Maserati Birdcage: “The finest front-engined sports-racing car ever built”?

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

The Maserati Birdcage, also known as the Maserati Tipo 60/61, was a series of sports racing cars that were produced between 1959 and 1961.

Sir Stirling Moss said the Birdcage was

“…the finest front-engined sports-racing car ever built”

Bonhams

and the lightweight Maserati Birdcage – in the right hands – is still more than capable of giving the mid-engined opposition a run for their money today.

Developed by Italian automobile manufacturer Maserati, these cars quickly gained popularity among private racing teams in sports car events, including the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Birdcage was intended to replace the ageing series of conventional chassis front-engine race cars such as this Maserati 8CTF from 1938 that Maserati had been using for years, and its innovative design soon became a game-changer in the racing world.

A blue Maserati Maserati 8CTF 1938 racing car in a museum
Maserati 8CTF from 1938

In 1959 the Maserati Tipo 60/61 “Birdcage” sports racing car demonstrated a new form of construction, quite different from the one-piece, monolithic bodyshell. Maserati chief engineer Giulio Alfieri needed the car to be light, and he considered the Jaguar D-Type’s monocoque, like this one…

Jaguar D Type showing the one-piece monocoque body

But instead, he settled on Touring of Milan’s Superleggera construction system, patented in 1936. In this “super lightweight” technique an intricate spaceframe chassis was welded together out of steel tubes to make a cage-like structure that was lighter and more rigid than other racers of the time.

The 10mm to 15mm diameter tubes formed triangles concentrated at areas of high stress. This inspired the Birdcage epithet.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car cockpit in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

An alloy-skinned body was then stretched beautifully over the bones. The chassis only weighed 36kg (79lb). Although successful in the racing arena, this method of construction hasn’t yet made it into mass production. It might foreshadow a new way of making cars in the future.

A white Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

The intricate chassis structure provided the necessary stiffness and light weight, making the car highly competitive in the 2-litre and 3-litre racing categories. Throughout its limited production run the Birdcage earned numerous successes on the track, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of motorsports.

A white Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum, front
Maserati Tipo 60/61

History

Origin and Concept

In 1957, Maserati won the World Championship with the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio driving the 250F, but as always the company’s financial situation was perilous. Maserati urgently needed to build an affordable sports car to sell to American private racing enthusiasts: “privateers.” The result was a stroke of genius by its designer, Giulio Alfieri.

Nicknamed the “Birdcage” after the appearance of its intricate tubular chassis, the Maserati Tipo 61 was arguably the company’s finest sports car. It won at the Nürburgring in 1960 and 1961, and according to Stirling Moss and Marino Franchitti, was a delight to drive.

I personally owned a series of Alfa Romeo 105 GTVs, and the sensation was similar: a two-litre alloy engine sucking on Weber carburettors, a delightful gearbox, rear-wheel drive, the balance, the four-wheel drifts- and that indefinable Italian pizzaz.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

Development Timeline

In 1959, the Tipo 60 and Tipo 61 were officially launched with their respective categories of 2-litre and 3-litre engines. The Birdcage’s debut was on July 12, 1959, when the Maserati Tipo 60 Birdcage, chassis number 2451, was raced to victory at the Coupe Delamare Debauteville in the sports category at Rouen with Stirling Moss as the driver.

Over the next couple of years, these cars continued to participate in various races, facing technical issues and often simple bad luck. The Birdcages never won at Le Mans due to reliability issues. Despite setbacks, the Tipo 61 notably did win the 1000 km of Nürburgring in 1960 and 1961.

A white Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

Designers and Influencers

Giulio Alfieri, the mastermind behind the Birdcage, was supported by a team of influential figures who helped shape the car’s racing success. Among these were legendary drivers like Stirling Moss, Carroll Shelby, and Masten Gregory. In addition, the Camoradi Racing Team and Briggs Cunningham were instrumental in promoting and racing the Birdcage cars.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car badge in a museum
Maserati Trident Badge

Design and Engineering

Chassis and Space Frame

As we have seen, the Maserati Birdcage was made from around 200 small steel tubes having a diameter between 10 and 15 mm, welded together in very short lengths in a complex mesh to form a cage-like structure. However, the first car had problems. It was completed in May 1959 and was given to Stirling Moss for testing. His hard driving revealed cracks in the chassis.

The development team solved the problem by changing the grade of the steel used to construct the chassis, not by increasing the diameter or weight.

In the end, the construction techniques used on the chassis allowed for a low weight of 570 kg (1,257 lb). The space frame design resulted in a significantly improved performance on the track.

A white cockpit Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

Aerodynamics

Another aspect of the Maserati Birdcage’s design was its concentration on aerodynamics. The low body line and streamlined shape contributed to its high speeds in racing conditions. Furthermore, the placement of the engine played a crucial role in lowering the car’s centre of gravity and improving overall stability in corners.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61- aerodynamic excellence

Engine and Performance

Developed in the late 1950s, the Maserati Birdcage had a front-engine layout. The 1,990 cc four-cylinder engine borrowed from the 200S was mounted at the front of the car at a 45-degree angle. The engine had new cylinder heads, a 93×72 mm bore and stroke, twin Weber 45 DCO3 carburettors, Marelli dual ignition and a revised exhaust system.

It was rated at 200 hp (149 kW; 203 PS). The suspension system consisted of coil springs at the front and a De Dion rear axle with a single transverse leaf spring.

The construction techniques used on the chassis allowed for a low weight of 570 kg (1,257 lb).

