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Gone, but not forgotten – Mercury’s Cougar turns 50

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1967 Mercury Cougar. Brochure and print ad images courtesy

It was meant to bridge the gap in the Ford product line between the Mustang and the Thunderbird, but Mercury’s Cougar would go on to become a mainstay of the division, ultimately symbolizing the “sign of the cat” brand. Beginning with a single two-door hardtop model, the Cougar would go on to spawn convertible, sedan, hatchback and even station wagon variants, but like the rest of the Mercury division, it’s now little more than a memory of our automotive past. Introduced on September 30, 1966, the final Cougar rolled off the assembly line on August 2, 2002. In honor of the half century that’s passed since the Cougar’s debut, here’s a look back at its origins.

1967 Mercury Cougar Dan Gurney Edition

1967 Mercury Cougar Dan Gurney Edition. Photo by Richard Lentinello.

The Cougar is often described as Lincoln-Mercury’s response to the Ford Mustang, but the Cougar’s origins pre-date the launch of the Ford Mustang. As early as 1963, the Lincoln-Mercury division was engaged in designing a sporty compact car, but the project only gained momentum in the summer of 1964, when John Aiken, the manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Advanced Styling Studio, was put in charge. Prior to Aiken’s involvement, Mercury considered launching a Mustang with a restyled fiberglass front end, but quality issues with both paint and panel fit nixed the idea.

1967 Mercury Cougar

If Mercury was going to produce such a car, it was going to do it right, and that meant a clean-sheet design. Only the Mustang’s platform, windshield and roof rails would be retained, clothed in new sheet metal and riding on a wheel base stretched to 111 inches (from the 1967 Mustang’s 108 inches). The Mercury product would be a luxury sport coupe, positioned in size, price and prestige between the Mustang and Thunderbird, both restyled for the 1967 model year.

Though thoroughly dissimilar in design, Aiken and Cougar chief designer Buz Griesinger admitted to being influenced by the sculpted appearance of the Jaguar Mark X sedan. As Aiken told Gary L. Witzenburg in Automobile Quarterly Volume 4, Number 24, “We looked very strongly at the Jaguar sedan, and we asked ourselves, ‘What is the mystique of the Jaguar?’ We wanted a car that, like the Jag, was curvaceous and feline in shape and form, with a highly sculpted look.”

1967 Mercury Cougar

To that end, the side sculpting on the Cougar was meant to accentuate the car’s overall length, further distinguishing it from the Mustang. The Jaguar played a role in the Cougar’s interior design as well, adding touches like toggle switches for interior lighting and the faux burl walnut dash that would grace XR-7 models, introduced midway through the Cougar’s first year.

1967 Mercury Cougar

Mechanically, the Cougar would differ from the Mustang in several significant ways. As Mark McCourt spelled out in our 1967-69 Mercury Cougar Buyer’s Guide, published in the January 2004 Hemmings Muscle Machines, no six-cylinder engine option was available, leaving consumers to choose between a 289 V-8 topped by a two-barrel carburetor, rated at 200 horsepower; a 289 V-8 topped by a four-barrel carburetor, rated at 225 horsepower; a 390 V-8, topped by a two-barrel carburetor and rated at 280 horsepower; and a 390 V-8, topped by a four-barrel carburetor and exhaling through a dual exhaust, rated at 320 horsepower. Transmission choices included the standard three-speed manual, a “top loader” four-speed manual, and a three-speed Merc-O-Matic with Select Shift, which allowed drivers to hold first or second gear.

1967 Mercury Cougar Dan Gurney Edition

The Cougar’s 289 V-8 was good for up to 225 horsepower when topped by a four-barrel carburetor. Photo by Richard Lentinello.

In keeping with it pseudo-luxury focus, the Cougar received a revised suspension as well, tuned more for comfort and compliance than for handling. A performance handling package featuring stiffer springs, heavy-duty shocks, and a larger front anti-roll bar was available for those wanting a sportier feel, but the Cougar was also saddled with an additional 123 pounds of sound deadening material compared to the Mustang.

In preparation for the car’s launch, automotive journalists of the day received press releases from towns with “Cougar” in the name, Cougar burgers (spiced ground beef, shipped on dry ice), Cougar crackers, Cougar wine and Cougar cookies, ensuring that no one would forget the car’s name at its September 1966 debut. Pitched by Ford executives as “America’s first luxury sports car at a popular price,” the Cougar promised consumers “Untamed elegance! …an entirely new kind of road animal from Mercury.”

1967 Mercury Cougar Dan Gurney Edition

Dan Gurney Edition interior. Photo by Richard Lentinello.

Well-equipped even in its most basic form, the Cougar hit the market priced from $2,851, or $350 more than a base Mustang. Opting for the more luxurious XR-7 version brought the price of admission to $3,081, which was still a considerable bargain compared to European luxury sports cars. In the words of Lincoln-Mercury general manager and Ford vice president Gar Laux, “In a nutshell, the Cougar XR-7 is the car for the man who aspires to Aston Martin, but doesn’t have James Bond’s pocketbook.”

The press liked it, too, with most describing the Cougar as a more refined version of the Mustang. Motor Trend named it Car of the Year for 1967, and perhaps to prove it was no slouch on the race track, Mercury enlisted the services of Dan Gurney to campaign the car in the SCCA’s Trans Am series, resulting in a Dan Gurney Special Edition Cougar XR-7.

1967 Mercury Cougar Trans Am

Dan Gurney in his Bud Moore Mercury Cougar at Kent, Washington in 1967. Photo courtesy Ford Motorsports.

In its debut year, the Cougar sold 150,893 examples, but by 1970, the last year of the original Mercury Cougar, just 72,343 were built. In 1971 a new Cougar was launched, still based upon the Mustang, but by the time the third-generation cat debuted in 1974, its basis was the larger Ford Torino. This version would be replaced by an even larger Cougar, riding on the LTD platform and ultimately spawning a station wagon, available with or without fake wood paneling, in 1977.

Three more generations of Cougars would come and go from 1980 – 1997, but by then the car’s sales numbers were truly dismal. In 1996, just under 39,000 examples were sold, but this would fall further, to just over 35,000 examples, the following year. With its MN12 platform cancelled, the Cougar appeared to have given its last roar.

Except the brand wasn’t quite ready to give up on the name just yet. For 1999, Mercury revived the Cougar as a sport compact built upon the Ford Contour platform and sharing its front-engine, front-wheel drive layout. Power options were limited to four and six-cylinder engines, and while a sportier variant (borrowing heavily from the Contour SVT parts bin) was discussed, the model never made it to production. After the first-year novelty wore off, consumers weren’t drawn to reborn Cougar, and sales fell from 88,288 units in 1999 to just over 25,000 examples in 2001, its penultimate year. With little fanfare, the Cougar nameplate disappeared from the American landscape at the end of the 2002 model year.