Maserati’s Mid-Engined Twins Shed a Bright Light During Dark Days
“The horses pull the cart, not push it.” -Enzo Ferrari c. 1959
Old man Enzo was speaking about the emerging dominance of rear mid-engined cars in Formula 1 at the time; a trend started a year earlier with Cooper’s groundbreaking design which placed its Coventry Climax motor amidships between its driver and rear wheels. He would, of course, soon capitulate to the times—from 1961 on, every new F1 Ferrari would be rear mid-engined.
Soon, high-performance road machines with this exotic new layout emerged, among them such icons as Lamborghini’s Miura and De Tomaso’s Mangusta (1966 and ’67, respectively). Maserati, acutely aware of their reputation for building somewhat old-fashioned cars, and newly flush with cash from their 1968 takeover by Citroen, set about introducing a rear-mid design of their own—the Tipo 117.
Design got underway in October of 1968, with road-going prototypes testing roughly six months later. In March of 1971, the Bora, as it was now known, was unveiled in Geneva to rave reviews. Built with much more comfort and refinement than its existing competitors, the Bora was more of a super-fast Gran Turismo than a road-borne racer, with double-paned glass between the passenger compartment and motor, a thick, carpeted panel further deadening engine compartment noise, and somewhat comfort-biased suspension tuning. Citroën-sourced oleopneumatics provided power assistance to the steering and brakes, allowing it to be driven with relatively minimal effort—the same system even powered pedal box, seat height, and steering reach/rake adjustment. Further luxuries included plenty of room for luggage and a very refined and quiet driving experience.
Powered by Maserati’s already-legendary quad cam V8, it was initially available in both 4.7- and 4.9-liter forms, though would eventually be limited to a higher-power version of the latter only. Built as an all-steel monocoque, the Bora was Maserati’s first-ever all independently suspended car. Power was huge for the day, with most cars making roughly 310 HP—though quite heavy at 1,500 kg, the Bora was still easily capable of 165 flat out and 0-60 in a shade over six seconds.
Styled by Giugiaro under the banner of his nascent Italdesign, the Bora was both beautiful and unique, highlighted by a raw stainless steel roof panel that gave a stark visual contrast with the lower, painted panels, particularly in darker-colored examples. Only 524 were built in a production run lasting from 1971-1978, and they remain, in my opinion, the most unusual and fascinating mid-engined supercar of the period.
Introduced in 1972 and distinguished from its more powerful brother with a body-colored roof and flying buttress “C” pillars, the Merak was a sort of baby Bora, utilizing the V6 Maserati initially designed for use in the Citroën SM. Cheaper, lighter, and better-handling, the Merak was more of a true sports car than an out-and-out GT, even taking into account an additional pair of seats allowed by its smaller engine. Built until 1982, early cars featured an SM dashboard, replaced by the Bora’s more traditional slab-shaped unit in 1976.
Today, both cars remain unusual high points of the malaise era, particularly in the context of Maserati’s post-Citroën financial health, which can only accurately be described as abysmal. Additionally, each represents a less obvious choice to cars with more established followings, and here’s where I end on a controversial note—I’d have a Bora over a Miura and a Merak over a 911. (Please address your hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)