By on October 21, 2019

1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 in California junkyard, RH front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsWith all the generations of the Cougar that Mercury sold, from the Mustang-based ’67 through the Mondeo-based ’02, which one sold the best? That’s right, the rococo Thunderbird-sibling 1977-1979 models, and most of them were luxed-up XR-7s.

Yes, the Man’s Car, slathered with chrome and vinyl and menacing feline-themed badging, proved to be the ideal machine for the Disco Period of the Malaise Era, and I’ve found this well-preserved ’79 in a Northern California self-service yard.

1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 in California junkyard, interior - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe California sun really beats up car interiors, but the leather-influenced vinyl on this car’s Twin Comfort Lounge seats still shines with Quaalude-tinged glory.

1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 in California junkyard, cougar emblem - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsCougar badges may be found all over this car, though the mean-looking cat-faced hood ornament got snapped off by some junkyard shopper before I got there. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when most junkyard cars were of 1970s vintage, I grabbed a few Cougar cat badges in addition to dozens of “leaping ungulate” emblems from early-1970s Impalas, and now they decorate my garage walls.

1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 in California junkyard, instrument cluster - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsVery few analog clocks from Detroit cars will function after about age five years, but I hooked up my $6 junkyard car-clock tester to this date-function-equipped beauty and it worked just fine. Now it resides in my extensive collection of junkyard-obtained car clocks.

1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 in California junkyard, 351M engine - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe ’79 Cougar XR-7 had a 140-horsepower 302-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) V8 as the base engine, but the original purchaser of this car wanted a little bit more power to move 3,887 pounds of somewhat obese cat and paid extra for the optional 5.8-liter, 151-horse 351M V8.

1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 in California junkyard, vinyl roof - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe padded landau roof shows signs of sun damage and almost certainly hides catastrophic rainwater-induced rust. It sure looked classy when new, though. MSRP on the ’79 XR-7 came to $5,994, or about $22,500 in 2019 dollars. Lots of flash for not much cash!


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37 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7...”


  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    In 1978 I cross shopped a Cougar with other domestic PLC’s.

    Decided to go with a T-Bird, which still had more cachet than the GM (Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cutlass, Regal). For those of you not alive at the time, the Cordoba because it wore a Chrysler badge also had considerable prestige.

    Anyhow I got a ‘fully loaded’ T-Bird with the 400 engine. Those split 60/40 bench seats in velour are among the most comfortable I have ever had. And the T-Bird did look good, for the aesthetics of that era.

    However it was one of the worst vehicle that I have ever had mechanically. Numerous electronic glitches, bad starters, although minor the headlight covers would retract if left for more than about 10 hours. We honestly believed that car was trying to kill me as it would die/stall/not start at the worst times, in the most inconvenient places, in the worst weather.

    Quite inferior mechanically to the Grand Prix SJ, the Cordoba and even the Grand Torino Elite that I had previously. In retrospect I wish that I had even half the money that I spent (wasted?) on cars in the 1970s and 1990’s.

    Kept the T-Bird for one year only and it was one of the few vehicles that I was happy to say goodbye to. Still it was a ‘looker’, for that time, and people were properly impressed (yes, even at the disco) when they found out that you drove a T-Bird. I would consider it the equivalent in today’s ‘prestige’ scale of a 5-Series.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    This was the drill as I remembered it, finished school, landed your first big-boy job and went out and bought either this, an LTDII or Cutlass Supreme/Monte Carlo/Grand Prix. This was an indication that you had arrived at adulthood and were ready to take on all that it implied. These were nice cars and very popular with young, upward mobile boomers

  • avatar
    Vanillasludge

    If you’ve never driven one of these you can’t imagine how slow they were, particularly with the base engine. A friend had a nearly new one that I borrowed for a day. Compared to my 67 Impala with 283 and 2sp auto this thing felt broken.

