By John Lamm
It is Memorial Day weekend, which of course means the Indianapolis 500. It’s also 2018, which marks the 80th birthday of a Maserati 8CTF – one of only three ever built – that raced at Indy and is housed at The Revs Institute.
The car, Chassis 3030, didn’t win at Indianapolis. But one of its siblings won the 500 twice under the ownership of a mob-linked Chicago labor boss nicknamed “Umbrella Mike.” So it’s a good time to gear up for race watching by reviewing the history of the 8CTF triplets, which sport a history as colorful as the French-blue livery on the car that’s housed at Revs.
The history of these cars began as an Italian quest to beat the Germans — specifically Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union (now Audi) — on the tracks of Europe. The five Maserati brothers had sold their company but stayed on to oversee engineering. Businessmen they weren’t, but they did know cars.
The brothers designed a 3.0-liter straight-8 engine. A pair of Roots-type superchargers huffed into the cylinders with a fixed twin-cam head – testa fissa (hence the TF in the name) – with no head gasket. The 360-horsepower engine and its 4-speed transmission went into a box section frame strengthened by an X-shape magnesium oil tank. Weighing in at 1716 pounds, the 8CTFs had potential.
But the Maseratis, though quick, were fragile. Instead of 8CTF the cars could have been named 8DNF…Did Not Finish. The only result of note was a 3rd place in the 1939 German Grand Prix with chassis 3031. Then things got interesting.
Another of the 8CTFs — Chassis 3032 — was shipped to the U.S. in 1939. It became the Boyle Special owned by “Umbrella” Mike Boyle, who got his nickname because he always carried an umbrella, rain or shine. If the umbrella was open, that signaled the coast was clear to slip him a bribe. If closed, it meant the Feds were watching.
Umbrella Mike, who loved auto racing as well as money, enlisted the help of engine guru Cotton Henning who developed a new crankshaft and changed the firing order of the straight-8. Raced in the Indianapolis 500 eight times, 3032 won in 1939 and 1940, driven both times by Wilbur Shaw. The car sits on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
The other two 8CTFs, 3030 and 3031, were purchased by the Schell family, wealthy American expats who lived in Paris and Monaco. The Schells created the race team Ecurie Bleue, painting their competition cars the racing color of their adopted country.
In early 1940 Lucy Schell, by then a widow, shipped the pair of Bleu de France 8CLTs to Indianapolis for the 500. As important as the cars were two men who came with the team.
One was driver René Dreyfus, the French Jew who had who beat the Germans at the Grand Prix game at Pau in 1938 with an Ecurie Bleue Delahaye. (Hitler presumably was not pleased.) Also along was mechanic Luigi Chinetti, who later launched Ferrari in the U.S. Rounding out the driving crew was another Frenchmen, René Le Begue. Among them the three spoke no English, surely a handicap in understanding Indy’s idiosyncratic racing rules.
There were other handicaps too. The cars had been mis-tuned back in France, as the mechanics there did not know that lower gearing was needed for maximum acceleration out of the turns. Having never been on the track, the French didn’t realize top speed was only reached for a few seconds, so overrevving was never an issue if the cars were correctly geared.
There was another handicap too. Dreyfus’ car — 3031 — broke a connecting rod in practice. Bending the rules, the Indy officials allowed the engines in 3030 and 3031 to be switched. The rules mandated that Le Begue had to start the race, complete half, and then Dreyfus would finish. So the pair of Renés shared Chassis 3030 and finished 10th. Engine 3031 still rests in chassis 3030 here at The Revs Institute.
After the 1940 Indy 500 the Schells sold their two 8CTFs. The cars would be raced on the Brickyard again without major results. Chassis 3031, driven by Louis Unser, scored 1st place finishes in the 1946 and 1947 Pikes Peak Hillclimb. Chassis 3030 later entered Watkins Glen in 1952 under different owners and drivers, but it did not qualify for the race. Watkins Glen would be its last contemporary racing appearance.
Since then, both Maseratis moved through various owners until chassis 3030 became part of the Collier Collection in Naples, Florida. The car plays an important role in the collection because it achieved something that few pre-war cars can boast: it raced competitively in the both America and Europe in some of the highest-level races each continent had to offer. As an artifact, chassis 3030 is also the only 8CTF Maseratis that did not have its engine replaced by an Offenhauser sometime in its career. And, as we tune in to the Indianapolis 500 this weekend, we remember Maserati 8CTF Chassis 3030 as a rare example of a foreign car challenging the American-made competitors on their home turf at the Brickyard.