Giant Killer: The OSCA MT4 was the little car that did

August 2, 2011
The David versus Goliath story and its multiple analogues have fascinated humanity for millennia, so it's no surprise that the schema was transposed to the automotive world almost as soon as there were cars. My first exposure to serious writing about cars was Ken Purdy's True magazine encomium to Ettore Bugatti, more than sixty years ago. The image of Bugatti's tiny cars flitting among and beating fourteen- and seventeen-liter racing cars at the beginning of the last century resonated with my barely teenage heart, and I've loved small cars ever since.
Osca Mt4 Left Side View Driving
Jimmy Clark's 1500-cc Lotus 23 rocketing past the pits all alone in the 1962 Nuerburgring 1000 kilometers race -- so far ahead of the field that observers thought there must have been a massive crash somewhere on the difficult circuit that took out all the "serious" cars -- remains one of the most dramatic racing moments of the last six decades. But not the most dramatic moment. That was at Sebring, Florida, in 1954, when a young Stirling Moss, driving a 1453-cc OSCA, subdued factory teams from Aston Martin, Austin-Healey, Cunningham, Excalibur, Maserati, and -- above all -- Lancia, whose cars were driven by duos including Alberto Ascari and Gigi Villoresi, Juan Manuel Fangio and Eugenio Castellotti, and Piero Taruffi and Robert Manzon, proven winners all. Not to mention serious private entries like Phil Hill in one of three Ferraris, a factory-prepared Frazer Nash, and a pair of C-type Jaguars.
I was there, having driven almost all the way across the country nonstop in a '54 Volkswagen Beetle with two Art Center classmates, Steve Kursh and Joe Parkhurst. We had to hitchhike the last several hundred miles from Pensacola, where an inept VW dealership had blown up Joe's engine on its new chassis dynamometer when we sought counsel on odd noises (it was just sticking valves caused by cheap gasoline). We managed to get to the track a few minutes before the start of the race, which was the first notable appearance of European teams in the United States since the Vanderbilt Cup in the late 1930s, and it turned out to be as exciting as we'd anticipated.
As the hours passed, not only did the Briggs Cunningham-owned OSCA stay close to the front, but four other OSCAs were acquitting themselves extremely well, ultimately taking four of the first eight places with only one car retiring. To understand OSCAs, all you really need to do is read the badge. Under the acronym O.S.C.A. (for "Office Specialized in Construction of Automobiles" in Italian) were three far more significant words: fratelli MASERATI bologna.
The brothers Maserati were real racers, and their little OSCAs were real racing cars, the ultimate expressions of a long line of outstanding machinery that bore their name, beginning in 1926. All seven Maserati brothers were born in the nineteenth century, and if fifth-born Mario was an artist with no interest in cars or racing, the six others were true "car guys," to use a term popularized long after the last of them had died. Making racing cars for a living had worked fairly well for them, but by 1937 the three remaining racing brothers were up against it. They sold their company to prosperous junk man Adolfo Orsi and agreed to stay with the company for ten years.
Osca Mt4 Left Side View Parked
When that indentured servitude timed out, Bindo, Ettore, and Ernesto went home to Bologna and created a company to build more real Maserati racing cars, even if the now-hallowed family name could not be used. The first 1092-cc MT4 OSCAs, nine of them, used a Fiat Millecento (1100) block with a single-overhead-cam cylinder head. The brothers soon created their own aluminum-block engine design with twin cams, a true racing powerplant that started at 1342 cc, grew to 1453 cc, and then finally to the twin-ignition 1491-cc variant. Some sources say there were seventy-two MT4 OSCAs, whatever their displacement. The cars were exceptionally expensive compared to other small cars, but they were also extraordinarily fast, compared not just to small cars but to other sports cars in general.
OSCA didn't last long. The fratelli Bindo, Ettore, and Ernesto were, respectively, 80, 69, and 65 years old when they sold OSCA to Count Domenico Agusta in 1963, and although they remained available to consult, the company ended all operations in 1967, two decades after it had begun. There had also been OSCA V-12 engines, unsuccessful Formula 1 cars, a winning 750-cc sports racer, a lovely 2.0-liter in-line six, even a Fiat 1100-based Formula Junior, but the true heart of the company and the source of its ultimate reputation was the MT4.
In a bout of nostalgia, I went back to the Sebring race course in 1993 with three friends who'd accompanied me to the races in 1954, '56, and '57 [Automobile Magazine, March 1994]. After the rain-soaked race was done, we drove down to Naples, Florida, to visit the Miles Collier museum, wherein reposed the OSCA that won in 1954. The docent looking after the collection allowed us not only to get inside the ropes for a close look, but accorded Steve Kursh and me the rare privilege of actually sitting in it. I never expected to see the car again, but an inquiry to Miles Collier earlier this year resulted in an invitation to actually drive Briggs Cunningham's MT4, which has been acquired along with the rest of his collection.
Collier is a purist, but a practical one. He believes in keeping cars as they were in their prime and in full working order. Not only that, he sees that they are used from time to time as they ought to be -- the Sebring MT4 did the Colorado Grand last year. At the same time, he countenances slight modifications in the interest of allowing cars to be used safely in today's traffic. Thus, the OSCA now has a switchable electric radiator fan to handle roadgoing conditions, and an Alfa Romeo five-speed manual gearbox has replaced its original ZF four-speed, which now rests on a shelf. As a pure racer, the OSCA was extremely high-geared in first, to the point that any slight upward slope presented its driver with the obligation to brutally slip the Fichtel und Sachs clutch to get away from rest. The Alfa box has a numerically higher first gear, making the car tractable even in mountain driving.
Osca Mt4 Badge
