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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.