The fuel crisis of the early-to-mid 1970s changed the performance automobile landscape for many countries. The majority of heavy-hitting American muscle cars were emasculated – strangled through weaker fuel, conservative carburation and lower compression ratios, dropping specific power to depressing new lows.
Over in traffic-heavy Italy, the government decided to impose a tax on cars whose cubic capacity exceeded 2 litres. This was handed down in the hope that local emissions and fuel consumption levels would decrease, leading further to a reduction in vehicle size.
While this was a relatively painless premise for more mainstream manufacturers such as Fiat and Alfa Romeo, the ‘supercar’ craftsmen needed to adapt. The result was inevitable: downsized engines would generate more sales, and more profit.
Ferrari reacted by sleeving the 3.0-litre V8 found in the controversial Bertone-bodied Dino 308 GT4 down to 1991cc, reducing peak power from a wholesome 190kW to only 127kW (though soon to become 134kW) at a dizzying 7,700rpm.
Though a piffling headline figure, the resultant Dino 208 GT4’s specific output equated to 85 old-school horsepower per litre at a time when large-capacity American V8s could struggle to match 30 horses. Top speed was 220km/h.
When Ferrari introduced the swoopy, Pininfarina-bodied 308 GTB and “spyder” GTS in the late seventies, a 208 version of that decidedly sexier car followed by 1980.
In an effort to pass American emissions tests, the little 2.0-litre flat-plane V8 (carried over from the 208 GT4) produced only 116kW; certainly a figure that one would not associate with Ferrari, even in the late-seventies fuel-conscious mindset.
Around 300 of these 208 GTs were produced over five years, their overt sex appeal styling of some interest to ambitious young Italian businessmen.
Broader cries for more power were answered in 1982, when Ferrari – no doubt cashing in on the advent of turbo power in its Formula One cars – added a turbocharger. The subsequent 208 GTB/S Turbo produced a far more appropriate 164kW, and around 680 were produced.
Over in Sant’Agata Lamborghini released their P200 Urraco (‘little bull’) in 1975. Complementing the larger-engined P250 and P300 Urraco range, the short-stroke (77.5mm by 53.1mm), 1994cc V8 peaked at 136kW at a dizzying 7,500rpm, giving the little bull a 214km/h top end.
Its popularity was on the nose, with 66 sales demonstrating the true public demand of a thoroughbred manufacturer producing such cars.
Given Lamborghini’s financial woes at the time, this was unsurprisingly their only attempt at the genre.
Perennially in the shadows, Maserati – that other exotic Italian — most keenly embraced the under-2.0-litre concept.
The mid-engine Merak 2000 debuted in 1977, with a downsized version of the wonderful V6 that powered the eclectic Citroen SM.
Yielding 1999cc and with a 9.0:1 compression ratio, the mini Merak gave 127kW at 7,000rpm and a top speed of almost 220km/h.
Over the following two decades this engine sired several derivatives, moving to 1996cc thanks to a revised bore and stroke from 1982’s Biturbo before finally retiring in 2001, under the bonnet of a Quattroporte.
Maserati chopped from difficulty to difficulty with continuous financial and ownership hurdles, however the engine was developed throughout, gaining turbocharging, fuel injection, four-valve heads and intercoolers at various junctures.
In 1995 this little powerhouse was in its pomp, powering the Italian market Ghibli Cup to an astounding 246kW at 6,500rpm. At the time, this engine generated the highest specific output of any production engine, with 123kW per litre – numbers that still stand strongly today.
For context, the export market Ghibli housed an enlarged 2.8-litre version of the twin-turbo V6. This topped ‘only’ 210kW, though was a far more tractable proposition.
We’ve also theorised on another reason for the Maserati engine to have lasted so long. In those times Ferrari and Lamborghini were perceived as more exotic, with several V12 supercars to their credit. Perhaps the Italian public was therefore more accepting of a piccolo Maserati, rather than being judged as unable to afford a ‘true’ Lamborghini, and settling for a 2.0.
These days, none of these illustrious manufacturers need a small-cap special. With Lamborghini entrenched under Audi and both Ferrari and Maserati sitting under the FCA banner, there are a multitude of ‘cousins’ filling the niche. And this is fine by us, because it means they can focus on the soulful sports and supercars that made them famous in the first place.