We drive SA’s oldest running Maserati, a special 3500GT from 1958...

Every manufacturer has had a pivotal vehicle that would be its blueprint for future success. For Maserati, this 3500GT was that car. Like Ferrari, until the late-1950s Maserati was far more focused on racing than on series-production cars. However, this changed with the elegantly styled 3500GT, the Trident’s first series-production grand tourer.

Two prototypes were initially unveiled at the 1957 Geneva Motor Show before the production car emerged later that same year. Fewer than 20 examples were produced in ’57, but production increased the next year. This example, chassis 68, came off the line in early 1958. It is believed to have been imported to South Africa in the same year – its original colour was light green – and its current owner bought it from another enthusiast in the late 1990s.

Some light work was required after its acquisition and its owner continued to use it regularly; something he still does and, as such, has a practical rather than precious approach to its upkeep.

“As I like to use the car,” he explains, “I have modern tyres fitted because the period tyres are really not suited to everyday driving. It is not in concourse condition – it has, for instance, an electric fan installed – but it is practical. An addition like this is beneficial in traffic. It also has a decent fuel pump and not the original SU type.”

This GT has been taken on many road trips, one which entailed a 750 km adventure to Nelspruit: “That is the type of trip this car was made for; it is really a great cruiser.”

It’s a beautiful piece of 1950s design, with the large, oval grille and trident badge dominating the front of the car. The classy lines flow towards subtle chrome fins leading to rear lights above the chrome bumper. Behind the front wheels are gills, typical of the era, and the bonnet houses another feature of the time, a long, shallow scoop.

Employing the legendary “superleggera” construction technique of a structural framework made of small-diameter tubes and body panels in thin alloy, the 3500GT is a light car. Its alloy-block engine is derived from that of the 350S sports prototype racecar and is mated with a four-speed ZF-sourced transmission. Being an early production car, this model features Weber carburettors (later versions had fuel injection). Interestingly, Maserati chose the UK to source essential parts, including a Salisbury rear axle, Alford & Alder suspension parts and Girling brakes.

The interior boasts a classic leather-trimmed environment, with the large Jaeger instruments serving as a clear reminder of a bygone era. By far the most distinctive feature of the cabin, however, is the design of the facia. The double-concave curves, together with a wide transmission tunnel, separate the occupants. The rear bench has space for kids or luggage.

Once behind the wheel, thanks to the pillarless doors, you have a near-perfect 180-degree view of your surroundings. The seats are plush and comfortable but, typical of Italian cars, the pedals are a little too close to each other and you need to be careful not to stomp on the wrong one.

After cranking, the engine settles into a throaty idle. The four-speed gearbox, with its lever slightly tilted towards the driver, has a direct and particularly mechanical shift action. Coupled with unfiltered feel through the steering wheel, there is a strong mechanical connection with the 3500GT; from the sound you hear, to the operation of the controls.

The engine feels uncomfortable below 2 500 r/min but, from 3 000 r/min, it starts to clear its proverbial throat, after which the GT willingly begins to pick up speed through the next 2 000 to 3 000 r/min. In the automotive world, there are few things more satisfying than listening to a twin-spark, twin-camshaft engine as it approaches the red line.

Between 1957 and ’64, only round 2 200 3500GTs (both coupés and cabriolets) were manufactured although, interestingly, parts appear relatively easy to find. Several clubs have collaborated in deciding what needs to be remanufactured, which also helps a lot. As expected, not many of these cars remain in South Africa, but it is clear that, while this one is in the custody of its current owner, it is not going anywhere.