“Do the right thing and just let it go.”
With these words, Umberto Panini helped save an important piece of Modena’s racing heritage from falling into the hands of wealthy global car collectors when he decided to purchase the 19 rare Maserati cars that currently comprise the core of his family’s personal museum, the world’s largest private collection of vintage Maserati vehicles known as the Collezione Umberto Panini.
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Matteo Panini and the family’s prized Maserati TIPO61 DROGO nicknamed the “birdcage” because of the lightweight chassis comprised of 200 small segments of pipe forming a lattice frame that resembles a cage.
The Maserati TIPO 61 DROGO, one of the nineteen classic Maseratis purchased by the Panini family. The model is recognized as one of the best interpretations of the classic sports car with a powerful engine mated to an extremely stiff and lightweight chassis.
The Maserati 6C34 with in-line 6-cyclinder engine otherwise known as Tazio Nuvolari’s Maserati went on to win for the legendary race car driver the 1934 Modena and Naples grand prix.
The rudimentary interiors of the Maserati 6C34 driven by Tazio Nuvolari show the challenges drivers of his era faced on the track. The 1934 race car had its clutch on the right side, a gearbox in the middle, and the handbrakes on the outside of the car. The race car had no seatbelts or foot break, either.
The Maserati 420M ELDORADO built for the the racing legend Stirling Moss for the Mille Miglia di Monza was the first car in Europe to be sponsored by a consumer brand outside the world of motorsports.
The Maserati 3500 GT from 1958 marks the transition of the company from a race car builder to a manufacturer of road cars. The GT or gran turismo design continues with the brand’s current Quattroporte and GranTurismo series which combines race car-like handling with the comfort of a luxury sedan.
Although only a limited number of Maserati A6G 54 vehicles were manufactured, the critical success of the high performance road car from 1954 ushered in Maserati’s grand tourer era which continues to this day.
The rare Maserati A6GS 53 BERLINETTA designed by Pininfarina is the “jewel” of the Panini collection in terms of historical value. The Panini’s “Berlinetta,” or hard top variant, is one of only four that were made by Maserati in 1953. The SPYDER variant of the A6GS won back to back victories at the Italian Grand Prix in 1953 and 1954.
The original in-line 6-cyclinder, 170 bhp, engine of the Maserati A6GS undergoing maintenance at the Collezione Umberto Panini’s garage. All classic Maseratis in the Panini collection sport their original engines, chassis and bodies. The detailed diagrams and archives of the Maserati Classiche have made it possible for collectors like the Panini family to source, restore, and if necessary, reconstruct, any discontinued car parts.
A rare Maserati motorcycle on display at the Collezione Umberto Panini. Maserati briefly entered the business of manufacturing two-stroke and four-stroke motorcycles in the 1950s before the unit went bankrupt. The private museum preserves both the successes and failures of the Maserati brand for posterity.
The private museum is located on the grounds of the family-owned Hombre dairy farm outside the center of Modena, the Italian industrial city where the headquarters and factory of the Italian sports car brand, Maserati, is based. While touring the two-story structure with Matteo Panini, the founder’s son who now looks after his father’s collection, the vintage car enthusiast and amateur racer tells me it was a difficult decision they had to make – and make quickly, or else, risk losing everything.
“After a couple of days, [my father] was not really sure so I said we have to be very careful because this is a huge quantity of money for cars that we don’t have the chance to see. So we thought about it hard and then my father said, ‘Don’t worry, we have to do it for the city, then for the people, and the last for us.”
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The Panini family had amassed a fortune publishing the ubiquitous Panini sticker books collected by children all across Europe and could well afford the amount required to make a credible offer for the car collection. They also had the available space with an existing building in place for their growing collection of vintage cars, motorcycles and tractors. The auction of classic Maseratis offered the one thing that could turn their motley collection into a genuine Modena landmark: iconic pieces from the important pre- and post-World War era when the company founded by Alfieri Maserati introduced his cars, and his adopted city, to the glamorous sport of European motor racing.
Although Alfieri began his career tuning and repairing cars in the city of Bologna, it was only when he moved his business of building race cars to Modena that the Maserati brand achieved fame in the global motorsports circuit. Today, Maserati and Modena are inseparable. Apart from gastronomy, the sports car manufacturing industry and its role in Italian motorsports history (arch-rival Ferrari was also founded in Modena) are what fuel Modenese pride the most. Indeed, a visit to the Collezione Umberto Panini isn’t just for car enthusiasts. You’ll find just as many local families fawning over the racing machines that have given their city honor and prestige – not to mention, employment to past and future generations.
Despite the company passing from the Maserati family to a series of new owners, the brand, known locally as Tridente, has remained rooted in Modena throughout the decades. It was during one of these transfers of ownership from the De Tomassi Group to the giant FIAT conglomerate that the opportunity to purchase the rare Maseratis came about. In 1996, nineteen of the brand’s classic cars were offered to Brooks Auction in London. Part of the lot to be auctioned off included rare icons such as the Maserati 250F which won for Juan Manuel Fanzio the Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship in 1957, the 6C34 driven by the legendary driver Tazio Nuvolari, a rare A6GS “Berlinetta” of which only four were made, and a number of early Maserati “GT” cars from the 1950s that ushered in the golden age of Italian grand tourers.
When news of the auction reached Modena, citizens and local officials organized a campaign to convince Panini, who was by then already a well-known collector of vintage cars, to intervene in behalf of their city. This was the moment of Panini’s legendary decision. The sticker book magnate made an offer Brooks Auction couldn’t refuse and the collection was immediately pulled from auction. “We signed an agreement on a piece of paper, but we never had the chance to see the cars in person because there was no time, but probably this was best because we had to do it without thinking about it and just buy,” Matteo recalls with relief in his voice.
By purchasing the entire lot in one go, Panini has done more than just amass the world’s most important collection of Maserati icons—one that’s even more valuable than the Maserati company’s own—he’s helped preserve an important part of his hometown’s heritage for future generations of Modenese and avid fans of Italian motorsports to experience in person.
Photographs by David Celdran