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Lost concept cars: The Shelby Cobra-based Ford Cougar II

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Ford’s Cougar II concept on display in Dearborn in 2017. Photo by Barry Kluczyk.

[Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from car writer/collector/fine artist Wallace Wyss.]

For our purposes, the word “lost” needs to be defined. Usually, “lost” is a descriptor applied to an object that no one car find, or something that hasn’t been seen since its original reveal. But in the case of Ford’s Cougar II — stored for decades, and nearly forgotten — the car has been seen at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2012, and at a Cougar anniversary event in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2017. So, it’s not really lost, just rather shy, one might say.

Fact: It’s a leaf spring Shelby Cobra with an original CSX chassis number and very low mileage that sits in a dark dungeon in Detroit, hardly ever seen by the public. It wears a one-off body, designed by Ford’s then-head of styling, Eugene Bordinat. The car is the 1963 Cougar II, called a “dream car” back then, but known as a “concept car” today. Ford never liked the eggshell-thin aluminum body of the Cobra, so it designed a coupe similar to the Corvette and had one made.

It is candy-apple red and called the Cougar II because there was an earlier Cougar dream car built for Ford by Italian coachbuilder Vignale. That car looks fat and doughy by comparison. The Cougar II is a fastback design with a fiberglass body and a 260-cu.in. high-performance V-8 engine, mated to a four-speed manual transmission.

Ford Cougar II concept

The Cougar II on display at the 2012 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Photo courtesy Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.

It has an all-new dashboard with full instrumentation. The roof is covered with a panel that appears to be brushed stainless steel, possibly to reflect heat. Unlike the production Cobra, with its fixed headlamps, the Cougar II received “pop-up” headlamps for a more sophisticated look.

Where the regular 260-powered street Cobra would do about 160 mph, Ford claimed that Cougar II was engineered to reach speeds in the 170-mph range. In fact, the Cobra Daytona Coupe was designed by Pete Brock because of the bad aerodynamics of the original A.C. Cobra body. Ford knew the original Cobra was deficient but since it was already working on the much faster GT40, didn’t see the sense of putting much effort back into the Cobra, beyond funding six Daytona Coupes for Shelby American.

When interior air pressure exceeded 15 pounds per square inch, a relief panel across the rear of the Cougar II’s passenger compartment opened automatically. This panel was required, since there was the possibility that at high speeds, the extreme pressure against the rear window might blow it out. The Cougar II also had a unique spring-loaded window-lift mechanism that allowed adjustment to the curved side windows.

Ford Cougar II

A period marketing photo of the Cougar II from the archives of The Henry Ford. Ford Motor Company donated the car to The Henry Ford, which in turn gifted it to the Detroit Historical Society.

Initial belief was that the Cougar II was constructed atop chassis CSX2004, because this chassis was sold back to Ford, at the request of the company’s Product and Engineering Office, for use as an engineering test mule. Though CSX2004 did receive different instrumentation, a revised suspension, and a modified wiring harness, it was later sold into private hands. California DMV records indicate the car was registered with the state as a street car in 1967, and more recent evidence indicates that the chassis has always been bodied as a Cobra.

Today, we know that the Cougar II was built on chassis CSX2008, making it an early leaf spring Cobra variant, powered by a 260 V-8. With its body replaced, CSX2008 retained few factory chassis stampings, and was finally identified by the number stamped on a frame support. Adding to the confusion was a Ford-assigned chassis number, XDCO315091, which identified the Cougar II as one of three “Styling X-cars,” along with the Allegro and Mustang II. Ford claims the Cougar II was designed before the Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray coupe; this is possible, but the timing would be awfully tight. The Sting Ray coupe was under development circa 1961 for its debut as a ’63 model.

Ford’s Styling X-cars were teased to the public in a brochure that read in part, “the car in your future from Ford might well resemble one of the Styling X-cars,” and as if to punctuate this, the Cougar II appeared in the Ford Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, alongside the near-production version of the Ford Mustang. Following this brief moment in the spotlight, the Cougar II made a round of appearances at auto shows, but soon enough dropped out of sight. Perhaps it was the unbridled success of the Mustang that ultimately doomed the Cougar II, in much the same way Ford’s pony car doomed the think-outside-the-box Chevrolet Corvair.

Today, the Cougar II and the open-air Bordinat Cobra (another prototype, built atop coil spring chassis CSX3001) are the property of the Detroit Historical Society and only see the light of day occasionally. As with the other cars in the collection, there is simply not enough space to display all the cars at any given time. Thankfully, the Cougar II and Bordinat Cobra are well-preserved, and generously shared with the public at special occasions, such as a concept car display at the Petersen Museum in 1998, the 2011 Detroit Autorama, and the 2012 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. The appearances are scheduled often enough so we know these cars — and the dreams they once represented — still exist.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of 18 automotive histories. As a fine artist, he has a number of Cobra prints available of his oil paintings. For a list, write mendoart7@gmail.com.