1979 Maserati Merak SS: The Maser that saved Modena

1979 Maserati Merak SS

1979 Maserati Merak SS: If not for the Maserati Merak, Maserati may not have survived.

Perhaps the Maserati Merak should never have existed. Maserati  under the Orsi family, as it had been under Fratelli Maserati and later under Alejandro DeTomaso, was always financially marginal, despite a succession of seductive automobiles. So when in 1965 Citroen president Pierre Bercot suggested a Maserati engine for a new Citroen, it was too lucrative of an idea for the Orsis to ignore.

Bit neither the Orsis nor Maserati had the capital for the production Citroen would need. So to take advantage of the proposition–and to preserve the company–the Orsis sold Citroen about 80 percent interest in Maserati. The goal, of course, was to provide engines for the Citroen SM, a revival of the French grand routier. Except that the postwar taxes on big-engined cars–the taxes that had destroyed the grand routier–were still in effect. What Citroen needed was a high-performance but tax-beating 2.5-liter V-6, something not already in Maserati’s inventory. But Maserati had a design for a 3.0-liter V8 intended for what became a stillborn Maserati model.

Take the V-8, however, and lop of a quarter of the cylinders, jiggle the measurements, and voila, it becomes a DOHC 90-degree V-6 of 2670 cc sending 180 hp to the SM’s front wheels. However, a peculiarity of the engine was the cam drive. To reduce camshaft whip on the V-8, the drive was by chain and sprocket in the middle of the cam. The pruning of two cylinders put the chain at the two-thirds point.

Supplying engines to Citroen was welcome business, but Maserati was still a carbuilder and certainly new majority owner Citroen wished as much. The fashion among exotic car builders, begun by the Lamborghini Miura, and imitative of sports racers like the Ford GT40 and Ferrari 250LM, was for mid-engine road cars. Impractical, yes, but very marketable. Maserati’s entry, as well as its top of the line, was the Bora. But business, even for exotics, required more than just one product, and just as Ferrari had the 308GT4 and Lamborghini had the Urraco, Maserati would have the Merak.

The Maserati Merak would, like its competition, be mid-engined. But its supporting role meant that it had to be less expensive. Citroen hydraulics, used extensively on the Bora, were limited to steering and brakes on the Merak. The engine, though, was enlarged to 2965cc and, with Citroen drivetrain, lifted from the SM, rotated and installed in the Merak’s rear. Dash, controls and single-spoked steering wheel were SM transplants as well.

Styling, however, was pure Maserati and, like the Bora, from Italdesign. To differentiate the Merak from its larger sibling, the smaller Maserati was given a “+2” rear seat and the glass fastback of the Bora was replaced by a flat rear deck and distinctive flying buttresses. The latter were pure styling, carrying no load, and the rear seat, with vertical back and no legroom, was suitable for maybe a beagle or a child in need of discipline.

Though Maserati’s sales fell slightly due to the oil crisis, demand for Citroen’s SM collapsed and Maserati engines to Citroen went from 1,750 in 1973 to 300 in 1974. No longer needed for engines and otherwise a money sink, Maserati became a burden for Citroen, which itself had been acquired by Peugeot after the SM and Comotor disasters. The Modena factory faced shuttering in mid-1975.