The Maserati Merak SS

THE NAME Maserati, along with Ferrari and Lamborghini, has the ring of the ultimate about it, thinking in terms of fast Grand Touring cars. The Merak mid-engined coupe was introduced by the Modena Company in 1972 and MOTOR SPORT published impressions of it five years ago. In that form the mid-placed vee-six-cylinder engine (with its cylinder banks at the unusual angle of 90 deg.) developed 190 (DIN) b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. Later the SS version of the Merak was introduced, with the power output increased to 220 b.h.p. at 6,500 r.p.m., and I have been driving the impressive-looking Maserati in this form.



The specification is in keeping with the car's high-speed appearance and capabilities. Suspension is independent front and rear, using coil-spring controlled wishbones, the drive goes to the back wheels through a Citroen SM five-speed gearbox and limited-slip differential, there is rack-and-pinion steering, and the all-round disc brakes inboard at the rear are power-appled, Citroen-style. 

The body is a steel two-door shell designed by Giorgio Giugiarao for Ital-Design, whom BL has brought into the news recently.  The boot is under the front bonnet and a flat deck covers the behind-seats power pack, which it is said was produced very expeditiously by Ing Alferi, who in effect cut two cylinders off a V8 Maserati engine, hence the unusual wide cylinder angle. The light alloy engine used for the Merak SS has a bore and stroke of 91.6 x 75mm (2,965 c.c.), with twin-overhead-camshafts to each cylinder bank. Weber carburretters and electronic ignition is used.  The servo-assisted single-plate clutch and the gearbox are mounted on the transaxle, which has a hypoid-bevel final drive.  The compression-ratio is 9.0 - 1.  The Campagnalo light-alloy road wheels are shod with 195/70 VR 15 tyres, on the front, 215/70 tyres on the back, Michelin XWX on the test car.  A Michelin 150 x 19 get-you-home spare, which I believe to be illegal in this country, is carried above the engine, where there isn't room for a bigger wheel; so what do you do with the punctured wheel and tyre?  The Merak's wheelbase is a usefully short 8' 6", and the wheeltracks vary, being 4' 10" at the front, 4' 9" at the rear.  The Merak is 14' 2" long and just over 5' 8" wide, dimensions that give the squat, businesslike look, while the roof is only 3' 9 1/2" high. With four exhaust pipes ending at the tail below the bumper, the stiffening tubes running down to the tail above the engine deck, those fat "boots", and the snub nose with faired-over headlamps, the Maserati Merak is a very impressive, and eye-catching, as well as a handsome, motor car.  The dry weight is given as 2,866 lb. 

The mechanical components owe much to the Citroen SM and, indeed, the Merak was announced originally by Citroen at their Paris Show launch, although the engine is built by Maserati of the Viale Ciro Menoti in Modena, the Agents in Great Britain breing the Modena Concessionaires of West Bromwich, who also handle the Maserati Kyalami and 4.9-litre Khamsin, as well as the De Tomaso Deauville Longchamp and Pantera GTS.

Reverting to the Maserati Merak SS, the first impression is of a very wide, very low car in which the driver sits almost on the floor, looking out over the wide front wheel arches, with not much forward vision.  In fact, in traffic driving, this never really bothered me, but the wide tyres should be kept clear of protruding kerbs when cornering close.  The comfortable front seats have semi-racing type cushions intended to hold a driver snugly but as the adjustable squabs are fitted much of this advantage is lost.  The squab-angle adjustable by operating a small knob at the base of the seat on the right but a slightly greater range of settings would be an advantage. (The same knob gains access to the rear seats). The leather upholstery was appreciated but it costs £622.92 extra (with VAT). It was of a light shade which could soon get dirty and some wear was noticeable, after 9,000 km. The entire facia is covered in a matching stitched leather, except for the velour trim on its top face, but the combination of dark brown trim on the console and the contrasting black steering wheel is unfortunate, and the carpeting is different again. The rear seats were made possible when the shorter V6 engines was adopted for the Merak against the V8 of the Maserati Bora but they can be forgotten. It would be cruelty to inflict them on all but the tiniest children; the space is very restricted and shut in and the back rests absolutely vertical, the cushions lift out but, instead of the Merak being termed a 2+2, a simple shelf for luggage would be more sensible.

There is evidence that the change to right-hand control has not been particularly well-contrived. The small 13 1/4" diameter steering wheel, three-spoked with a thick leather-laced rim, (uncovered spokes on r.h.d. cars) is in keeping with a fast car of this nature and its rake can be adjusted quite usefully, locked with an under-facia lever but the in-and-out adjustment of the steering-column, locked by a knob, is only about half-an-inch, so might as well be forgotten, like those cramped back seats. The long hand-brake lies horizontally on the driver's right but when used to hold the car (the hand-grip incidentally tended to turn in one's hand) was just where it could hurt his anatomy when the driver was lowering himself into his seat. Then in a car fitted with r.h.d. conversion and priced at well in excess of £20,000, one would have expected the speedometer to read clearly in miles-per-hour, even the mileometer readings are in kilometres. Nor have the wipers been changed over, for a r.h.d. car.