The later Tipo 61 had a 2.9-litre 4-cylinder engine developing 250 hp (186 kW), again located in the front at a 45° angle with a weight of 600 kg (1,323), enabling a speed of 285 km/h (177 mph).

The Tipo 63 exhibited a major change with a mid-mounted engine. This transition allowed for better weight distribution and higher speeds through corners. The car was capable of competing in the 2-litre and 3-litre racing categories, making it a versatile option for privateers who were looking to participate in various sports car events, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum filler cap
Maserati Tipo 60/61 fuel filler

Racing Achievements

Le Mans and Endurance Races

The Maserati Birdcage, officially known as the Maserati Tipo 60/61, was never lucky at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Maserati Birdcage was campaigned by the Camoradi team, an American racing team that entered three Tipo 61s in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans. Unfortunately, all three cars faced technical problems and did not finish the race.

Targa Florio

However, the Maserati Birdcage saw success at the historic Targa Florio endurance race in Sicily, where it earned second place in 1960. The event was held on a gruelling public road circuit that tested the cars’ durability and the drivers’ skill. Despite the challenging race conditions, the Maserati Tipo 60/61 managed a strong performance on the winding mountain roads.

A Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

Privateer Success

One of the factors contributing to the Maserati Birdcage’s achievements in endurance racing was its widespread use by privateer drivers and teams. Unlike many other race cars of the era, the Birdcage was not solely a factory-backed effort; Maserati produced it with privateers in mind, making the car accessible to teams with the necessary funds. As a result, various privateer teams and drivers were able to utilize the Maserati Tipo 60/61 in their racing endeavours.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum showing drilled pedals
Maserati Tipo 60/6- even the pedals were drilled for lightness!

Legacy and Impact

Maserati Birdcage 75th

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Pininfarina, Maserati unveiled the Maserati Birdcage 75th, a concept car that pays homage to the original Birdcage race cars of the late 1950s. The modern iteration showcases advancements in design and technology while maintaining the essence of the classic Birdcage models, featuring a distinctive tubular chassis and lightweight construction.

Influence on Modern Maserati Models

The Maserati Birdcage served as an inspiration for several modern Maserati models, particularly the MC12 and the recently introduced MC20. The MC12, which shares components with the Ferrari Enzo, pays tribute to the Birdcage’s racing heritage with its powerful V12 engine and GT1 racing version, the Maserati MC12 GT1. The MC20, on the other hand, is a testament to Maserati’s commitment to innovation, showcasing cutting-edge technology and design while embracing the Birdcage’s lightweight ethos.

Auctions and Collections

The Maserati Birdcage models are revered among automobile enthusiasts and collectors, fetching huge prices at auctions. A 1960 Tipo 60 Birdcage, would be worth a couple of million dollars. The Birdcage’s timeless design and storied past have solidified its place in automotive history, making it a sought-after piece for prestigious collections and museums around the world.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum plate
Maserati Tipo 60/61 VIN plates: strangely new looking

The legacy of the Maserati Birdcage continues to influence the design and engineering of modern Maserati models, with elements of its revolutionary chassis and lightweight construction still being carried forward.

The Birdcage’s enduring impact on the automotive world is evident through the retrospectives, auctions, and collections that showcase its significance in the world of racing and luxury automobiles. The reputation of Maserati largely rests on this car.

Photo showing a Maserati Tipo 60 61 Birdcage vent
Exquisite Italian detailing

Related Models and Concepts

Tipo 63 and Tipo 64

The Maserati Birdcage series began with the Tipo 60 and Tipo 61 models, which later evolved into the Tipo 63 and Tipo 64. Both the Maserati Tipo 63 and Tipo 64 were developed as advanced sports racing cars produced between 1959 and 1961.

The main difference between these cars was their chassis design. The Tipo 63 featured a tubular space frame similar to the Tipo 61, while the Tipo 64 introduced a monocoque chassis to improve rigidity.

So maybe the Jaguar D Type designers were right all along?

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

Tipo 65

In an attempt to enhance their racing performance, Maserati developed the Tipo 65. This sports racing car utilized an upgraded version of the V8 engine previously used in Tipo 63. Despite its powerful engine and advanced design, the Tipo 65 failed to achieve substantial success in sports car racing and was eventually discontinued.

A white Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

MC12 GT1 and MC20

Years later, Maserati returned to motorsports with cars like the MC12 GT1. The MC12 GT1 was designed to compete in the highly competitive FIA GT Championship series. It became one of the most successful Maserati racing cars, winning multiple championships. In 2020, Maserati introduced the MC20, a new mid-engine sports car that’s a direct descendant of the Maserati Birdcage lineage.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car steering wheel in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61 wheel

Ken Okuyama’s Kode61 Birdcage

Industrial designer Ken Okuyama, known for his work on the Maserati Birdcage 75th, later created his own interpretation of the classic design with the Kode61 Birdcage. This modern tribute incorporates modern materials and technology while retaining the signature aesthetic elements of the original Maserati Birdcage models. Okuyama’s Kode61 Birdcage pays homage to the iconic Maserati racing cars and introduces a contemporary design that stays true to its roots in the prestigious world of motorsports.

How many Birdcages are left?

There are about twenty more Birdcages than Maserati built! As cars were crashed and their parts separated out, “rebuilt” cars started to appear on the market. All you needed was a brake pedal and a whole new Birdcage could be constructed around it. Buyers beware.

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum
Maserati Tipo 60/61

How much?

Maserati Birdcages sell for between £2,250,000 – £2,750,000 (Sotheby‘s)

A red Maserati Birdcage racing car in a museum rear
Maserati Tipo 60/61