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Sleek Merak was a best-seller for Maserati

October 18, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

If there was ever a car guaranteed to find favor with lovers of all things quick, fast and Italian, the sleek-looking and relatively affordable Maserati Merak hit the nail on the head.

For those in the market for a pure-bred sports car 25 or 30 years ago, the search likely began - and ended - with something imported from Italy. More specifically, appetites were whetted by the sights, sounds and smells of sleek two-seaters with their engines placed amidships as close as possible to the driver's ears. Forget the radio, the symphonic noises created by these high-pitched overhead-cam engines straining for every available ounce of horsepower as they spun through the gears was music enough for any discerning and well-heeled enthusiast.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, there were plenty of these mid-engined marvels from a variety of specialty manufacturers. Ferrari, always the lead horse in the exotic-car stable, had gotten the ball rolling with its 250 and 275 LM models back in 1963, followed by a line of V-6 Dinos in 1967. In the 1970s, both the newly developed 12-cylinder Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer and V-8 308 GTB and targa-topped GTS (the car Tom Selleck drove in Magnum P.I.) were highly sought after by the Rich and Famous.

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Lamborghini, a company constantly attempting to outdo Ferrari for the hearts and wallets of big-ticket sports car buyers, brought out its sensational 12-cylinder Miura in the late 1960s followed by the equally powerful Countach in 1974.

Another company that jumped into the mid-motor fray belonged to Alejandro DeTomaso. This Argentine-born Italian resident and former racing driver produced the Ford-powered Mangusta and Pantera, the latter being sold through selected North American Lincoln-Mercury dealers from 1971-'74.

Meanwhile, Maserati, which had established its reputation constructing racing cars as well as numerous road-going megabuck machines, was determined not to left out of the mid-engine market.

Over the years, financial health had rarely been a Maserati strong suit, despite producing some of the world's most stunningly gorgeous and powerful motor cars. In 1968, the ailing company was purchased from the controlling Orsi family by French-based Citron, providing Maserati with the necessary financial backing to develop new models.

The Bora was the first of the mid-engine Maseratis and represented the first collaboration with Citron. Introduced at the 1971 Geneva auto show, the $27,000 Bora featured styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro's Ital Design Studio, one of a handful of specialist companies engaged to create rolling works of art for the handful of exotic car makers. Motivation was provided by a 310-horsepower twin-cam V-8 (320 for the slightly larger North American version) with origins dating back to Maserati's Indy 500 efforts in the 1950s. Despite its age, the motor propelled the Bora to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds, and pushed it to a top speed of 160 mph.

The Bora's launch was followed a year later by the Merak, a similar looking, yet uniquely distinctive offshoot that used considerable content from Citron. Perhaps its most unusual physical feature was its "flying buttress" rear roof pillars that gave the illusion of borrowing the Bora's fastback.

The Merak's 180-horsepower 3.0-liter DOHC V-6 and five-speed manual transmission were originally built for the front-wheel-drive Citron SM coupe. To fit in the Merak, the engine was flipped 180 degrees and located behind the front seats to drive the sports car's rear wheels. The SM's instrument cluster and steering wheel were also sourced from the SM, as was the braking system.

Using a V-6 meant that the Merak was a couple of ticks slower to 60 mph than the Bora. However, it was also less bulky by about 500 pounds, making it light and lithe in the handling department. The shorter-by-two-cylinders powerplant also created some passenger room behind the front buckets.

At slightly less than $20,000, the Merak was a relative bargain compared to its bigger-brother Bora, making it more financially accessible to those coveting the Maserati marque.

The up-and-down fortunes of Maserati again headed into a tailspin, and in May of 1973 its parent Citron, which had been forced to merge with Peugeot due to its own financial woes, placed the company into receivership. For the next two years, Maserati limped along with the support of the Italian government until being rescued by DeTomaso. The Merak ultimately became the beneficiary of this new ownership, with a gutsier 220-horsepower SS version hitting the streets in 1975 along with a 170-horsepower two-liter version constructed solely for home-market consumption.

By the end of its run in 1980, 1,700 eager owners had obtained Meraks, three times more than those who sought the Bora. This made it one of Maserati's all-time best sellers, helping to keep the company's frequently flickering flame burning.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' automotive history writer. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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