Cougar Road Tests - GT-E Prototype
Magazine articles and road test reports were vital to marketing performance cars during the classic Cougar era. Favorable reviews in the leading automotive publications of the day, like Motor Trend, Car Craft and Car & Driver could help move a lot of cars off the showroom floor.
While automobile manufacturers depended on magazine articles to help boost sales, it is also true that the magazine publishers relied on auto builders for a significant portion of their advertising revenue. This symbiotic relationship gave many readers cause to wonder just how objective magazine reviews were, especially when a full color centerfold ad promoting a road test car appeared a page or two after the road test article.
Were deals made? Probably, but there is also evidence that some publications were willing to tell it like it was, regardless of the consequences to their advertising income. For example, next month we'll show you a Car Life road test that very likely left Lincoln-Mercury's public relations people reaching for their aspirin bottles.
This month, however, we're spotlighting a GT-E review that appeared in the May, 1968 issue of Car Craft. To say that it is a favorable report is an understatement, but we'll let you draw your own conclusions about the article's objectivity.
The Car Craft GT-E report begins with a paragraph summarizing the Cougar's two year history. The paragraph concludes with this sentence, "From the beginning, the Cougar's acceptance was a bit phenomenal as the big cat began cutting a huge swath into the sporty-compact field, gathering accolades—like Motor Trend magazine's 'Car of the Year Award' along the way."
From there, author, Terry Cook, gives readers a description of the GT-E's unique features, emphasizing the hood scoop and the 428 Cobra Jet beneath it. About the CJ 428, the article reports, "For openers, this is the same engine that walked off with all the marbles in Super Stock Eliminator at the recent NHRA Winternationals. This NHRA lethal, err make that NHRA legal, package has got to be one of the hottest new engines on the market today."
"From this or any angle, Mercury's XR-7 Cougar is a looker. Chrome rocker molding along bottom of body line sets off the snappy red paint job and black vinyl roof. Wide tires reside on Ford-Merc 'mags,' still the best looking production trick wheels after four years."
An interesting aspect of this particular "road test" is that it was one of Car Craft's Car Club Road Test reviews, which meant that, instead of magazine staff members conducting a formal road test with professional equipment, a bunch of guys from a local Michigan car club—the Mill Winders—got to play with the CJ 428, while the author took notes on their reactions. Interesting approach, no?
"Michigan's Mill Winders braved near zero weather to get a close look at potent new 428 cube engine."
Cook describes the test car as a "snappy red model with black vinyl top and chrome rocker molding." He also mentions that it was the first 428 Cougar built. Stepping away from the road test for a moment, we checked with TCCN's GT-E guru, Jim Pinkerton, for a little more information about this particular car, and learned a few interesting tidbits. For one thing, this car didn't begin life as a GT-E, or even as a 1968 Cougar. Its original VIN was 7F91F500013, a 1967 standard with a 302 2V engine. But, wait. The 302 engine wasn't available until 1968, so how could a '67 model have an F engine code? Jim explains that this car was most likely a factory "mule," that is, a test vehicle used for trying out various drive train combinations and design features.
By the time of Car Craft's road test, 00013 had a new VIN—8F93W500038—and had become a GT-E prototype. But, wait again. The car's new VIN carries a W engine code, indicating that it had a 427 4V. The Car Craft article describes it as a CJ 428 Ram Air car. How can that be? Jim explains that, as a GT-E prototype, the car was equipped with the original GT-E engine (the 427). Then, when the decision was made in mid-model year to switch to the 428, the factory "mule" was used as a test bed for the new engine. And, that's how it was equipped when L-M loaned the car to Car Craft for their road test.
Today, 00038 is owned by National Cougar Database Registrar, Phil Parcells, and is undergoing a complete restoration that will return it to the condition the car was in when Car Craft tested it. In addition to being a GT-E prototype, what makes this car unique is that its driver side inner fender still carries both of the car's VINs. Even in the strange, whacky world of Cougars, a car with two VINs is a rarity.
The Car Craft test GT-E as it looked before Phil Parcells began its current restoration.
Returning to Car Craft's report on 00038, we come to what they described as the initial phase of the road test, an analysis of the GT-E exterior styling. The club members were reportedly impressed with the styled steel wheels and, of course, the hood scoop. According to the article, "The hood scoop was another feature which set the car apart from the pack, and all members agreed that Cougar is one of, if not the nicest looking sporty compacts on the market."
Next came an interior analysis. Here the XR-7 styling didn't fair quite as well in the eyes of the "pull no punches" test panel. They were dismayed by such critical points as a lack of rear seat room and the fact that, without a map compartment, the console top was bound to end up cluttered with pencils and cigarette packs. While they liked the easy to read instrumentation and the optional tilt/swing-away steering wheel, they couldn't see why the oil pressure gauge was located on the driver side of the dashboard. In the face of such scathing criticism, it's amazing the L-M sold any XR-7s at all!
"Take a peek at the interior—you'll find a simulated wood dashboard that's just loaded with toggle switches and rally-type instruments. It's a plush, pert package."
Moving right along to the engine compartment, the test panel found fault with the limited elbow room caused by the shock towers. Other than that, everything seemed acceptable under the hood.
Since this wasn't an "official" road test, driving data was limited to personal observations. In general, the car received exceptional marks in ride, handling and braking—one panic stop from 80 MPH failed to produce any brake fade. As for fuel economy, the author explains that the car didn't have the correct speedometer gear, so they couldn't check fuel consumption. He estimated it as being around eight miles per gallon.
"Muscle for this Mercury comes from a 428 cubic inch Cobra-Jet engine, complete with ram air package. This is the same powerplant that just nabbed Super Stock Eliminator honors at Pomona."
Summing up the CJ 428's performance, the article said, "We must say that the Ram Air 428 Cobra Jet engine in the Cougar poses a pleasantly peppy package. Although I wouldn't choose off any Street Hemi's with the 428 Cougar, I will say that for the most part the car can more than hold its own in super car competition as far as performance goes."
It's interesting to note that, while the Car Craft test Cougar clearly carries GT-E trim, and we know from a historical point of view that it was a GT-E prototype, nowhere in the article is the car actually referred to as a GT-E. Note also, that the test car is missing the front fender 7.0 Litre GT-E badges. While we can only speculate as to why Car Craft describes the car as an XR-7 Cobra Jet Cougar, one good guess might be that L-M wanted to emphasize the availability of the CJ 428 in all Cougars, rather than promoting the GT-E option. Up until the introduction of the 428 near the end of the model run, the only way you could get a Cougar with a 7.0 litre engine was to buy a GT-E with its standard 427. When the 427 was replaced by the 428, the engine became available in all Cougars.
So why didn't L-M give Car Craft a 428 car without GT-E trim to test? Again, this is speculation, but it may be that the GT-E prototype tested was the only 428 Cougar available to be loaned out for testing at that point.