Modena Italia

Maserati – Alfa Romeo – Fiat

By Michele Knapp


    We left off our Italian adventure last issue traveling from the majestic Alps of Lago Di Como to Modena in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, which lies smack between Parma (of cheese and prosciutto fame) and Bologna (with its distinctively characteristic ragu). 

    Known mostly for its liquid gold – the highest quality aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena – this lovely cobblestoned city was also home to beloved tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the automobile company founder Enzo Ferrari! 

    The sun was still hot when we arrived via high-speed train at 3:30 pm, only 113 miles from Milan. Cabbing it to Hotel Cervetta 5, Dave and I disposed of our bags and joined our crew (Gary, Lynn, Bill and Connie from NY). We were heading to the Maserati Museo, only 15 minutes from the hotel, and the collection of Umberto Panini. Then to the Parmigiano Reggiano Organic Diary Farm “Bio Hombre,” interestingly, also of Umberto Panini who had a passion for fast cars and good cheese! 

    Turning to Dave I inquired, “If Enzo Ferrari called Modena his home, how did Maserati find itself here - the competition on the corner?”

    In 1914 Alfieri Maserati, founded Maserati in Bologna, originally a car repair workshop in 1914. In 1926 the Maserati brothers; Alfieri, Ettore, Bindo and Ernesto took over Diatto, a small racing car manufacturing company from Turin and opened shop in Modena. In the same year they built their first car, the “Tipo 26.”

    In May 1993, FIAT bought Maserati from the De Tomaso Group through the acquisition of 100% of the shares of Maserati, while the “Historic Collection” remained in the possession of Officine Alfieri Maserati. 

    In 1996 De Tomaso requested that the cars and engines of the “Historic Collection” be returned. Maserati accepted the request, but on De Tomaso's instructions, 19 cars were to be sent to England to be sold at auction in London.

    On the news of the sale, Umberto Panini immediately took action to prevent the historic Maserati cars from being lost. The 19 vintage Maserati cars, part of a collection of 40, along with 60 motorcycles and 20 some-odd tractors, are now housed in the Museo owned by the Panini family to be seen and enjoyed by enthusiasts worldwide. 

    So, how does one finance such an acquisition? Certainly not by working in a factory. Umberto had graduated from welder and mechanic for Maserati motorcycles to entrepreneur. He and his brother made their fortune manufacturing decals and stickers. The decals were reproductions of all the logos and symbols, inclusive of the famous “Trident” globally recognized as Maserati.

    A bit of trivia for our readers, one of the brothers was an artist and as such, was inspired by the “Fountain of Neptune” located in the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna. Neptune and his trident are a symbol of strength and vigor and thought to be the perfect representation for Maserati sports cars.

    After a jaw dropping, exhilarating waltz around every model of Maserati (my absolute favorite – a 1967 Ghibli Coupe Tipo AM115, named for the hot wind of the Sirocco desert, sporting cool blue paint), we strolled 50 yards across a dusty dirt road, passing Italian Frisian cows grazing in fields of alfalfa speckled by large rolls of hay to the organic dairy farm known as “Hombre” (the name given to Umberto Panini by his fellow villagers after spending 10 years in Venezuela).

    The Panini family produces the finest Parmigianino Reggiano cheese of this region. Only 12 wheels a day, each is made from of 500 liters of milk. That’s a lot of moo! 

    Stepping out of the hot sun and into the cool of the air-conditioned and humidified warehouse, we found ourselves surrounded ceiling to floor by giant rounds of Hombre Parmigianino Reggiano. This will be their home for 24 to 36 months and every two weeks the chesses are to be cleaned by a robotic fiddler and then checked by humans.

    Post the 2-3 year process, each wheel is stamped with the highly regarded ICEA seal, its date of birth and its going-off-to-another-land date. We can barely make out the soft hum of the robot fiddler playing the sad song of “Arrivederci!” 

    In the tasting room, one can sample the fastidious care taken in the flavor of these cheeses. The unique, characteristic taste is remarkable, especially when paired with a regional wine. We also make a modest purchase for my travel bag, which will be saved for our hike on the “Roman Road” of Cortona Tuscany, our last stomp before heading home.

    Over stimulated with salty palates, we all load back into the taxi pointed back in the direction of the hotel to cleanup and dress for a stroll in the Piazza Grande followed by a fantastic dinner in the same Piazza Grande, home to the Duomo di Modena. 