The Maserati has triple steering-column stalk-controls, with the turn-indicators' one on the right, unusual in a Continental car, the left-hand stalk controlling two-speed screenwipers with washers, and the other r.h. stalk the lamp settings. It is all too easy to flick the wipers' stalk inadvertently. The Carello E-20 headlamps recessed beneath flaps, require operation of a little lever on the right on the facia to bring them up, before they can be flashed. There is manual provision for keeping them up if the mechanism fails. But in daylight driving the 1.5 seconds' time-lag before the lamps are raised gives inadequate time for this. There is a little switch for putting out the parking-lamps but care should be taken that the warning light is not overlooked otherwise, if the concealed headlamps are also "on", the battery will soon be discharged. When the headlamps are raised and on full-beam two green lights come on, quite small but too bright at night.  The pad in the centre of the steering-wheel sounds the pneumatic horns but there was an area when pressing this had no effect, which could be awkward.

The driver is confronted by this very wide leather-clad facia, which has a downward section angled towards him on the left. The speedometer and tachometer have very big dials, with the oil-pressure gauge between them and the other small dials to the left. These Veglia Borletti instruments with their white needles on black dials are like those of a pre-war luxury car. The speedometer has total and trip with decimal-reading odometers, contains the warning lights for heater-fan and choke in use, alternator charging, and it reads to 300 k.p.h. It has, as I have remarked, only very small m.p.h. digits. The matching electronic tachometer has warning lights for headlamp full-beams, parking and other lamps in use, and it reads to 8,000 r.p.m., with a red-warning from 6,500 r.p.m. The small dials are set in line to the left, three at the top of the facia for oil temperature, fuel level and water temperature, the two below these, flanked by the switches for the electric windows, being a clock with second-hand and the battery-meter.

Below these dials are two plated vertical quadrant-levers, one for heat admission, the other for enriching the carburetters for cold-starting; as they are side by side and unlabelled it is all too easy for a person unfamiliar with the car, and feeling cold, to choke the engine! "Air-conditioning" is said to be a standard fitting, and on its cold setting high-speed air streams can be admitted from three vents on the facia cill and one on the dash, with others, for the feet, down on the floor console. These ducts can be rotated, using some care, and hand-operated plastic flaps close them. Turning the air-conditioner knob had little effect on the blasts of cold air, the vents whistle when only partially open, and three separate controls are involved. I wrote off this "air conditioning". A minute plated pip zeros the trip mileometer reading and plating is used for the interior and exterior door handles, etc. Very small red lights warn of hand-brake on and brake pads worn. The facia-mounted Clarion stereo-radio has a retractable aerial with a separate switch. To the right of the tachometer are two small knobs for setting the intermittent screen wiper speed to operate at intervals of from three to 30 seconds, instrument-lighting, with the press-in hazard-warning button between them. To the extreme left of the facia is the warning-light for rear window-demister on. Below these controls are a line of tumbler-switches controlling, from I. to r. facia lighting, rear-window demisting, the two-speed fan speed which functions quietly (with settings from 1,400 r.p.m. or 2,200 r.p.m.) and the changeover from loud to soft horn note, inoperative on the test car.

There is an ash-tray in the front central arm-rest, with lighter. In a concave area to the extreme right of the facia still covered in stitched leather is a small but deep lined, lockable cubby-hole. The Maserati trident motif adorns internally the centre of the steering wheel and the rubber area of the floor mats and the word "Merak" appears below the cubby-hole. The front seats have neat head-restraints, and tinted glass is standard.

This Maserati is a very fast straight-line car. Maximum speed is said to be 153, which is of only academic interest to those who wish to remain endorsement-free. However, it is a projectile that you can squirt to well over 100 m.p.h. almost anywhere, at your peril. As the twin-cam V6 engine pokes out a maximum torque in the order of 188 at 5,400 r.p.m. acceleration is thus magnificently impressive — and safely usable. Opportunity did not permit of measuring the whole range. But the familiar 0-60 m.p.h. time is a mere 7.7 seconds, with the desirable ability to move rapidly from a steady 30 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. in under 9 1/2 seconds, using 4th speed. Yet for all its immense urge the Merak is a surprisingly docile car. It will actually idle in 5th gear at 1,500 r.p.m. if one is so oddly inclined and power begins to arrive from 2,000 r.p.m. The real increase is felt from, however, around 3,000 r.p.m. but so swiftly does speed build up, even in the higher gears, that on congested roads this enjoyment is apt to be continually curbed. The engine idles at 1,000 r.p.m. and rasps happily up to 7,000 r.p.m. It is also notably smooth. From cold it needed some churning round before it burbled into life.

