Princely Delight Aga Khan’s personal car on test. Built for a prince, this 1974 Maserati Quattroporte was one of just two bodied by Frua. We tell the story of a car that was very much favoured by the Aga Khan. Story by Andy Heywood. Images by Michael Ward.
MASERATI QP AGA KHAN Royal luxury saloon on test
Probably best known for his ill-fated foray into racing with the Group 4 Maserati Bora, the French Maserati importer, ETS Thepenier, had a long association with the Trident. Based in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud, Jean Thepenier was the sole concessionaire for France from 1957 to 1985. He sold some of Maserati’s most exotic cars and to some of its most exotic clients, none more so than His Royal Highness, Prince Karim Aga Khan, who lived in Paris at that time.
The Aga Khan bought a number of Maseratis over the years, including a 5000GT, 3500GT Spyder and no fewer than four Series 1 Quattroportes, all ordered through Thepenier. The last of these was delivered in in 1970 but was subsequently modified to take the new, larger 4.9-litre Maserati V8 engine and also the ‘new’ Citroen LHM brakes that Maserati was adopting for the Bora. It was while this work was taking place that the Prince visited the 1972 Paris Salon and had his head turned by another Maserati, this time on the stand of the coachbuilder, Pietro Frua.
Frua was the coachbuilder for the Series 1 Quattroporte, and was hoping to get the commission for its replacement. To this end, he built a prototype as his suggestion for Maserati, which had been constructed and first presented a year earlier at the Paris Salon in 1971. At the time, Automobil Revue magazine praised it for its “modern, elongated line and strict elegance with emphasis on the horizontal stroke” and concluded that “this Frua creation’s sportiness cannot be denied”. It sounded like a perfect match for the Maserati brand, but times were changing in Modena.
Now owned by Citroen, and with French managers running the company, Maserati was busy exploring other options. It favoured a Bertone-bodied Quattroporte II designed by Marcello Gandini, no doubt at least partly because that car used Citroen SM running gear.
A year later, a decision had yet to be made so Frua exhibited the car once again at the Paris Salon. While it still didn’t have the desired effect on the Maserati management, the Aga Khan was so taken with it that he offered to buy it on the spot. This raised a few eyebrows in Modena as the basis of the prototype was an old Indy chassis and running gear that was distinctly second-hand. To save any embarrassment later, Thepenier respectfully suggested that His Highness wouldn’t want to buy this prototype but that Signor Frua was more than happy to build him a brand new example, for which Maserati would provide a new chassis and running gear.
The Aga Khan agreed and Thepenier placed an order with Maserati in January 1973. The floorpan of this new car would also be the same as an Indy, which meant steel box sections throughout with a separate removable front subframe, onto which fitted the engine, gearbox and front suspension. The only difference was an extension in the wheelbase of approximately 20cm. The Indy by that time was nearing the end of its production life (having been introduced in 1968) and Maserati was in the process of launching the final version, with a 4.9-litre engine, later ZF dog-leg gearbox and Citroen LHM brakes, a specification similar in fact to the Aga Khan’s current, modified Quattroporte Series 1. Naturally, therefore, this all met with Royal approval.
The plan was for Maserati to build the rolling chassis and then deliver it to Frua for the body, which neatly removed the need to homologate what was effectively a one-off. This represented a change in attitude for Maserati and a move towards the modern world. In the previous, Orsi era, one-offs and modifications to satisfy particular client’s peccadilloes were all taken in the company’s stride and it would have been proud to offer a bespoke service. Now, the liability of sanctioning a one-off was too much and so the finished vehicle became a product of Frua, not Maserati.
Perhaps because of this reluctance and almost certainly because Maserati and Citroen were in a state of constant turmoil during this period, it took until September of 1973 for work to commence on the chassis and therefore it wasn’t until November that it was delivered to Frua.
Throughout this period, the Aga Khan became somewhat impatient and applied considerable pressure on Thepenier, who in turn pressed Maserati and Frua to complete the project. The car today still has a comprehensive file of correspondence which reveals how much pressure an Aga Khan can apply - Thepenier certainly earnt his commission! But these things take time and, correctly, Frua couldn’t rush to complete the car. Were it not for the traditional August holidays, it might have been ready before, but having returned from the Costa Smeralda, the Aga Khan agreed to an official handover of the car at the beginning of September 1974.
