The Maverick and Me
By J. Smith
Maverick. The name conjures images of smooth-talking card hustlers and, to contemporary ears, war heroes. It delves deep into American iconography and out mythology of the West. Add “Ford” in front of the word and the meaning changes entirely, moving from carefree frontier adventure to three-box automotive blue-light special.
Ford has a long history of providing reliable-but-spartan transportation devices. The Model T, for instance, was designed for rugged use, simple service and a low, low price. This tradition continued through at least the Model A, but after that, Ford needed to keep up with more technically sophisticated offerings from Plymouth and more stylish ones from Chevrolet. 1930’s Fords may be more collectible than Chevy’s of similar vintage, but at the time, Chevy was considered the style leader.
In the 1950s, Ford offered stylish machines that, in all but the most basic trim, eschewed Henry I’s utilitarian philosophy for the Populuxe of the Jet Age. At least on this side of the pond. In Jolly Olde, offerings like the Ford Popular and the Anglia made the Morris Minor look daring. And in 1960, when the Big Three introduced their compacts, the Ford Falcon seemingly picked up where the Model A had left off: technically simple, inexpensive and efficient. Ford promptly sold half a million of them in 1960 alone.
As the decade wore on, however, tastes changed. Compacts fell out of favor and imports began to dominate the small car market. And as that market grew, Ford decided to ditch the Falcon altogether and introduce a new, cheap compact. Enter the Maverick. Priced at under $2,000 and initially available only in coupe form, it was the least expensive domestic offering of the day and sold 579,000 units in its first and most successful year—nearly as many as the 1965 Mustang.
At the time of its introduction, it was a light car with a small inline six, capable of achieving fuel economy in excess of 25 MPG, which was an astounding figure in the days of land yachts and muscle machines. As the 1970s wore on, however, emissions and safety regulations took their toll. It became bigger and heavier, with the engines strangled by Rube Goldberg devices to cleanse tailpipe detritus. The 170 cubic inch mill could no longer adequately power the car, so the base engine became a 200 cubic inch inline six, with a 302 V-8 available.
Like most “compact” offerings from Detroit in the 1970s, the Maverick was a compact in name only. If nothing else, however, the performance remained small. Consumer Reports, at least, found it to be reliable—at least in comparison to its main competitors, the Chevy Nova, AMC Hornet and Plymouth Valiant. This was also in an age when a dozen defects or so on a new test vehicle was considered completely acceptable.
Fast forward to the dying embers of the summer of 1992. Right Said Fred and Nirvana could be heard on the radio and Guns ‘n Roses was enjoying their last real hit with “November Rain.” The Michigan Wolverines were gearing up for an undefeated season (well, they did have three ties). And my girlfriend of the time had just totaled my 1980 Chevy Monza. I had no credit and even less money, but I needed to commute to college and work. In late August, I spotted a 1976 Ford Maverick for sale: $300 or best offer. I had exactly $300 from the insurance company for said Monza. I drove the Maverick and talked the seller down to $275. Cheap.
Or so I thought. Take a good look at that photograph. It paints a portrait of a much better car than my Maverick actually was. Canary yellow, caked with the rust of 16 Michigan winters, and sporting a green plaid interior, it looked better –much better—than it ran. We can see it above getting yet another jump start from my parent’s bullet-proof 1978 Olds 98 on a cold November day.
It had about 120,000 miles and received its meager power from a 200 cubic inch (3.3 liters) inline six, fed by a 1-barrel carb and laden with emissions equipment that had long since worn out and now only supplied endless and perplexing vacuum leaks. It only options were an AM radio and an auto transmission. Its best feature was that it ran. Most of the time anyway. And it got me back and forth to work and school. It also took me to Pontiac several times to visit a friend at Oakland University, where I matriculated a year later.
When I first bought it, the engine was caked in layer upon layer of engine oil. The top layers were shiny and fresh, but the lower layers had formed a tar-like sludge. In top factory tune, it limped out an underwhelming 81 horses and 151 pound-feet of torque. This was less horsepower than the 140 cubic inch (2.3 liter) four-cylinder in the Pinto. But my engine was decidedly not in top factory tune.
To begin with, although contemporary test drives showed the car capable of at least 20 MPG, mine managed a best of about 16 MPG—about the same as my parents 98, which had a 403 Rocket V-8 fed by a Rochester 4-barrel.