    A 15 minute walk from the hotel, The Caffé Concerto, a favorite among the younger locals, was elbowroom only. We dined alfresco while the girls found entertainment in the passing of a great thunderstorm. The boys on the other hand found more entertainment in watching the beautiful high-heeled Italian women graciously hop cobblestones in the ­Piazza, while balancing umbrellas. 

    The following morning, the air was still thick with weather as we made our way to the Maserati Plant Tour. ­­Only 35 cars are hand assembled Monday thru Friday. Twelve wheels of cheese and Maserati’s with four wheels each! So hard to keep track. And how is everything only 15 minutes away?

    Our travel buddy, Gary Brown, is a Fiat-Alfa Romeo dealer in Patchogue New York and our “in” to the “insider” tour of the landmark Maserati plant, housed by the original redbrick buildings of 1937. 

    In pouring down rain we met Gary’s compatriot Paul, (actually an ex-patriot from Michigan) vigorously shaking hands all around. Not the least bit disturbed by the weather, we are edgy with excitement of what lies within. 

    Paul has worked with the Maserati and Alfa Romeo under Fiat Group for many years. An interesting family tree, Paul would go on to explain, in 2005 Maserati was split off from Ferrari and partnered with Alfa Romeo under Fiat. Two years later Maserati would make its first profit in 17 years under Fiat ownership.

    Graciously, Paul ushered us into the lobby decorated with gorgeous driving machines. Awestruck, jaws agape, eyes flashing between each other and the brilliant, suggestively stimulating macchina, we were introduced to our charming and informative guide Alissandro. 

    Equipped with headsets and microphones, we were escorted into the pristine and completely modernized assembly plant. Huddled around our guide we were enlightened to learn not one Maserati is the same as another. Mass production does not apply here, in fact the word “custom” an understatement. 

    Voice raised in our ears to out do the Italian pop music piped in, Alissandro would go on to explain at Station 1 of 24, “The soul or the body of the car is married to the base, or foundation. This is more a living thing, more than an innate object of transportation.” This is where the Ferrari engine or foundation is married to the Maserati body. (I am sure both founders and rivals are rolling somewhere in the universe, hopefully with laughter!).

    I would encourage you, our reader to go to the Maserati website and virtually build your own! There are over 100,000 options available. Coincidentally, we were able to pick out a United States bound vehicle on the assembly track instantly by the cup holder option! 

    The plant being located in Centro, there is a limited amount of space. Therefore, Maserati production is “just in time.” All parts are contained in individual carts and travel with each car on the four-line, timed assembly track. Attached to the cart is the punch list that will be scrutinized at the 24 manned (and sometimes wo-manned) stations along the track, 28 minutes each stop and equipped only with powered hand tools. No robots here!

    Even the body is examined by hand for imperfections. I would equate this to a masseuse in search of a kink; the job entails the application of special oil that is then caressed into the body by two people in search of an anomaly. 

    There are no time constraints here and should there be a flaw, it, of course, would be made perfect by hand!

    In a different building, each new delivery is subject to the extremes of dynamic testing for five days! Enclosed in its own glass room (likened to the nursery of a maternity ward) the Maserati is revved and rolling at a speed of 250km per hour. Engine, steering, brakes, computer systems, door seals, cold, wet and extreme heat and I can go on…all of which are strictly observed by quality control teams.

    After the exhausting assessment, each car is treated to an additional massage by the finishing department. An external company is even enrolled for the final deliberation over the perfection of each and every Gran Turismo and Gran Cabrio.

    We were also able to preview production of the new Alfa Romeo 4C which is being undertaken here and that isn’t just by happy coincidence. 

    The Maserati factory in Modena was chosen to produce the 4C primarily because of the labor intensive, high-tech and highly skilled construction required and Maserati has the workforce on hand to handle that. 

    Only 12 of these beauties are rolled out each day, while there we only saw Rosso Red, however Gary managed to have Madreperla White with red leather trimmed bucket seats delivered to New York!

    Tucked neatly under their receiving blankets, these babies are introduced to their new owners with paparazzo on staff to capture the moment along with a bottle of the finest bubbly to celebrate the new arrival!

    Maserati is truly a spirited car, one that has captures the karma of all the hands that bring it to life. From the hands that build to your hands on the steering wheel, Maserati is the ultra-luxurious performance auto with timeless Italian style and effortless signature sounding power. 

    Grazie un milione to all those who participated in this fantastic journey!