Mercury Cougar 1967 - 1973

Text excerpted from the April, 1994 Motor Trend magazine. Photos from Ford Motor Company


Despite the hugely successful launch of the Mustang in April '64, Ford Motor Company was in the midst of a serious dilemma.  Corporate strategy called for the Lincoln-Mercury division to market its own spin-off of the car, but doing so without stealing buyers from the blue-oval marque would be a major challenge.  To merely change the grille, taillights, wheel covers, and badging would've been de rigueur marketing in the old days, but LM's then-general-manager, Frank E. Zimmerman Jr. took a more tactical approach.  His "pony car" would be larger, more luxurious and targeted at a more sophisticated, predominantly male market.  European-influenced styling would be evident inside and out, and grand-touring performance (not street-fighter muscle) would be its calling card.

Code-named T-7, the Mercury project was already in high gear 14 months before the first Mustang hit dealer showrooms.  In fact, Lincoln-Mercury's execs wanted the car to debut at the same time as Ford's new youth vehicle, but FoMoCo's ultra-conservative top management, still recovering from the infectious financial wound called Edsel, wasn't willing to gamble.  They'd wait and see what happened with the Mustang before committing one extra dollar for the development of a twin.  As fate would have it, those dubious denizens of Dearborn wouldn't have long to wait; over 100,000 Mustangs were sold during the first four months.  Filled with the gluttonous glee that only total market domination can bring, Lee Iacocca (then recently appointed to the loft position of Ford Vice President, Cars and Trucks -- with overall responsibility for the LM division, as well) cast his vote in favor of proceeding with Mercury's own youthful image car.

A wide range of original styling themes was studied (including a fastback roofline) before design approval was granted Feb. 18, 1965.  With his new car's on-sale target date a full 18 months after the Mustang's debut, Zimmerman knew he'd have to deliver a winner right off the bat.  Plenty had transpired in that brief time period, and the upscale end of the affordable performance marker, seemingly so easy to conquer in '64, was now ripe with entries.  This was to be the premier season for Camaro and Firebird, the second year for the Dodge Charger, and the fourth installment of Plymouth's Barracuda.

The sleek Mercury slotted in between the Falcon-based Comet Cyclone and full-size Monterey, and comparably equipped, a Cougar was priced about $200 higher than a Mustang.  The majority of the powertrain, suspension, and basic platform components were common to both vehicles, but only the roof panel and decklid sheetmetal could be utilized by both.  Hidden headlights and triple taillights with sequential turn signals (similar to the '64-'66 Thunderbird's lavish design) marked the most-obvious external styling differences.  Overall length (190.3 inches) was 6.7 inches greater than the stretch of the restyled '67 Mustang, and rear-seat passengers in the Cougar had 2 inches more legroom to enjoy.  The 2+2 cockpit design was similar to the topline Mustang's though the Merc could be had with cloth or leather upholstery, instead of merely vinyl; a handful were ordered with a front bench seat . . . yuck.

In the only performance that matters in the boardroom--sales--the '67 Cougar was a rousing success.  The hoped-for production target f 100,000 vehicles ballooned into 150,893 signed-on-the-bottom-line sales.  Moreover, the stealthy cat was bestowed with Motor Trend 's Car of the Year award.  But it was to be a short-lived thrill ride.  Annual sales dropped to 72,343 in '70 and dwindled to a mere 53,702 by '72.  Mercury's nervous response was to replace muscle with fluff; adding tonnage and packing on the high-profit options.  And it worked.  The same year the Mustang was reformatted into a Pinto-sized paper tiger (remember the '74 Mustang II?) the Cougar grew in size and sales.  The convertible model was gone after '73, and by '77, this former pride of Mercury's performance arsenal was offered as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and even a station wagon.  sales erupted to a then-all-time-high of nearly 185,000 units, while performance lapsed into sedentary pedestrianism.

That's an ignominious legacy to endure for anyone who's ever had his head turned by the beauty and brawn of the original Mercury Cougar.  This retrospective covers the Cougar's performance years: '67 thru '73.

