Cat Class, Cat Style: The Mercury Cougar

Even as the Ford Mustang was making its smashing debut in April 1964, Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division began work on its own “pony car,” a stylish coupe that sought to bridge the gap between the Mustang and the Thunderbird. This week, we look at the history (and many incarnations) of the Mercury Cougar.

1970 Mercury Cougar badge

MIDDLE CHILD

In a past article, we talked a little about the origins of Ford’s Mercury division in the late 1930s. Its original purpose, in brief, was to bridge the sizeable price gap between the top of the Ford line and the cheapest Lincoln in hopes of snaring middle-class buyers who might otherwise defect to other companies’ makes. After the war, Mercury was consolidated with Ford’s upscale Lincoln brand as the Lincoln-Mercury Division, which gave Mercury a dual purpose: it was somehow supposed to be a both a deluxe Ford and a junior Lincoln. A brief period of independence in the mid-fifties didn’t work out and by 1958, Mercury was reunited with Lincoln (and, briefly, the ill-fated Edsel).

By the sixties, Mercury’s main purpose was to keep dealers solvent between sales of the big Lincoln Continental. Mercury’s full-size cars didn’t make a noticeable dent in Pontiac or Oldsmobile sales and the brand’s main strength was the compact Comet, a stretched, deluxe Ford Falcon.

ENTER THE T-7

By 1963, Ford Division general manager Lee Iacocca was readying the sporty new Mustang. Lincoln-Mercury stylists did their own renderings of a fancier, deluxe version of the Mustang, which at that time was code-named T-5. The upscale version, code-named T-7, wasn’t yet a Lincoln-Mercury project — it was just a styling study. L-M general manager Ben Mills originally wanted the T-7 to be ready at the same time as the T-5, but Ford management was still not certain there would be a market for the Mustang, much less a more upscale version.

The T-7 didn’t become a production project until a year later, as the Mustang made its public debut. By then, it was clear that the Mustang was going to be a huge commercial success, and Lincoln-Mercury (and its dealers) wanted a piece of the action. Lee Iacocca, who was now Vice President of Cars and Trucks (overseeing both Ford and Lincoln-Mercury) gave the go-ahead to develop the T-7 for production.

Until quite late in its development, the Mustang had been known as the Ford Cougar; in fact, Ford had already developed the emblems and badges for that name. Lincoln-Mercury’s sales organization initially considered naming the T-7 the Mercury Apollo, but an extensive marketing study (including two complete dummy advertising campaigns) found that the Cougar name was more evocative for the buying public. In due course, the T-7 became the Mercury Cougar.

TAKING THE MUSTANG UPTOWN

The cheapest way to build the Cougar would have been to simply add a different front clip and plusher trim to the Mustang. Given the Mustang’s popularity, that might have worked, but Lincoln-Mercury general manager Paul Lorenz was evidently wary of that approach. Mercury’s compact Comet had been a commercial success because it was both bigger and fancier looking than the Ford Falcon on which it was based. The short-lived Mercury Meteor intermediate, however, had been a straightforward facelift of the Ford Fairlane and had sold poorly. Lincoln-Mercury advertising called the Cougar a car “for the man on his way to a Thunderbird,” but it was really an extension of the Comet concept: a bigger, plusher version of the Mustang, with unique styling.

1968 Mercury Cougar front 3q
The first-generation Cougar shows off its concealed headlamps in the retracted position. (This is actually a 1968 model, but the only significant external difference are the side-marker lights, necessary to comply with new federal regulations.)

The Cougar’s unibody construction was very similar to the contemporary Mustang’s, although the two cars shared no exterior sheet metal. The Cougar’s wheelbase was 3 inches (76 mm) longer than the Mustang’s and it was 6.7 inches (170 mm) longer overall. Most of the extra length was ahead of the cowl, exaggerating the Mustang’s long-hood, short-deck proportions, but the Cougar did have a bit more rear-seat room. In addition to more upscale trim, the interior of the Cougar benefited from 124 lb (60 kg) of sound insulation, making it noticeably quieter than its Ford cousin. The suspension and brakes were very similar, although the Cougar’s standard suspension was tuned for a smoother ride, with soft rubber suspension bushings to absorb harshness. Powertrains were likewise similar, although the Cougar came standard with the 200 hp (149 kW) 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8 that was optional on the Mustang and the Mustang’s 271 hp (202 kW) “K-code” engine wasn’t offered.

