His father worked at the Harrah's Automobile Collection (now the
After closing time, my friend's dad let us climb in and all around the cars.
I remember walking around in the back of a custom Rolls that Queen Elizabeth II gave Bill Harrah for the collection, and a powder-blue Ferrari that Harrah was giving his bride-to-be, Bobby Gentry. (It had a small silver plaque on the dash that said: "To Bobby with love, from Bill.")But the real thrill was getting close to the exotic European racing cars, like Bizzarini, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo and Maserati. And now, decades later, I have the chance to drive a modern day descendant of such a car. Over the past few years, there's been a trend to bring consumer versions of autos with a vintage racing lineage into the U.S. One of the most recent contributions is from Maserati.
An Italian JobFiat ( FIA) took controlling interest in Maserati in the early 1990s, eventually selling the Maserati company to Fiat's Ferrari division. In 2002, the Maserati brand returned to the U.S. market with its flagship sedan, the Quattroporte. This auto was first designed by Pietro Frua in 1963, as a high-performance car melded with a premium sedan. The Quattroporte may be called a production consumer automobile, but it bears no similarity to mass-produced vehicles: Each car is made at the Maserati factory in Modena, Italy, using low-volume production techniques which combine high-tech process with traditional handcrafting. The current American incarnation of the Quattroporte comes in three flavors: Quattroporte, Quattroporte Executive GT and Quattroporte Sport GT, and retails for roughly $120,000. Sergio Pininfarina designed the exterior -- a sleek, stylish Italian body -- and the interior has all the treats you'd expect in a European luxury auto. I'm 6'3", and the cockpit still felt comfortable and spacious, and all controls are within easy reach. Amenities -- such as full-leather tray tables for laptop use, and heating, cooling and massage settings for the front seats -- would help make even sitting in traffic relaxing. And if you feel that you need to make a more personal statement, the Officine Alfieri Maserati personalization program lets you create your own interior from a choice of four million color and material combinations. But of course, the raison d'etre for this car is the power plant. All three variations of the Quattroporte use the same 4.2 liter 32-valve 390 hp engine, a direct descendant of the V8 used in Maserati's 450S racer (driven by teammates Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss in countless races in the '50s). Even though you're in a luxury sedan, you can definitely hear and feel that ancestral engine roar.
Paddle to the MetalThe most unique feature of the Quattroporte, however, is its six-speed electro-hydraulic Maserati duoselect transmission. Commonly called "paddles," after Formula racing gear boxes, the gearbox has three modes: manual (semi-automatic), sport (full manual) and automatic. As soon as you start the car, the system selects the automatic driving mode. However, using the paddle shifters mounted directly behind the steering wheel, you can manually select a specific gear without deactivating the automatic mode. Or, for complete control, you can move the console mounted shift button to manual, and move up and down through the gears using the paddles. Getting used to the paddles takes a little while; it's far easier if you're used to a standard gearbox and understand rpm's relationship to shifting. Once you get the hang of it, however, the paddles are very simple to use. And when in the semi-automatic mode, the transmission not only prevents redlining but also downshifts into first gear when coming to a stop. But because it doesn't employ a torque converter, the fully automatic mode doesn't really have the feel of a good automatic transmission like in a BMW or Lexus. (This mode probably exists on the Maserati so someone who can't drive a car without a slush box can take it out without panicking.)
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