How discontinued Maverick sedan evolved into Ford's newest thing in little pickups

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

The new Ford pickup has inspired people to stop and take a minute to share childhood memories.

Eric Noble's family owned a bright yellow 1971 Ford Maverick when he was growing up in suburban Los Angeles, a perfect little commuter car.

"Vietnam was still going on. By the time we owned the car, it was 1973 and people were worried about gas. The Maverick, at the time, got less crappy gas mileage than other sporty cars did," Noble said. "My father had a handlebar mustache, played on the church softball team, had two kids and a Ford Maverick. It was sporty and affordable. He was being responsible."

1971 Ford Maverick 4-door sedan.

The thinking was the vehicle had a tolerable rear seat package, so it was usable for families, but had the sporty look of a two-door, a compromise buyers today really won't accept, he said. A few jarheads from the Marine Air Station El Toro base near Irvine also played softball with Chuck Noble, a utility company manager, and they drove Maverick sedans with sportier trim levels. 

Now half a century later, the name of what some people considered (and call) a "poor man's Mustang"  has evolved into a hot little pickup truck.

"For Ford, the Maverick name is such a lovely tie-in to Ford’s heritage of pony cars and pony vehicles," said Noble, president of The CarLab, a design consultancy in Orange County, California. "It’s a good fit because the Maverick, let’s be clear, was better than a Mustang II but definitely still not a Mustang. The Maverick occupied some sort of middle ground of vehicles a self-respecting guy could still drive."

1971 Ford Maverick advertisement.

Since the 1990s, small pickups have evolved into an alternative to small cars and small SUVs — perfect for someone with limited income who still wants to show his masculinity, Noble said.

The original Maverick came at a time when Ford and General Motors and Chrysler were starting to take imports seriously. And by the late 1960s, Volkswagens and Toyotas could no longer be dismissed, said Matt Anderson, transportation curator at The Henry Ford museum.

"With the name 'Maverick,' and with the car's general fastback look, Ford tried to sprinkle a little Mustang magic on the car to jump-start sales," he said. "They've done the same thing today, more obviously, with the Mustang Mach-E."

Ford brochure for 1970 Maverick.

The Dearborn automaker announced Tuesday that a 2022 Ford Maverick hybrid pickup will start at $19,995 with 40 mpg and go on sale in the fall. 

"I think it also goes to show that a good model name is a priceless commodity," Anderson said. "It's tough to find something that's exciting and memorable — that also works in different languages and isn't already used by someone else."

1975 Ford Maverick 2-door sedan

Meanwhile, the power of nostalgia can't be underestimated.

"My grandpa gave me his Maverick when I got my license. I am feeling very nostalgic today," said Cindy Burton, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is now a business and autos editor at The Free Press. "We picked up the lovely blue Maverick that my classmates would come to call 'Betsy' from my grandfather’s place in Hazelwood, Missouri, outside St. Louis in 1978. It was a ‘73. For a kid from Buckeye, Arizona, that was brand-new."

Her grandfather moved on to a Ford Fairmont but Burton talks of her Maverick as a cherished memory.

"I got to drive the car all the way back to Phoenix, following my parents in their Dodge van," she said. "I was in heaven with my own set of wheels. But those vinyl seats sure got hot in Arizona summers. I drove that Maverick all over from the desert to Northern California when I was in tech school at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for my Air Force training."

From left, Dan Burton, Edward Burton, Cindy Burton and Kate Burton stand with their 1973 Ford Maverick in Hazelwood, Missouri, during the summer of 1978. "I got to drive the car all the way back to Phoenix, following my parents in their Dodge van," Cindy Burton said. "I was in heaven with my own set of wheels."

Even Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Traverse City-based Hagerty, the largest insurer of classic cars, said, "My gosh, my grandma in Utah had a Maverick in the 1970s and she still talks about it. It had air conditioning. I remember it from when I was a little kid."

That was a 1973 or 1974 model with shag carpeting and a two-tone tan interior, his grandmother Linda Klinger, 80, of Salt Lake City, Utah, told the Free Press. "It was my favorite car. I remember paying around $5,500 for it. It was pretty expensive way back then. I loved that car. I wish I had it today. It was just so cute and sporty. Had a lot of power. I had a girlfriend whose dad gave her a Mustang. It was a neat car and so much fun. I wanted one of those so bad and couldn't afford it. But my Maverick was just absolutely darling."

