Ask motor racing enthusiasts to name the most beautiful grand prix car in history and most will say the Maserati 250F.
However, the 250F appeared in a number of forms, guises and body shapes. Most were powered by the famous DOHC six, but in the latter part of the car’s history, some also got an optional V12.
Questioned further as to what model or version they like best, most people will look blank — not really aware of the differences — such is the powerful imagery of the 250F.
All 26 of the 250Fs that were built from 1954 to 1958 retained the same classic front-engined, rear-wheel-drive proportions — the long, heavily-louvred nose streaming back from the open oval air intake, the slightly drooping tail festooned with rivets, and the two long, drain-pipe sized exhausts that ran parallel the full length of the car, one atop the other, emitting that blood-curdling boom for which the 250F was famed.
The 250F was based on the awkwardly designated A6GCM which had been conceived as a 2.0-litre F2 car but, of course, F2 cars would contest the World Championship in 1952 and 1953 due to a lack of ‘proper’ F1 cars.
When the new 2.5-litre F1 was introduced for 1954-1960 it was relatively simple to modify the early car to meet the new formula. In fact, some of the earliest 250Fs were essentially modified A6GCMs.
Records for 1954-1960 show the Maserati 250F as the most successful car of the era, despite the fact it only gave one driver the World Championship — Fangio’s final title in 1957.
However, the 250F’s design was consistent and stable throughout the period and examples were still being raced by back-markers in the final season after the rear-engined revolution had been won, and front-engined cars had become dinosaurs. It was also a favourite car with non-works team drivers — the privateers, most famously, Stirling Moss.
The 250F used a traditional tubular frame, wishbone front suspension, a de Dion tube at the rear and an aluminium body seemingly designed by angels.
Power was from Maserati’s upgraded 2.0-litre A6 engine, increased to 2.5-litres. At first it produced 240bhp (179kW) but changes saw that increase to 280-290bhp (208-216kW) over the period. The 2.5-litre V12 that was used occasionally in 1957 gave 305bhp (227kW) but was really only slightly more competitive on fast circuits like Rheims and Spa.
At first, the 250F had drum brakes and a four-speed gearbox, mounted in unit with the diff, but in 1956 it was given a five-speed gearbox and disc brakes.
However, in 1958 Maserati were running on empty and at the end of the season they quit racing, virtually bankrupt, but the 250F was such a good car that it simply refused to die. It soldiered on through 1959 and into 1960 in the hands of privateers. There were updates, most notably the so-called ‘Piccolo’ cars in the hands of the American Temple Buell Team.
Today, the 250F is one of the most highly sought-after classic racing cars, with a large number of replicas joining the original 26.
Three years ago, when Oamaru creative genius, Rod Tempero, set out to replicate Fangio’s Nurburgring-winning 250F, he was able to locate a significant number of new parts from various places around the world, including a complete transmission, brakes and suspension parts.
Famously, the history of some of the 250Fs is notoriously complex and fraught with all sorts of skulduggery and chassis number swapping.
Some will regard this as a major case of trainspotting but the likes of Doug Nye, Anthony Pritchard and even the great DSJ (Motorsport magazine’s Denis Jenkinson) have spent time on this perplexion, and none got it all correct. Quite probably, the late David McKinney, an expatriate New Zealander, came closest to solving all the various riddles and puzzles in his book — The Maserati 250F.
Surely, however, the history of the Amon 250F is straight forward? It was the car bought by the British Owen Organisation, given disc brakes and magnesium disc wheels and that was that?
The BRM Connection
With the original 1.5-litre V16, BRM’s ambition of becoming a dominant British racing team had crashed in a shower of over-complication and schoolboy day-dreams, but with the arrival of the 2.5-litre Formula One, up stepped the giant British engineering multinational Rubery Owen operating under the umbrella of the Owen Organisation.
They funded a proper company aimed at giving Britain a successful Formula One contender.
Instead of the wild-eyed, over-designed, over-engineered excesses of the 1.5-litre V16, the new car would be more conventional — and reliable.
With no fixed design, but with access to some serious funds, the blokes at BRM decided to shout themselves a racing test-bed and placed an order with Maserati for a brand new 250F. They engaged a team of part-time drivers who ranged from average to excellent, and got back into the business of racing.
The 250F they took delivery of in July 1954 was given the chassis number 2509 and was first raced at the French Grand Prix at Rheims with Ken Wharton driving. He finished 16th — and last!
Things were better two weeks later at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone when Wharton finished eighth in the Maserati — a race where Reg Parnell was driving a Ferrari.
There was an incident in the race that was to have an effect on the BRM/Owen car. Here it starts to get complicated, so you need to pay attention. Prince Bira of Siam was nearing the end of a long racing career that had started before the war, and he had ordered a 250F that was given chassis plate #2504. It was this car that Bira brought to Silverstone for the 1954 British Grand Prix.
There were several other 250Fs entered, but the two that concern us are Bira’s #2504 and the BRM/Owen car for Wharton, #2509.
Bira had been persuaded to share his car with BRM/Owen contracted driver, Scotsman Ron Flockhart. Flockhart practiced quicker than Bira and so got to drive in the race itself.
However, Flockhart crashed, escaping injury but wrecking the car. This didn’t please Bira and he demanded that BRM/Owen make good.
The easiest way for that to happen was to give Bira their undamaged car, take Bira’s and repair it. However, in concluding this deal, they also swapped chassis plates to retain their original number. In effect, the BRM/Owen car became Bira’s with his original #2504 and Bira’s car became the BRM/Owen car with #2509.
So, on the face of it, the Chris Amon ex-Owen 250F that currently sits in the Southward Museum is really Bira’s original car – although even that is not beyond dispute.