And it leaked fluids. It had a prodigious appetite for brake fluid and oil. It required brake fluid at least twice per week. If I failed to faithfully adhere to this, it had the nasty habit of losing brake pressure, which I tried my best to avoid. It needed an almost daily topping of oil. Through leakage and worn piston rings, it drank several quarts a week. And if I failed to check early and often, it would remind me by overheating. I quickly learned to make the requisite sacrifice to its thirst for petroleum products. And I quickly learned to keep a full stock of fluids and tools in the trunk.
But that wasn’t all. Its battery was willing in spirit, but weak in flesh. I suspect it had a bad alternator belt, but it needed recharging and jump-starting about once a week. And the gas tank had a leak in the center seam. Once filled past half a tank, it would simply spill the contents onto the pock-marked avenues of Michigan. Given its thirst for 87 octane, this imbued it with a cruising range rivaled only by Amigo scooters.
It also had electrical issues. I had to replace the rear turn signals to avoid a “fixit” ticket. Even then, the signal stalk had to be manually moved to get any blinking from it. And ride and handling were of the ox-cart variety. Road and engine noise, however, were unfortunately of the oncoming train variety.
I could put up with all of that. Correction: I had to put up with all of that, suffering from a deleterious deficit of dollars and other forms of currency. The AM radio provided some respite—well, very little respite, as my appetite for Jim Nabors and the other gods of easy listening was meager. But it ran.
As autumn weather turned chilly—and by late September, there was frost—it became readily apparent that the heater did not work. Driving the thing in the morning and evening became brutal as the temperatures crept lower and lower each frosty evening. Finally, my dad and I replaced the thermostat. It blew out warm air—sweet, nourishing warm air. Well, for about 30 seconds at least. Then it turned cold again. The heater core must have been bad. Which would have cost more to repair than the car cost. So I drove on, bundling up in ever more layers as autumn rolled on.
By November, it was legitimately cold. All the time. And snowy. Unfortunately, when a car has no heat, the defroster is of limited, that is no, value. And things like breathing create moisture that fogs the windows, which then freeze. Generally, permafrost windows are a real negative in a car. The unfortunate solution to this problem was to keep the front windows down about halfway to vent the moisture. So, I spent the cold and snowy November of 1992 tooling down the country roads of mid-Michigan with my windows half down. Given that night temperatures regularly retreated into the 20s or lower, this was quite unpleasant. Going down the highway with 55+ MPH sub-freezing wind in your face builds character. As well as frostbite. The only upside was that it couldn’t—I mean, it just couldn’t—get any worse.
Unfortunately (notice how often that word is used in reference to this car), slinging coffee for the princely sum of $4.25 per hour was not going to get me a better car. Particularly when the old man refused to co-sign a loan for me. But the end was near. Shortly after Thanksgiving, on the way home from visiting a friend in the metropolis of Potterville, the car died on the side of M-100. I called my parents and got a ride home.
My stepdad worked at an Oldsmobile-Mazda dealership at the time, so it was towed there. The mechanic said it would take several hundred dollars to fix. I decided to see if I could get financed. As luck would have it, a clean credit history was better than no credit history, and my only real expense was . . . well, nothing. So I was financed on a former rental Mazda 323, which seemed like a Bentley in comparison to the Maverick. The 323 had unfathomable luxuries like a working heater, an FM cassette player, and functioning, leak-free brakes. Of course, I totaled it a few months later, which led to an AMC/Renault Encore. But that is another story.
1976 Ford Maverick
Production Price (I6/V-8) Weight (I6/V-8) Wheelbase/length/width/height
2 dr 60,611 $3117/3265 2763/2930 103”/187/52.9/70.5
4 dr 79,076 3189/3337 2873/3040 110/194/52.9/70.5
Options: Cruise-o-matic Auto: $275; AM radio: $71
Engines: 200 c.i. (3.3 liter) I6: 81 HP/151 TQ; 250 (4.1 liter) I6: 90/190 ($96); 302 (5.0 liter V-8): 130/245
For purposes of comparison, the two-door Maverick as introduced in April 1969 had a wheelbase of 103” and an overall length of 179.4. It weighed 2,411 pounds and was powered by a 100 horsepower 179 cubic inch inline six. So it added over three hundred pounds and nearly eight inches of length in seven years. To be fair, however, the 100 horsepower of the 1969 engine is rated in inflated brake horsepower. When the switch to more accurate SAE net horsepower came in 1972, the measured horsepower of the 170 cubic inch engine went from 100 to 82.
All figures taken from Standard Catalogue of Ford, 1903-1998, Ron Kowalke, ed. (Krause, 1992). Picture snapped by the frustrated but bemused author.
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