The Cougar Years

1967 - 1968

It was an era long before political correctness and gender amorphism became the unwritten law of the land and Lincoln Mercury's General Manager Frank E. Zimmerman Jr. saw his new Cougar solidly positioned as "a man's car."  This was the fabulous Mustang taken several rungs upscale, with extra rear-seat room, better-quality innards, and an overall feeling of what Mercury's sales literature described as "scaled-down luxury."  Unlike the Mustang line, there was no ragtop in the mix, but a similar GT trim package existed.  The topline Cougar was known as XR-7, h high-luxury machine embodying, as our report in the February '67 issue stated, "a walnut-grained custom instrument panel frankly patterned after one that might be found in a Jag or Aston Martin.  The one we drove stickered out just over $4000, but felt like $8000."

Going after image enhancement at every level, Mercury's marketing people concocted the XR-7S show car.  This tribute to Dan Gurney's SCCA Trans-Am race Cougars featured a fiberglass hood, modified grille, twin bullet mirrors, and the brawn of a 428 V-8.  Of course, Trans-Am race rules enforced a limit of 305 cubic-inches, but what did the marketing guys know?  Gurney's real race cats were motivated by a 289-cubic-inch V-8 with dual four-barrel Holley carbs, 10.5:1 compression and something over 400 horsepower.  Unfortunately, the Cougar team's lead driver, Parnelli Jones, would find himself perennially behind Carroll Shelby's Mustang and Roger Penske's hard-charging Camaro (though Gurney's team had enough points to finish second overall in the year-end standings).  A limited production version of the gurney Cougar (XR7-G) bowed in '68, but despite management's best effort to establish a racing heritage for its image leader, a mere 2.7 percent of all '68 Cougars were equipped with a four-speed manual gearbox. 

The available powerteams in '67 were basic Mustang fare: 289 cubic-inch V-8s to start, or the 390-cubic-inch/320-horsepower tire-shredding big-block as the top option.  The 390 was the straight-line fast-master (0-60 mph in 8.1 seconds, with an automatic), but a quick trip in a dual-quad 289 Cougar prepped for street/track use was what really took away our old-time writer's breath (Jan. '67).  "We heard it coming long before it drove into sight.  The rumbling engine quit soon as the driver turned off the key, but from the general demeanor of the beast, we wouldn't have been surprised to see him beating it with a stick to make it stop."  It ran 0-60 mph in 7.0 seconds, and the quarter mile in 15.1 seconds at 94.0 mph, proving there was Shelby speed potential hiding in the comfy cat. 

Mercury's exec would need to bring more power to the battlefield for '68, even if all they were trying to do was stay even with the competition.  Chevy had a 396-powered Camaro, Pontiac a 400-cubic-inch Firebird; the Barracuda boasted a 383 V-8, and even stodgy American Motors entered the street brawl with its 390-poowered AMX.  The Cougar's base 289 powerplant was augmented by a 302-cubic-inch/230-horsepower small-block, but the top stomper became the 428-cubic-incher, underrated at 335 horsepower, but they were actually making closer to 360. 

A very few (358 to be exact) 427-cubic-inch/390-horsepower detuned Cobra "side oiler" engines were lowered into the cramped engine bays of '68 Cougar GT-E models, but all such factory-installed powerplants were backed with three-speed Merc-O-Matic automatic transmissions.  " It's a stormer on flat straights or a roundy-round track," we beamed (Nov. '67).  "The GT-E is as close to all-out sports-car handling as is possible while retaining a fair share of boulevard smoothness.  Exhaust noise is minimal, and the engine works silently.  Recorded times at the end of a quarter-mile run (13.7 seconds) are something to shout about."

The Cougar Years

1969 - 1970


The first major restyle occurred in '69 and brought more muscular body lines plus 3.5 inches additional overall length, nearly 3 inches greater width, and a lower profile to boot.  A convertible joined the ranks for the first time, sharing its revamped interior--great passenger room and improved instrumentation--with the rest of the Cougar line.  The previous year's XR-7G and -7R models were nowhere to be seen as the legion of donut-engorged automotive writers rolled off the bus to thrash around in the new '69s, but added excitement i the engine bay delivered tire-smoking thrills nonetheless.