    When you wonder why imports were so successful during this era just refer back to these turds.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      They were the products of a perfect storm of regulations, market conditions, and horrible parents. The awful companies that built them weren’t going to spend money on tooling to make cars that were right for the market and the regulations. Instead, they responded to emissions regulations by dropping compression ratios, retarding ignition timing, camshafts with no overlap, and carburetors only worked as they were supposed to briefly. These cleaned up engines used more gas while producing very little power and suffering all sorts of drivability issues from lumpy throttle response to dieseling on shut down. Meanwhile, people cared about fuel consumption and the government enacted CAFE to force it even if customers didn’t care about it. The only response Detroit would pay for was to start putting badges from big cars on their intermediates and jacking up the final drive ratios on their cars to the point that their underpowered engines were working with no leverage to move cars that had gained hundreds of pounds in bumpers only a few years earlier. What a shock that they were junk.

      • 0 avatar
        bullnuke

        @ToddAtlasF1 – Well said, my friend.

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          +2, ALL cars were slow during this period. I got the Grand Prix with the 400ci V8 and it was all it could do to get out of it’s own way. A terrible time for cars

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            @Lie2Me

            Yes I gripe about the 92 hp and 120 lb ft that I got from an TBI Iron Duke in a 1982 Celebrity but that output was dangerously close to some of the smog choked V8s of a few years prior.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            The 400ci V8 in the 1976 GP produced 200hp. My Escape with it’s V6 produces 220hp

            So sad

          • 0 avatar

            “3,887 pounds of somewhat obese cat and paid extra for the optional 5.8-liter, 151-horse”…

            My ’79 VW Scirocco weighed less than half as much, had a 1.6-liter 4-banger that made about 75 horses. So, less than half the weight, less than one third the displacement, about half the power (and probably 3x the mpg). No editorial comments, just facts.

          • 0 avatar
            ponchoman49

            My buddy had a 1979 T-Bird in this exact color with a floor shifter and the powerhouse 351 2BBL V8. At the same time I had my 1980 white Grand Prix SJ with the 301 4BBL V8 which was pretty quick for the time. He goaded me into a race one afternoon and learned real quick what a dog his car was. Compared to today both of these were a joke. But back in the day a 9 second 0-60 car like my GP was considered pretty quick and his 12 second T-Bird was considered average so some were far slower than others and one had to use common sense when optioning these cars out.

            That GP put a lot of power down from idle to about 4000 RPM’s so was quite fun to drive in the city. It used a better 2.93 rear gear ratio compared to lesser models 2.29 highway setups so that enhanced things quite a bit.

    • 0 avatar
      spookiness

      Yes they were slow, but to me the appeal of these and other “malaise” cars is that they are best enjoyed slow. Don’t push them, just relax, enjoy, and let your cares float away. It’s just a different mood.

      • 0 avatar
        MQHokie

        Are we really going to compare power outputs between modern day, fuel-injected, computer-controlled V6’s and a carbureted V8 made over 40 years ago, during the first generation of emission controls? Come on.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          During that same era Honda was getting 96 hp out of a 1.8-liter four. That same level of specific output would have seen Detroit’s wheezy ~3.8-liter sixes putting out close to 200 horsepower (and, sure enough, they all did 15 years later). It was possible to engineer for reasonable output even with 1970s tech and first-generation emissions rules. Detroit was just too lazy and too set in its ways.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            The 1979 Accord made 72 horsepower from 1.75 liters. It really wasn’t that easy to maintain specific output until modern engine management became more accessible. Honda did start seeing steady horsepower increases starting with the 100 horsepower 1.83 liter Prelude. After that, Hondas only improved until they became turbocharged Chinese compliance cars.

            GM claimed that the 1982 J-cars made 88 horsepower from 1.84 liters of pushrod four, but testing revealed the cars to perform more like contemporary diesels than 84 horsepower Omnis.

          • 0 avatar
            MQHokie

            I assume you know that Honda was OHC and 3 valves/cylinder, while nearly everything out of Detroit at the time was OHV. In addition, the Detroit engines were still putting out decent low-RPM torque whereas you had to rev the Japanese motors harder to get at their power. The Detroit “solution” also worked better with automatic transmissions of the time, which had few gears and high parasitic losses. Did you ever drive a Japanese car from that era equipped with an automatic? I could walk uphill faster than my grandmother’s mid ’80s Sentra could drive.

