1959-64 Maserati 5000GT

"My Maserati does one-eighty-five. I lost my license, now I don't drive."
Joe Walsh, "Life's Been Good."

The exclusive custom-body Maserati 5000GT sports car of Eagles band member Walsh couldn't hit 185 mph. But it could reach 170 with high-speed gearing, and the lyric added to the mystique of Maserati and the 5000GT.

The 5000GT was the top elitist car on the planet when introduced in 1959 and soon got an almost mythical reputation. Only 33 of the 5000GTs were built on special order through early 1964, and the first was bought by the shah of Persia (Iran).

The shah ordered a custom-body 5000GT with gold-trimmed instruments and the monster quad-camshaft 420-horsepower V-8 from the ferocious 1957 Maserati 450S sports/racing car. Modified a little for road use, it had four racing carburetors, twin distributors and 16 spark plugs.

No two 5000GTs were alike, and the car outdid any Ferrari road car for speed, plushness and exclusivity. Italy's Maserati and Ferrari were th top exotic sports car producers in the 1950s and early 1960s and fought for prestige and race car championships.

Ferrari used detuned V-12 race engines for custom road cars sold to famous and wealthy people to enhance its image and make money for its racing efforts. Cash-short Maserati felt it could do the same, and thus made a car for the shah. After all, it still had a few 450S V-8s lying around that no longer were race-competitive.

The first 5000GT hit 172 mph, which was spectacular for a 1959 road car. It was nicknamed the "Shah of Persia" and had a custom body by Italy's Touring styling/coachwork outfit with a unique grille inspired by Persian baroque architecture. Cockpit switches and dials were gold-plated.

Few saw the shah's car because it was whisked to his garage in Iran. It was moved to his chalet in Gstaad when he was deposed. By 2005, it had been driven less than 4,000 miles.

Besides Touring, top Italian exotic car coachbuilders/stylists--the world's best-- that supplied custom bodies for the 5000GT were Pininfarina, Allemano, Ghia, Frua, Touring,  Bertone, Monterosa and Michellotti.

Most bodies were from Allemano, which supplied the slickest ones, including the body for Walsh's 5000GT.

The 5000GT had sumptuous leather interiors with large front bucket seats and a small rear seat. There were large Nardi wood steering wheels, elaborate dashboards with Jaeger gauges and brushed stainless steel trim. Some had gorgeous chromed Borrani wire wheels. Maserati lost money on each one because the car was so elaborate.

Everyone at Maserati knew the 5000GT was very special. It thus was was built so lovingly by craftsmen that suspension components were polished. Four- and five-speed manual transmissions were used. No automatic was offered because the 500GT had a Maserati race car's soul. It also had a race-style tubular chassis and large disc brakes.

A second 5000GT similar to the shah's car was soon built with a 450S V-8 and shown at the 1959 auto show in Turin, Italy. It was bought by South African millionaire Basil Read.

Some of the world's wealthiest and most influential people wanted a 5000GT. They included Italian industrial magnate Giovanni Agnelli, who owned companies such as giant Fiat, and Ferdinando Innocenti, who build Lambretta motor scooters that seemingly were used by everyone in Italy. Other 5000GT buyers included a Mexican president, King Saudi of Egypt and various princes.

One sheik wasn't present when his 5000GT was specially delivered to Munich. Strangely, he never showed up for the car, so it was parked outside for years. It deteriorated so badly that it was nearly scrapped before being bought for a small amount by an presumably savvy, anonymous person.

American buyers included Hollywood movie star Stewart Granger and American millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham, who built low-volume world-class Cunninham sports/racing cars with modified Chrysler Hemi V-8s in the early 1950s. His 5000GT's Michelotti body made it the most aerodynamic 5000GT.

The 5000GT's reputation was enhanced when famous auto journalist Hans Tanner rode in the second one built. It hit 172 mph on an Italian highway, driven by Maserati test driver Gurrino Bertocchi. Tanner reported that the "fabulous car" made taking a long sweeping curve at 158 mph "too easy." He said the 5000GT "seems to be doing (only) 90 mph when traveling at 168 mph.

"In this era of mass production, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find an unusual, exciting and personal type of car that gives true sporting emotions," Sports Car Graphic magazine editor Bernard Cahier wrote of a 5000GT in 1962. He said the "fantastic" car "glued" (him) to its seat with its "tremendous racing car acceleration."

The 450S engine was generally too wild for road use and needed specially trained mechanics to keep it running. It was one thing for Bertocchi to dazzle potential customers by zooming down Italian highways at impossible speeds in a 5000GT. But it was quite another for a buyer with much less driving ability to do the same thing and keep the complicated car running smoothly on a regular basis.

Thus, after the first two 5000GTs were bult, Maserati switched to a more docile, fuel-injected version of the V-8 for the rest of the 5000GTs. Still, that 340-350 horsepower V-8 let the car hit 170 with high-speed gearing.

Maserati concentrated on road cars in 1957, after beating Ferrari for the World Grand Prix championship that year. Financially troubled, it needed such autos for income. It thus introduced the fast, plush 3500GT six-cylinder sports car, which outsold Ferraris.

The $10,500 3500GT cost far less than the 5000GT, which cost up to $17,000, or the price of four Chevrolet Corvettes. The 3500GT was made through 1964, finding 2,223 buyers.

You could readily buy a 3500GT at any Maserati outlet, but no 5000GT sale was confirmed until a buyer paid a large deposit.

The 5000GT has only become a prime collector car in recent years. A few just vanished, and most were hidden away in garages and not offered for sale. The car was known for large bills, and few owners wanted to spend the money to put one in good condition.

Soaring prices for 1950s and 1960s Ferraris eventually led collectors to begin looking for alternative exotic Italian sports cars. They soon discovered the 5000GT. It's now in hot demand, no matter what condition it's in.

For instance, a Frua-bodied 1963 5000GT in terrible shape, owned by the ex-Aga Kahn and bought at an Egyptian government auction, drew $333,063 at a Brooks auction in Monaco. If restored, it would be worth at least a cool $500,000.