap. Through the recommendation of my mechanic, I decided to buy this. It’s affordable and hasn’t presented me with a high maintenance schedule.”
1987 Maserati Biturbo Spyder – Engine SOHC 90-degree V-6, aluminum block and cylinder heads Displacement 2,491 cc (152.0 cubic inches) Horsepower 185 @ 5,500 RPM Torque 208-lb.ft. @ 3,200 RPM Compression ratio 8.0:1 Induction Twin IHI turbochargers; Weber/Marelli fuel injection Gearbox ZF five-speed manual; rear-wheel drive 0 to 60 MPH 9.3 seconds Standing 1/4-mile 15.3 seconds @ 91 MPH Top speed 125 MPH Overall length 165.9 inches Overall width 67.4 inches Overall height 51.4 inches Wheelbase 94.4 inches Curb weight 2,394 pounds *Source: Car and Driver, April 1984; Motor Trend, July 1986
This article originally appeared in the November, 2015 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.