The French Connection
Of all the times Maserati has changed hands, the seven years the Trident spent under Citroen's control are perhaps the most overlooked and the least understood.
While Maserati designed and built the V6 engine for the Citroen SM, the French company brought Maserati into the modern era, allowing chief engineer Giulio Alfieri to create the more sophisticated and thoroughly developed cars Maserati just couldn't have made on its own.
It's impossible to talk about the Merak, named about a star in the Plough constellation, without mentioning its bigger sister, the Bora. The two cars were designed alongside one another, and the cheaper, simpler Merak shared the suspensions, steering, and much of its body structure with the Bora. Both cars looked stunning and were penned by the greatest car designer of all, Giorgetto Giugiaro. The two Maseratis being among the first projects he made after establishing his own company, Ital Design.
Presented in 1972 at the Paris Motor Show, the Maserati Merak, much like the Lamborghini Urraco and the Dino 308 GT4, was an attempt from the Italian manufacturer to make more affordable and usable cars to steal some sales from the ubiquitous Porsche 911. None of these cars succeeded in that goal, but it can be argued the Maserati was the most refined of the trio, if not exactly the fastest.
To make it cheaper and simpler to make, the rear end of the Merak does away with the glazed clamshell of the Bora for a conventional steel bonnet. The two steel buttresses are simply bolted on and are there just for show, a styling trick to maintain visual harmony: they can be removed to improve access for engine repair or maintenance.
The V6 engine and five-speed manual gearbox, mounted on a steel subframe, were lifted straight from the Citroen SM and rotated 180° for the Merak's mid-engined configuration, with few modifications. The oversquare C114 90° V6, fed by three double-choke Weber 42 DCNF carburetors, received new cylinder liners with a larger bore, bringing its displacement up to nearly three liters for a claimed output of 190 HP. Wider than its long, the unit fitted comfortably in the Merak body, leaving room for two additional, but still rather useless, seats in the cabin.
The interior of the Merak is where the close relationship with the Citroen SM becomes even more apparent, as the dashboard molding, instruments, switchgear, and even the single-spoke steering wheel were lifted straight out of Citroen's flagship.
The braking system of the Merak was often criticized at the time because it's a Citroen-derived high-pressure design that's very effective, but the pedal's very short travel makes heel-and-toe downshifts impossible.
It's worth mentioning that the same high-pressure hydraulic system also activates the pop-up headlights. At this point, it's worth clarifying that the use of such systems wasn't imposed by Citroen but was a resource Giulio Alfieri chose to use because of its effectiveness in providing safe and robust braking action at high speed.
However, one specific criticism spurred the Modenese company into action, as it probably touched the Maserati people's pride where it hurt the most. Performance.
Weighing in at almost 1.5 tons, the Merak was a comparatively well-appointed and solidly built car, but also one that could leave buyers wanting for more when it comes to outright acceleration and pace, especially in comparison with Ferrari and Lamborghini's rival offerings.
Maserati's answer came in 1975, which would prove to be a watershed year in the company's history, as Citroen, now under Peugeot's control, put the Modenese company into liquidation since no buyers could be found. The company was ultimately rescued by the Italian government, which placed the Argentinian entrepreneur Alejandro De Tomaso in charge. Due to these upheavals, the Merak SS, announced in March of '75, actually went into production only in 1976.
The three-liters V6 was now rated at a probably optimistic 220HP, teased out by way of larger intake valves and ports, a slightly higher compression ratio, and larger 44mm Weber DCNF carburetors.
De Tomaso was keen on erasing as much of Citroen's heritage as he could, so the SM gearbox was replaced by a ZF unit, and the French car's dash gave way to a rather ungainly square design with an instrument pod that moved up and down with the steering column. Just as it happened before, this arrangement was not carried over to right-hand-drive cars, which kept the Bora-style dash from beginning to end. However, the high-pressure hydraulic systems lasted until 1980, with the Merak's last revision, the so-called "Series 80."
In March of 1976, at the Geneva Motor Show, the Merak range was present in two versions: the SS mentioned above, which replaced the original Merak, and the Italian tax-break special Merak 2000.
The V6's displacement was reduced to just below two liters to dodge Italy's infamous 38% Value Added Tax on over-2000cc cars, yet claimed horsepower remained a quite respectable 170 HP, at least according to Maserati itself.
Giulio Alfieri, however, wasn't there to oversee all this, as old grudges between him and De Tomaso soon led to Alfieri's departure from Maserati after two decades of service.
The last four Meraks were made in 1982, a far cry from the 430 made in 1972, which remained the model's best year. With a grand total of 1820 cars made, the Merak never became the Porsche-killer Maserati hoped it would be but, to be fair, neither the cars Lamborghini and Ferrari made achieved that goal. However, these are stories for another time.