There are certain cities on earth that have become synonymous with the automobile - Detroit, aka Motor City, springs readily to mind. Stuttgart, Coventry, and Turin would also rank highly in this league table - but if one was considering top of the range cars there really can only be one answer, Modena. In and around this city many famous brands have flourished, Ferrari, De Tomaso, Pagani and Maserati, as well as many renowned coach builders and other automotive suppliers.
Maserati celebrates its centenary in 2014 and recently I paid the factory a visit to see how this elder statesman of the Italian high performance automobile fraternity builds cars these days.
The Maserati story actually started in Bologna under the leadership of the Maserati brothers, but when Adolfo Orsi acquired the company from its founders he moved the enterprise to Modena to be in proximity with his steel foundry and other businesses. That was in 1939 when Maserati were leading lights in motorsport, but had yet to build any road cars. That part of the story would not happen till after the end of World War Two when in 1946 the Maserati A6 1500 was unveiled.
Maserati still occupies the buildings in the city centre, though the foundry is long gone. I will look at the history of Maserati in a later piece but the penultimate change in ownership happened in 1997 when Fiat acquired the downtrodden marque. Fiat's President, Giovanni Agnelli, entrusted the ailing Modenese manufacturer to its bitter local rival, Ferrari. The man who revitalised the Maranello legend, Luca di Montezemolo, was called on again to bring another famous Italian name back to health.
The first thing he did was close the factory, tear out the old tooling and install a state of the art production line. That is still in place today and I got to follow it from start to finish. In 2005 Maserati was separated from rival, Ferrari, and linked to Alfa Romeo, all still within the Fiat family. Today the relationships with the Fiat brands are still very strong. In fact the Maserati factory in Modena is where the Alfa Romeo 4C is being assembled and the Maserati Quattroporte and Ghibli are built in Grugliasco, near Turin at the former Carrozzeria Bertone plant.
The Gran Turismo and GranCabrio are built in Modena. The bodies of the cars are made by ITCA who deliver them to Maranello where they are painted at the Ferrari factory using their state of the art technology. They are then delivered to the Maserati factory where they enter the assembly process.
The doors and bumpers are removed to facilitate access, and the next step is to fit the dashboard and glass to the chassis. The car is then ready to join the production line.
The line is still comprised of the tooling that Ferrari installed back in 1997. It has 12 stations in its first part and deals with the mechanical aspect of building the car.
The car is held at each station for 25 minutes and, depending on the complexity and length of the task, the number of staff is worked out accordingly. So a task that takes 75 man minutes will have three persons working on it.
The Maserati gradually takes shape into something that you might recognise on the road. Across the road from the factory engines and transmissions are delivered in from Ferrari. Red denotes a 4.7 litre V8, blue the 4.2 litre version.
The powertrain assembly takes 3.5 hours and the completed unit is delivered back to the main production line.
There it joins the other components in the production process.
At each stage team leaders perform inspections for quality control. There is a culture of absolute committment to producing the best built and most reliable cars possible. This is at odds with the legacy of earlier models produced Maserati, not all enjoyed a trouble free reputation.
The line advances towards the end of the mechanical assembly and the car is ready to turn the corner to the 12 stations that cover the installation of the interior.
In a similar manner to the mechanical assembly the interior takes shape, with vigorous inspections at each stage.
There are around 40,000,000 possible combinations of mechanical and interior specifications, so to ensure that the correct items are fitted to the appropriate car, a dossier follows each car and acts as a passport that gets signed off at each stage along the way.
The factory in Modena has around 700 employees who produce 20 cars a day, and if one factors in the 220 working days in the year, a total production of 4,400 cars is the sum of the parts. Plans have been announced to bring out a new SUV in the next 12 months and it is projected that the production will rise to 50,000 units. A factory is also planned in the USA. Brave words, my own thoughts are that the reality may be a bit different.
Each Maserati is built to order from a customer and takes around 20 working days to complete, I was told that even the Managing Director of Maserati would have to wait his turn, though I suspect he may just be able to borrow something for the weekend.
Once the car is finished it is then taken across the road for the testing and quality control processes to begin all over again.
There are a further 15 stations that check every aspect of the car from noise and rattles to the efficiency of the air conditioning.
In the test above some 3.000 litres of water is fired at the car under high pressure to prove the integrity of the weather proofing.
The almost finished car is then taken out for a road test of approximately 50 kilometres, using the great mix of roads around Modena, featuring motorways, mountains and city streets. Then there are a further 24 inspection routines.
Assuming all this goes according to plan, the cars are handed over to a firm of independent contractors who repeat all the checks again, particularly looking at the finish of both the leather and paintwork. Finally, there's a final check by Maserati's most senior inspectors before it's sent to the importer, then dealer, and perhaps most importantly the customer.