Car Mysteries

The crossing

Photo credit: Collezione Umberto Panini

This story originates from deep within two countries of South America: Argentina and Venezuela. It is the story of two very different paths, which crossed under the name of Maserati in 1996. In this chapter of the story, Alejandro de Tomaso had lived 69 tumultuous years. After seeing his family’s wealth decimated under the Peronist movement which redefined Argentina, and after trying his hand – unsuccessfully – at a treacherous political career, at the age of 26 he abandoned his wife and three children and left for Modena, Italy, a destination that was not chosen by accident: At that time, Modena was the capital of motorsports. He was a racing driver; he knew his way around mechanics and had an innovative vision in which he dreamt of one day becoming a manufacturer himself. But he lacked the financial firepower to realize this dream and it was going to take quite a lot of that. Back then, Argentinian drivers were all the rage: Fangio, Gonzalez and Marimon dominated the circuits and he, despite driving cars that were less famous than the single-seaters, sought notoriety. As Guy de Maupassant would have said in his novel Bel Ami, he went down every road looking for a way to change his life for the better so he could realize his dreams. This particular road was a woman, a racing driver herself, American, from a powerful and very rich family: Elizabeth Haskett. They raced together with OSCA, they married and as if by magic the doors onto the room of dreams suddenly opened. It was 1959 when Automobili de Tomaso opened for business, with the symbol of the T that his father had used to mark the herds of cattle on his farm.

Maserati was for Alejandro de Tomaso a source of both joy and pain. The dazzling story of the collection of historical models helps to understand the astuteness of the man
Maserati was for Alejandro de Tomaso a source of both joy and pain. The dazzling story of the collection of historical models helps to understand the astuteness of the man

Automobili de Tomaso produced ingenious and highly competitive racing cars for the track and also for the road, the Vallelunga. Very light and featuring structural innovations usually only seen in racing sports series and Formula Junior where a very tight aluminium single-beam chassis welcomed the driver (as long as he was really skinny) were the hallmarks of his cars. He also made it to Formula 1, but without success.

However his true passion right from the outset was for Maserati. With a keen eye for opportunities, he obtained financing from the Italian state in 1976 and “saved” the Trident manufacturer which was on the brink of collapse, taking over the reins with energy and determination. Things appeared to be going well: he created the beautiful and technologically advanced Biturbo, which was then almost instantly plagued by an endless list of problems.

Umberto Panini, nicknamed “Hombre”, after spending many years in Venezuela, was the courageous author of the rescue mission that saved the historic Maserati Heritage from being lost at auction
Umberto Panini, nicknamed “Hombre”, after spending many years in Venezuela, was the courageous author of the rescue mission that saved the historic Maserati Heritage from being lost at auction

Despite a series of fascinating models, towards the beginning of the 90s the future of Maserati was once again cast in doubt. After lengthy negotiations, Fiat took it over. But (by chance?), the cars of the Collection were not registered as fixed assets and remained under the ownership of de Tomaso. There were 23 of them, all extremely important milestones in the history of the brand.

At the same time Umberto Panini, the brother of Giuseppe Panini who invented football trading cards and built an empire in the process, decided to go to Venezuela. It was 1957 and he was 27 years old. A man of great technological inventiveness, he was dedicated to the maintenance and movement of oil wells. He called himself Hombre, the first word he heard when he got off the ship that had taken him there. To call his attention, a landing attendant had called him ”Hombre!” and he decided that this would bring him luck. And so it was, as when he returned home he bought a farm on the outskirts of Modena where he could produce Parmigiano Reggiano.. What to call it? Hombre, of course.

A view of the magnificent Panini collection, with two unique pieces in the foreground: the Maserati Eldorado driven by Stirling Moss at the 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza) and the 250F with its 12-cylinder engine also driven by Moss
A view of the magnificent Panini collection, with two unique pieces in the foreground: the Maserati Eldorado driven by Stirling Moss at the 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza) and the 250F with its 12-cylinder engine also driven by Moss

Just like any Modenese worthy of that title, Umberto loved cars and had friends in high places within the famous Circle of Biella. One day in 1996, he showed up at Hombre Francesco Stanguellini, the small Modenese manufacturer who had invented Formula Junior. He was alarmed, he had learned that de Tomaso wanted to take away the cars from the from the Maserati Museum and sell them in England. The Brooks auction house had already been given an official mandate for the sale. It would have meant losing a truly unique heritage including Formula 1, Sport Bird Cage, the famous Eldorado single-seater made for Stirling Moss and used at the 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza), the magnificent A6G Pinin Farina and many others. “We have to keep them in Modena” screamed Stanguellini, backed by Adolfo Orsi, heir to the family that had given Maserati its greatest successes.

Another unique piece of the collection is the Birdcage Type 61 reinterpreted by Piero Drogo for Maserati
Another unique piece of the collection is the Birdcage Type 61 reinterpreted by Piero Drogo for Maserati

They needed a lot of money, lots of and available immediately. It turned out that de Tomaso had already sent the cars to England fearing a blockade by the Italian Cultural Heritage Department. Panini had money aside but this was at the limits of his possibilities. He got himself thinking. He thought about his brother Joseph who had died a few months earlier. He imagined his brother encouraging him by saying, in the dialect they used back then “va bein a tor chi rutam” (go and get those wrecks!).

The silence in the room felt endless. Even his young son Matteo, who would later follow the purchase, wondered whether his father would have made that heroic gesture for his city. Then the silence was broken “va bein, al fag…” All right, I’ll do it. Matteo still remembers the day he brought the first cheque for a billion lire to de Tomaso’s notary, Brancaccio. “I asked Umberto if there was money in the bank… he smiled and said, go!”

est of the Best among the International Competitions in 2017, the Maserati A6GCS Berlinetta Pinin Farina, along with a series of Trident models that tell the story of the brand so elegantly
Best of the Best among the International Competitions in 2017, the Maserati A6GCS Berlinetta Pinin Farina, along with a series of Trident models that tell the story of the brand so elegantly

Brooks removed the Maserati collection from the auction. Umberto already had a large space, what would later become the Museum, right on the farm. When they arrived he looked at them one by one. He’d never seen them! They were anything but wrecks.

de Tomaso died in 2003, aged 75. Umberto Panini in 2013, at the age of 83. Two very different lives, one crossing: the one that saved the great memory of Maserati. Grazie Hombre!!

Also part of the collection are these precious pre-war single-seaters and several almost unheard of models such as the Birdcage Type 63 V12 made for the Serenissima racing team
Also part of the collection are these precious pre-war single-seaters and several almost unheard of models such as the Birdcage Type 63 V12 made for the Serenissima racing team