BRM/Owen repaired Bira’s car and began upgrading and customising it to their own specifications. Under Tony Rudd, they noted the failures in other 250Fs and modified their car so that it never happened to them. Rudd also designed additions to the chassis to reduce flex and improve handling.
The two most obvious changes were the fitting of Dunlop disc brakes, with Dunlop magnesium alloy vented disc wheels replacing the original wires.
BRM/Owen ran the car for the rest of 1954 for Flockhart and Wharton with no real results.
Things changed in 1955 when Peter Collins became the driver with wins against mediocre opposition in the Daily Express International Trophy Race at Silverstone and the London Trophy at Crystal Palace. In early 1956, Mike Hawthorn was the driver and he took third place in the Argentine Grand Prix and ninth in the GP de Buenos Aires at Mendoza.
After South America, the car was shipped back to Britain where BRM decided it was time they campaigned their own car. The 250F was sold to Australian Jack Brabham, who had gone to Britain to attack the Formula One establishment, but had gone as far as he could with his favoured Cooper cars — they just had nothing to offer in Formula One at that stage, so Brabham opted to buy the 250F and chance himself as a privateer.
His first race in the car was the Aintree 200 in April that year where he finished ninth — a race where BRM were first and second in their new cars with Mike Hawthorn winning from Tony Brooks.
Brabham disliked the car and raced it little, but his season was saved by driving for Cooper in F2 and sports car races, while often leasing the 250F to Bruce Halford.
The 250F Arrives in New Zealand
Cooper was edging closer to having a car that was competitive in F1 and, with the 250F disliked and redundant, Brabham sent it down under, hoping to find a buyer.
Brabham didn’t start in two races in Australia before heading to New Zealand with both the 250F and a works F2 Cooper-Climax. The 250F remained unraced but he drove the Cooper to tenth place in the Grand Prix at Ardmore, second at Wigram, second at Dunedin and retired at Ryal Bush.
Brabham left the 250F in New Zealand when he returned to the UK. A buyer was eventually found — Gavin Quirk, a builder from Te Awamutu who had previously raced a couple of Cooper-Bristols without a great deal of success.
Quirk had a dismal three years with the 250F, appearing spasmodically and, if he finished, it was in a lowly place. He’d done some work to the car, including adding a customised long nose with a larger than normal air intake at the front. It looked ugly.
Quirk sold the 250F in a million parts to Hamilton restauranteur Len Gilbert who had progressed from flying fighter aircraft to racing an F3 Cooper and a Cooper-Bristol that he’d converted into a sports car.
Gilbert’s restaurant in Hamilton — The Lido — was one of the first licensed eateries in the city and he assembled the 250F from several boxes of bits in a room out the back of the restaurant.
Gilbert was a popular, likeable character and he details his experiences in the sport in a small, self-published book – When Motor Racing was Fun — which sums up his attitude to life and his various activities, including motor racing.
In the 250F, Gilbert was quicker than Gavin Quirk had been and he got some good, if not outstanding results. He was cautious in the car, probably because he couldn’t afford to break it.
He retired in the 1962 GP at Ardmore, came sixth at Wigram, eighth at Dunedin and Teretonga, seventh at Waimate and fourth in the Napier road race.
He finished the season third equal with Frank Shuter on the Gold Star table and the car’s next owner in mid-1961 was Wellington racer and car dealer, Tony Shelly.
It would be accurate to say in the first seven years of its life, the Maserati 250F had not been a successful car, but in its eighth and final season, that was all going to change.
Amon and the 250F
Chris Amon’s 1961/62 season had begun with him driving his old single-cam Cooper-Climax at Levin, but he realised it was just too slow and he wanted a better car.
Hastily, a meeting with Tony Shelly was arranged at Levin and after some try-out laps, Amon decided to buy the 250F, trading the Cooper, and he got ready to debut his new car. Having got Bruce Wilson to repair his Cooper after gearbox troubles at a hill climb, Amon liked the Hunterville mechanic’s thorough approach.
So, when he acquired the 250F, he continued his arrangement with Wilson, who stripped and rebuilt the Maserati in the hope of a trouble-free season. At this time, for the first time in its history, the car was repainted red – previously it had been BRG and then a lighter metallic green.
Amon drove the wheels off the car during that season, demonstrating his amazing innate ability and gaining the support of Reg Parnell.
At Ohakea in late 1962, Amon took his 2.5 T53 Cooper-Climax for himself but the 250F was also brought along to be driven by Whanganui driver, Ian Young.
Amon’s last true racing appearance in the 250F — and indeed, its last recorded race anywhere — was in the Renwick 50 race that took place on November 10 1962, Amon finishing second behind Angus Hyslop’s T53 Cooper.
After that, the Maserati was taken back to Hunterville where it sat in a corner of the workshop, joined by the 1959 leaf spring Cooper Climax and the 1960 coil spring version.
And when Christopher Arthur Amon flew off to become a Formula One driver, his three cars stayed in Hunterville, with Len Southward eventually buying the Maserati for what now seems an absolutely giveaway price — £750. The two Coopers were sold later.
The 250F appears from the Southward Museum at significant events on a reasonably regular basis — mostly as a static display, but was occasionally driven by Chris Amon and museum workshop manager, John Bellamore.
On one famous occasion at Manfeild, not long after a full engine rebuild, Amon was so delighted to be back with his old car, he drove it quick enough for museum management to have worried looks on their faces.
During the engine rebuild, John Bellamore found unrepaired damage at the front of the chassis — a legacy of the car’s meeting with a power pole in Dunedin!
Today, this famous race-car is a gathering financial asset for the museum but, even more importantly, it’s a car that played a huge role in the proud history of New Zealand motor racing – and you can’t put a price on that.
Fittingly, the Maserati 250F made an appearance at the public memorial service for Chris Amon in Taupo on August 15.