Wednesday, February 27, 2019

That Time Road & Track Test Drove A Bicycle

I used to be a "car" guy. I loved cars. LOVED 'em. Yeah, that's changed. Nowadays I barely tolerate them.

When I was a kid - and I mean a pretty young kid, like no more than 10 or 11 years old - I started subscribing to car magazines like Road & Track and I read those all through my teens and twenties. One of my favorite writers was Peter Egan who wrote the "Side Glances" column every month (and another column in the motorcycling magazine Cycle World, which I also read). His style was mostly anecdotal/autobiographical with a touch of humor - and if anybody ever compared my writing to his, I'd take it as a great compliment. (nobody ever has).

Just above the headmast - "Maserati's New
Super-Economy Sports Vehicle."
Anyhow, I was recently reminded through a discussion with the Classic Rendezvous group about that time Road & Track test drove a bicycle. It was April 1974 and the bike was a Maserati MT-3. This was soon after the beginning of the OPEC oil embargo (starting late '73), and suddenly there was tremendous interest in smaller more fuel-efficient cars. On the cover was the new Honda Civic CVCC, and the issue was loaded up with (mostly imported) tiny compact cars boasting about 25 mpg (there is something to be said for the fact that many, much larger, mid-sized and even some full-sized cars built today can better that 25 mpg goal). Of course, with that newfound zeal for fuel economy, and the fact that it coincided with the great American Bike Boom (which had just peaked in '73) it made sense to take a look at a bicycle. The fact that the bicycle came from Maserati, a storied name in exotic sports cars, made it the perfect digression from their usual fare.

In reality, Maserati bicycles were only tangentially connected to the motor company. The bicycle branch was headed by Alfieri Maserati (a grandson, I believe, of one of the original Maserati brothers of automotive fame) but was a separate entity from the car factory in Modena, Italy. The bikes were imported and sold in the US by Elsco Corp of Jacksonville, Florida, which was owned by Ed Hugus who raced Maserati cars and was a friend of the Maserati family.

Some people would insist that R&T conducting a road test of a bicycle was an April Fools joke (it was the April issue, after all), but I'm not entirely certain that that was the intent. The article definitely has some tongue-in-cheek elements to it - but it doesn't exactly read as a "joke." I believe it's possible there may have been at least some earnestness to it.

Whatever humorous effect the article contains mostly comes from the fact that they approach the bicycle "test drive" from an obviously car-centric background, and evaluate it using the same criteria for which they would evaluate a 4-wheeled test subject. For example, the photo that leads off the article shows the bicycle on a drag strip with their data-collecting "5th wheel" (or "3rd wheel", in this case) attached:
"All the usual electronic test gear was connected to the MT-3, but we found that it reduced performance so sharply that it would be better to test it at curb weight plus driver."
They go on to post all their data for the bike, whether that data is relevant to a bicycle or not.
Some data highlights: "Engine type . . . biped" ; "Torque . . . negligible" ; "Fuel requirement . . . high protein" ; "Headroom . . . ∞" - and of course, all the usual acceleration, handling, and braking data.
Locking up the front brakes. It's possible they staged that nose-dive (though the bouncing chain tells me maybe not). However, I'm quite certain the "burned rubber" smoke was airbrushed in afterwards (for you kids out there, that's what we did before we had Photoshop).
Along those lines, I enjoyed this observation on the quietness of the 2-wheeled Maserati: "The most striking thing one notices about the MT-3 is the utter silence of its powerplant, although we did note that after an extended run, or especially after a run uphill, the powerplant does tend to huff and puff a bit."

I'd say that really sums up the typical driver attitude towards bikes.
Some things made it clear that a bunch of car guys just really didn't "get" bicycles. For one thing, they seemed truly perplexed at the gear range of a 10 speed (2x5) drivetrain and the way the gear ratios overlap across the range, as opposed to increasing sequentially from 1st through 10th gear. Or even, for that matter, the fact that the very concept of "1st gear - 2nd gear - 3rd gear, etc." is not really applicable to most derailleur-equipped bicycles with two or three chainrings.

There were also several remarks about the difficulty of shifting a derailleur-equipped bike. "From time to time we make derogatory remarks about vague shift linkage or some such thing, but in this mechanism, there are actually no detents for the five speeds of the derailleur mechanism. So until you have plenty of practice, you will (as we did) have trouble going from one speed to the next." No detents? Well, this was about 10 years before Shimano Dura Ace SIS. There were some earlier indexed shifting systems, but they were not that reliable and were mostly on lower-priced bikes.

