Detroit has a long list of sins it committed over the decades, but one of the more pernicious ones is name debasement. Think of the Chrysler K-cars wearing the once proud names of New Yorker and Imperial. GM’s history of name debasement and other crimes in naming is extensive. But it’s difficult to come up with a more egregious one than what was done to the Cougar. Better pop a Zoloft, because this is a depressing CC: beige, boxy, generic, feeble, padded half-vinyl roof and tin foil wire wheel covers. But the crimes against names and humanity must be documented for future generations.
Few car names are more evocative, lyrical and lasting in their initial impression than Cougar. The first 1967 Cougar was launched with heavy use of a live cougar in tv and print ads, and the “untamed elegance” was one of the tag lines that stuck in our brains.
The Cougar had a terrific start, defining a niche above the pony cars as a more upscale variant, and stayed fairly true to its identity for the first few iterations. But of course, it too got sucked into that vortex of seventies bloat and deadly excess. We’ll be back to look at both the early and mid-life versions soon. But when the big 1977-1979 Cougars went away, they were replaced by something totally different: a boxy little coupe, sedan, and horrors: even a station wagon.
The agony was stretched out over three years no less. In 1980, the Cougar appeared as a coupe only, with a typically wretched half-padded top and opera windows. And of course there was that generic front end that was passed around Detroit like a bad case of STD. It was all met with a giant yawn, and sales plummeted. Then in its second year, 1981, this lovely four door sedan was added. It was obviously (like the coupe) a rehash of the former Fox-body Zephyr, but uglified in its new supposed role as a semi-upscale car. And in 1982, the final atrocity: a Cougar wagon, even available as a woody no less.
Let’s try to put these in perspective: pretty much all Fox-body cars had a certain intrinsic goodness, which made itself more manifest in certain versions. The first Zephyr (and Ford Fairmont) had a certain simple and honest aspect, unsullied (for the most part) in their role as straight forward economy cars in the vein of the Dart and Valiant. And of course, other Foxes ended up in other equally successful roles, especially the Mustang, and the ’83 and up T-Bird and Cougar, and remarkably, even in its most luxurious forms, the Mark VII and Continental.
But this Cougar gets the distinction of being the weak link in the Fox lineage. Ford showed it was possible to screw up even something this good. Like making the 88 hp 2.3 liter Pinto four as the standard engine! OK, it was a pretty rugged little mill in the right application, but a Cougar? And if that didn’t quite evoke the excitement of the sign of the cat, the 94 hp 200 CID six was available. As well as one of the feeblest V8’s ever to come out of Detroit, the 119 hp 255 (4.2 liter) Windsor. At least the slightly better optional 134 hp 302 (4.9 liter) V8 came along to bail out the rest of the line up.
What were these cars like to drive? Who knows? I’ve never set foot in one. Probably in the effort to give it a better ride, the Zephyr’s reasonably decent handling was undoubtedly sullied to some degree with softer springs and more weight. Does anyone care? The seats look reasonably comfortable. Performance was mediocre across the board. And Ford’s new AOD transmission did not get off to a good start.
Of course, Mercury redeemed itself with the new 1983 Cougar (as Sajeev Mehta will attest to), although that roof line wasn’t exactly everyone’s cup of Darjeeling. Well, if this was all a bit too depressing, look at it this way: getting the worst Cougar out of the way was like eating the spinach on your plate first; every other Cougar CC to come can only be an improvement (more or less).