The Maserati Merak SS Is A Mid-Engined Italian With More Than A Few Bits Of France In Its DNA
Story by Alex Byles
Photography by Marco Annunziata
Maserati’s Merak has always been overshadowed by its big sister, the Bora, but sublime handling and 190bhp made it a true challenger in the original three-liter mid-engine class, to say nothing of the way it looks.
The sharp angles scream 1970s Italian GT exotica, and the Giugiaro-designed Merak not only looked the genuine article, its trimmed down weight and mid-engine balance gave it superb roadholding, which, when combined with a motor with enough shove—especially in SS models like the one pictured here—allowed the Merak to easily hang with its rivals from Maranello and Sant’Agata Bolognese on a twisting b-road, if not quite on the track.
But with its self-assured confidence, if not the outright swagger of a Ferrari or Lamborghini, the Merak was in many ways a more sensible mid-engine Italian sports car, if you’ll allow the oxymoron. Practically for the customer, and commercially for Maserati, the Merak just made a lot of sense.
As I proved to myself in the first sentence, it’s difficult not to talk about this car without mentioning its bigger, older, more powerful, and more famous relative, the Bora. Launched in 1971, the Bora was a bit of a monster. The largest-engined iteration kicked out 320 horses from a 4,930cc V8, and that performance was set within a sharp-nosed, fastback design from Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign. It tipped the scales at a hefty 4,030lb in production form, and it may have been a useful basis for a motorsport effort, but after producing two cars for the Group Four racing team, the Bora was unable to meet homologation requirements to the tune of 500 road cars. This underpins why Maserati developed the Merak—not to top the model range or search for sporting success on the track, but to generate the kind of numbers required to make the brand more competitive in the general market for high-performance cars.
Launched two years after the Bora, in 1973, the Merak shared a healthy overlap with her older sibling. While many of the components were in common with the Bora to increase the manufacturing economy of scale, the most significant deviation was that the Merak featured a smaller engine—a V6 2,965cc at first—which also freed-up space for two, small rear passenger seats. Combined, this gave the Merak a price tag almost half that of the Bora, as well more practicality—not to mention a lower gas bill.
The Merak was sent to compete in the more affordable, three-liter mid-engine marketplace, joining the Ferrari 308 GT4 Dino and the Lambo Uracco. For Citroën, Maserati’s master at the time, the calculations of producing the Merak made commercial sense, and the car came to be a solid and profitable performer in sales terms. From the 730 cars of all model varieties that Maserati produced in 1973, well over half of these were Meraks. And the model remained viable until 1983, when it was discontinued after some 1,800 were manufactured in total.
That said, Citroën’s hard business decisions certainly did not remove the entirety of the Bora’s spirit from the Merak. Despite its reduced grunt, it could hit 149mph, and at around 500lbs lighter than the Bora, the Merak’s impressive acceleration gave it a standing start kilometer of 29 seconds. Its handling was well regarded too, and in many respects the car was more at home in the sports rather than grand touring category. Giulio Alfieri’s twin-cam V6 generated 190hp and was based on the Maserati motor originally used in Citroën’s high performance aerodynamic coupe, the SM, but bored out from 2700cc to achieve the required displacement in the Merak application. Positioned behind the passenger seats, it was connected to a Citroën-sourced transaxle gearbox.
And like the Citroën SM, the Merak’s dramatic looks were also a major talking point. Sharing the front body design of the Bora (nearly identical in fact), the extended fastback rear window of the bigger Bora was removed to reduce weight and lower the cost, and Giugiaro replaced it with a truncated cabin and rear window that was then augmented with C-pillar buttresses that carried the original fastback line rearward. From the side view, the design feature concealed the Merak’s flat, horizontal engine bonnet, which was more pedestrian looking than the Bora’s big glass rear.
Meanwhile, the steel platform chassis was supported on the rear with a tubular subframe with independent telescopic shocks on all four corners. Braking came courtesy of front and rear discs with calipers that were powered by Citroën’s hydraulic braking system, which was also employed to operate the flip-up headlights. Campagnolo wheels, a typical performance indicator of the era, completed the look.
To further compete with the progression of its Ferrari and Lamborghini market rivals, in 1976 Maserati launched the Merak SS (Super Sport), as per the majestic 1977 model seen in the photographs. Maintaining the same engine displacement but upping the compression ratio to 9:1 and adding Weber DCNF carbs allowed the SS to churn out an additional 30hp, pushing the total to somewhere right around the 220 mark and granting a top speed increase of nearly 10mph over the standard item. Identified by the black grille across the front hood, the SS also managed to shed an extra 100lbs, further improving the base Merak’s acceleration and handling capabilities.
However—and not by its own doing—the SS entered the world in dire straits. Citroën had little time for the Italian marque and had its own financial issues to deal with, and parted ways with Maserati in 1976. Two years before, tensions in the Middle East which centered around the Arab-Israeli war led to an oil embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries which saw prices rocket and consumers react in kind. The first Oil Crisis included a stock market crash at the same time, and luxury car makers didn’t escape unscathed. While the Maserati website tells us that the lower-powered Merak was designed for the crisis, this was more likely luck than the foresight. Italian government policy saw the market get hit again, and between 1973 and ’76, fuel prices in the country increased in total by about 300%. This contributed to the demise of the large Bora and its thirsty V8, which limped on until production ended in 1978 with a total of 564 cars built.
Taken on by racing driver turned businessman Alejandro de Tomaso in 1977, securing a solid commercial base in the tough conditions of the era was priority number one for Maserati. While production of the Merak SS continued, a 2000 GT model of the Merak with a two-liter V6 was also built for the Italian market, where cars above 2000cc were penalized with a double-rate tax of 38%. This 168hp, 1999cc attempt to work around the situation wasn’t a commercial success though, and just 200 of the 2000 GTs were built.
Today a clean Merak should get upwards of $40,000, although the best preserved and most sought after variants like the early cars and the SSes can almost double the figure. Then as now, the big sister, the rarer, more powerful and more exclusive Bora, still fetches a price tag which is at least twice that of the Merak, if not more. Does the Merak not continue to be the more sensible option all this time later? How many vintage mid-engined sports cars can you say that about?