Ford Mercury Cougar - Muscle Car Review 2020 - Muscle Car

Ford Mercury Cougar – Muscle Car Review 2020

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Written by Elise

20th November 2020

Ford Mercury Cougar – Muscle Car Review 2020
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Ford Mercury Cougar – Muscle Car Review 2020

By Chris Williams

Selecting the name ‘Cougar’ for the badge of your car was always going to be a double-edged sword. Frankly, it would not have mattered so much if the Mercury Cougar had been a harmless hatchback; the name ‘Cougar’ would have given it some feisty spice. 

Instead, the Mercury Cougar was designed as a grown-up muscle car and therefore completely analogous of its target market: the slightly more mature American who still sought the thrills of youth. Perhaps I am in the minority for my Urban Dictionary-type interpretation of cougar, in which case the Mercury Cougar badge projected the image of an aggressive cat and was a bit of a Jaguar rip-off.

Irrespective of the Mercury Cougar’s badge, the idea of a muscle car for grown-up Americans was an interesting one dreamed up by Ford’s Mercury division. That idea is certainly thriving today in the form of sporty SUVs but the success of that concept had a different outcome fifty years ago. 

The Mid-life Mustang

The muscle car craze of the 1960s and 1970s was propelled largely by youth. Youth developed them, bought them, and drove them. Young Americans at that time saw movie screens awash with Steve McQueen and Barry Newman roaring around in the most popular V8 freedom machines and read about NASA astronauts tearing around in Chevrolet Corvettes in their spare time. 

Anti-establishment ran high in young Americans during those decades too, and for those who were not of a hippie disposition, the prospect of sneaking races between the lights when the police wasn’t looking was highly appealing. 

But in the mid-1960s, Mercury thought that there were people – typically slightly older people – who liked the appeal of a muscle car but still wanted luxuries such as power steering, a vinyl roof to keep out the rain that Credence Clearwater Revival was always singing about, or sound insulation to keep out Hendrix’s experimental shrieking blaring from the nearby Mustang’s stereo.

Mercury tapped into this potential customer base almost as soon as Mercury caught wind of Ford’s development of the Mustang in 1962. Initially Ford was dubious about Mercury producing a car in tandem with their new, unproven design. However, Mercury did get the green light from Ford in 1964 following the volcanic sales eruption of the Mustang

Mercury spent $40 million developing the Cougar and from first glance, it’s hard to see where the money went, because the first generation Cougar looks like a Mustang wearing shutter shades. In actual fact, however, the only exterior panels the two cars shared was the roof and rear decklid. Even the Cougar’s wheelbase was three inches longer. 

Mechanically, it was essentially the same as the Mustang. When it went on sale in September 1966, the Cougar came with a 289ci or 390ci V8 and a base price of only a few hundred dollars more than the Mustang. 

Bearing the slogan of “untamed elegance”, the Cougar was allegedly America’s first luxury sports car at a “popular price”. Given the number of adjectives in that claim, that can’t have been too difficult. Yet, the Cougar clearly resonated with many, at least initially. Mercury sold over 150,000 Cougars in its first year—crumbs compared to the Mustang but it made up a third of Mercury sales. 

Mercury Cougar Variants

As the grown-up car it was, the Cougar initially came with no ‘clown models’ with absurdly large engines or neon paint. But that didn’t last long. The 1968 Mercury Cougar, merely a year after it was launched, could be bought with a 427ci in the GT-E and in 1969 you could get a Cougar with a 428ci Cobra Jet engine. 

Then in 1970 along came the tremendously named Cougar Eliminator with its neon paint options, spoilers, and choice of 428ci Cobra Jet or 302 Boss engines. Despite this extra tinsel, the Cougar was unable to sell in volume after its first year. By 1970, the final year of production for the first-generation Cougar, annual sales were less than half what they were in 1967.

When the Cougar was refreshed in 1971, the new styling was unquestionably more Lincoln Continental than Ford Mustang; more cheeseburger than energy bar. Yet, Mercury persisted with the sports-luxury crossover concept–aligning with today’s current motoring fashion–offering the Cougar with a 429ci Cobra Jet. 

That was dropped in 1972, and from thereon in the Cougar joined the fate facing the muscle car breeds, becoming increasingly malnourished by emissions regulations and oil crises. Unlike manufacturers in Europe, who moved with the times and used engineering to develop more horsepower per litre, American cars detuned their beloved V8 engines to the point where they would barely power a tin opener. 

In terms of persona, you could happily argue that the Cougar held a lot in common with a muscle car of the same era with a few more bells and whistles: Buick’s Skylark and Gran Sport.  But I have never seen the two compared. It would appear that the while the Buick was accepted into the muscle car domain with a slight point of difference in higher trim level, the Cougar remained on the periphery as dogfish to the muscle car reef sharks. Odd, given the strikingly similar specification levels.

1975 Mercury Cougar Onwards

It has never ceased to amaze me that irrespective of how blatantly terrible American muscle cars became between around 1975 and 2000, they continued to sell well. I could pick any famous name, but the Cougar happily proves my point. 

In the last third of the 1970s, the fourth-generation Cougar had all but totally abandoned the idea of luxury sport and had simply opted for fat. In this generation, one could also get the Cougar as a wagon or a sedan in addition to the coupe, where the former was nearly six metres long. The Cougar of the late 1970s came with a colossal 400ci V8 that produced a paltry 170 horsepower; the 351ci produced less that 150. Yet, despite these lacklustre and generally terrible specs, the fourth generation Cougar outsold the original from 1967 every year between 1977 and 1979.

Everyone avoids talking about muscle cars from this era, for good reason, but I wish to mention the seventh generation Cougar that ran from 1989 to 1997. Ford spent $2 billion developing the platform of this car, with the intention it could genuinely compete with the BMW 6 series, big Mercs, and the Jaguar XJS for dynamics. 

Looking at it, the nineties Cougar appears as sporty as today’s Nissan Qashqai yet had respectable credentials. The top-end Cougar XR-7 had fully independent suspension, four-disc brakes, and a 0-60mph time of just over eight seconds. 

Let’s not go nuts: this was hardly a serious competitor for the Europeans or Japanese but it was certainly one of the best American-made cars at the time, even if the styling was unpleasant nineties America. As such, you would expect the Cougar to have done very well as a semi-sophisticated, reasonably priced machine. Curiously, year on year, it was the worst-selling Cougar so far.   

The Classic Cougar: A Good Idea Turned Sour

The luxury sports car idea sounds good in theory, as did the Cougar name badge. It promised the best of both worlds: an aggressive but comfortable performer. Yet, in practice, it ended up being a bad compromise if completed to a budget. 

Only a few individuals end up succeeding as a mature performer, such as Jaguar’s late XKR. And what these few, predominantly European, examples prove is that you need to invest in substantial engineering efforts to pull off this double act. In turn, that means luxury sports cars are inevitably quite expensive.  

Fortunately, the first and second generation Cougars of the late sixties and early seventies were rather attractive. The Cougar Eliminator in particular looks brilliant. These days we can drive and appreciate them as a nice classic car, so long as we aren’t really bothered about heritage. And if you were wondering, there is a Cougar Club of America. No doubt they have weathered every pun, every double entendre under the sun…but it’s still funny. I would have loved to have heard the speeches at the CCOA’s 50th anniversary of the Cougar.     

Author: Chris Williams

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