Pride and joy: Graham Alexander behind the wheel of his Maserati.
Graham Alexander slides into the sparse cockpit of his bright-red Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage race car. At 185 centimetres, for him it doesn’t look the easiest of manoeuvres. It would be easier, he frankly admits, if he were shorter – perhaps the size of Stirling Moss.
That name comes readily to mind. He tells how, as a 15-year-old, he caught a train from Warragul, in Gippsland, to see Stirling Moss win the 1956 Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park in a Maserati 250F. Frenchman Jean Behra was second, also in a 250F.
That race still looms large in Alexander’s mind. He’s not sure if it was the Moss win that set him off, but as far back as the 1960s, early 1970s, he has “hankered” after a Maserati, he says. “I thought they were a very pretty car, but very functional.”
He got his chance in 2007 after he saw this Maserati Birdcage – so named because of its intricate birdcage-like aluminium chassis – advertised in an American magazine. When the dealer sent him more pictures, he caught the next plane.
Of course he drove it, he says. “I drove it (this dedicated race car) down a public highway. They had the salesman follow me in another car.” But then something rather awkward happened. “I’d just pulled it into fourth gear (it has five) and all of a sudden steam started coming out of the bonnet. It had dropped a valve. It blew the engine up.” Oops!
The dealer didn’t say anything much when they got back to the yard, says Alexander. “He shook his head a bit. But it wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t over-revved it or anything.” But he wasn’t going to walk away without it now he had come this far. He did a deal on the spot. The dealer agreed to replace the engine, Alexander paid a deposit and returned to Australia. He had his Maserati.
Alexander won’t say what the car cost him. “I used all my superannuation to buy it,” he admits. “I had to cash in a lot of shares that don’t even exist now.” That was just before the global financial crisis. “So this baby saved me a lot of money,” he says, tapping one of its bulbous mudguards. “It’s worth a lot more than I paid for it.”
As for what it’s worth, he’s not saying. One Birdcage sold in Monaco in May 2010 for a mind-boggling £2.8 million. “Another re-creation like this,” he says, was sold in America last year for $US1.6 million because the cars are so rare.
One report records that just 17 of these cars were built back in the early 1960s. A few others have been made since. Alexander thinks there are 22. “But it’s debatable whether there are 22 left,” he says. “Some were written off.” His car was commissioned by American Don Orosco, who has an historic motor racing outfit in Monterey, California. He owned a “real” Birdcage but didn’t want to race “the genuine article”. So he sent all the mechanical bits he had of another Birdcage to Crosthwaite & Gardiner, a leading manufacturer of parts for historic vehicles in England. The firm built the chassis and body and assembled the car in 1990.
Before Alexander bought the car, though, he phoned Crosthwaite. They told him they could build him another Birdcage body and chassis but it would cost a mind-blowing £700,000. “So that gives you an idea,” he says.
He doesn’t regard his Maserati Birdcage as a replica, preferring the term “a continuation” of the model. “I don’t know where all the bits for this one came from,” he says. “It’s exactly the same as the real one.”
He tells how he went to a historic race meeting in Monterey in 2010 and tracked down Orosco, who told him he had rejected the first chassis built by Crosthwaite & Gardiner because it was “too lovely and smooth”. He wanted it to look like the chassis built in the 1960s. “So they spent another week putting all this turkey shit (the welding joins in the chassis) around them.”
The Maserati is not Alexander’s first race car. He’s a motor wrecker by trade and sounds as if he’s had more cars than hot dinners. He caught the bug as a boy. He thinks that might have been because his father ran a two-car taxi business in Warragul. It was his job to wash them and he spent all his spare pocket money on car magazines.
Alexander has been rallying and racing cars since the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s the Maserati that is the best car he’s ever had. He pulls back the bonnet to reveal a seemingly greaseless, inline, four-cylinder, dry-sump engine and that spiderweb-like aluminium chassis. The Maserati name is prominent on the rocker cover, flanked on one side by two plugs per cylinder and on the other by feisty-looking twin-throat 45 Webers.
The gearbox and diff are all in one and mounted behind the cockpit. Because of his height, Alexander has made a couple of changes. He’s moved the seat back as far as it will go, and the brake and clutch pedals forward.
The whole car is aluminium and weighs only 600 kilograms – that chassis weighs only 35 kilograms – so it’s quite a pocket rocket, given that it’s pushed along by a 2.9-litre four-cylinder motor that develops 250bhp (186kW) at 6500 revs. “All the running gear in these cars is exactly the same as a 250 Maserati, the race car,” says Alexander, a touch of pride in his voice. “The gearbox and diff are (also) the same.”
The Birdcage’s top speed is 175mph (280km/h). Alexander has had it up to 257km/h and found it “quite stable” at that speed. This was around Albert Park lake in “a historic demonstration” at the grand prix a couple of years ago. The car’s a pleasure to drive, he says, “in that it’s a very torquey engine. It pulls like a train.” He has also given the car its head at a Myrniong hillclimb, where he holds the record for sports cars up to 3.0 litres.
Alexander treats the Maserati like a family pet. He keeps it inside his house, in a room with all his racing and rallying trophies, next to the kitchen and dining room.
Why in the house, one has to ask? “It’s a good talking point,” replies Alexander unperturbed. “Somewhere nice to keep it.”
He’s got “half-a-dozen other cars”, which he plans to bring home and garage in a large shed he’s built behind his home.
But not the Maserati Birdcage. It will stay inside. After all, it’s the biggest trophy he’s got?
“Something like that,” he says.
Nuts & bolts
The Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage was built by Maserati between 1959 and 1961 for the 24-hour Le Mans endurance classic. It got its nickname from its intricate space-frame birdcage-like chassis. This made the car more rigid and lighter than others of the era. It won its first race with Stirling Moss at the wheel. Its most famous wins were in 1960 and 1961 at the Nurburgring 1000-kilometre race. Only 17 were said to be built. It is a rare and desirable collectors’ car.