Waverley's Maserati by Bill Orth
Now that the Maserati marque has married into the family, so to speak, perhaps I should occasionally recount some anecdotes from that side of the aisle. Might as well start at the beginning. My first encounter with one of the Trident-bearing autos occurred over thirty years ago. At the time, our sports car was the pale yellow 1958 Triumph TR-3 that we still have. Although there was still a Triumph dealership in Orlando then, I preferred to patronize a (very) independent British ex-pat who had a small garage in a rather run-down part of town.
Waverley Dunham was a one-man band, in that he did everything. If the phone rang and someone needed help with parts, he was the parts man; when a car arrived that needed a diagnosis, he was the service adviser and when nothing else was going on, he was the mechanic. This led to some inefficiencies, as you might expect, and a lot of crawling out from under cars to answer the phone, crawling back under and then out again for the next summons. (Like many Brits of his era, his summer uniform was a pair of baggy khaki shorts and sandals. That’s it. If he was working under a car when you walked up, he would often remain on his back on the creeper, his torso under some car’s body, his knees propped up and apart. If you faced the disembodied voice coming from under the car, you received a view that was best avoided.)
His shop became the last and best hope for elderly British cars no longer welcome at their respective dealerships—if there still was a dealership. Waverley really loved Jaguars, and there were always several of the stately old sedans in attendance, like once-proud dowagers desperately trying to recover some of their lost youth. Instead of sagging jowels, they had lumpy, rust-infected lower door skins; liver spots were appearing on hoods and deck lids where sun-baked lacquer was beginning to peel and formerly voluptuous, smooth leather seats were, well, loose, drooping and no longer enticing to the touch. We’d best not similie some of the embarrassing plumbing problems that brought these matrons to Waverley, though. Unfortunately, their repairs were getting increasingly frequent and exponentially costly for these old gals, so their owners were beginning to get tardy about approving work, and even more so about settling up their accounts once the jobs were completed. It made me think of the porch at a nursing home, where senior ladies and gents sit in their rockers and quietly recall their younger days, which were wonderfully full of activity, accomplishments, beauty, love and so much more. I may have effected some of my own notable anthropomorphism toward things mechanical from Waverley’s habit of referring to these cars as ‘dear’ whenever he decorously lifted their hoods or removed their (fender) skirts to attend to some private problem.
Consequently, a collection of ‘residents’ began to amass at Waverley’s establishment on West Washington Street. His small rear yard ringed with a chain-link fence held several that had become organ donors, and a few that were nervously awaiting their diagnosis. It was usually malignant. His equally small front lot held the ‘outpatients’, that were in for a quick balancing of their S.U. carburettors or yet another minor electrical problem. (Nearly all electrical issues on old British cars are ‘minor’—‘major’ is reserved for when a fire truck was required) Inside the roughly 50’x50’ building were two lifts; however, each held a very long-term restoration project whose financial support had been arrested for quite some time. On the floor underneath each elevated lift rested two more dismantled carcasses awaiting funding transfusions. Waverley’s shop had lots of work; its just that very little of it ever got completed. Every bench and horizontal surface, including roofs and fenders, held grimy bits of mechanical trouble, empty coffee cups and many, many red-and-black boxes with ‘Lucas’ printed on them. There was a dog, appropriately named Tarbaby, who snoozed under whatever car was being attended to at the moment—whom you quickly learned not to pet and several cats who raised successive families in the project cars. Although every bit the English gentleman, Waverley left the ‘ladies,’ the sedans, outdoors as just described. These indoor projects were the more masculine examples of Britain’s finest—like an XK120 roadster that had expired in manly fashion, by puking a connecting rod through its cast-iron block during a spirited adventure, or an E-Type coupe whose velocity had exceeded the capacity of the Girling brakes, resulting in a comeuppance against something solid. Amid this regalia ebbed and flowed a current of Triumphs, MGs, Austin Healeys and some lesser
lights of the UK auto population. I would occasionally see a Sunbeam or Hillman being patched back together and sent out again like a neighborhood child who had skinned his knee.
Waverley appreciated my interest in cars with character, if not substance, and tolerated my hanging around whenever I came in to purchase a red-and-black box with something within necessary to the TR-3’s further progress. One day, I was amazed to see a still-youthful new face in the garage--a Maserati Spyder! It was a 3500GT Vignale cabriolet; jet black, with red leather upholstery. Its owner, having been turned away at every other garage in town, had brought his troubles to Waverley. Over the next couple of months, it was determined that a combination of lean jetting, the wrong spark plugs and exuberant driving had holed a piston. This was a serious problem. Recall that in the late 1960s people thought twice about making ‘long distance’ phone calls, and what passed for Maserati support in America at that time was an office in New York City and a remote outpost in California. Either was like calling Mars. And about as helpful.
By Christmas time, the Spyder had become a resident. It was shoehorned in next to the parts shelves, the long aluminum twin-ignition (!) cylinder head lay wrapped in rags in the trunk. A cat had claimed the red leather seat next to a cardboard box full of metric odds and ends as Waverley explained the dilemma to me. The New York office had said to remove an undamaged piston and to send it, along with the car’s chassis number, engine number and a substantial deposit to them. They, in turn, would ship—and I mean ship literally---it to Italy where the original casting records could be archived and a new piston forged. They didn’t know how much this would cost or how long it would take, but it certainly wasn’t going to be cheap or quick. But, since they had to specially set up to make this one piston anyway, it would only cost a little more to make a full set of six while they were at it. These would be shipped back to America along with the necessary rings, pins, gaskets, seals and whatnot to reassemble the engine. Then it could be properly tuned so as not to melt down again!
The owner was overwhelmed. He fretted over what to do for weeks, refusing the cash necessary to disassemble the engine and initiate the piston’s gestation. Time went by and the car got dustier, more things were piled on top of its flanks and when finally pressed for a decision, the owner capitulated—“Sell it as-is”, he said. I stopped in about that time, and Waverley had his presentation already rehearsed. “You’re a handy guy,” he said; “You can do the work yourself, save all the labor costs, and look what you’d have when you were done!” The price was $1500, and probably half that much again for the parts. Might as well have been a million. I was a schoolteacher making $6000 a year! The Triumph was worth maybe $900, but we needed a car that ran, and $750 was six month’s rent!
So, as the months went by and no savior materialized, Waverley finally pushed the Maserati into the back yard to make room for paying jobs. I often drove past on the back street, not stopping, but looking through the fence at the lithe, appealing form getting seedier every week. Within a year, the black paint became dull, then began sloughing off the alloy bodywork, leaving irregular oxidized patches of skin. The Pirelli Cinturatos went flat, the chrome began pitting and the elements had their way with the top, then the interior. Sad as it was, I was no closer to being able to adopt this waif, despite a brief flirtation with the idea of cheaply sticking a Chevrolet V8 into it. Sitting among the old Jag sedans, it certainly looked like some Latin hussy their owners had dallied with and then dropped as she aged, the matrons secretly pleased as her beauty faded away, but one day she was gone. I don’t know what finally became of that beautiful, slim siren and Waverley closed his garage for good not long after.
Oh sure, some of you are thinking me singularly responsible for allowing this wonderful Maserati icon to have been lost to all of us, while forgetting the dilettante who wronged her so to begin with. But don’t think I haven’t had those same thoughts myself.
-- Bill Orth--