High-performance two-seater sports cars with detuned Grand Prix mechanicals were a regular development in the early days of motoring, but supercharged four-seaters were a rarer breed.
During the late 1920s and early ’30s, Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo built the famed S-type and 8C for long-distance races, but the scarcest of these exotic pre-war ‘tourers’ was the 1930 Maserati Tipo 26 Sports, a long-chassis design developed for England’s most prestigious race, the Brooklands Double Twelve, and the Irish GP.
Today, just one of these lungo Tipo 26s survives of the two special orders to the Maserati family – better known as Il Fratelli.
The fledgling concern, funded by a spark-plug business and the patronage of wealthy enthusiasts, had developed a reputation for competitive twin-cam machines, handbuilt with pride at its small Bologna base.
The sleek, supercharged two-seaters had impressed Max Morris, director of London carburettor manufacturer RAG Patents Ltd. In late 1930, with backing from mystery Irish millionaire RA Garston, and encouraged by British-based Italian Edgar Fronteras, Morris ordered two special Maseratis to promote his firm.
To match the four-seater regulations for the over-1500cc class in England, the frames were extended by 150mm with deeper, thicker rails to take the detuned 2.5-litre twin-cam straight-eight.
The cars were supplied with bonnet and scuttle but no rear bodywork, retaining the Tipo 26’s distinctive sloping radiator – albeit mounted higher, with a larger core.
The planned debut was the Double Twelve on 9 May 1931, a two-part 24-hour race around the torturous Brooklands track.
Who built the body isn’t known, but the style contrasted with the factory racers. Featuring a wood frame clad with Rexine, plus four seats and a full-length hood, the long-chassis Tipo 26 had a dynamo, starter and lighting system.
To demonstrate his products, Morris replaced the Weber with an RAG carb and the cars were prepared by LC Rawlence & Co on The Cut, near Waterloo, under the supervision of engineer RA ‘Dickie’ Oates, who carried out much of the testing.
Just one car – chassis 2518, as featured here – was finished in time for the Double Twelve, to be driven by Captain George Eyston and Giulio Ramponi, who was both a top mechanic and a trusted pilot.
The second car, for Fronteras and Oates, didn’t make the start.
The team included 28-year-old Walter Ernest Wilkinson, a talented spannerman who later went to work with Ecurie Ecosse and BRM.
Better known as ‘Wilkie’, the Londoner had his first experience as riding mechanic in the Maserati.
Sitting alongside Eyston around Brooklands at 120mph was never forgotten, as he recalled in his autobiography: ‘After the 8am start, for almost the whole of the first 12 hours we drove right up at the top of the banking, close to the unprotected rim. At first it was a terrifying experience, and even after I got used to it, it was still somewhat shattering.’
At speed on the rough surface, with Hartford friction dampers locked, the chassis took a pounding: ‘The Maserati leaped and crashed over the bumps, slamming into the concrete with bone-jarring force… The racket from the exhaust, even with the compulsory Brooklands silencer, was deafening.’
As if that wasn’t enough, Wilkinson had little protection with only a small aeroscreen, linen flying helmet and goggles, but most painful was the heat from the gearbox and exhaust, which badly burnt his leg.
The conditions took their toll on the car, too, with Eyston and Ramponi forced to stop as Wilkinson jumped out to fit new wing stays. ‘These were only minor problems,’ he concluded. ‘The car went very fast all day, like a proverbial bomb.’
Frustratingly, on the last lap of the first race (Brooklands couldn’t stage night events so the race was split across the weekend) the crown wheel and pinion cried enough after a brutal landing on the Byfleet Banking.
On hearing the grinding, Ramponi pulled off the track. No spare axle was available, so the car was withdrawn.
Two months later the two cars, chassis 2518 and 2516, were taken to Dublin for the Irish GP.
Thanks to local patron Madam Garston, the budget was stretched to enlist Giuseppe Campari as star driver in the second car. When teammate Eyston discovered how much the Italian’s riding mechanic was being paid, he insisted that his man’s fee should be equal.
‘That £20 was the biggest sum of money I ever had in my working life,’ Wilkinson recalled – and he certainly earned it in the dramatic race around the 4¼-mile course across Phoenix Park.
Maserati’s main rival in the Éireann Cup for over-1500cc sports cars was the first Alfa 8C, chassis 2111002, which had been ordered by ‘Bentley Boy’ Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin.
The Zagato-bodied Long Chassis was completed late by the factory, so chum Clive Gallop collected it days before the race and drove straight from Milan to Dublin.
Despite the event falling a week before Le Mans, entries included the Hon Brian Lewis in a works Talbot 105, a pair of privateer S-type Mercedes headed by Lord Howe, plus an Invicta Low Chassis and an elderly Austro-Daimler.
After the problems at Brooklands, Wilkinson devised an oiling system worked from the cockpit via a grease gun and flexible pipe, so the axle could be topped up during the race. The hard-working engineer also fabricated a quick-refuelling funnel
The Maserati proved fast in practice, with Campari timed at 120mph on the straight compared to Birkin’s 115mph in the Alfa, but the Italian machinery was no match for the thunderous S-types, headed by Howe.
Race day arrived cold and damp, with more rain forecast, but huge crowds turned out to see Campari and they weren’t disappointed.
When the president of the Republic dropped the flag, a maroon fired over the stand and a spectacular battle began.
