I almost forgot; Mercury is dead. Is amnesia a symptom of Mercury poisoning? Was it not just about the most forgettable brand ever? Ask yourself this: how many Mercuries (not counting the German Ford Capri) over its seventy year lifespan were truly memorable? And by memorable, I don’t mean like the time the toilet backed up so bad the shit floated out the bathroom door. And down the hallway. Yes, there’s way too many Mercury memories I’d rather flush away forever. The keepers? Let’s just say that the ’67-’68 Cougar is the best one of that little bunch. Which in some respects, isn’t saying much, so maybe we’d better cover all three of the memorable Mercuries here; a CC triple play:
That’s because my proposed Illustrated History of Mercury and supplemental Mercury Memorial Week Curbside Classics met the same executive fate as the brand. So I’m not going to be able to do seventy year’s worth of Mercury floaters proper historical justice here. Maybe just as well. But I’ll condense Mercury’s over-arching problem down to its essence: it was perpetually seen as either a more powerful Ford (in the forties and fifties), or a more tarted up one (from the sixties forward). Which meant it had no real prestige value: the general perception was that a Mercury driver was no wealthier than a Ford driver; just a bit more willing to spend a few extra bucks for a slightly larger motor, more chrome, or a more deeply padded vinyl roof, depending on the decade.
It was exactly this image problem that caused Ford to create the Edsel. Market research then showed that the public thought a Mercury was suited to a “dance band leader” or “race driver”. Not exactly the coveted Buick and Oldsmobile accountant and lawyer clientele. Of course band leaders and race drivers hardly figured into Mercury’s perceived demographics by the sixties and going forward. But from 1939 to 2010, Mercury was mostly seen for what it usually was: a warmed-over Ford. It started right at the beginning: the original Mercury in 1939 was a Ford with a bored-out V8 and a couple of inches more wheelbase.
The fact that GM’s divisions had roots as independent makes, and that they still had unique engines and engineering departments even into the seventies undoubtedly reinforced the Mercury problem. But there were a few times when Mercury broke out of the Ford mold, to one degree or another. And not surprisingly, they almost perfectly correspond to my three memorable Mercs.
The first time were the ’49 – ’51s. They had a completely different body shell from the Fords, and instantly became cult classics with the Kustomizer set. Even unmolested, they had a handsome presence that didn’t scream Ford, even if (sadly) there was still just a stroked Ford flathead threatening to overheat under the hood. Looks can be successfully deceiving, some of the time.
By 1952, Mercs were back to obviously sharing Ford body shells. Snooze…
The garish excesses of the late fifties like the Turnpike Cruiser are amusing to contemplate under the influence of psychotropics, but when you wake up you want to know (or certainly hope) it wasn’t for real.
My second memorable Mercury was the ’64-65 Comet Caliente. Why? Because of this. As an impressionable eleven year old, Mercury’s drag racing Calientes left remarkably deep black stripes in my synapses. Don’t ask why. There were plenty of other semi-factory supported teams doing the same thing, but some marketing dude at Mercury in 1964 knew what he was doing. He managed to turn the image of the staid Comet into an underdog terror of the strip and the object of juvenile obsession. Hope he got the bonus he so well deserved.
We covered the Comet story here, but it’s worth noting again that it wasn’t just a Falcon with more chrome; it sat on a longer wheelbase, and it too had unique sheet metal. And it was quite successful, even against the Olds, Buick and Pontiac compacts, perhaps the only time Mercury could lay claim to that. Ironically, or because of it, the Comet wasn’t even branded as a Mercury to start with. The Meteor on the other hand was merely a mildly-disguised Fairlane clone suffered the inevitable Mercury malaise.
I’ve already spent 600 words on Mercury history, so that leaves precious little for memorable Merc number three. Let’s just say that for the third time, Mercury did the right thing and resisted inertia by just tarting up a Mustang a bit and calling it shit good. It could easily have turned out that way, and all too soon, the Cougar spent the rest of its miserable existence being just that; well not just with the Mustang, but even finer Ford flunkies like the Elite, and numerous incarnations of the then earth-bound Thunderbird. If you can bear it, we’ll check in on those forgettable losers later in the week.
