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It’s hard to tell which is racing faster, your heart or your mouth.
The Maserati Shamal’s reputation precedes it, after all – rapturous writings with descriptions of terror and frightful awe are abundant on the internet.
The car is based on the Biturbo, which, as history paints it, has the cornering characteristics of a wayward shopping trolley.
The difference here, though, is that the Shamal has a shorter wheelbase than the car that bore it. Oh, and it’s packing a twin-turbocharged V8.
Dynamically, the Shamal famously – infamously?– operates at the outer limits of an envelope already pushed beyond endurance.
Except that isn’t strictly accurate, or any other kind of accurate, come to think of it.
Such a judgement certainly isn’t fair. Spend time with one and you will discover a refined, relaxing GT that is rapid even by today’s standards.
Just don’t poke it with a stick. It’s only then that the other side of the Shamal’s character emerges, and even then it isn’t that scary.
Nevertheless, while the car’s reputation is unjustified, it is perhaps explicable.
As with all Maseratis from the 1980s and early ’90s, there was – and remains – something very ‘nick of time’ about the Shamal.
All of which is easy to explain away for the simple reason that this was Maserati’s ‘De Tomaso era’.
Scroll back to the mid-1970s and this once revered marque was in turmoil. Again.
To cut a long, tortuous story short, agreement was brokered in August 1975 whereby the state-funded holding company, GEPI, entered into partnership with motor mogul Alejandro de Tomaso.
A canny operator who had a habit of acquiring ailing firms with other people’s money, the Argentinian émigré procured 11.25%, and the deal ensured he assumed overall control.
Remarkably, de Tomaso paid just £64 up front, but only after the workforce had been halved.
He then set about restructuring Maserati, safe in the knowledge that the deal guaranteed he could claim sole ownership further down the line.
De Tomaso reasoned that, in order to survive, Maserati needed to offer an entry-level product that could be sold in large numbers.
With state funding behind him, a new two-door coupé was conceived.
Its monocoque hull would be built in the De Tomaso-owned Innocenti factory, its alloy V6 and corresponding running gear was produced in the newly updated Maserati facility in Modena, and final assembly would take place in the former Lambretta plant in Lambrate.
Production of the Bee-Turbo was hesitant at best from December 1982, but De Tomaso was eager for there to be a range of cars.
A four-door variant was a logical step, and the longer-wheelbase 425 arrived in 1984. The Zagato-built Spyder, which employed a shortened platform, arrived that same year.
And so on. The Biturbo in any of its many flavours wasn’t a bad car as such, but neither was it a great one. There were many reasons for this.
You could argue that a contributing factor was De Tomaso’s insistence on bringing endless permutations to market rather than perfecting existing ones
The 1980s bore witness to the launch of more than 50 different variants, spanning three different engine sizes and five different body styles with assorted combinations therein.
What was originally perceived as being a possible rival to a BMW 3 Series quickly morphed out of all recognition, with price-tags swelling exponentially.
There were improvements along the way, not least in terms of build quality and drivability, but merely reheating the same basic package and offering up new designations (ones that were often numerical) served only to confuse the Biturbo’s would-be customers.
The original angular outline by Pierangelo Andreani was subsequently rounded off by Marcello Gandini, and changes were phased in across the range from 1987 to ’89.
Gandini was also tasked with a second restyle for 1991, this time spanning the entire line-up at once.) Nevertheless, sales continued to decline.
It was against this backdrop that De Tomaso initiated a new strain that, he reasoned, would halt the slide. It would act as a halo car, one where the reflective glow would shine a positive light on lesser models.
Given that the Biturbo had been in production for seven years, and its standing in the exotica firmament was shaky at best, it had its work cut out.
There was also the small matter of the firm being near pauperised. Nonetheless, the Shamal somehow made the leap from idea to reality, and did so with audacity.
Having a design A-lister such as Gandini on board helped, his name above the title being a marketeer’s dream.
Nevertheless, this styling silverback had to contend with the Biturbo’s basic architecture being carried over, or rather that of the Karif variant (a fixed-head-coupé version of the Spyder that was based on a shortened, er, Coupé).
With the possible exception of the ‘Il Mostro’ Alfa Romeo SZ, no other exotic from the period appeared quite so unconventional, the makeover stretching to Gandini’s signature slanted rear wheelarches.
It might have made few concessions to beauty or grace, but it prompted discussion, which was rather the point of the exercise.
Distinct from other members of the family, the Shamal employed a 3217cc V8.
This quad-cam evolution of the Biturbo’s V6 featured two water-cooled IHI turbochargers and twin air-to-air intercoolers in front of the cooling radiator, with a boost control system equalising pressure between the turbos.
For the first time on a derivative of the Biturbo, the Shamal had fully ECU-controlled ignition and Weber-Marelli fuel injection (each bank was controlled by its own ECU).
According to the factory, the Shamal was good for 326bhp at 6000rpm and packed a handy 322lb ft of torque at 2800rpm.
This unit was allied to a six-speed Getrag gearbox, with power being transmitted to the rear wheels via a Maserati/Quaife Torsen-based limited-slip differential.
The MacPherson strut front end and assisted rack-and-pinion steering mirrored those found in late-model Biturbos, but the tubular trailing-arm arrangement out back was new.
