Curbside Classic: Ford Maverick – The Simple(ton) Machine

(first posted 10/11/2011)   Lee Iaccoca was obviously ahead of his time. He understood and embraced the concept of recycling well before any of us ever dreamed about hauling out our tin cans every week to be re-made into…more tin cans . Never really liking McNamara’s boxy 1960 Falcon, Iaccoca soon recycled it into the smash success 1965 Mustang. When it became obvious that the ever-bigger Falcon had made no lasting impact on the madly successful Volkswagen, Lee went back to the same well, as he would so many time in the future.  Throw a stylish fastback bell-bottom suit on the boxy old Falcon, cynically call it Maverick, and advertise it as The Simple Machine. And then have it premiere on the exact same date the Mustang did, five years earlier. How hard can it be, to stop that pesky Beetle in its tracks, once and for all?

Well, we all know now that the Maverick didn’t make the slightest impact whatsoever on the VW, whose sales increased handily in 1969 and 1970. But that’s because Lee utterly failed to understand what was really driving the import market. Which was also changing faster than Lee’s ability to conjure up new ammunition against it. But who cared, in 1970? The Maverick was a smash hit, selling no less than 579k units in its extra-long first model year. That’s not much less than the Mustang’s miraculous 681 k units for 1965. April 17 really was a magic date for Lido.

Of course, sales came crashing back to reality in 1971, when the Maverick passed the import-fighting baton to the even smaller Pinto. But that’s another story (CC here). Ford’s one-two cow-punch, which so evoked the myth of the Mustang, certainly was colorful but hardly the knock-out expected of them. One could say that the imports were watching the show from the sidelines, rather than actually being in the ring.

Ford must have assumed that import buyers were masochists, who bought the Vokswagen because of its notoriously cozy rear seat. Why else would they have thought that crippling the original Falcon’s quite good space utilization by turning the rear seat into a torture chamber, thanks to a reduced wheelbase and that low, sloping roof, was a better idea?

Come to think of it, the Maverick was really a prophetic vehicle, decades ahead of its time. Its swooping curves, sloping rear, tiny rear window, and semi-gun-slit side windows presaged the whole trend that is being recycled again. Maybe these two Fiestas aren’t the best example, but you get my drift.

Let’s just say that the Maverick’s space utilization was atrocious. Road and Track did an analysis of the Maverick, comparing its interior space in relation to its exterior volume and also its “road area”, and then comparing those same stats with the Beetle and the Datsun 510. The Maverick lost both, hands down. Needless to say, the Datsun 510 won; the space utilization comparison, that is. Never mind driving dynamics.

One has to remember that back then, a decade still meant something in car time, unlike today. While the Datsun 510 offered a lusty OHC engine, a sweet-shifting stick, and independent suspension all-around, the Maverick was a time capsule back to 1960: a dull 170 cubic inch standard six strangled by smog controls, and a balky column shifter for the standard three speed manual. Steering was deadly slow, and handling was slowly dead. Or in R&T’s words: “sluggish, with great gobs of understeer, and slow, not-so-light steering that doesn’t return well.” Take your pick.

Admittedly, with the optional 200 CID six, straight line performance was decent, if not exciting. That would have to wait a year, until the 210 (gross) hp 302 (5 liter) V8 arrived as an option. You might think that that would somehow be associated with the Grabber, which was the “sporty” Maverick, and had power-suggesting bulges and fake scoops in its hood. Not so; the Grabber was strictly an appearance package, and for all I know, there’s very likely a little six under this ones protrusions (actually, the five-bolt lugs give this away as a genuine V8).

How come Niedermeyer’s so down on the poor little Simple Machine? I was a car jockey in 1970-1971 at a Ford dealership (story here), and let’s just say that Mavericks and ’71 Galaxie/LTDs were on the bottom of my driving pecking order; even below pickups. Well, how much stock can you put in the impressions of a crazed seventeen year-old?

But all that changed when the first V8 showed up one day; with its skinny little non-Grabbing tires, it became the doughnut vehicle of choice. Not for getting them; for making them. The light Maverick, a healthy 302, and those little tires; it was literally made for the job (this one is actually a Comet; close enough). Ironically, a little old lady ended up buying it, despite its worn rear tires.

In a move that would foreshadow Iaccoca’s wheel-base lengthened K-cars, the Maverick was treated to an elongated, four-door version; the Not-Quite-So-Simple Machine. Riding on the same wheelbase length as the original Falcon went quite a ways in restoring its rear passenger space, along with a proper roof-line. But that was just the start of the Maverick’s transformation.

The Simple Car theme was too spartan to have any legs for American car buyers, and The Great Brougham Epoch was now well underway, so the Maverick got its own dose of Dearborn luxury. Volkswagen? Toyota? What’s that?

Anyway, Maverick sales were just so-so, once the initial mania subsided, and buyers were off chasing the next exciting and great automotive fad. Like Ford’s own Granada, which was based on the Maverick’s fine underpinnings. Hey; we believe in recycling, for as long as possible. Or until our buyers won’t buy it anymore. At least the Granada had a rear window one could see out of.

The whole premise of of the original 1970 Maverick, priced at $1995 and painted in Anti-Establishment Mint, was a very fleeting proposition, just like those crazy first-year sales numbers. Goodbye fashionable New Paint.

The Maverick evolved from the cool mini-skirt wearing secretary’s little coupe to Grandma’s dowdy and dull four-door faster than you could say Toyota. Or Honda.

Maybe one of the reasons I never cottoned much to the Maverick was because it reminded me too much of the ill-fated Henry J. Same basic fastback shape, wide-set eyes, bulging hood, and stupid grin. And although the Maverick was vastly more successful from a sales point, with over two million sold, ultimately it too failed in its mission to make a lasting impact on the small-car market. Recycling metal is one thing; recycling old ideas is another.