History of a marque - from the racing Twenties to a niche in today's sports-car market

If your definition of an Italian supercar is a long, curved bonnet, a coupé rear end and sheer sleek style, then Ferrari isn't the only candidate. The 1966 Maserati Ghibli coupé is the ultimate classic supercar.

Styled by Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin - before the illustrious firm was bought by Ford so that they could use its badge and shield on Dagenham's dubious output - the Ghibli was a wonderful piece of integrated styling. In fact, it was drawn by a very young Giorgetto Giugiaro in 1964, when he was working for Ghia, long before he hit the big time. And this car is not to be confused with the Maserati Ghibli of the 1990s, which was a booted, box-shaped horror.

Good car design usually has a secret ingredient: the ability of the designer to create a sculpture with fine modelling to the surfaces. With its long, arcing bonnet and neat rear, many think that the Ghibli is Giugiaro's finest effort in that vein - even if it is 18ft long and lower-slung than any competitor. The detailing, the shape of everything, from the side windows to the lamps, the motif of the windscreen (a later Giugiaro hallmark), through to the way in which the fuel filler-cap reflects the shapes around it - all signal a true masterpiece of timeless elegance.

Even at rest, the car looks as if it is moving. It has a stance, but not a swagger. Viewed from any angle, even from above, every facet of this car's shape works.

Forty years on from its 1966 birth, the Ghibli remains the ultimate Maserati - and it is far more rare than other Italian exotica of the time, or since. When new, this car outsold the Ferrari 365 Daytona, which is often held up as the "ultimate" supercar, and as a deity above all others.

Yet the Ghibli - named after a wind, like Maserati's Merak, Bora and Khamsin - blew away the competition after it stunned the press at its 1966 launch. The Ghibli even swiped the Lamborghini Miura off the sales sheets: by the end of its life in 1973, as the oil crisis took hold, the Ghibli had become the car to have on the international style scene.

In 1972 and 1973, the Ghibli could be had in "SS" version, with uprated power and a $25,000 price tag. Forget Monte Carlo and Nice; the 1,149 Ghiblis that were made also looked great in the Geneva snow and the California sun. The Hollywood set loved the Ghibli - Frank Sinatra owned a silver one. Yet only 125 of the convertible Ghibli Spyders left the factory. Some were converted from coupés by coachbuilders. Lopping the roof off, however, affects the lines - or so say the Ghibli purists - because the car is no longer a fastback.

Under the bonnet there was a soulful Maserati multicam V8 engine with 4.7 litres - or 4.9 litres in the 1971 version, which also saw updated trim and alloy wheels rather than Borrani or Campagnolo wire wheels.

The best top speed was a whisper under 170mph, although the front end would be getting lively at that point due to the change in downforce created by the rear deck.

The Ghibli was one of the fastest cars ever made. The handling was as you'd expect, in spite of a slightly agricultural rear suspension set-up. Powerful air-assisted brakes hauled this style ship back down to more sensible speeds in case you quailed at the 170mph maximum or were left breathless by doing 0 to 60mph in six seconds; by the standards of the time, that was close to warp speed. The fuel consumption was very costly - try 9mpg trundling through LA on a hot day with the air-con spitting ice.

Despite its size, the Ghibli was a two-seater, with two laid-back Italian chairs behind a wonderful dashboard festooned with dials, toggles, chrome inlay, leather trim and a wood-rimmed steering wheel. All were quintessentially stylish long before such features became mass-market staples.

The Ghibli was not perfect, of course - it broke down, and the pop-up lamps sometimes didn't. It rusted, and the engine needed serious servicing. But all this applies to most 1970s supercars, and even some newer ones. The automatic version only had three hard-worked speeds and could run hot and jerky.

These days, Ghibli prices are much lower than those of the Ferrari Daytona or Lambo Miura. "Get an unmolested early Ghibli and it's a sound long-term investment," says one classic car dealer. Indeed, last year, both Bonhams and Christie's sold Ghiblis for less than £35,000.A perfect Ghibli might make $70,000 (£40,000) in the USA, say the experts.

As a sports car and grand tourer, the Ghibli excelled; as a collection of curves and angles, it was perfection. For my all-time best classic-car experience, I'm torn between a glorious Swiss summer day in a Ferrari Daytona, and a drive through Provence in a silver Ghibli. The Ferrari was incredible, of course, but the Ghibli was more poised, even in a tail slide. And then there was the style, the pose.

Ghibli - it's definitive Italian design. Buy one if you can.

History of a marque - from the racing Twenties to a niche in today's sports-car market

It all started with Alfieri, Bindo, carlo, Ettore, Ernesto and Mario - the Maserati brothers. Back in the 1920s they built and raced Grand Prix cars and, in 1926, created their own racer, the first Maserati motor car. Thus the name is rather younger than the industry - Bugatti, say, or Peugeot - but much younger than the likes of Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini. That first car, by the way, won the Targa Florio and thus founded the legend.

These days Maserati is more or less firmly a part of the Fiat Group, and technically a subsidiary of Ferrari. Its remit is to fill in the space in Fiat's product range between Ferrari at one end and the upper reaches of Alfa Romeo and Lancia at the other. Thus its Coupé and Spyder are both cheaper and less overtly sporting than the more expensive Ferraris and its Quattroporte is bigger, more luxurious and (arguably) more sporting than the bigger Alfas and Lancia saloons.

Where once, in the days of the brothers, Maserati was the world's biggest manufacturer of single-seater sports cars, after 1945 ownership passed through a variety of hands, including, for a brief few glorious years in the early 1970s, those of Citroën, from which liaison the incredible Citroën SM was born.

Big cruisers and GTs have been the vogue for Maserati ever since that time, and few can deny that one of the marque's defining models in this area of the market was its original Ghibli.

The name has occasionally been resurrected on somewhat less accomplished machinery and its styling cues employed in today's cars, but its sheer presence has never been surpassed.

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