The Mercury Cougar is finally getting the respect it deserves. The once-celebrated coupe, a brand icon in Motown’s heyday, has long been overshadowed by the likes of the Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda. But that may be changing as the now-defunct nameplate gathers more attention.
Hot Rod Magazine recently profiled a ‘68 XR7-G, one of the Hertz Rent-a-Racers in vogue back in the era. Automobile Magazine also featured the car in its April “Collectible Classic” edition. And then there is Brian Cooley’s review of a ‘67 Cougar in a February episode of CNET on Cars, concluding:
The Cougar lies somewhere between Mustang and Thunderbird. It brings a more compliant ride and also a quieter ride… It fits somewhere in the range of someone who wants more of a GT [Grand Tourer] than a sports car with that European touch.
Those characteristics are the norm in today’s car market. Everyone wants a small, rear-drive luxury-sport coupe. Coincidentally, the Mercury Cougar was Detroit’s one and only standalone, small luxury-sport coupe back in ’67.
Reconstructing the Mercury Cougar
The Mercury Cougar was one of the “pony cars” that sprang up in the 1960s. These cars got their nickname from the model that started it all, the Mustang, a small, fashionable, customizable and inexpensive coupe that shook the market in 1964. Competitors took note of the Mustang’s styling cues and responded with their own “ponies” later in the decade.
By 1967, the Mustang faced the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, and a remodeled Plymouth Barracuda. Ford responded by building an upscale, more refined sibling to the Mustang. That car was the Cougar.
Where the Mustang emphasized hard-edged sportiness and frugality, the Mercury Cougar was all about polish. It featured a padded interior, a power sunroof, sound-deadening material, sequential tail lights, hideaway headlamps, and a V-8 engine as standard. The cabin was quiet, the ride soft, and the rear seat tolerable — a rarity in such a car.
Mercury offered the early Cougars (those spanning from 1967 to ’73) with a choice of three transmissions, ranging from a column-mounted three-speed manual to a floor-mounted automatic. Other features included engines from 4.7 to 7.0 L (look up the “Cobra Jet”), a convertible from ’69 onward and five optional trim levels, including the common XR-7 and performance-oriented Eliminator.
The Mercury Cougar excited the public upon its debut, rocketing Mercury’s sales and earning Motor Trend’s much-coveted “Car of the Year Award.” The staff proclaimed the Cougar as a “multiplex combination of engineering, styling and market timing that when perfectly enjoined do together create progress sufficient to set an industry trend.”
Where cars like Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger often compromised comfort for performance, the Cougar yielded the promise of a compact GT — well, compact by American standards. The Cougar was much longer than a Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, perhaps the best-selling Euro GT of the period.
Still, one can argue that the Europeans soon followed the Mercury Cougar model, releasing larger luxury-sport coupes comparable to the early Cougars dimensions. The coming decade witnessed four-seat GTs swamp the market, including the Aston-Martin V-8 Vantage, BMW 6-Series, Jaguar XJ-S, and Porsche 928.
A compact luxury-sport coupe is now a must for any upscale car brand. The Audi RS5, BMW M4, Lexus RC-F, and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG are just a few of the compact, high-performance “executive sport coupes” currently running in the market. All capture the concept of the ’67 Cougar; the blend of a sporting personality wrapped inside upper-crust attire. Even Detroit embraced the trend. General Motors’ Cadillac division unveiled the ATS-V coupe last year, a hi-powered variant of its smallest and lightest vehicle.
Digging deeper, the Cougar signaled what the pony car would evolve into. One need only to look at the speed and comfort of today’s Mustang to see just how far the pony cars have come. Bare-bones and cheap are out, world-class ride and handling are in. Too bad it took almost a half-century to appreciate the Mercury Cougar.
Better late than never.