She gave it to a niece going off to Utah State University, who drove it all through her college years.

Linda Klinger said she is delighted the Maverick has returned to the U.S.

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While Ford has repurposed the Maverick name globally, this is new to Americans, Jonathan Klinger said.  Ford used the Maverick badge in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s and later in Europe and China in the early 2000s, on the vehicle Americans knew as the Ford Escape, he pointed out.

Few Maverick sedans remain among collectors, Klinger said. "Not a lot of people have restored them. It was just your average transportation. Maverick was popular in the 1970s. Ford is really good at giving a nod to its heritage when unveiling a new product."

Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Hagerty, the world's largest insurer of collector vehicles, is pictured at his home in Traverse City in July 2020 with his unrestored 1950 Ford F3.

Memory can play a strong role in advertising and marketing.

"Nostalgia used to be a considered a disorder because of how impactful it can be on people," said Marcus Collins, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. 

"It is a product of memory structures. Marketing and advertising is at its best when we establish relevant memory structures that are strong and long lasting," he said. "If a brand has these structures already established, it creates an unbelievable opportunity for the brands to build on them as a way to turbocharge its communication efforts."

1973 Ford Maverick

When honoring the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Maverick in 2018, a vehicle "Gone but not forgotten," the car collectors' bible known as Hemmings said:

"On April 17, 1969, Ford introduced a new compact two-door sedan with sleek fastback styling, designed to counter the sales threat posed by the Volkswagen 'Beetle' and other fuel-efficient imports. In its first (partial) year on the market, the Maverick sold 127,833 copies, besting the Mustang's 126,538 unit sales from April-December 1964. Though the Mustang lives on today, the Maverick — which marks its 50th birthday in 2019 — left the U.S. market after the 1977 model year.

"By the late 1960s, the threat from imports to domestic sales was growing too large to ignore. In 1968 alone, Volkswagen sold 563,522 vehicles to U.S buyers, while Toyota and Datsun (combined) accounted for another 109,000 sales. In total, Ford’s research showed the size of the 1968 import market (including all manufacturers) to be 985,767 units — large enough for the right car from a domestic automaker to make inroads and enjoy reasonable sales."

While initially scheduled to leave the market in 1975, to be replaced by the "more luxurious Granada," worry about the fuel crisis kept the Maverick in production, Hemmings said. "Over nine years of production, buyers in North America snapped up nearly 2.1 million Mavericks, and the car’s best sales year was 1974, when 301,048 left Ford showrooms with new owners." asked last year in a piece about forgotten cars "why the Maverick hadn't gotten more love" because it was "the ultimate early 1970s car, a humble cheapie sedan, the 1970s equivalent of a Nissan Sentra, and yet look at that groovy styling!"

Despite Consumer Reports preferring the Maverick to its Japanese competitors, "somehow the car community has all but forgotten it. What a shame," Aaron Gold wrote.

One Volkswagen enthusiast asked why Mavericks have been "crapped on" in the past, according to a post in 2015. "Ford touted them as the 'simple car' and the looks are not at all ugly. Pretty versatile with motor choices. Seems to share some stuff with the Falcon/Mustang. So why the hate?"

A Ford brochure from 1970 titled "First car of the '70s at 1960 prices" says, "Maverick is a great little first car. Great for newlyweds. For the campus. For senior citizens, too. A great second car. Suburban car. City car. Fun car ... When you enter a 70-mph turnpike, you won't feel like a retired bookkeeper in a pro football game."

1976 Ford Maverick 4-door sedan.

While some car aficionados may wonder how a discontinued sedan evolved into the newest thing in the little pickup truck segment,  Maverick marketing manager Trevor Scott said it just had to happen.

"We've got to research and try to understand various names we were considering; How does that name resonate with our target audience? With Maverick, in particular, we have an idea who our customer is and who we’re trying to appeal to," he told the Free Press. "The long and short of it is, Maverick was ultimately the first choice. It aligned with the lifestyle this customer envisions, what they’re after, how they live their life day to day and how they perceive this vehicle."

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Its marketing team understood that "Maverick, in its true sense, is interpreted as someone being unorthodox, an independent-minded person. What’s going to really come through is how it defies expectations," Scott said. "This is the authentic nature with which they approach life. That’s why the name really resonated with who the target audience is."

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.