DETROIT — Just one week after cross-town rival Ford said it might buy Alfa Romeo, Chrysler said Wednesday that it plans to gain majority control of another Italian sports car maker, Maserati.
Chrysler, which already owns 3.5% of Maserati, said it has agreed to pay $33 million to increase its stake in the small auto maker to 15.6% this summer.
De Tomaso Industries, Maserati's current owner, has also given Chrysler options to buy up to 48% of the firm by 1989 and 51% control by 1995. At current prices and exchange rates, the value of the full acquisition would be $68.5 million, according to a spokesman for De Tomaso.
Chrysler's decision to take over Maserati is the final step in what has been a slowly deepening relationship between the two firms, one that has developed out of the close friendship between their top leaders--Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca and Maserati's president, Italian car designer Alejandro De Tomaso. After holding a minority stake, De Tomaso acquired control of Maserati from the Italian government in 1984.
That same year, Chrysler and Maserati announced an agreement to set up an Italian joint venture, which now plans to export two-seat sport coupes to Chrysler beginning in 1987. Meanwhile, Maserati also plans to build engines, four-door sedans and possibly a new sports car for Chrysler before the end of the decade.
Chrysler's agreement not to acquire control of Maserati until 1995 is an effort to personally accommodate De Tomaso, who will continue to run the firm on a daily basis. De Tomaso, now 58, "feels comfortable with the notion of running the company for another nine years," said Howard Chase, De Tomaso's spokesman in New York. Retaining control until then "was a requirement of his," Chase added.
Although Maserati has been profitable in recent years, it remains a tiny, specialty car company with a famous name but little muscle in the international auto market. With just 2,250 employees at two plants in Italy, Maserati produced only 25,000 cars in 1985, compared to Chrysler's worldwide car and truck sales of 2.16 million.
Maserati's U.S. sales fell to just 1,316 units in 1985, down 51.3% from 2,704 units in 1984.
But Maserati can still provide Chrysler with the kind of upscale performance cars that it needs to attract the affluent young buyers who have deserted Detroit in favor of Japanese and European imports.
The Maserati acquisition is just one of a series of recent moves by Detroit's auto companies aimed at increasing their ties to specialty car makers in Europe.
Ford said last week that it is studying whether to go ahead with plans to buy Alfa Romeo, the money-losing Italian sports car maker, while General Motors has just acquired Lotus, the British specialty car company.
GM also unsuccessfully sought to buy the Land Rover and Leyland truck units of the British state-owned auto maker, BL PLC, earlier this year. Also, there have been widespread rumors that both GM and Ford are seeking to buy BMW, West Germany's luxury car maker.