Buying a Maserati Biturbo is akin to playing with fire. Even if you know what you’re doing, you can get your fingers burned – but if you like to live dangerously here's how to get a good one
How much to pay
• Project £8000-12,500 • Good £20,000-29,450 • Concours £30,000-48,000 •
Running costs ★★★
DIY friendly ★★★
Few badges have the cachet of Maserati’s trident, despite the fact that the marque is also one of the most inconsistent luxury car brands the world has ever seen. Having come up with a raft of greats that included the Ghibli, Mistral and Bora, by the 1980s the company was in the hands of Alejandro De Tomaso, who decided to go all mass market with a BMW 3-Series rival, the Biturbo.
Fitted with a twin-turbo V6 of initially 2.5 litres, the Biturbo was a shoddily built, luxurious grand tourer that was understated, fast and a complete departure for the marque. Because it proved so thirsty and unreliable, Biturbo values plummeted – which resulted in a lot of cars being broken. As a result, very few examples are now left in really good condition.
Thanks to a bewildering production history that encompasses an array of displacements and bodystyles, working out which Biturbo is the right one isn’t easy – but in reality you’ll probably have to settle for anything decent that comes along.
Your AutoClassics Maserati Biturbo inspection checklist
The Biturbo’s V6 is strong and durable if maintained. The oil and filter should have been changed every 6000 miles or annually, using a fully synthetic lubricant, and the cambelt should be replaced every 24,000 miles or four years. It’s worth investing in a professional health check, because rebuilding the engine is very costly.
The two IHI turbochargers are strong, especially the post-1984 water-cooled units; they can last up to 130,000 miles. Fitting replacement turbos is expensive, so look for blue exhaust smoke as the engine idles once warm. Also listen for blowing from the exhaust manifolds, as these can crack and replacements aren’t available.
US-market cars are strangled by power-sapping emissions equipment, while carburetted Biturbos often run badly because the Weber needs to be set up properly. Limited access means these units are often tired or poorly set up, but once everything is tuned correctly it’ll stay in tune for ages.
Oil leaks are common, especially from the gaskets between each cam carrier and cylinder head. Look for oil between the engine and bulkhead, but even if it’s wet it shouldn’t cost much to put things right.
Limited ground clearance means the aluminium sump grounds readily, damaging the cooling fins. There’s also a sensor on the crankshaft that can take a pounding if the sump is grounded – hit it hard enough and the engine will grind to a halt.
Exhausts rot through, so check that a stainless system has been fitted. Designs vary between the carb-fed and fuel-injected cars.
Most Biturbos had a five-speed manual ZF transmission, although very late cars featured a Getrag unit; the former is given away by its dog-leg first gear. From 1985 there was a three-speed Borg-Warner auto available, which was upgraded to a four-speed ZF with the introduction of the 2.8-litre models; 2.5-litre autos are best avoided.
Because it has no breather system, the Sensitork limited-slip diff overheats when the oil seals are blown out under pressure. When new, Biturbos were having fresh diffs fitted under warranty, but a breather system is now available to alleviate the problem.
Check for diff oil leaks where the propshaft goes in and where the driveshafts come out. Unless the car is otherwise good, if the axle is noisy you’re probably better off walking away. The propshaft can also cause problems. This feeds into the diff via a torque tube, in which the splines wear, so listen for clonks when taking up drive.
Suspension and brakes
Most Biturbos got power-assisted steering, but some early cars didn’t. Check for leaks from the pinion seal, on the rack itself. On carburetted cars the rack is mounted on rubber bushes, which rot if marinaded in engine oil. This causes the rack to move on its mounts, which gives the impression of a worn rack, but it’s the mounting bushes that need to be replaced. Fuel-injected cars used solid rack mounts, so weren’t prone to this.
Carburetted cars have a pair of track-rod ends, which are durable. But fuel-injected models have six track-rod ends, four of which wear quickly – it’s not unusual for a set to need replacing after just 20,000 miles. If there’s play in the steering, they’re probably due for renewal.
When it comes to brakes, carburetted cars use solid discs all round, and the front ones can wear ridiculously quickly. However, injected cars feature ventilated discs at the front, which are much stronger. Even when adjusted properly the handbrake mechanism is notoriously poor, but if it’s in top-notch condition the system can be adjusted to work properly.
