Ride Like The Wind

Shamals blow through the Persian Gulf. This one blew through Nathan's mind

Words Nathan Chadwick Photography Jordan Butters

D

o you remember the painful wait for the next issue of a car magazine? The gnawing itch to find out how well a hugely anticipated new release drives? In the 24-7, instant gratification world we live in, that might seem like a quaint idea, but back in 1992, the only thing this ten-year old wanted was the June edition of CAR.

At the time I was a devoted Blue Oval fan. My little head was filled with RS500s, RS200s and XR4is. That June '92 issue had the first drive of the Escort RS Cosworth, a car I’d been doodling and dreaming about for ages. Paul Horrell’s review was positive. It apparently went as fast as it looked. I remember thinking that this was about as mad as cars could get, this side of a Sbarro special. And boy did I want one… But then I turned to page 84 and shouted 'what the hell is thaaat?!'

'Thaaat' was a bright-red Maserati Shamal, galloping out of the page like the Alien hatchling bursting through John Hurt’s chest. For a lot of people, the Shamal was an equally repugnant sight. Not for me, though. It kicked off a love of the Maserati brand that regular readers may have picked up on (ahem). It seemed so other-worldly, so strange, so aggressive. It made my beloved Cossie look about as menacing as a dozing spaniel. I absolutely fell in love with the exotically-named Italian.

Now, 26 years later, the actual CAR test Shamal is gingerly traversing big speed bumps in our marina car park meeting point. Never meet your heroes, they say. Will 'they' be right? Rose-tinted specs off, gloves on… The fear of disappointment falls away as soon as you take in the Shamal. There are trademark Marcello Gandini rear wheelarch slashes, no less than eight forward-facing lights and two large bonnet grilles. Each swollen arch is as comically wide as a Dynasty shoulderpad. The ducts and bulges are pure Blade Runner Spinner. There’s even a bonnet spoiler to stop the wiper blades flying off at speed. In 2018, it’s outrageous. When it was first revealed in late 1989, it must have been other-worldly.

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Still, there is method to the apparent madness. To keep costs down, Gandini had to adapt his design not only to the BiTurbo Spyder’s chassis, but also to its front and rear screens. The doors came off the Karif.

It may not work for a lot of people, but the overall look taps into a rich seam of Italian brutalism that was popular at the time, taking in a range of cars from the Fiat Panda to more esoteric fare like the Alfa Romeo SZ and Lancia Delta Integrale.

And just like the Integrale, which looks cartoonishly huge in pictures, the Shamal is amazingly tiny in reality. Its wheelbase is about the same as a modern Ford Fiesta's, and the tapering nose is very low.

Even so, it’s still laying claim to all the attention. Pedestrians turn to stare and smartphones appear. To be honest, on looks alone I’m just as sold as I was when I first read Paul Horrell’s account of his epic trek back from Modena. Only this time I’m not listening to The Shamen on a knock-off Walkman on the school bus.

Unlike CAR’s story, today’s journey sadly won’t take us to Modena and back, but it will take us through Hampshire, this car's home in between press appointments. One of the first right-hand drive cars built, it was driven back to the UK by Horrell and John Butt of Meridian Maserati. Butt had bought 40 cars from Maserati UK’s receiver (they went bust in 1991) and imported 18 more. This one dealership, in Lyndhurst, was for a time the only place you could buy a UK Maserati. Our journey will take us there and around the flowing A-roads and B-roads, dodging the wild horses that hold sway around the area.

The Shamal has its own frisky equines, of course – 318 of them. Its beating heart is an all-aluminium 3.2-litre V8 built for this car. It has four valves per cylinder and two overhead camshafts per bank, and is mounted at 90 degrees. Two small IHI RHB 52 turbochargers with an air/air intercooler add thrust. It’s a small engine bay, with most of the V8 so far forward it seems it’s trying to escape through the radiator grille. I’m expecting fireworks when I twist the key.

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There’s a grumble as it turns over, and a burble, but it’s all refined, quiet, amenable. As I trickle through Poole’s streets off boost, the Shamal is beautifully compliant. David Summers, the owner, largely keeps the Koni adjustable suspension in its softest setting. The 16-inch wheels may be ludicrously small by modern standards but the tyres have plenty of sidewall. The steering is pleasingly heavy, although lacking in feedback. It's grand touring in an old-school style that will be familiar to Porsche 928 drivers. You’re expecting an animal, but at cruising pace it’s less Tasmanian devil, more pussy cat.

There are some claws, though. The clutch is heavy, and the Getrag six-speed manual isn’t exactly subtle: each measured thrust into a ratio is accompanied by a theatrical clunk and a vibration that was mentioned in the original test. The V8's generous pre-turbo torque means you could happily run it in any of the higher gears on long journeys, but I’m not here to be lazy. Peeling onto the M27 allows some right-foot extension and… BANG.

Throttle response is near-instant, the V8 snarling into life like an unexpectedly bathed moggie. The power comes in lightning-quick at around 2800rpm, the turbo whine acting as a shift indicator as the 6200rpm redline rapidly approaches.