Even then, the paperwork required to export the car to France was not completed until November. It had now been two years since the Aga Khan first saw the prototype. But it was certainly worth waiting for. The Aga Khan covered many miles in the car, and he was an enthusiastic driver. In an interview with Sports Cars Illustrated, the Prince admitted to habitually driving at between 80 and 145mph, although the car was more often driven by his chauffeur Lucien Lemouss. He went on to recount a story that one day, the chauffeur slowed to 80mph as they fell in behind a slower-moving Ferrari. The young Prince had the chauffeur pull over, took over the driver’s seat, and swiftly passed the Ferrari.
However, it wasn’t too long before his head was turned again by the next new thing and the car was passed on to its second owner. One of the Aga Khan’s other great passions was horse racing and he gave the car to the jockey, Yves St Martin, who had raced the Prince’s horses with great success. He owned the car for a few years in the late 1970s and then it disappeared from view for a while, emerging in 1989 at a Poulain Le Fur auction, still in Paris, where it was bought by the Geneva International Motor Museum. While on display there a few attempts were made to sell the car, but none was successful, until in 1998 it was bought by the American collector Alfredo Brener from Houston.
During the 1990s, Brener had assembled one of the most important collections of Maserati cars in the world, including no fewer than five 5000GTs. He bought not only this Frua Quattroporte but also the prototype that had so enchanted the Aga Khan. I went to view the Brener collection in 2003 on behalf of Auto Italia and we photographed both cars together.
They make an interesting comparison as the first car, known retrospectively by its chassis number as AM121.002 (as opposed to the car in these photographs, which is 004) has earlier Indy wheels, a 4.7-litre engine, a Ghibli gearbox and a less accomplished dashboard layout. But the body is identical, and it even has the Citroen LHM brakes. It seems today that there are fewer differences than everyone thought at the time and it does seem odd that they didn’t just sell the first car to the Aga Khan.
At the end of the day, after its Motor Show career, the first prototype was sold to King Juan Carlos of Spain, whom one assumes wouldn’t have been too keen on a second-hand motor either.
Alas, the Brener collection was dispersed at auction later in 2003 and the Fruas parted company once more. They were briefly reunited once again in the collection of Bruce Milner in California before the Aga Khan car was sold to the British motoring journalist and Auto Italia contributor, Martin Buckley (see panel to left).
After Martin, the car was bought by the current owner, who commissioned McGrath Maserati to undertake a complete mechanical overhaul and interior retrim before pressing it into action for a tour of Norway last year. The car had actually covered 80,000km and considering how much time it has spent unused in museums and private collections, it must have done most of this mileage in its first few years with the Aga Khan. It proves that this is no hastily conceived prototype but a fully developed and sophisticated car.
Certainly, the Indy 4900 was one of the best-developed of the Maserati road cars. The combination of the extra torque from the larger engine with the ZF dog-leg gearbox gave effortless performance. Power steering was standard with a ZF system that gave better feel than non-assisted cars and the brakes used the Citroen system, which while being universally criticised for being excessively sharp and difficult to moderate, were more powerful than any other 1970s supercar. The extra wheelbase of the Quattroporte does affect the handling in that the car is slightly more reluctant to change lanes than an Indy but it does make for a very civilised ride and is rock solid in a straight line at any speed.
Although rumours persist that a third car was bodied in this style by Frua, officially there were only two. Looking at the car today, it is very difficult to see why Maserati didn’t give Frua the contract for the Series 2 Quattroporte. It is a stately, luxurious machine with an enormous glass area and spacious interior, yet it still looks lithe and sexy in the way that a Rolls-Royce Phantom never could.
Elegant Frua design should surely have become the official Quattroporte II, but just two were made.
Based on an Indy, this is a superb car to drive – among the best of the ‘classic era’ Maseratis, in fact.
The Aga Khan Quattroporte Frua is part of the Stephen Dowling collection, being auctioned by RM Sotheby’s in London on 5 September 2018. For more information, visit rmsothebys.com.