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maserati turns 100

The Globe and Mail

We were early into our 300-odd kilometre drive from Modena to Turin when we spotted the automotive equivalent of the proverbial white elephant, trundling along the A1 in the slow lane, inspiring a chorus of honking and triggering a wave of 11th-hour lane changes.

The white elephant, the Maserati Boomerang, a one-off concept car designed in 1971 by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro, only entered my consciousness a day earlier, at a static display devoted to the 100th anniversary of the Italian brand in the Piazza Grande in Modena. It's one thing to see this show-stopping supercar parked in place, but it's something else altogether to see the Boomerang in motion.

We tracked the car from the comfort of our own Maserati, a brand-new Ghibli Diesel, as the wedge-shaped conveyance pulled off the autostrada into a cutaway reserved for emergencies. We assumed the worst – the Boomerang was travelling slowly, wavering between 70 and 80 km/h, so we suspected that it was on the verge of breaking down.

As it turned out, the driver, a distinguished French gentleman with a shock of white hair, was merely having difficulty following the route book for this historic drive from one Maserati manufacturing stronghold (in Modena, where the GranTurismo and GranCabrio are built) to another (in Turin, home to the Ghibli and the Quattroporte).

He had decided to skip the day's planned excursions into and around Cremona – a visit to the Museo del Violino and a concert of a more mechanical kind at the Circuito San Martino del Lago – and head directly to the final meeting point for the centenary celebrations, Piazza San Carlo in Turin.

I expected never to see the Boomerang again. I assumed it was en route to its owner's residence on the back of a flatbed truck or, possibly, to his mechanic's place of work. But, a day later, there was the impossibly low and angular Maserati in the piazza, competing in the concours d'elegance against all manner of classic models from the company's 100-year history.

In many ways, the Boomerang is representative of the brand – somehow, this particular car and Maserati in general have survived all these years and arrived at that place, in the centre of Turin, at that time in history, a century after the Maserati brothers opened their first garage on Via de' Pepoli in Bologna.

There was ample reason to celebrate, then, for all the Maserati aficionados who had travelled to Italy from 30 different countries. (A particularly adventurous contingent drove from China in their modern Maseratis, a distance of 30,000 kilometres.) The celebrations were low-key, more reserved and more refined than the type of bombastic affair that rivals Lamborghini or corporate cousins Ferrari would likely organize.

There were no celebrities invited to the formal dinners at the factory in Modena or the Reggia di Venaria Reale outside Turin, for example. At various points, the parade of some 200 cars enjoyed a police escort, but it was often just one motorcycle, not a phalanx of officers with flashing lights and blaring sirens. Like the company itself, the four days passed by in a subdued, dream-like state.

Over the course of this gathering, the Maserati faithful had the chance to delve deeper into the story of the company courtesy of a tour of that first garage, a meeting with the sons of two of the three founding brothers, and a visit to the Maserati exhibit at the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari.

The former garage was tiny: two small rooms and an open-air courtyard nestled within a large building that was tucked well away from the main thoroughfares of Bologna. The place where "Officine Alfieri Maserati" was established stood in stark contrast to the factory in Modena; there, a single glass-enclosed room used to test how well new cars withstand wet-weather conditions was easily half the size. Progress has been made at Maserati, then, and history has been written. It's a history that includes race wins in the Targa Florio and the Indianapolis 500, riveting drives by Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss, and incomparable cars such as the Tipo 60 "Birdcage" and 250F.

There have been trials and tribulations as well, too many to mention, and fortunes that have fluctuated like the stock market.

For those who gathered to celebrate this moment, everything blended together to create the rich tapestry that is Maserati. Whether the next 100 years will be as colourful for this iconic Italian brand remains to be seen – like a Boomerang on the autostrada, this first century will be a tough act to follow.

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