A larger standard powerplant (351 cubic-inches/250 horsepower) replaced the 289, which was feeling beleaguered under the rising tide of emissions equipment all motors were forced to carry; a four-barrel version upped horsepower to 290.  The 428 Cobra Jet was the hairiest regular production setup in '69, offering 335 horsepower and available Ram-air induction in addition to a competition handling package, racing-type hood-lock pins and E70 fiberglass belted tires (those were the good ones).  Legend has it that exactly two '69 Cougars were factory-fitted with the Boss 429 mega-motor, making them the most collectible of all Mercury cats. 

A two-year special edition, and one of the flashiest Cougars of all, was the Eliminator.  Slathered in as bright of paint as Ford's suppliers could mix up, this scooped, striped, and spoilered loudmouth was at the other end of the taste spectrum from the gentleman's GT that Zimmerman originally conceived as Mercury's pony car.  But something had to be done to resuscitate the Cougar's steadily falling sales, and if coddling the teenage street-race segmant would do the trick, so be it.  Unveiled as a mid-year model, the Eliminator took its name directly from the drag-racing circles it hoped to impress. "Dyno" Don Nicholson's innovative and successful flip-top Funny Car in '68 wore a fiberglass Cougar body and giant Eliminator graphics in honor of sponsor Coca-Cola's campaign as the "Thirst Eliminator."  Engines ranged from the 290-horsepower 351 V-8 to the similarly underrated Boss 302 mill, but topped the insurance rate cards with the 428 Cobra Jet.  A total of 2411 Eliminators were built in '69; 2200 in '70. 

Motor Trend didn't test a Cougar Eliminator, but instrumented the 351-powered convertible instead.  Despite referring to the design of its bucket seats as "travesties" (March '69), our writer lauded the open-air Cougar's handling and road manners.  "No rolling.  No pitching.  Drift through a corner, a little steering, a little throttle, and you power through. 

By '70, Mercury had revamped most every model in its lineup to reflect the division's new-found street-hero image.  Sure the Cougar Eliminator and 429-powered Cyclone Spoiler were the big guns, but even the full-size Monterey line boasted a Marauder X-100 supertanker that'd burn rubber with the best of 'em.

The Cougar Years

1971 - 1973


This is the beginning of the end for Mercury's glory days.  Not since the early 50's had the division owned such a rebellious performance image among the nation's youth, and that magic was about to come to a crashing halt.  The division's new general manager, Matt McLaughlin, was eager to return the marque to its former positioning as the producer of upscale family cars.  Fueling this prairie fire of midwest sensibility was the government's ever-more-stringent legislation, which made it an easy decision to abandon high-performance altogether.

Thought the hard-core enthusiast still could find big power on the Cougar's order sheet (a 370-horsepower/429-cubic-inch Super Cobra jet was the last of the killer motors), that sinewy muscle came wrapped in a new body shape that looked more like Aunt Matilda's grocery-getter than a hormone-engorged street machine.  Sad, but true, our test of the '71 Cougar showed it pitted against a Chevy Monte Carlo rather than a z28.  An extra 2.9 inches in length gave the new cat a more ponderous feel, without much of a payback anywhere else.  Our ragtop test car was motivated by a 285-horsepower/351-cubic-inch high-compression V-8, and managed 0-60 mph in 8.3 seconds.  The story concluded "the Cougar can be a nice car . . . if you get a hardtop, but if you often must carry four adults, it's not for you.  Cougar at this point in time (with the ram air 429 CJ still on the option list), is a car in search of an identity." 

Matt McLaughlin's division chalked up record sales in '72, the same year it canceled the might 429 CJ motor and the super hot Cyclone model line.  By then, the mid-engined Pantera and imported-from-Germany Capri sought to fill the empty shoes of the Cougar's former performance image.  Neither made sense to be associated with the LM marketing schematic and never made the impact expected of them.  But, for a brief shining moment--somewhere between '68 and '71--on Main Streets across America, the Mercury Cougar mattered.