            I’m no powertrain engineer, but I doubt Detroit could have done much better with engine performance than they did without going to clean-sheet engine designs. Once computer controls, fuel injection etc. began to hit the mainstream, things improved dramatically.

          • 0 avatar
            ponchoman49

            Those old wheezy engines also made that thing called torque which was lacking in the small displacement 4 bangers. I’ll never forget driving in a friends 1981 Corolla which had an automatic with 3 of us on board. To say it was death slow is giving it a compliment. I think I could have beat that thing with my mountain bike going uphill! 75 MPH was its top speed if their was no head wind. Truly an awful car.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      One nice thing about *most* of the 350+ci Malaise Era V8s is that it isn’t too hard to wake them up to a respectable level. A gear swap help a lot too. I’m not sure how interested anyone was in rodding-up a 5YO PLC back then though.

    • 0 avatar
      Dave M.

      The imports were dog slow as well. Where the imports made headway was build quality, reliability, and maybe even gas mileage. But it was horrid time for all cars power-wise unless you were able to toss money at a Porsche or such.

  • avatar
    thornmark

    of that genre, to me the Cordoba looks the best today – as it did then- before the stacked headlights ruined the front

    those Ricardo Montalban commercials are easily among the most memorable car commercials of the 1970’s- for the first “Small Chrysler” available w/ “Corinthian Leather”.

    it had good bones, based on the original 1962 Dodge and Plymouth smaller full sized and then intermediates which were unibody and which out-handled the competition

  • avatar
    lastwgn

    I have always thought a T-Bird or Cougar of this vintage would be a perfect candidate to swap in a modern high performance V-8 and updated tranny. Put on proper tires/wheels and update the suspension and it would be a very unique cruiser.

    This car also reflects the somewhat odd option ordering that could occur with a la carte ordering. It had the low rent vinyl seats, stock wheel covers, no tilt wheel, no cruise control. Very little in the way of extras except for the 351 and the power windows.

    • 0 avatar
      DM335

      The a la carte options made for some interesting vehicles. A friend of my dad’s had a Ford Elite (a few years prior to this Cougar) with no air conditioning. Amazingly enough, the seats on this Cougar were actually an upgrade. The standard seat was a bench, with buckets or “twin comfort lounge seats” as an option. These were available in cloth or vinyl.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    So many comments that I can relate to.

    This generation T-Bird/Cougar, even with the 400 engine was the proverbial the gas gauge moves faster than the speedometer malaise car. In my memory the 78 T-Bird had the worst mileage of any vehicle I have had. And yes, its acceleration was ‘stately’.

    My high school was a short bus ride from the Scarborough GM Van Plant. So if you got fed up and quit school, you went to the plant and shortly after showed up at the school driving your new Cutlass. Hopefully with those ‘rotating’ captains chairs. For a period the Cutlass was the top selling marque in North America.

    I also agree that the original Cordoba styling with the large round headlight and small round running light was the best looking version. Again, people who are too young do not remember the publicity around its release. A ‘small’ Chrysler aimed at the ‘younger’ crowd. They were extremely popular/coveted when first released.

  • avatar

    I miss the availability of a wide range of COLOR CHOICE! If this car were made today it would available in a choice of grayscale with a somber black interior. Ugh.

    • 0 avatar
      dividebytube

      I grew up with a ’77 Cadillac floating around in the family mid to late 80s. It was yellow, much like this, with a gold leather interior. Truly a sight to behold going down the road.

      Nothing better than picking up your girlfriend in a giant yellow whale.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    so much car, so little brake.

  • avatar
    427Cobra

    … brings back memories… I drove a good number of “malaise-mobiles”… after my ’70 Dodge Dart (318 V8), I then went to a ’74 Ford Elite with the 400M. What a tank. Big & comfortable, but a total pig. After that, came a ’78 Pontiac Grand LeMans with the 305 in it… which actually, was a great car. My dad bought it 2 years old with 15,000 miles on it. Gave it to me 3 years later with 96,000 miles on it. I drove it for another 6-7 years, & sold it with 212,000 miles on it. Very reliable too. After that, had an ’81 Thunderbird… electronic nightmare with the digital dash & all sorts of electronic gizmos & “duraspark” ignition… ugh. Good times.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      The Gran Torino Elite was in fact a mid-sized auto, and if equipped with the optional 460 (standard was a 351 with a 400 also being optional) was considered something of a ‘sleeper’. I had one with a 460 in the requisite 1970’s Ford brown with the brown interior.