Throw the shifter up into the next gear and hold on through the drivetrain clunk. The higher gears may be further spaced out than the first three, but the rate at which the Shamal whips through revs is hard to believe. And despite the violence, it’s all smooth and linear. Just find your gap and say hello to the horizon. Even by modern standards, this thing is seriously quick; despite the GT trimmings, it weighs around 1400kg, about the same as a new Golf GTI, but with a third more power and twice the torque. All out, you’ll be doing 168mph, but it's the in-gear shove that’s the killer. When it's fully lit, other cars appear and disappear like tiny Is among the Os in streaming binary code. When this thing gets up to speed you’d better be sure you’ve got enough road to contain it, because the Shamal is seriously under-braked. There’s no ABS, the calipers are one-pots on tiny discs, and pedal feel is remote, which doesn’t help when you’re trying avoid the New Forest's wild horses.

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We’re on B-roads now, dusty, dry and open like the Arab lands that are blown by the Shamal wind. The 40mph speed limit gives me a chance to get my breath back and take in the interior. Predictably, it’s a mixture of marvellous and manky – lovely wood and squishy Connolly leather chairs mixing it with flimsy Fiat parts bin bits.

Traffic dies away as we hit a usefully twisty, undulating section. The Maserati stacks up well as a GT, but can it do the business in the bends? Not in the Koni damping’s softest setting, is the answer. One contemporary scribbler said that the Shamal's weight distribution felt like 90 front/10 rear. On my first run through a rising, gentle radius corner taken at speed, it all starts to go a bit… wrong.

The Shamal has a rear torque-biasing limited-slip differential. As the rear suspension compresses, the LSD bites, pitching the nose violently this way and that. It’s not breaking traction: it's more like the diff's biting where it shouldn’t, resulting in a degree of wander. Think of it as a MkI Ford Focus RS in reverse.

Happily, salvation is at hand through the Koni dampers' adjustability. The settings selector is a low-rent plastic tab, but I can forgive it that for the miracle it performs. On the hardest setting the Shamal is transformed. Where once the tail wagged the dog, Fido is definitely setting the agenda now. On another run through the corners, the rear end is absolutely planted. There’s just so much grip, body roll is fiercely controlled and although there’s a little pitch on acceleration, it’s a night and day improvement over the comfort setting.

Sliding a Shamal is possible, but that’s really not what it’s for. The car’s first instinct is to nose wide – that engine really does dictate matters – but lifting off gently brings it into line. Plant the throttle and the Shamal sticks to its line resolutely, the diff chewing into the road almost like a four-wheel drive car. Think V8-powered Lancia Delta Integrale and you’re close.

It's a shame the steering remains as dead at high speed as it is at low speed. It’s sharp and direct, but low on feedback. Even so, it’s a lot more communicative than the 3200's unnervingly light helm.

That might count against the Shamal

as a pure sports car, but remember that it's more about covering ground extremely quickly –and it does a good job of that.

Rather too soon, it’s time for me to give the keys back. The day started with a car that seemed too soft for its styling, and ended with a truly engaging A-Z (trident) missile. But did it score a direct hit?

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The Modern Classics view

So does the Shamal live up to the legend? Not really. The ten-year-old me expected it to be as uncompromisingly hardcore as its extrovert body suggests, but the current me is a bit more understanding.

The Shamal was never a hardcore sportscar. Instead, it’s up there with the greatest GTs of the era – the Porsche 928 GT and GTS, the late-model Jaguar XJS and the Mercedes-Benz C140, cars built when London to Geneva was a three-figure blast down the autoroute rather than a tedious wait at Stansted before being crammed into a fart tube with wings. Of those options, only the 928 offers the same duality of purpose as the Shamal. Throw the Jag or Merc at a B-road at Shamal pace and you’ll be on the phone to your insurers.

The Porsche is more refined, and the GTS manual edges the Shamal on driver thrills too, but only just. The Maserati counters with eyepopping thrust and a fleet feel the 200kg heavier 928 can't match. The choice comes down to naturally aspirated or turbocharged.

These days, the very best Shamals trade for around £70,000. You can pick them up for slightly less, but their rarity – just 370 or so were built, with only a handful in right-hand drive – will make finding one a bit of a task. If you apply cold logic, a same-engined 3200 GT can be as little as £10k, but it does drive entirely differently. Or a Ghibli II GT will offer three-quarters of the experience for a third of the price.

You can't apply cold-hearted reason to a Maserati though, or a Porsche 928 come to that. Modern repmobiles go faster and longer, and European roads are no longer GATSO-free playgrounds.

But for those odd moments when your favourite road opens up and there's time and fuel to spare, nothing provides the adrenaline punch of an old-school GT. Nothing else makes you feel as special.

The Shamal might not be the best GT of all, but it's definitely the most special. Worth the wait? Absolutely.

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Maserati Shamal

Engine 3217cc, 8-cyl, DOHC

Transmission RWD, 6-speed manual

Power 318bhp@6000rpm

Torque 319lb ft@3000rpm

Weight 1417kg

Performance

0-60mph 5.3sec

Top speed 168mph

Economy 28mpg (Ha. And indeed ha)