Even so, John Arsenault, who looks after the OSCA, told me that I'd probably kill the engine the first few times I tried to launch the car but not to worry about it, I'd catch on. The 1453-cc engine, sharply tuned fifty-seven years ago by Alfred Momo -- who was to Cunningham's racing efforts what Phil Remington was to Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney's teams decades later -- is not really suitable for a morning commute in stop-and-go running, but despite pulling a remarkable 130 hp, it is quite flexible and very eager, a physical testimony to the long-term brilliance of the Maserati brothers and their passion for racing. During the time the brothers ran their eponymous company, road cars were not part of the mix. They built racing cars, and that was that.
No one seems to know who built the elegant body of the Sebring MT4, but it is very clearly patterned after single-seat racing cars of the period, with a rounded, nacellelike central body flanked by simple pontoon fenders. The center of the cowl is nearly four inches higher than the tops of the doors, very much in the same way Touring-bodied Ferrari barchettas were shaped. The headlamp-tipped pontoons end in rounded forms set apart from the central shape, which itself ends in a lovely elliptical grille. Looking carefully at what seems to be a chrome-plated casting, one can see that in fact the grille is made up entirely of small-diameter steel tubes, with a hand-formed perimeter that is apparently brazed to the surrounding tube. In the hollow between fenders and grille, as seen in plan view, are the pair of driving lamps needed for night racing at Sebring.
The cockpit is elegantly spare, with several Stewart-Warner instruments added to the Italian originals, no doubt by Momo in his intensive preparation of the car. As I drove it, the MT4 was in its 1954 configuration, with a metal tonneau cover over the right side of the cockpit and just a single plastic aero screen in front of the driver. A period detail is the very high placement of the quite big wood-rim steering wheel. The wheel itself appears to be made to the classic Nardi design but was not inscribed with any identification marks.
Osca Mt4 Detail
Tires are, by today's standards, shockingly skinny, 5.00-15 at the front, 5.50-15 in back, both mounted on rims only 3.5 inches wide. With classic Dunlop racing tires fitted, grip is limited, but the steering feel is truly fine and the car responds to driver inputs beautifully. There are two sets of wire wheels for the OSCA, one with seventy-two spokes on aluminum rims and another with sixty spokes on steel hoops. Driving any well-sorted older car with 100 percent section-height tires like this makes one regret the necessity for power steering on almost all modern cars. The delicate sense of what's happening at the contact patch is never as clear and precise as on purely mechanical systems.
It was a 98-degree day in Florida when we drove the OSCA on lightly trafficked roads near the Naples airport. There was no opportunity to go really fast, but it was easy to sense the car's potential and to take it to the engine's 6500-rpm redline in the first three gears. Coolant temperatures mounted quickly, even with the electric fan doing its best, so the car had to be kept moving. After a good bit of car-to-car tracking, I settled down to making tight little laps around a wooded mound for the photographer, tight enough to require a firm push on the unassisted and extremely effective drum brakes.
Briggs Cunningham, whose lifelong experience with fine cars was virtually unequaled, was quoted years ago as saying that of all the cars he had ever driven, this OSCA was his absolute favorite. After reveling in the kinesthetic experience of guiding it gently into turns and accelerating through and out of them, I could fully understand his enthusiasm for the little machine. Driving it was a lot of fun, but the combination of restricted space -- just fine for twenty-four-year-old Stirling Moss at Sebring fifty-seven years ago but not very good for a much taller septuagenarian now -- and constantly rising heat in the cockpit caused me to say, "that's enough," and shut down across the road from Arsenault, who was in the chase car, to ask whether he wanted to drive the OSCA back to the museum.
"No," he said, "you can take it back." So I started up, let out the clutch and killed the engine, just as he had warned me I probably would. Embarrassed at having done so for the first time right in front of him, I tried to restart. Nothing. Like me, the giant-killing MT4 was out of gas.
Osca Mt4 Front Left View Driving
Design Analysis
Despite the anonymity of its builder, the naive charm of typical handbuilt Italian coachwork -- in which symmetry is as approximate as it is in human bodies and faces -- makes the body of the Cunningham-Collier MT4 worthy of as much attention as one might give a "name brand" shape. The outer surface of the left rear fender is convex and voluptuous, while the right fender is fairly flat behind the wheel. No matter, one doesn't see both at once, and the whole form is pretty. Cutting away the front wheel opening to improve brake cooling may have been technically inspired, but it also adds an elegant visual dynamic. Even the body framing, the door frames, and the gooseneck door hinges, all in small welded tubing, are marvels of modern sculpture in themselves.
1 The jewel-like oval grille is not a casting but a lovingly handcrafted construct of tiny tubes and a sheetmetal rim.
2 The central part of the body is truly a single-seat cigar-shaped form flanked by pontoon fenders.
3 Louvers on the engine cover let out a lot of heat -- but not nearly enough after an hour's running. And there's no fresh air flowing into the cockpit.
4 Wire wheels were heavier than alloys but are unrivaled for visual elegance.
5 This racing windscreen is replaced with a full-width version for two-person events like the Colorado Grand.
6 The scoop behind the front wheel opening was the work of Alfred Momo, who used stainless steel rather than an aluminum panel to increase chassis stiffness.
7 The quite high ground clearance was typical in the 1950s, when cars like this raced on unpaved roads in the Targa Florio.
8 The sharp rise in the center of the body behind the seats is quite apparent, emphasizing the resemblance to single-seaters.


View Article

Photo Gallery