But here it is, not just a memorable Mercury, but a memorable CAR, period. What is it about the original Cougar? It was distinctively styled, in a way that captured the essence of what it was trying to be: an American Jaguar.
I know that sounds like a bit of a stretch, but the name doesn’t exactly belie its intentions, eh? And what made that work is that the Cougar wasn’t obviously trying to imitate a Jag, but just going after what a Jag evoked: classy, comfortable sportiness. Although the outside styling was unique and the most un-Ford just about ever, the interior’s Jag ambitions were a bit more obvious, especially in the XR-7, which featured one of the most Anglo-centric dash boards ever.
This interior shot is not from our featured car which is a more pedestrian version, despite the XR7 badge on the trunk. Call me a sucker, but in the fall of 1966, at the age of thirteen, this XR7 dash “board” impressed me just a wee bit. I’d totally forgotten though what the console looked like until I found this picture; Ouch; talk about a cross-cultural mish-mash. Oh well; this was about the same time some Yank bought the original London Bridge, had it taken apart and reassembled in Arizona. He probably drove a Cougar XR7.
Our CC’s pedestrian base interior was still a decent affair, especially in light of the dark vinyl-walnut appliqued caves that were to come in just a few years more.
Even though the Cougar’s emphasis was on American elegance and a more refined and quiet ride than its Mustang stablemate, thanks to a three inch longer wheelbase and plenty of sound insulation, the big cat had a racy edge too, at least in its first year.
No less than Dan Gurney was hired to put a Cougar team in the Trans Am series, which was the nexus of the actual pony wars during those years. Despite a hell of an effort and four wins, the Cougars couldn’t touch Roger Penske’s Camaros.
If I’m skimming Cougar history too lightly, Aaron Severson at ateupwithmotor has a fine article about all things Cougar. It doesn’t happen very often, but I do disagree with him about the affect of the one-year Cougar TA racing effort. He claims that the Cougar’s all-time high sales in its first year (150k) was directly the result of the racing effort, and that sales dropped in 1968 and subsequent years because of the Ford’s decision to kill the TA effort.
I’m going to guess that 90+% of 1967 Cougar buyers were oblivious of what happened on the TA circuit, which didn’t really have that much of a following anyway. Cougar buyers predictably were…your next door neighbors, who were trying to one-up your 1966 Mustang.
For an extra two hundred bucks over the price of a Mustang, the brand new ’67 Cougar was dripping with cheap cachet and Safeway lot prestige. An instant recipe for success in suburbia…and what the hell is Trans Am anyway? Ford most likely killed the Cougar racing program precisely because they realized it had no relevance to its terrific initial success. And all the racing in the world wasn’t going to bail out the endless sales decline of the ever paunchier cats.
Yes, there were some hot GT-E models with 427s under the hood (unlike this 302), and the GTO-Judge imitator Eliminator. but their numbers sold were minuscule compared to Z-28 and SS396 Camaros and the various hot Mustangs, ‘Cudas and Challengers. The Cougar sold on its other qualities, which unfortunately were all too quickly watered down, and sales followed.
The ’67-68 Cougar had a sinewy body that showed off the highly toned cat muscles in an effective way. By 1969 (above), the Cougar’s newly found fat obscured the sinews. It lost much of its distinctive and crisp styling edge, gained very GM-esque hips, and its long blandification and decline was well underway. Any association with Jaguars, real or imagined, was over after 1968. I’ve often railed about how successful new American designs quickly get watered down and destroyed, and the Cougar is the poster cat of that. It was a sexy beast in its first two years, and after that it quickly became a cougar of another sort.
Well, I’ve covered my three worthy Mercuries in one sitting, so that leaves just a lot of unloved bulk to eliminate this week. Maybe we should rename it Mercury Day, and call it good.