      The Cougar was comparable and a sibling to the Gran Torino during that era. Again showing how Ford moved the Cougar around, being first a luxury’pony car’, then an ‘upgraded’ mid-sized, then a T-Bird sibling, and even a sidestep into sedan and wagon ‘Cougars’, and finally a Contour/Mystique offshoot.

      For my money the original ‘gentlemens sports car’ 1st generation was the best Cougar.

      The T-Bird was a ‘larger’ vehicle until Ford downsized the T-Bird to the LTD II frame, and it replaced the Grand Torino in Ford’s line-up.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    In the mid 80’s I owned a 75 Cougar XR-7 coupe. It was sliver with a maroon bucket and console interior, matching landau top and the 351W with Magnum 500 wheels,
    Peak PLC. It served me well as a daily driver, the only mechanical work was a water pump and for some reason the AC compressor threw a rod. I unloaded it when the engine rear main seal started leaking, apparently a common issue with that engine.

  • avatar

    The Barnaby Jones special edition.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Not too long before my father passed, he was negotiating with the local L-M dealer on a 1979 Mercury Cougar XR-7 for my mother to drive. Unfortunately, his myocardial infarction was deadly effective and my poor mother drove her 1974 Mercury Montego for a few more years.

    A buddy of mine had a 77 or 78 Mercury Cougar XR-7 while we were in college in the early 80’s. It was our “crusin & boozin” car; a bunch of us would pile in and cruise to the bar district in our college town. The car was pretty beat for being fairly new at the time, but generally ran well. It made a strange humming or vibrating sound that we attributed to the trans, but the car always ran and drove.

    As much as I liked the Cougar, after 1970 they were a restyled Ford mid-sizer. Even with the recycled Mopar B-body Cordoba, it was far harder to see the connection between the ‘Doba and the Monaco/Fury than it was the Montego/Cougar, especially in the later versions. Of the mid-sized PLCs of the time, I’d go for a nice Cougar, but it would have be loaded up with the biggest motor and all the toys. Otherwise, you have an underpowered Torino.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    This was a damn car, look at that real metal trim work, nice chrome, roomy interior, laz-e-boy seats, V8 engine, RWD drive train, long sexy hood, actual bumper, all for $22,500. Just put a modern 5.0L in this and start selling this exact car again. America gets dogcrap today compared to a car with this many features.

    Now let’s listen to all the haters say why this is unsafe, slow, and inefficient. I’ll gladly take this over the Malibu, Camry, Accord any day with a modern V8 drivetrain.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Today’s cars are more expensive because of the cost of regulatory compliance. This car is not as safe in most single car accidents as a year old Ford Fiesta. It pollutes more. It uses more fuel than a car you can buy for less than $40K today. That being said, I’ll race a perfectly restored 1979 Cougar with a new RAV4 and there is no circuit you can dream up where this car will win. The RAV4 will also use half as much gas and carry at least twice as much stuff or the same number of remotely comfortable passengers. I was a kid when some people were using PLCs as family cars and I hate them to this day. They were entirely bogus in every sense of the word.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I don’t share your affinity for this particular vehicle but I could get behind a return to the PLC mindset. The closest thing today is probably somewhere between a Challenger R/T and E450 coupe.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    Ironically, I believe that this Cougar was built at the Chicago Torrence Avenue plant that’s having all the problems with the Explorer and Aviator that has been reported on here a lot recently.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    My choice of Malaise from this era would hands down be a downsized A/G body mid size coupe with a V8 4 BBL engine. bucket seats, F-41 and rally wheels. This way you got better handling combined with decent seat comfort, enough interior room, a big trunk, reasonably attractive exterior sheet metal (in most cases), far better MPG than the competing whales from Ford and Chrysler due to being 400-600 LBS lighter and the hop up potential with these cars is endless. They can range from tepid 231 V6 highway cruisers to tarmac LS1 terrors.


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