When Maserati started working on its first mid-engine road car in 1968, it had two versions in mind. One was a V-8 model, which materialized as the Maserati Bora. The other would be a less expensive V-6 car with more components borrowed from new owner Citroën. The result arrived a year behind the big-engine middie as the Merak, which looked back to the great six-cylinder Maseratis of the Fifties and Sixties and ahead to the brave new Seventies world of mid-engine high performance.
The Maserati Merak shared the Bora’s chassis, suspension, steering, high-pressure hydraulic brakes, basic styling, and forward structure ahead of the B-pillars. The principal differences showed up in and behind the cockpit, and were sufficient to give the Merak its own unique character.
Starting outside, the Maserati Bora’s heavy rear hatch and triangular side windows were replaced by a flat engine cover flanked by glass-less, unstressed, purely decorative “flying buttresses,” thus keeping a fastback profile. Beneath the deck, in longitudinal midships position, was the new 3.0-liter twincam V-6 Maserati had designed for Citroën’s front-drive SM sport coupe, situated to turn the rear wheels through a modified version of the same 5-speed transaxle.
The V-6 was shorter than the Bora’s V-8, and combined with a fuel tank re-sited to the nose to liberate a little more cockpit space. This was given over to a pair of tiny “+ 2” seats lacking in the Bora, hard up against the rear bulkhead. They were frankly useless except for carrying luggage, as the cushions were almost on the floor and the backrests bolt-upright.
A more startling difference -- and a reminder of the Citroën/Maserati “marriage” -- was the Maserati Merak instrument panel, lifted intact from the SM along with its steering wheel. This generated decidedly mixed reactions, and would be abandoned (after Citroën and Maserati “divorced”) in favor of a four-spoke wheel and new Italianate dash with proper round (versus oval) instruments.
Unfortunately, sharing so much with the Bora left the Merak barely 150 pounds lighter. And with just 190 horsepower on tap, it was decidedly slower (and disappointing, even, to some critics). On the other hand, it was cheaper by some $5000, still quite a hunk of change in the early Seventies, and its performance wasn’t all that bad: about 9.5 seconds 0-60 mph and 135 mph flat out.
In fact, many people were happy to settle for a Maserati Merak, which looked as good as a Bora, handled and stopped as well, and had the same sort of exoticar prestige. The burly Bora was okay for Europe, but the Merak made more sense and offered better value for speed-limited Americans.
The Maserati Merak saw little change through the end of 1975, then gave way to the much-modified Merak SS. This was prompted by the aforementioned “divorce” and Maserati’s subsequent takeover by De Tomaso, which quickly set about ridding itself of inherited Citroën engineering influences. Thus, the Bora’s ZF transaxle and conventional brakes were substituted along with the new dash, and the body contract shifted from Padane to Osi.
Workmanship didn’t improve much, but handling did, thanks to wider wheels and tires; a modest chin spoiler was added for better high-speed stability. Performance improved too, in Europe, with a V-6 tuned to 220 bhp. Alas, U.S. models remained at about 180 bhp (SAE net). Shortly afterwards, De Tomaso issued a detrimmed 2.0-liter “tax break” special for Italian buyers only.
Though the Maserati Bora disappeared in 1980, the Maserati Merak carried on through 1983. Still, it was not a big success volume-wise. Maserati’s sporadic presence in the U.S. market after 1975, where the car could have sold much better than it did, hardly helped. The 2.0-liter (dropped in ’79) saw only 133 copies, while 3.0-liter production totalled just 1699. Thus ended another one of those good automotive ideas robbed of a fair chance by a combination of unforeseen circumstances and unfortunate timing.