The prototype was pictured wearing some particularly unpleasant multi-spoke wheels, but seven-spoke OZ items were substituted for the production cars.
Inside, the Biturbo’s dashboard was carried over, but the shapely front seats were exclusive to the Shamal.
This brave new(ish) world was introduced in December 1989. That same year a 49% stake in Maserati was sold to Fiat for 132 billion lire.
The Turin giant acquired the remaining shares in 1993 as part of a deal that included a controlling interest in Innocenti.
According to some media reports from the time, Fiat was invited by the dDe Tomaso family to take over completely after the company founder suffered a debilitating stroke.
This occurred against a backdrop of yet more unrest, the Milan factory having been shuttered a year earlier with the loss of more than 1000 jobs as production moved to Modena.
Fiat wasn’t slow in making changes.
It installed its own managing director, Paolo Cantarella, as chairman and former Ferrari and Alfa Romeo man Eugenio Alzati as managing director.
The Shamal didn’t feature in their plans for this storied marque’s future. Instead, the focus was on the new Ghibli and Quattroporte IV thereafter.
Stop-start production of the Shamal ended in 1994, by which time a mere 369 units had been shifted. If nothing else, it succeeded in keeping the marque in the headlines, and mostly for the right reasons.
The Shamal’s standing as a lairy brute with a hair-trigger temper has been earned retrospectively.
Yes, period reports were peppered with observations that it could be a bit boisterous should you overstep the mark, but then the same was true of most of its contemporaries.
The majority of reviews were more effusive than derogatory.
Part of the critical devolution could be down to its rarity – you hardly ever see Shamals in the wild and, well, legends get invented accordingly.
Then there is the styling, for want of a more appropriate word. It is hard not to be charmed, mesmerised and perhaps even horrified by this most left-field of Maseratis.
The Shamal represents a mash-up of influences; it exudes bestial aggression.
The massively blistered arches, side skirts and less-than-subtle air intakes anchor it in the late 1980s/early ’90s, but then there are bizarre details such as the spoiler sited at the base of the windscreen.
It’s in place to deflect air and water from the wipers, apparently.
Step aboard, and it’s that bit more conservative, with plenty of polished timber, leather from pampered cows and Alcantara.
It appears every inch the luxury GT, the seats being well-bolstered, the instruments easy to read at a glance.
The rear seats are also unique to the model and in place purely for decorative purposes.
Fire up and the Shamal doesn’t exactly detonate with sound. It’s more polished than that, with only a muted burble when idling.
Engage first, let off the meaty clutch and the Maserati eases off the line cleanly. Once warmed up the V8 is tractable and tuneful with it.
The six-speed ’box has a lovely mechanical feel, with changes being ushered in to a vague ‘ker-klunk’ but without baulking.
Off-boost, the Shamal is docility itself, the first turbo spooling up at around 2500rpm, the second chiming in seamlessly as the revs build.
It is at this juncture that the Shamal growls, but power delivery is markedly less savage than with some Maserati turbo ‘sixes’; it’s more long-legged and torquey.
Peak torque has already been delivered by the time you hit 3000rpm, so pushing ahead towards the 6500rpm limiter isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s fun nonetheless.
The engine note hardens appreciably as the turbos whistle and wastegates chatter, and if period stats are to be believed, the Shamal can reach 60mph from a standstill in a whisker over five seconds and on to 168mph outright.
However, what impresses more is its refinement as a cruiser: 29mph in sixth gear equates to 1000rpm.
It is apparently possible to overwhelm the rear tyres from low revs, such is the torque, with wheelspin in the dry even in third gear.
However, driven enthusiastically – if somewhere south of ten-tenths – they aren’t sent scrabbling; in the wet, you imagine it would be a different story.
There is some driveline shunt, though, but it isn’t pronounced, nor are there any creaks, groans or shudders through the structure over calloused asphalt.That in itself puts it in rarefied company for its vintage.
The steering is fast-acting, with three turns from lock to lock, but it has an oddly non-linear feel.
Shamals came fitted with Koni adjustable dampers with four firmness settings.
These are electronically controlled from a keypad located near the gearlever that looks vaguely like an old TV remote.
The ride is on the firm side, even on the softest setting, but it is appreciably better than in many modern-day GTs where ‘sporting suspension’ is a synonym for ‘must visit the osteopath’
There are no driver aids, though, including ABS. But the brake pedal is well servoed and speed is scrubbed off without drama.
The Shamal’s cornering stance is not as nose-heavy as you might expect.
Body roll is well controlled, thanks in part to the stout front anti-roll bar and a small rear one.
This is patently not a car that you would want to guide on its lockstops, nor one that would be happy being driven as such, but it is, well, rather lovely.
It’s nothing like those preconceptions might have you believe, at least in the dry.
As Mark Hales reported in Fast Lane way back when, the Shamal is: ‘Intoxicating, understeer-free fun, but with the feel of a mile-eating grand tourer rather than a circuit scratcher.’
So there you have it. The Maserati Shamal is misunderstood and perhaps even maligned.
This car is more than just a gussied-up Biturbo, that’s for sure. It might not be subtle, but it certainly strikes a chord.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to Andy Heywood