Fuel-injected cars were specced with 15-inch wheels, with a five-bolt fitting. Because earlier cars came with 14-inch wheels and a four-bolt stud pattern, there’s no interchangeability between the different generations.
The Biturbo’s non-galvanised body means rust is likely. Focus on the bottoms of the doors, the front wings, the leading edge of the bonnet and the trailing edge of the bootlid. Also scrutinise the wheelarches and sills; the Spyder’s sills were strengthened and they’re less rot-prone than those on fixed-head cars.
Early left-hand-drive cars can suffer from rotten floorpans, but the rustproofing improved as time went on. Few early cars survive, as most have been broken for spares by now.
The rear-wheel-drive Biturbo is tail happy, so poor accident repairs are common; check for poorly fitting panels. A worthwhile check is to inspect the base of the A-post, looking for a ripple in the front wing.
Check the front valance/spoiler, as this grounds readily – especially on later cars, which sit closer to the ground. The worst culprit is the Spyder.
Electric windows, starter motors, air-conditioning and warning lights can all play up. The fusebox is a printed circuit board, which often burns out while the window-winder mechanisms fail. Some cars had fused relays, which pack up. The cooling system’s two fans were operated by these, so if idling the engine for any length of time, make sure the fans cut in.
The corduroy used to trim early cars is hard to source and expensive. The 425’s interior was produced specially for that car, so it’s now hard to source replacement trim. Meanwhile, the Alcantara used on the seat bolsters of some cars doesn’t wear well and is notoriously tricky to clean. Leather trim is harder wearing but expensive to repair.
Wood-veneer trim can start to crack and split if it’s been allowed to get damp – be especially wary when inspecting a Spyder. Biturbos used exterior trim with a matt anthracite finish. This rusts, although it’s not hard to get replacements. More expensive are the surrounds for the rear windows of the two-door cars. Because these have to be replaced complete with the glass, they’re expensive.
- 1981: Biturbo debuts as two-door coupé, with 180bhp 2.0-litre engine and in left-hand-drive form only
- 1982: Biturbo Spyder concept designed and produced by Italian coachbuilder Embo shown at Turin show
- 1984: Two-tone Biturbo S arrives along with first four-door saloons, 420 and 420S, in left-hand-drive form only and with 2.0-litre engines. Production Spyder goes on sale, designed and built by Zagato. With wheelbase shorter than a regular Biturbo’s by 11cm, this initially has 2.0-litre engine, but is upgraded to 2.5 for 1985 model year
- 1986: 192bhp 2.5-litre Biturbo and 425 saloon reach UK with right-hand drive; there’s now also a choice of Weber-Marelli fuel injection or carburettors for Italian market, but latter is killed off in 1987
- 1988: All UK cars are now fuel injected, and 430 supersedes 425 with 2.8-litre engine. 2.8 228 also arrives; this two-door coupé is longer, wider and taller than Biturbo. Karif also goes on sale –essentially a Spyder with fixed roof and 245bhp 2.8 V6. Biturbo’s engine is enlarged to 2.8 litres and car is renamed 222E. At same time, ventilated discs are introduced at front and Spyder is renamed Spyder E
- 1990: Fixed-head models are axed but Spyder soldiers on until 1994
There’s plenty to love about the Biturbo, but its reputation for poor build quality, high running costs and unreliability are largely deserved. In many cases the lack of dependability and the big bills are because of years of neglect, but that’s rather the point; low values for years mean many of these cars haven’t been cherished, so it’s all too easy to buy something that’ll reward you with expense aplenty.
It’s possible to improve the Biturbo, but you have to commit to these cars and be prepared to regularly spend cash on something that you want to own because it’s different, not because it’s the best contender in its segment. However, if you can find a really good one, the running costs will be manageable as long as you stay on top of the maintenance. It’s best not to get too hung up on specification, although you’ll probably gravitate towards a particular bodystyle, whether that’s coupé, convertible or saloon.
Predictably it’s the open-topped cars (specifically the Spyder Es) that are most desirable and hence the most valuable, while Karifs are sought after, too. Also sought after are 222s and 430s, while the variants that are less in demand are the 222E, 228, 425 and 430. But whatever you can find, if it’s in good condition and you look after it, you’ll have an unusual classic that’s more usable than you might think.
Picture courtesy of Maserati
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