Eighty years ago, on Sunday May 30th, 1939 the Maserati 8CTF “Boyle Special” won the Indianapolis 500 at the hands of 27-year-old Warren Wilbur Shaw. The race lasted 4 hours and 20 minutes at an average speed of over 115 mph (185 kph). Still today, Indiana-born Wilbur Shaw is one of the five most successful drivers in the history of the Indianapolis race, having taken 3 wins in 1937, 1939 and 1940, the last two driving an 8CTF and 3 second places (in 1933, 1935 and 1938), out of a total of 13 races.
Back in the early 1930s, Alfieri Maserati had been invited a few times by the organisers to attend a number of races in America, but it wasn’t until the sale of the company’s shares to the Orsi Group in May 1937 that the Maserati brothers could then really concentrate on designing new racing cars.
This coincided with the international racing authority changing the technical rules for Grand Prix cars, which meant that from 1938 tighter restrictions were introduced. Displacement was no longer unregulated but now limited on the basis of the car’s weight, with a maximum of 3,000 cc allowed for supercharged engines. Ernesto Maserati therefore based the development and construction of his new car, the 8CTF, on these new rules.
The chassis of the single-seater car was typical for of the era, created with two steel section rails and cross-members. The engine was a straight 8 with the cylinders in two groups of four and cast in a monoblock along with the cylinder head, hence the name “8CTF” or 8 cylinders “Testa Fissa” fixed head. The engine’s displacement was 2,991.4 cc with a compression ratio of 6.5:1. It had two carburettors and two volumetric compressors and was supercharged. It was an advanced engine for its time, with two valves per cylinder in a 90° V arrangement, driven by two overhead camshafts and generated 350 hp and 365 hp from the 1939 version. It had an impressive top speed of 290 km/h.
Before it came to Indianapolis, the Maserati 8CTF took part in a number of races during the course of 1938. For example, Count Carlo Felice Trossi led the Tripoli GP for several laps, and had taken pole position in the Coppa Ciano. The legendary Luigi “Gigi” Villoresi recorded the fastest lap in the Coppa Acerbo. These impressive results got the attention of quite a few potential customers and was how Maserati came to sell a Maserati 8CTF to the Chicago-based US team Boyle Racing Headquarters, owned by Irishman Michael Joseph “Mike” Boyle. A passionate motorsport enthusiast, Boyle had been wanting to win the Indianapolis 500, from and early ago, funded by himself with his own racing team.
Boyle’s team manager, Harry W. “Cotton” Henning took delivery of their new Maserati 8CTF at the beginning of 1939 and then set about preparing the car for racing. It was shod with larger wheels and Firestone tyres and painted in the Boyle Racing Headquarters amaranth colour livery.
The car was then entered for the Indianapolis 500 as a “Boyle Special” driven by Warren Wilbur Shaw, who started the race with the third fastest qualifying time, recorded at almost 129mph and went on to win the race having led the field for 51 laps. This was an historic victory for Maserati, as no European car had won the Indianapolis 500 since 1919.
As a result of the victory, Maserati got huge international recognition, and at the next edition of the Indianapolis 500, three more cars were entered as well as the one driven by Wilbur Shaw himself. He won the race again in 1940, underscoring the 8CTF’s superior speed and reliability over long distances plus its excellent road holding. The car then went on to race at other oval circuits in the US, giving the 8CTF the longest and most successful racing career of any single-seater race car, and which only ended in 1950 after Bill Vulcanich failed to qualify for that year’s Indianapolis 500.
Five years ago, the United States HVA (Historical Vehicle Association) registered the legendary Maserati 8CTF as the first non-American production car to be awarded a permanent place in the annals of the US Library of Congress. Recorded under the Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for Heritage Documentation”, the documentation has been placed in the NHVR (National Historic Vehicle Register) and HAER (Historic American Engineering Record).
One of the three 8CTFs built, chassis number 3032, which is in fact the one in which Wilbur Shaw took victory at the 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500, has been reconfigured with the paintwork it bore on those glorious days and is currently on display at the Indianapolis Speedway Museum if you would like to go and see it.
Simon Burrell is Editor of Our Man Behind The Wheel, a professional photographer and former saloon car racing driver.
Photographs courtesy of Maserati GB and taken by John Lamm