The clutch is somewhat fierce, calling for moderate care if a smooth take-off is wanted, and a quick gear shift can also result in an unwanted jerk. The gear lever, short and gaitered, has long movements across the gate and while it selected the gears with reasonable precision, its floppy movement with a gear engaged is rather disconcerting. Reverse is below 5th, to the right, easy to engage and well guarded, by having to lift the gear lever. It is, in fact, a notchy change, and a rapid final upward shift into fifth position can cause a loud graunch. In addition, the spring-loading into the bottom and second-gears side of the gate is too strong, so that when requiring to go direct from 5th into 2nd one is apt to inadvertently select 4th gear. Not entirely a fitting gear change for the car, no doubt due to the complication of mid-engine linkages. The power-brakes, while being superbly reassuring for bringing speed down, were very "sudden" until  Igot used to applying them, and at times there is a feel of very slight hunting beneath one's foot. The pedals permit heel-and-toe gear-shifting and there is a rest for the left foot when it is off the clutch pedal. There is slight left-hand bitten the pedals.

The Merak is at its best on smooth roads, cornering very fast indeed without roll and with that splendidly usable, instant acceleration for picking off the "mimsers", although here the vagaries of the gear change can spoil things if a lower gear is needed instantly. On rough roads things are not so good. The kick-back sometimes transmitted through the steering wheel can only be called vicious and the ride, stiff under any circumstances, can cause sharp reactions, while much bump-thump is transmitted by the wide tyres. A driver's car, yes; but this expensive Merak reminded me at times of the "boy-racer's" kit-cars of the 1950s; a sort of very costly closed Morgan, perhaps. It is great fun; but what hard work!

For softer driving these comments do not apply so forcibly, although I was not too happy about nearly spraining a wrist when trying to sound the horn, not to have instant lamps-flashing was an embarrassment, and it was annoying to have the fuel-level warning light winking when about half-a-tankful remained. The ignition-key is awkwardly placed under the steering wheel too. The steering, heavy at first, is light enough at speed and geared high, at 3 1/4 turns, lock-to-lock, and it is taut and accurate except on rough roads or under hard braking, apart from that vicious kick-back if a pot-hole is encountered. There is generally neutral cornering, with some sudden understeer at higher speeds. There is mild and inconsistent castor-return steering action.

An indicated 70 m.p.h. in the Merak equals about 3,800 r.p.m. in 4th gear, or 3,200 r.p.m. in 5th, so the car is extremely high-geared. The normal temperature readings are approx. 85°C for the oil and 70°C for the coolant, while at 60 m.p.h. the oil-pressure reads around 40 lb. per sq. in.

The speed and r.p.m. readings are obscured to some extent by the steering-wheel rim. Three is a small but effective faired external mirror on the  driver's door but it is not adjustable from within the car. The foresaid "air-conditioning" is said to be accurate to within 14°C, which isn't very accurate and it has no calibrations on the knob controlling it and is unnecessarily complicated. The leather-trimmed doors contain good "pulls" combined with shallow pockets but otherwise, presumably following the philosophy that loose objects are better not kept in fast cars, there is no other oddments stowage. These heavy doors unfortunately lack "keeps".

The carpeted front boot, claimed to take 9 1/2 cu. fl. of luggage, is opened by a plated lever down by the driver's right foot and its front-hinged light lid is self-supporting. To open the engine compartment lid calls for pulling up another plated lever, this one normally hidden by the o/s door, and this lid has to be propped-up. The engine is dwarfed by the services and is covered by the Fiam air-cleaner with ducting passing round both sides of the spare wheel and the Scaini Drynamic battery is partially buried. The oil dip-stick was reasonably easy to use, as is the oil filter of the surprisingly compact and efficient-looking twin-cam engine. According to numerous stickers and the data plaque, Maserati prefer you to use Agip lubricants. The windscreen and window glass is by Saint Gobain.

To revert to the detail work, there was a protruberance of the base of the steering column that occasionally brushed my right toe when turning the steering wheel, it seems that Maserati may have insurance problems, because no-one under the age of 30 was permitted to drive the test car (although I would have thought it more suited to the younger drivers, with their quick reactions), and the Merak, with another Maserati and a Lotus Elan, have been the only cars to ground mildly on my rather agricultural country-home drive. The are comes with an impressive roll of tools, including a hammer and the sparking-plug-removal implements.

The screw-type fuel-filler cap is under a locked flap on the near-side of the engine decking, so the tank is very easy to fill to the brim. Annoyingly the flap will not snap shut. I drove the Merak largely in the August Bank Holiday traffic, but was able to get in some interesting squirts between the hold-ups. Used like this, fuel-thirst worked out at 17.2 m.p.g. As the tank takes 18.6 gallons, refuelling does not have to be done too frequently. Oil consumption was in the region of 500 m.p.p. The car had a single Carello fog-lamp and rear towing-hooks and normal "pips'. on the cills lock the doors. There are deep sun vizors with a vanity mirror in the passenger's, the parsenger's door needed a slam to prevent it from bouncing onto the safety catch. There is mild reflection at times in the sloping windscreen but this was not troublesome. The electric windows take two seconds for raising and the same time for lowering.

The Merak costs £23,621, as tested. It is most definitely a very quick car, coming into its own for motoring very fast on smooth main roads, or for Motorway cruising. A fine "boulevard car" but less happy on cross-country runs, over rougher surfaces, when its refinement is called into question. It is pleasant to drive normally, harder work at speed, when I can think of other cars I would prefer. It falls down, too, in some of the detail work as mentioned: but to Maserati buffs perhaps none of this matters very much. —W.B.