Maserati 8CTF: How an Italian conquered the Indy 500 and cemented itself in motorsport history

The Maserati 8CTF won the Indianapolis 500 twice in 1939 and 1940

8CTF first non-American car inducted into the Library of Congress

8CTF cemented Maserati's global reputation

There are few things as quintessentially American as the Indianapolis 500, especially during the inter-war years when European manufacturers and drivers had all but abandoned the prestigious endurance event.

But that came to an end - albeit briefly - when a native of Indiana, Wilbur Shaw, won the race in a Maserati 8TCF consecutively in 1939 and 1940.

The 8CTF itself has a fascinating history. Designed by Ernesto Maserati, the company's director, chief engineer, and official race driver, the car was built in 1938 with the support of the Orsi family.


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Maserati 8CTF

Maserati 8CTF. Image: Supplied by Dries van der Walt

Return to competitiveness

These Modena entrepreneurs had taken over the business from the Maserati brothers in 1937. With its eight-cylinder monoblock engine that gave origin to its model name (eight-cylinders testa fissa or 'fixed head'), the 8TCF was Maserati's bid to return to competitiveness against the other European constructors. Its 3.0-liter engine featured independent fuel feed to the two groups of four cylinders and twin Roots superchargers.

Shaw's car was originally a Maserati team car that debuted at the 1938 Tripoli Grand Prix. But in America, the Chicago Boyle Racing Headquarters team was fielded and entered in the race as a "Boyle Special". After the first two victories, Shaw seemed destined for a historic hat-trick in 1941, but a puncture prevented his third consecutive victory.

In 1946, after a break due to the Second World War, the same 8CTF Shaw had driven finished the Indianapolis race in third place, this time with Ted Horne at the wheel. It was followed home by another 8CTF, driven by Emil Andres. Horne repeated his third place in 1947 and went on to finish fourth in 1948. These impressive results from the decade-old cars confirmed the sporting longevity of Ernesto Maserati's initial design.

Maserati 8CTF

Maserati 8CTF. Image: Supplied by Dries van der Walt

Italian engineering legend

Maserati's performance at the Indianapolis oval laid the foundations for the birth of an Italian engineering legend in the USA. Its prestige was so great that in 2014, the United States Historical Vehicle Association registered the 8CTF as the first non-American production car to be awarded a permanent place in the annals of the Library of Congress. In addition, the car driven to victory by Wilbur Shaw in the 1939 and 1940 races has been reconfigured with the original paintwork and is displayed in the Indianapolis Speedway Museum.

The 8CTF's racing successes were not restricted to events on the traditional American ovals. It saw two more back-to-back victories in another famous race, the Pikes Peak hill climb in Colorado, winning in 1946 and 1947 with Louis Unser, the scion of the well-known Unser family of racers, at the wheel. Maserati's focus in this period was on developing the best engines and chassis to succeed in car racing. These new projects saw the Maserati brothers' last contributions, who, after their 10-year contract with Orsi expired, went on to form O.S.C.A.

The famous Argentinian grand prix driver, Juan-Manuel Fangio, raced for the Maserati Formula 1 team for several years in the 1950s, achieving several victories, culminating in winning the world championship in 1957 in the 250F. However, Maserati retired from factory racing participation following an accident on the road between Cerlongo and Guidizzolo, where 12 people died when Alfonso de Portago's Ferrari spun out during the 1957 Mille Miglia. They continued to build cars for privateers, but following the Guidizzolo tragedy, Maserati became more focused on building road-going grand tourers.

Though successful, the 8TCF ultimately wasn't reliable enough to ward off the onslaught of compatriots such as Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari. Despite that, its performance and successes ensured its place in history as a car that helped to cement Maserati's global reputation.

Compiled by: Dries van der Walt