Although the advantages of mounting an engine in the middle of a vehicle were already well known in racing, it was a car that was never intended to go racing -- the Lamborghini Miura -- that helped introduce the layout to the street. The Miura's proportions and performance sparked an explosion of similarly situated sports cars, from the De Tomaso Mangusta to Ferrari's Dino. All of them had another thing in common: they were packaging disasters with little foot room, scarce provisions for luggage, and interior sound levels that were unsympathetic to the refined eardrums of wealthy potential buyers.
Then came the Maserati Bora, a mid-engine GT from a company that was often accused of being old-tech and stuck in the past. Five years post-Miura, the Giugiaro-designed Bora rolled out of the factory with its distinctive brushed-stainless-steel roof and dished chrome hubcaps. What really made the Bora different from the other mid-engine cars, though, was that it was civilized and usable. Dual-pane glass separated its cabin from the engine compartment, which itself was capped with a carpeted aluminum sound-deadening cover. There was a big, usable trunk up front. The engine's placement precluded reclining backrests, but rather than let the driver struggle to reach the controls, the controls came to him: the steering column both tilted and telescoped, and (get this) the pedal cluster moved at the touch of a button, forward or rearward, in silence, by hydraulic pressure.
If you think this sounds vaguely Citroen-like, you're not mistaken: the Bora was developed while Maserati was under French control. The Bora's four-wheel independent suspension -- a first for the Modenese brand -- used conventional springs and dampers rather than Citroen's cushy hydropneumatic system, and its rear-biased weight distribution rendered power steering unnecessary -- at least for rich bodybuilders who lived in parts of the world where parallel parking wasn't a factor.
As in the Citroen DS, the Bora's hydraulic braking system uses pressure -- not travel -- to actuate the brakes. Since Citroen's mushroom-shaped brake button made heel-and-toe downshifting difficult, Maserati installed a conventional brake pedal that acted as a lever on the mushroom, which was hidden behind the pedal. Press the pedal, and you get a pop of instant kickback and then a quiet hissing, followed by the most positive brake feel ever created by human engineering.
The Bora's shifter, too, is exceptionally precise, and even double-clutch downshifts into the dogleg first gear are a piece of cake. That's in stark contrast to the Miura, which has a balky, heavy, and recalcitrant shift linkage -- and it's even more impressive given that the Bora's linkage carries your right hand's intentions to the very back of the car. (The V-8 is mounted longitudinally in front of a ZF five-speed transaxle. This is ninety degrees from the Miura's transverse layout and one-hundred eighty from all of Sant'Agata's mid-engine V-12s since.) If it seems like we're mentioning Lamborghini too much, you might want to take a look back at contemporary road tests. The authors of those articles might have mentioned the Miura more than the Bora itself, and for one reason: to convey how much better the Maserati was.
Don Treadwell is the owner of this original-paint, rosso fuoco (fire red) 1974 4.9-liter Bora, and he does all of his own work on the car. He knows each part as if he had designed it himself -- and when you ask why, he'll hint that these Maseratis aren't aces in the reliability department. Driving the Bora "is always an adventure," Treadwell says, but he clearly revels in the experience. He laughs as he points out that the DOHC V-8 was designed without valve seals, so the cloud of blue smoke when you start it is confirmation that "yup, it's got enough oil in it."
The Bora's playbill is loaded with some of the world's most high-maintenance players: electrics by Lucas; carburetors by Weber; engine by Maserati; those Citroen hydraulics; some of the same switchgear you'll find in a De Tomaso Pantera or a Lamborghini Espada; and suspension and rack-and-pinion steering inspired by Jaguar. It should, by all rights, be a rolling disaster, but Treadwell points out that Maserati wanted doctors and lawyers to buy the car, not mechanics. It needed to be dependable, so Boras were equipped with a redundant ignition system and a backup fuel pump and filter -- from the factory. That latter foresight once spared the Treadwells a very uncomfortable tow-truck ride when the Bora threw a roadside temper tantrum. Don was in a tuxedo and his wife Sandi was wearing a gown, and neither outfit was ruined getting the Maserati running again.
Nobody wears a gown in a Lamborghini, but it's suitable attire for a Bora, which is an almost unbelievably civilized grand tourer. It has comfortable seats that extend nearly to the floor like sinuous lounge chairs, and it is remarkably quiet and comfortable inside despite the very taut ride. The V-8 burbles like a Corvette's and has a thundering exhaust note, but it's smooth and tractable, pulling buck-free from idle to redline. Incredibly long gearing (second gear is good for more than 80 mph) minimizes shifting, and the long pedal travel makes it impossible not to be smooth while metering out 4.9 liters' worth of V-8 torque.
After nearly twenty years with the Bora, Treadwell admits that he's contemplating finding a new home for it. The problem is that he and his wife like the Bora's fraternal twin even better. Think of the Merak and the Bora the way you'd think of a Porsche Boxster and a 911. They're nearly identical from the driver's seat forward but differ in the rear: the Merak uses a V-6 (which Maserati originally designed for the Citroen SM) in place of the Bora's V-8, and the missing cylinders provide room for two rear seats. They're far too tiny to sit in, but the extra space goes a long way toward increasing the cabin's airiness, and the Treadwells prefer their Merak for long road trips.
Long road trip -- there's a concept that was unfamiliar to the drivers of other early mid-engine sports cars. Lamborghini might have jump-started the mid-engine trend, but it was Maserati that made the first one you'd actually want to live with.
4.7L DOHC V-8, 310 hp, 325 lb-ft
4.9L DOHC V-8, 315-325 hp, 308-335 lb-ft
Control arms, coil springs
Control arms, coil springs
THE INFOYEARS PRODUCED
$45,000-$120,000 (Later and 4.9-liter Boras are worth considerably more than other examples.)
WHY BUY? It's beautiful -- far better-looking in person than it appears in photographs, a phenomenon also noted four decades ago. The Bora is fast, wonderful to drive, and a great value. When new, the Bora was three times as expensive as a Jaguar E-type V-12 and cost twice what Ferrari's Dino did. Today, it's worth not even twice the Jag and far less than the Ferrari. More important, it can run at speeds of more than 170 mph, and it's the only mid-engine car of its day that actually seemed to be designed to fit real people in it. Comfortably, at that.