The Cougar’s main stylistic distinction was its ‘electric shaver’ front and rear treatment, a refinement of an idea Ford stylists had been playing with for years. Another gimmick, borrowed from the Thunderbird, was sequential taillights: when the turn signal was activated, the taillights would flash in sequence in the direction of the turn, like a flashing neon sign.

1970 Mercury Cougar XR-7 nose badge
If the standard Cougar’s trim wasn’t quite posh enough, a few months after its introduction, Mercury introduced the XR-7, which dressed up the cabin with woodgrain dashboard trim, full instrumentation, and leather/vinyl upholstery. Mercury advertising proclaimed it “the car for the man who aspires to an Aston Martin, but doesn’t have James Bond’s pocketbook.” In 1970, an XR-7 hardtop like this one had a base price of $3,413, $299 more than a base Cougar hardtop and $692 more than a six-cylinder Mustang hardtop. With a full load of options, it was possible to spend over $5,000 on a Cougar, a lot of money at the time.

Thanks to its greater weight and softer underpinnings, the Cougar was inevitably less sporty than the Mustang, and its luxury orientation was sometimes compromised by its humble origins. Power windows, for example, were not available, because Ford had not developed a motor small enough for the Mustang’s slender doors. Nevertheless, the Cougar represented an admirable balance of sporting flair and gentility. Its differences from the Mustang were not cheap (the Cougar’s development cost was a not-inconsiderable $40 million), but they gave each car a distinct character and purpose. With a starting price of $2,851, the Cougar cost roughly $300 more than a V8 Mustang, but it offered enough for the money to make it a reasonable value.

SPORTY CARS ARE AS SPORTY CARS DO

A little before the Cougar made its public debut in September 1966, Ford made some significant changes to Lincoln-Mercury’s executive staff. General manager Paul Lorenz was replaced by Ford general sales manager Gar Laux, while Ford racing manager Leo C. Beebe was moved to the same role at L-M. Finally, Frank Zimmerman, Jr., who had been Ford’s special vehicles manager, became general sales manager. The last of these appointments gave away what Ford was planning. “Special vehicles” was Ford corporate-speak for motorsport, and Zimmerman and Beebe had orchestrated Ford’s recent all-out assault on the Indy 500 and Le Mans. Their arrival at L-M meant only one thing: Mercury was going racing.

Mercury had had some success in stock car racing before, most recently in the 1963 and 1964 NASCAR seasons, but it had been a long time since the division had formally sponsored a team. (The ’63-’64 NASCAR team, run by Bill Stroppe, had nominally been a private effort, although Stroppe had received under-the-table backing from L-M.) This time, it was bound not for the big NASCAR ovals, but for the Sports Car Club of America’s recently introduced Group 2 sedan-racing circuit — more commonly known as Trans Am.

The Mustang had won the inaugural Trans-Am season, and now it was Cougar’s turn. This time, it was not to be an ersatz private venture, but a proper factory team. Lincoln-Mercury hired racing champion Dan Gurney to run it, for an impressive six-figure salary, with drivers Parnelli Jones, Dave Pearson, Ed Leslie, and Peter Revson. Beebe and Zimmerman made no secret of their intention to use Trans Am as a way to aggressively market the Cougar.

Dan Gurney 1965
Racing legend Dan Gurney, seen here at the Nürburgring in 1965. Gurney’s involvement with Trans-Am didn’t prevent him from competing in Formula 1 in 1967-68. He remains active in racing as a builder and the owner of All-American Racers. (Photo © 1965 Lothar Spurzem; used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Germany license)

The Cougar factory team did well in the ’67 Trans Am season, winning four races outright, but they ultimately were no match for Roger Penske’s (in)famous Sunoco Camaro. Still, in the final standings, Dan Gurney’s drivers managed a second-place finish on points, a most respectable effort.

