OLD CARS: Cougar’s impact on Mercury’s identity was staggering

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Few modern-era car models have influenced its parent brand as deeply as Cougar did Mercury.

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Before Cougar was introduced in the fall of 1966 as Mercury’s response to the pony car craze then sweeping Detroit, the brand was known for producing quality cars that were essentially clones of the Ford division.

It had been Mercury’s model since its introduction for the 1939 model year. From the start, Mercury cars were better equipped and sometimes better equipped, but essentially a product of the Ford Motor Company in appearance and aspiration.

Although it produced cars for a single model year in the 1930s, the division remained a child of that decade for many years, rarely exceeding its original goal and almost never venturing beyond its borders. induced by the company.

At that time, General Motors dominated the roost, primarily because it had six car divisions, each priced to suit a specific buyer and their social and economic aspirations. Chevrolet remained the lowest-priced model, but GM’s automobile line extended to Cadillac, which built cars that were incredibly expensive and virtually inaccessible to the average person during the Great Depression years.

GM’s production and pricing strategy left Ford at a serious disadvantage. Its Ford-branded automobiles easily rivaled Chevrolet and Chrysler Corporation’s Plymouth. But if a Ford owner had the means and the desire to upgrade to a more expensive model, he was forced to buy a car from outside the Ford Motor Company – unless he had the money to. an expensive Lincoln.

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In the mid-1930s, Ford executives decided to bridge the price gap between Ford and Lincoln. Lincoln introduced its relatively inexpensive Zephyr car for 1936, but Zephyr was still an expensive car for most people.

The next step for Ford was to create a true mid-priced car, and that was Mercury. Now those who aspired to own a car more expensive than a Ford could upgrade to Mercury. And if they wanted something even more refined, they could buy a new Zephyr. Ford had closed the gap, but not as effectively as GM.

Although the Mercury brand sold impressively in 1939, its sales became relatively stable compared to other Detroit-based brands, including Pontiac and Oldsmobile and Dodge and DeSoto. Mercury was rarely allowed by the Ford Motor Company to go beyond its original mission of providing a buying outlet for Ford owners who yearned for a more expensive car.

This mission was reflected in Mercury’s sales. During the first 30 to 40 years of its existence, sales were steady but rarely outstanding.

In contrast, the Olds and Pontiac numbers were generally healthy. Beginning in 1958 and 1959, Pontiac executives worked to push the brand beyond its traditional position within the GM hierarchy by promoting performance. This move ultimately paid huge dividends, as in 1964 Pontiac was the third best-selling marque in North America.

Mercury did not receive a similar privilege. Indeed, his position within Ford was fully exploited in 1957 when the new Edsel division was introduced. And if Edsel had succeeded as expected, it’s entirely possible that Mercury had been mothballed, just as Chrysler had abandoned DeSoto.

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Half of Mercury's production for 1967 was devoted to its new pony car, the Cougar.  Over 150,000 were built.  Handout
Half of Mercury’s production for 1967 was devoted to its new pony car, the Cougar. Over 150,000 were built. Handout

But with Edsel’s failure, company executives were forced to face Mercury. His position within Ford was later adjusted; its cars would be more closely aligned with Lincoln. Mercury cars would become larger, more luxurious and more powerful. They wouldn’t look like Fords; they would look more like Lincolns.

Curiously, this new identity was beginning to unfold at the same time that the new Mustang was being developed. Ford’s pony car would revolutionize Detroit, prompting GM to introduce its Camaro and Firefird for 1967.

Mercury’s answer was Cougar, introduced on September 30, 1966.

From the start, Cougar was carefully designed and marketed as something other than a pony car. In keeping with Mercury’s new upscale identity, Cougar was three inches longer than Mustang and draped in luxury. With its hidden headlights and sequential taillights, it was designed to look better like the Thunderbird.

For the 1967 model year, Cougar was available as a two-door hardtop, and standard equipment included simulated leather bucket seats, hidden headlights, and a V8 engine.

Two packages were available, XR-7 and GT. The first package included an overhead console, wood-trimmed steering wheel, special instrumentation on a faux walnut dash, rocker switches, leather/vinyl seats, and a T-handle automatic transmission shifter covered in leather.

Cougar buyers had six different engines to choose from, and all of them were V8s.

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Cougar was well received by the public in its first year, selling 150,893 units. Of these, 116,260 were of the two-door hardtop, while Mercury sold 7,412 GTs and 27,221 XR-7s. Sales plummeted in 1968, with 113,726 units sold. But sales of the more expensive XR-7 rose to 32,712.

Mercury unveiled its all-new Cougar in late September 1966, just days after Chevrolet launched the all-new Camaro.  The new Cougar featured sequential taillights, just like the Ford Thunderbird.  Pierre Epp
Mercury unveiled its all-new Cougar in late September 1966, just days after Chevrolet launched the all-new Camaro. The new Cougar featured sequential taillights, just like the Ford Thunderbird. Pierre Epp jpeg, California

Cougar’s importance to the Mercury brand in 1967 cannot be overstated. Although in 1967 Ford sold over one million Mustang models, Cougar’s 150,893 cars accounted for about half of all Mercury vehicles sold for the same model year. The new luxury pony car went on to have a huge impact on Mercury and its corporate culture.

And these sales were not planned. Production targets had to be raised by Mercury officials and a second factory dedicated to Cougar production.

The new Cougar hit a sweet spot that was not tapped by any car or brand. Detroit produced pony cars, but most focused on the youth market and later on the performance market, but none had their eye on the personal luxury market.

And yet, Cougar managed to hit all three targets. It was the only Mercury to carve out a niche for itself that was not occupied by anyone else. And almost as important, Cougar was the first car that lifted Mercury out of the lofty shadow of the Ford division.

Cougar sales would climb over the years, but those sales would never again dominate Mercury production as they had during the 1967 model year. But the Cougar mystique would. It would be so thoroughly appropriated by Mercury’s marketing teams and become so ingrained in the division’s culture that customers in the 1970s and 1980s were invited to review new Mercury cars “At the sign of the cat”, or at a Lincoln dealership -Mercury. .

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Additionally, Mercury has done its best to capitalize on Cougar’s success by naming some of its new products with Cougar-like names. The Pinto clone of Mercury became the Bobcat, while in 1981 Mercury’s copy of the Escort was called Lynx, and in 1986 the Mercury clone of the new Ford Taurus became Sable.

Mercury clung so tightly to Cougar’s success and personality that even after the original pony car concept was dropped, the Cougar name was not. At some point, Cougar became a personal luxury car. And then it became a family car that included a four-door sedan and – of all things – a station wagon.

Later, Cougar teamed up with Ford’s smaller Thunderbird as the company’s models were downsized. Cougar’s final appearance in the Mercury name was as a small European-style economy car.

Indeed, the Cougar nameplate has lasted so long that it has become the most popular Mercury of all time. Grand Marquis was in second place, but it was built for more years. Ironically, Marquis and Cougar debuted with the 1967 model year.

The Cougar name was used until 2002. The Mercury brand itself was closed in 2011.

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