With two straight Indy 500 wins in a long, distinguished career, the Boyle Maserati is one of the all-time sweethearts of the Speedway.
In the blood-on-the-bricks era at Indianapolis, Wilbur Shaw was not only one of the fastest and bravest drivers on the scene; he was also a pretty fair mechanic with a shrewd eye for racing hardware. The first of his three Indy 500 wins came in 1937 in a machine of his own design, an Offy-powered homebrew he called his “Pay Car.”
But at the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island that same year, Shaw was astounded by the advanced European Grand Prix cars he encountered. Shaw sought out his friend Mike Boyle, a well-regarded car owner who’d made a sizable pile as a Chicago labor boss and mob fixer. Shaw pointed to one of the Maseratis in the Roosevelt Raceway paddock and made Boyle a guarantee: “If I had a car like that, I’d win the next 500-mile race in it.”
Now there was a proposition Umbrella Mike could not refuse. Boyle and his chief mechanic, Cotton Henning, found Maserati eager to do business in America, though communication was a bit difficult. Inexplicably, the Italians first sent over a 91 cubic-inch 6CM voiturette, too petite for the Brickyard.
For 1939, Henning received a more appropriate tool for the job, a 3.0-liter 8CTF. Boyle reportedly paid $15,000, several times what an American-built special cost. But the machine was shipped to America with pure water in the cooling system, which froze during the Atlantic passage and split the cylinder blocks, effectively junking the jewel-like engine.
Henning, a master craftsman who could repair anything, carefully rebuilt the powerplant, and once he and Shaw mastered the Maserati’s weird Etruscan tune-up rituals, they had one of the all-time sweethearts of the Speedway. Outmatched by Mercedes and Auto Union and never a top contender on the GP circuits for which it was intended, the 8CTF somehow seemed made for the Brickyard, a track the car’s designers had never seen.
The Maser’s twin-cam straight-eight made about 350 hp, significantly less than the Sparks-Thorne six or the Winfield eight Indy engines. But instead of their centrifugal superchargers, then considered cutting-edge, the 8CTF used a pair of Roots blowers geared to produce 15 PSI. Centrifugal superchargers don’t generate much boost until their impellers reach peak rpm, while positive-displacement blowers are effective at any speed, allowing the Maserati to accelerate off the corners quicker than the more powerful cars.
The Maserati had other unforeseen advantages: Its torsion-bar independent front suspension made adjusting the cross-weight a simple and precise operation. Also, most American specials of the period used production-based brakes so weak that drivers almost never touched them. At Indy, the conventional driving style involved coasting through the corners. The 8CTF had enormous 16-inch magnesium drums running on hydraulically actuated, girdered shoes. Shaw used the powerful brakes to slice through the race traffic that bottled up in the turns and short chutes.
The Boyle Maserati was not the fastest car at the Speedway in May of 1939. It qualified third, behind the Sparks-Thorne and the Winfield. But with its sweet handling, superior brakes, and wide powerband, it ran away with the race. The 8CTF easily won again in 1940, giving Shaw his third Indy 500 victory. In 1941, with a third straight win well in hand, a wire wheel collapsed, hurtling the Maser into the wall. The impact broke Shaw’s back in three places, effectively ending his driving career. He would next distinguish himself as the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1945 to 1954.
There wouldn’t be another Indy 500 until after World War II in 1946, when the Boyle Maserati returned. Ted Horn drove the same car, now repainted and carrying the number 29, to third place in ’46, third again in ’47, and fourth in ’48. Not until 1949, 11 years after it was built, was the racer finally relegated to backmarker status. The Maser had one more moment of glory in 1950 when a fearless young midget driver named Bill Vukovich used it to pass his rookie test.
Today the Boyle Maserati resides at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, returned to its original 1939-41 color, a deep blood red. Gazing at it, we can’t know exactly what Shaw saw when he first laid eyes on a Maserati. But we can sense the pure, if accidental, mechanical rightness that made the 8CTF so superior for so many years—at a task for which it was never designed.
An earlier version of this story by MCG appeared in the June 5, 2000 issue of AutoWeek.