One other thing they didn't seem to grasp: that performance bicycles, unlike cars, tend to be comprised of a frame built by a builder or shop whose name appears on the frame - then completed with a collection of components sourced from another company (or several other companies). In this case, the MT-3 was mostly built with Campagnolo components - and the reviewers found themselves annoyed at how many times the Campagnolo name appeared on the bike.

"Nearly all the running gear on the MT-3 is by Campagnolo, a name we all know from the beautiful wheels seen on beautiful Italian cars . . . One beef here, though: the Campagnolo name appears over 40 times on this machine and one is reminded a bit of the over-badgery of certain Japanese cars. By contrast, however, the name Maserati appears only twice."

In the end, though, they did show the bike some respect. "We do not test many racing machines; after all, few readers will ever be able to buy or drive one. But the MT-3 was different. Here is a racing machine that many can buy, and one whose speed is perfectly within the range of use on public roads (or bikeways)." They wrapped it up saying, "Whatever its eccentricities compared with the usual 4-wheel machines we drive, we certainly enjoyed the MT-3. There are several sore legs and bottoms among the R&T staff now, but also several healthier-feeling people. In fact, among the staff some have decided to add similar machines to their stables."

Another word about Maserati bicycles. I'm not 100% certain who made the frames, but I've seen some fairly reliable sources that say it was the Fiorelli shop. Those Maserati bikes were only available for a few years in the mid-70s, but were offered in a range of models and prices. The MT-1 was the top of a line which went all the way down to a model MT-14. The top models were made with Columbus tubing and Campagnolo parts, while the bottom-tier models were basically gas-pipe tubing with parts typical of a lot of budget-priced bike boom bicycles.

By the way, bicycles bearing the Maserati name are available again, made (I believe) by Montante cycles in Italy - purveyors of style-conscious bicycles-as-luxury-goods for fashionistas. They all seem to be "urban" single speed machines and range in price from $1980 - $4026. There were also some carbon fiber Maserati bikes about 10 years ago, made by Milani. See the current offerings at the Maserati website. Like their 1970s counterparts, they are Maseratis in name only, even though the company does more to link them to the car company history by giving them names and colors derived from the company's racing cars of the past.


  1. Typically the April issues of R&T would contain a road test of an unlikely vehicle, whether as an April Fool's Joke or just an April tradition I don't know. My dad was an avid R&T reader and still has a substantial number of his back issues, probably back to around 1960 or so. My favorite April test was the Greyhound bus.


  2. I was a bike guy since the 1950s and a car guy since I got into cars (and motorcycles) in the 1960s. I'm still a car guy, but mainly interested in the older stuff, 1980s and before, just like I'm only interested in classic/vintage era bicycles, not the new plastic ones. Back in the day I subscribed to Car & Driver and bought R&T off the newsstand when something interesting was in it. I do believe I've seen that article. It's obviously tongue-in-cheek, but interesting how it's written strictly from an automotive perspective, but non-cyclists would hardly see the irony. Interesting how they commented on all the Campagnolo components when they never comment on all the Lucas components on British cars. At least customers had a choice when buying bikes, unlike people buying British cars.

  3. How often did they test vehicles with defective engines?

  4. I remember reading that review in my brother's copy of the magazine. I sort of agreed with their comment about the Campy name appearing on every bolt and pivot.

    A quick search of the internet reveals current "luxury bikes" from Gucci, Hermes, and Fendi, as well as a $39,000 Aston Martin bicycle. Silly things indeed; at least the Maserati was a real bicycle suitable for riding.

    Thanks for bringing back that old memory.

    Jon Blum

  5. I recall a whole series of such tests in R&T, not just the bicycle and the greyhound. Any one else remember their reviews of a San Francisco Cable Car, the Space Shuttle Mover (top speed of 2 mph), a Mercedes-Benz GT (Garbage Truck)? I hope Brooks doesn't mind if others (with better memories) chime in with others!

    1. I don't mind - it was a bit of a tradition with them.

  6. I have one of these for sale right now! It's on a few Facebook marketplace groups (Steel is real, live to ride NYC, vintage and antique bicycles, online swapmeet for cycling and triathlon, and a few more) and I'm going to sell it on ebay if I don't have any luck (I really don't want to have myself or the buyer pay extra fees). I'll ship through a local bike shop. Any other ideas for selling it would be much appreciated!!

    Nice article, Brooks!