Birkin made a demon start, sliding along the wet grass to pass the Mercedes, but by the end of the first lap Howe and BO Davies were leading Campari from Birkin, with Eyston’s Maser close behind.
Howe soon equalled Rudi Caracciola’s 1930 lap record at 91.3mph, but behind the S-type the Maseratis were running strongly.
Eyston passed the Alfa to give the Trident team the lead on handicap, and when the rain arrived the pace of the German big guns slowed dramatically.
As lightning flashed across the dark sky, the deluge turned biblical and Birkin’s wet-weather confidence carried him into the lead on the waterlogged course.
While Eyston struggled with flooded ignition, Campari charged after the Alfa, but again Maserati’s fortune faded.
Birkin was in his sights when the Alfa’s tail slid wide at Gough corner and the Italian was sprayed with mud and stones, smashing his goggles. With fragments in his eye, Campari reluctantly returned to the pits for attention from a surgeon, leaving a nervous Ramponi to take the wheel.
The mechanic was no match for Campari’s pace and, after learning of the car’s lower position, the famous ace was spotted in the middle of the pit straight with a bandaged eye, waving down Ramponi so he could retake the wheel.
From a lap down, and now using only one eye, Campari produced one of the drives of his career as he stormed through the field.
The Irish crowd loved the spectacle, cheering all around the course, but luck and low fuel were against him and he finished three minutes behind the Alfa in second, while Eyston took fourth in the other Maserati.
Pathé footage of the race reveals the differing styles of Birkin and Campari in the wet, the English baronet all over the road while the Italian masterfully drifted his Maserati.
You can imagine the excited conversations over Guinness as fans dried out in the Dublin pubs.
The team entered just one more race, the RAC Tourist Trophy. With Campari now back in an Alfa, Eyston came eighth and Fronteras failed to finish a lap after head-gasket failure.
Like so many businesses in the early 1930s, RAG was knocked out by the Depression and, as part payment for debts, Oates claimed ownership of both Maseratis.
Campari’s chassis 2518 was sold on and continued to race at Brooklands, before later being thrashed around the sands at Southport and Saltburn.
While the second T26 Sports ended up in South Africa, 2518 was enjoyed on the road until the engine threw a rod.
After WW2, an Autovia V8 and then a Ford flathead V8 were tried, but thankfully the great car was saved by the Hartley brothers in 1952 and restored by Maserati fanatic Anthony, the talented engineer lovingly returning 2518 to authentic specification, complete with RAG carb.
Whenever the rare and highly original Tipo 26 appeared at events in the 1960s and ’70s it attracted huge interest.
Hartley kept 2518 for nearly 57 years before his collection was auctioned by Bonhams in 2012, when it sold for £1.6million – a veritable bargain when compared with the huge values of Alfa 8C rivals.
The sole surviving Tipo 26 four-seater was entrusted to Sean Danaher, who has worked on a vast range of Bologna greats.
His passion for the marque came from his father Bob, and as a youngster he helped his dad restore the ex-Nuvolari 8CM for Colin Crabbe.
That indoctrination launched a career of rebuilding, testing and racing historic Maseratis, and the arrival of the ex-Campari four-seater marked a full circle.
“Among enthusiasts, Hartley was a bit of a lone wolf,” recalls Danaher, “but at a Maserati Club event in the late ’70s I got a ride with him in 2518 around Castle Ashby. It felt much more civilised than other pre-war Maseratis I’d driven, thanks to the user-friendly tune and rattle-free wood-and-fabric body.”
Four decades later, that very car arrived at Danaher’s Suffolk workshop for post-auction sorting, and again in 2015 for a cosmetic rebuild to authentic Irish GP style.
The body was sent to Graham Moss to have the original wood frame repaired and re-covered with Rexine before a repaint.
Danaher then turned his attention to remaking the distinctive scuttle and ’screens so the lost hood could be remade: “It was a struggle with no photos or drawings, but Graham was a great help. Now with a hinged front it stows neatly away.” The rear seating has also been improved for more comfort and legroom.
Danaher re-mounted the front Hartford dampers inside the repainted chassis and remade the distinctive apron.
The wing stays, radiator and headlamp supports were all returned to original style, and the car was given a thorough mechanical rebuild because the new owner wanted to enjoy driving it.
An exhaust system was made including a Brooklands-style fishtail so the original could be saved.
During testing, Danaher’s observations from that first run in 2518 were confirmed: “The longer chassis gives it a better ride and more directional stability than the Grand Prix cars.
“The increase in weight also steadies it. The steering is high-geared and hard work at low speeds yet very direct. The cable braking is adequate, but on a par with a Bugatti.
“With wider ratios and extra flywheel weight, the beefy gearbox took getting used to as I found myself changing too quickly.”
For Danaher, the Maserati straight-eight is one of the most exciting units of the era: “We’ve put it back on a Weber, which has a flat-spot from idle but the mid-range is impressive and then it really goes, with a 105mph top speed.
“This softer tune gives 145bhp at 4500rpm. With nearly 20cwt (2240lb) it’s not going to compete with a lightweight Frazer Nash on the track, but this would make a fantastic fast tourer for a run around the Scottish distilleries.”
Were I the lucky owner, I’d take this awesome machine to Ireland to retrace the Phoenix Park course, before heading across the country for a road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Images: Mick Walsh