Bolstered by this performance, the 1967 Cougar sold over 150,000 units, accounting for around 40% of Mercury’s total sales that year. The Cougar won the obligatory Motor Trend Car of the Year award, and it also found favor with the more jaundiced reviewers of Car and Driver and Car Life, which considered it the most pleasant of the pony cars for real-world driving. In July 1967, Car and Driver actually tested a big-engine Cougar against a Jaguar 420 sedan, a comparison in which the Mercury acquitted itself surprisingly well.

1968 Mercury Cougar 302-4V engine
As with the contemporary Mustang, the Cougar’s performance depended heavily on what engine was ordered. The basic 289 (4,728 cc) engine had either 200 or 225 hp (149 or 168 kW). It was replaced in 1968 by the 302 (4,942 cc), shown here, with either 210 or 230 hp (157 or 172 kW), which provided adequate acceleration: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 10-11 seconds. The optional big blocks — initially the 390 (6,391 cc), with 320 hp (239 kW), later the 428 (6,990 cc) with 335 hp (250 kW), and the 429 (7,027 cc) in 1971 — offered much stronger straight-line performance, but the extra front-end weight spoiled the handling and made routine maintenance cumbersome. (Photo © 2006 Stephen Foskett; used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license)

SECOND YEAR, SECOND THOUGHTS

Despite Lincoln-Mercury’s public enthusiasm for the Cougar and Trans-Am racing, Ford management was less sanguine. First, the logic of having the Cougar compete directly with the Mustang on the track was questionable to begin with, particularly when the factory was footing the sizable bill for both teams. Second, the Cougar’s competition efforts represented a rather mixed message. While racing had undoubtedly been good publicity, it was at odds with the luxury-oriented image Mercury was promoting in Cougar advertising. With its softer underpinnings and greater weight, the street version of the Cougar was never going to be a match for the hotter contemporary Supercars. Third, much of the Cougar’s early success was apparently at the expense of Mercury’s Comet/Cyclone intermediate line, which meant the Cougar’s popularity was not improving Mercury’s overall market share.

1970 Mercury Cougar XR-7 front view
Concealed headlamps were retained through 1970. They looked good, but were troublesome: slow to operate and prone to jam. Many survivors have their lights locked in the open position. The central grille marks this as a 1970 model, which is otherwise similar to the 1969.

Reluctantly, Laux, Beebe, and Zimmerman decided to withdraw from Trans-Am. Privateers would still race the Cougar, and Cougar-based funny cars did well in NHRA drag racing, but there would be no more Mercury factory teams. Lincoln-Mercury did try to bolster the Cougar’s performance image with hot GT and GT-E models, including a handful with the NASCAR-bred 427 “side-oiler,” and the 1970 Eliminator model with the Mustang’s Boss 302 engine, but most future Cougars would be skewed more toward luxury than sport.

1970 Mercury Cougar XR-7 rear 3q
The 1970 model was 193.8 inches (4,923 mm) long, some 3.5 inches (89 mm) longer than the 1967-68 models. Curb weight was up about 100 pounds (45 kg), model for model, although it was available with more powerful engines than before. The downward sweep of the door sculpting is a great deal like the 1968-1969 Buick Skylark, although the pronounced crease along the beltline echoes the ’67-’68 Cougars.

BIGGER IS NOT BETTER

The Cougar’s structural kinship with the Mustang meant that it was tied to the same redesign schedule as its Ford cousin. Therefore, the ’69 Cougar was longer, lower, wider, and heavier, as is Detroit’s way. It retained the same styling themes as its predecessor, with heavy-handed side sculpting that evoked some of Buick’s less-felicitous efforts. Mechanically, it was more of the same, but the new Cougar was beginning to look a bit bloated. Buyers apparently agreed, for sales sank another 15% for 1969, despite the addition of a convertible model. (All 1967-68 models had been hardtops.) Sales for 1970 dipped a worrying 27%, reflecting the softening demand for all cars in the increasingly crowded sporty-car market.

