Mercury Cougar - half a century at the sign of the cat

Ford found a hit on their hands in 1964 when they introduced the Ford Mustang. But they also found Mercury dealers seething while those dealers watched their Ford counterparts raking in the money. It got even worse when word hit that GM, Chrysler and even AMC with their Javelin were preparing their own clones. So with much fanfare Lee Iacocca and his crew flew a bunch of journalists to the island of St. Thomas in 1967 and landed the first Mercury Cougar from a WWII-era landing craft on the beach while tiki torches lit the night sky. 

The dealers were thrilled and the public was more so with 150,000 of these cars, based on the Ford Mustang, out the doors and into the public’s hands in the first year. Although the Cougar was based on the Mustang it offered more luxury features, befitting the Mercury badge, and a more European flair. It was a nice change from the more pedestrian Mustang and another example that Lee Iacocca and his leadership at Ford had a finger on the pulse of American taste for cars. 

Those first Cougars were available as only a two-door hardtop in base, XR-7 and GT trim levels with a series of V8s that ranged from the 289 up to Ford’s big block 390 FE-series engine that came along with a suspension able to transport this large hunk of iron. 

More than just a sales success, the Cougar was a iconic and gave Ford’s upscale Mercury division a benchmark image of sporty luxury which is used for decades. While this original 1967 Cougar was a relatively sporty, smaller car with lots of power and luxury the company began to paste the Cougar name on ever larger cars in the 1970s at a time when cars were actually starting to shrink. 

The initial Cougars offered features that had heretofore been available on the Thunderbird including sequentially-blinking taillights and hidden headlights. It was sort of like the fun size Thunderbird and, as mentioned, people took to them in droves. Other luxury features included Ford’s “tilt away” steering wheel making it easier to get in and out and eventually even a power driver’s seat. 

These were big luxury features at a time when the vast majority of cars still had crank windows, AM radios and even air conditioning was a rarely-seen option. 

As time marched on more options and variations found their way onto the list including a XR-7G model, named for racer Dan Gurney, with a 428V8 under the hood and more luxury in the form of optional Pauline Trigére houndstooth-patterned vinyl tops and matching upholstery. 

When I was in high school a friend had a Cougar which we abused as only high school boys can do and spent our days racing around the hills of Palos Verdes until the opposing forces, with their black-and-white Fords, got to know us as regulars on the curbside. Not like the Curbside where you’re reading this today, that original place was one of shame. 

Well, maybe things haven’t changed much after all. 

Original Cougars make nice collectible cars with all the wear parts being easily found. There’s a national Cougar club for all the things unique to the model. It’s good to see one of these unique beauties at a car show. Brings back lots of memories, most of them good. With the car celebrating its 50th anniversary this year there’s renewed interest so, perhaps, your collection of vintage rides could use something from the sign of the cat?