1970 Mercury Cougar XR-7 rear
The second-generation Cougar was 2.9 inches (74 mm) wider than the first, but the rear tread width was only fractionally bigger, making it look somewhat pigeon-toed. The vinyl roof was a popular option, at $89.40 extra, but it doesn’t look very good on the cars of this generation, because it creates a noticeable discontinuity between the roof and the body; on first-generation cars, the high skeg line provides a natural break for the vinyl top.

Since the public was apparently unenthusiastic about the idea of bigger pony cars, the Cougar and Mustang’s 1971 redesign, planned almost three years earlier, was particularly unfortunate. The Cougar’s overall length was now 196.9 inches (5,001 mm), while its wheelbase stretched to 112.1 in (2,847 mm). Curb weight for a well-equipped Cougar with the new 429 cu. in. (6,990 cc) engine ballooned to around two tons (1,800 kg). The Cougar’s electric-razor grille and concealed headlamps were abandoned for a greater resemblance to its intermediate Montego/Cyclone siblings, whose overall dimensions it was rapidly approaching.

By then, Gar Laux and Leo Beebe had departed — both left Ford in 1969. New Lincoln-Mercury general manager Matt McLaughlin felt that Mercury had no business in the sporty-car market, and moved to retrench in the middle-class family car segment. The Cougar’s performance was further de-emphasized, and Mercury now pitched it at the burgeoning personal luxury market, dominated by the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix. Buyers were not convinced; sales fell by almost 10,000 units, and by a similar amount for 1972. Motor Trend‘s A.B. Shuman remarked that the Cougar seemed to be in the midst of an identity crisis.

1973 Mercury Cougar front 3q
The 1971 Cougar was 196.9 inches long (5,001 mm) on a longer, 112.1-inch (2,847mm) wheelbase and considerably more massive than before. By 1973, the addition of 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers stretched it to 199.5 inches (5,067 mm), but the former big-block engines were gone; the only engine was the 351 (5,765 cc) V8 with 165 or 262 net horsepower (123 or 195 kW). This is a ’73, identifiable by the design of its front bumper.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

By that time, the Mustang was about to undergo a transformation of its own. Lee Iacocca, acknowledging that the original pony car had gotten too big for its own good, authorized the radically downsized, Pinto-based Mustang II for the 1974 model year.

That left the question of what to do with the Cougar. Some Ford execs advocated killing it entirely, but William Benton, who’d recently replaced Matt McLaughlin as Lincoln-Mercury general manager, argued that the division needed the Cougar as an image leader. A Pinto-based “Cougar II,” however, made no sense, because it would have competed directly with the Capri, the Anglo-German sporty compact L-M had been importing since 1971. Instead, L-M opted to make the Cougar even bigger, switching it to the midsize Torino/Montego platform and completing its transformation into a Continental Mark-style personal luxury car, similar to the Ford Elite. The fatter cat debuted for 1974 and sold almost 50% better than the moribund ’73s (although, significantly, not as well as the 1967-68 cars). The big Cougar endured through 1976.

In 1977, Lincoln-Mercury decided, for reasons now obscure, to apply the Cougar name to the entire intermediate line, resulting in the curious spectacle of Cougar-badged sedans and even station wagons. This Cougar was essentially a Mercury version of the Ford LTD II, with a similar split-wheelbase strategy (114 inches/2,896 mm for coupes, 118 inches/2,997 mm for four-doors and wagons). The XR-7 was continued, still a hardtop coupe like before, but by that time, its original sporty role had largely been absorbed by the European Capri (and then for the 1979 model year by its Fox Mustang-based successor).

Fortunately, this sorry (if lucrative) state of affairs was short lived. The Cougar wagons disappeared in 1978, although the four-door sedan persisted through 1979. For 1980, the Cougar became a cousin of Ford’s new, smaller Thunderbird, offering similar performance in a slightly more formal, luxury-oriented package — very much analogous to the original Cougar’s relationship with the Mustang.

1987 Mercury Cougar
The 1983-1988 Cougar, like its Thunderbird sibling and the Lincoln Mark VII, rode the Fox platform. It’s as long as the 1973 model, although considerably narrower, on a shorter, 104.2-inch (2,647mm) wheelbase. From 1983 to 1986, it was available with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but by 1987, base Cougars had a 231 cu. in. (3,791 cc) V6, while the XR7 had the latest version of Ford’s familiar 302 cu. in. (4,942 cc) V8 with 150 net horsepower (112 kW). (Photo © 2007 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer)

Shrinking demand for big personal-luxury coupes led to the Thunderbird-based Cougar’s demise after 1997. In 1999, however, the Cougar was transmogrified again, this time into a compact, front-wheel-drive sports coupe, sold in Europe and Australia, as well as the U.S. Alas, coupe buyers are a fickle lot, and the new Cougar’s edgy styling dated quickly. It died in 2002, largely unmourned.

NO FUTURE

In the past decade, Mercury has revived the vertical grille bars that were the trademark of the original Cougar, but there has been no move to revive the coupe. Ford’s long-term commitment to the Mercury brand appears to be limited and there’s no will to invest that kind of money in a new product.

It’s too bad. We are rather fond of the current Mustang, but it’s a bit too boy racer for our tastes. The prospect of a crisply tailored new Cougar sharing its performance but with greater polish is appealing. More than that, it would be a useful model for the future of Mercury: unashamedly derived from its Ford sibling, but offering a unique character and value of its own, based on more than cryptic marketing blather. Without that distinction, Mercury itself is not long for this world.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Information on the origins of the Cougar came from “The 9 Lives of Cougar,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1967), pp. 34-41; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1967-1973 Mercury Cougar,” HowStuffWorks.com, 24 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1967-1973-mercury-cougar.htm, accessed 21 May 2009, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Linda Clark, “1967 Mercury Cougar XR-7: More than a Mustang?” Special Interest Autos #77 (September-October 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 110-117; and Gary L. Witzenburg, Mercury Cougar 1967-1987 (Wyomissing, PA: Automobile Quarterly, Inc., 1987).

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Cougar: The Mercury Catcar’s Fascination is Finesse in Fabrication,” Car Life February 1967; “Engineering the Cougar,” Car Life 1968 Special; “Mercury Cougar XR-7 vs. Jaguar 420,” Car and Driver July 1967; and A.B. Shuman, “Two Morsels from the Lap of Luxury,” Motor Trend March 1971, all of which are reprinted in Cougar Muscle Portfolio 1967-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brookland Books Ltd., 2001).

Additional information on Cougar’s racing efforts came from Bob Ottum, “Here Comes Racing’s Cougar,” Sports Illustrated 7 November 1966, vault.sportsillustrated.cnn. com/ vault/article/magazine/ MAG1079238/index.htm, accessed 22 May 2009).

This article’s title was suggested by a lyric from the song “Stray Cat Strut,” composed by Brian Setzer and performed by the Stray Cats. It originally appeared on the band’s eponymous 1981 album.


18 Comments

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  1. Mercury: Without an Identity For Nearly 40 Years!

    …might as well be their slogan.

    These days, Mercury’s left with basically no turf. As best I can tell, today’s Lincoln occupies the territory Mercury used to. Meanwhile, they’re being usurped from below by the latest batch of high-end Fords (Edge, Flex, Taurus SHO).

    They’ve been without a buyer base for a generation now. I can only imagine Ford hasn’t killed the brand off because of the cost associated with placating dealerships (see: Oldsmobile).

    All of that said, I do rather like classic Cougars. If for no other reason than to have a Mustang that’s not a Mustang.

    1. [quote]I can only imagine Ford hasn’t killed the brand off because of the cost associated with placating dealerships[/quote]
      Well, sort of. Since Mercury exists as half of Lincoln-Mercury, the brand survives to give Lincoln dealers something cheaper to sell. Ford really doesn’t want to give up the Lincoln brand, in the hopes of eventually turning it into something meaningful again, but at this point, Lincoln can’t survive on its own, and without cheaper Mercurys to sell, L-M dealerships would probably die very quickly.

      1. The influence of dealers on manufacturers’ product mix throws an interesting wrench into the works…usually for the worse.

        1. Well, it cuts both ways. Being a slave to the dealers’ whims can be problematic, but paying no attention to the concerns of the people who will actually have to sell your products can be as bad or worse. As with consumer clinics, dealers can tell you important things, as long as you remember that neither consumers nor dealers [i]design[/i] cars, and shouldn’t be treated as if they do.

  2. Did you ever see the Mercury Cougar concept Ford showed at the 2003 Detroit show? It was surprisingly feminine, with direct references to the original Cougar.

    1. I’m not sure I know the one you’re talking about — I assume you don’t mean the 2003 Cougar Eliminator S, which was basically a tarted-up version of the last-of-the-line FWD models. Do you have a link?

        1. Ahah, no, I hadn’t seen that. It looks surprisingly good — I think the nose styling works very well. I’m not as fond of the rear clip, which seems unfocused, and powder blue is not really my color.

          What I wish they would have done would have been to introduce a Cougar whose relationship to the Mustang was similar to the relationship between the current Nissan Z and its Nissan Skyline/Infiniti G37 Coupe sibling. If the Cougar had an independent rear suspension and a plusher interior, it would actually be an interesting alternative to the G37 or the new Hyundai Genesis Coupe (which is essentially a Korean knockoff of the G37).

  3. Don’t forget, or maybe you want to forget, the 1981/1982 Ford Granada (itself just a plusher Fairmont) based Cougar sedan, coupe, and wagon, replaced by the smaller Marquis in 1983.

  4. the last gen Cougar has a very ODD relationship to the Mustang which you didn’t cover.

    the 1999-2002 car was actually supposed to have been the 3rd generation of the Ford Probe … and the 1988 Ford Probe ( sister car to the Mazda MX-6 ) was originally supposed to have been the platform that would convert the Mustang to a FWD v6 platform. only there was such a hue and cry about this change that it’s NEVER HAPPENED.

    1. Yup, and the Cougar was actually sold as a Ford in some markets (Mercury not really translating overseas).

      I mentioned the Probe/Mustang controversy a bit in the article on the Fox-body Mustangs. Selling the FWD Probe/Cougar as a Mercury made sense on paper, since Mercury didn’t have a Mustang equivalent after the demise of the U.S. Capri in 1986, but it didn’t ultimately do Lincoln-Mercury much good.

  5. The Fox-body (Mustang-based) Capri did not arrive until 1979.

    Article is good, but could use more defintion on the 77-79 model.

    1. Thanks for the correction on the Fox body — a careless error, accompanied by a really egregious typo. I’ve fixed that, and clarified a bit more about the 1977-1979 Cougar line.

    1. There wasn’t a factory Cougar convertible in 1984, but according to the Cool Cats website (which focuses on the 1983-1988 cars), a number of ’84 Cougars were converted privately by a company in Florida called Coach Builders. You might check out coolcats.net for more info.

  6. There never was a XR-7S. An "S" code 390, yes. An XR-7G, yes (as in Gurney). No mention of the Eliminator? You noted NHRA Funny Cars one well known one was named…….ELIMINATOR. Not all GT-Es were 427s either, some were 428CJs….a few with 4 speeds.

    I did several photoshops of then current 05-06 Mustangs into Cougars. Everyone at the Cougar boards liked them, but it was thought it would bleed sales off the Mustang. A lost opportunity… especially considering the Challenger and Camaro, "lost" sales would have been in-house at least.

    Sure was sad to see Murcury go. RIP.

    1. Fair points, all. I have heard the XR-7S tag applied to the original 1967 Dan Gurney Special (not the later XR7-G), but I don’t know if that was official. The 427 point was awkwardly worded; it should have been “GT-Es, including a handful with” rather than “including a handful of GT-Es.”

      I agree that the Cougar was a missed opportunity. Certainly, the current market seems to have plenty of room for “premium” versions offering distinctive styling. One obvious comparison is the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35 coupe — mechanically similar cars, but the G35 offered more refined styling, a nominal back seat, and a nicer interior for not a vast amount of extra money.

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