Curbside Classic: 1977-79 Mercury Cougar XR-7 – Grandest Torino

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I get it. I understand why personal luxury coupes were so darn popular in 1970s America. The days of high-performance were an increasingly distant memory, with rising insurance premiums, an oil crisis and government fuel economy standards dealing muscle cars a near-fatal blow. And nothing softens a blow like plush, loose-cushion, velour trim.

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Cars were burning cleaner, but they were going slower. Domestic automakers were quick to embrace the personal luxury coupe. After all, if people couldn’t have power, why not luxury? Not to mention, these personal luxury coupes were nothing but tonier versions of existing mid-size vehicles, and commanded higher prices. Every profitable Brougham and Landau was helping to ease the financial pressure on the domestic automakers as they spent more and more money on downsizing their lines and meeting emissions and fuel economy standards.

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For domestic automakers, personal luxury coupes were a gold [badged] mine. But when you think about it, weren’t personal luxury coupes just a little bit silly? Let’s compare and contrast to the SUV mania of the 1990s-2000s and the crossover craze of the 2010s, taking into account the context of their respective eras.

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SUVs were spacious and had off-road and towing ability for those who liked to get away from it all. As a result, handling suffered and gas mileage was often abysmal. Still, gas prices were low throughout the 1990s and much of the 2000s and these vehicles made a visual statement in the same way personal luxury coupes did. They could also haul a family and a lot of their stuff.

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Crossovers earn the ire of so many enthusiasts, but as fads go they make a lot of sense. Sure, they can’t really do anything a station wagon couldn’t do but if you compare them to conventional sedans – after all, the wagon market has been moribund for decades – you can see they are often cleverly packaged, can haul larger items and often can seat more people. If you compare them to conventional SUVs, their towing and off-road ability is reduced but their gas mileage is superior. As far as fads go, crossovers represent one of the more sensible ones.

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Personal luxury coupes were decidedly less sensible. They were all about style and superficial luxury. Any pretence of sportiness was long gone: why bother looking or handling sporty if there was no power to back that up? Although these cars were often bought by families, they were hardly practical. Some personal luxury coupes were very space inefficient with compromised accessibility to the back, no roll-down rear windows and poor visibility. They were a poor choice for families, unless you were a parent paranoid about children opening the rear doors and bailing out of the moving vehicle. Fuel economy was improving but these cars were often still very heavy and large, which affected gas mileage and performance. It’s a little surprising there weren’t more 1970s cars in the vein of the Chevrolet Monza Towne Coupe or Ford Mustang II Ghia.

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The personal luxury coupe era started in the 1960s but it was in full swing by the late 1970s. Full-size coupes like the 1972-76 Ford Thunderbird sold moderately well, but the sweet spot of the market was intermediate coupes. Oldsmobile’s Cutlass became America’s best-selling car mostly on the backs of plush Supreme and Supreme Brougham coupes. Cars like the Pontiac Grand Prix, Chrysler Cordoba and Chevrolet Monte Carlo were huge sellers. The only American passenger car brands that didn’t field a successful entry were Plymouth and AMC.

76 Ford Elite

Ford may have created the Thunderbird, one of America’s first personal luxury cars, but they were slow to target the intermediate personal luxury market. Their first offerings were the 1974 Cougar XR-7 and 1975 Elite, thinly disguised Torinos with plusher trim.

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The Cougar was a particularly weak effort. The dashboard was the same as the Montego, a rebadged Torino. Exterior differences were limited to an opera window, a mildly different front fascia and chrome trim on the taillights. Engine offerings were the same, too.

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For 1977, Ford would reskin their intermediate line. It was a somewhat confusing time for American consumers. GM’s new full-size models arrived the same year and were basically the same size as these “mid-size” cars. The unremarkable Montego name was also discontinued, and all mid-size Mercury models were now badged Cougar.

Call it name debasement or call it a harnessing of brand equity (or call it both), but you could now purchase a Cougar as either a two- or four-door sedan, a wagon or as a two-door coupe which retained the XR-7 name. The Thunderbird and the Cougar were now closely related, although the Thunderbird was spared the ignominy of a wagon variant. The Cougar sedans and wagons were twinned with the Ford LTD II, differing only in front clips and minor trim details.

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Engine offerings consisted of the 134 hp 302, 149 hp 351 and 172 hp 400-cubic inch V8s. GM may have been happy to sell you an intermediate coupe with a V6, but you couldn’t get a six even in the lesser LTD II.

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The new Cougar sedans and wagon were better-received than the Montego, clocking 70,024 sales in their debut year. This represented a 27% increase in sales over 1976. But sales dipped somewhat for 1978, and by 1979 they were dead in the water: a miserable 8,436 units were sold.

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The ill-suited wagon lasted only a year; it was the least convincing new Cougar, not just because of its unprecedented format but also because it retained much of the old Montego wagon’s sheetmetal.

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It was the XR-7’s sales performance, clearly, that carried the Cougar line. In 1976, the XR-7 had sold 83,765 units. For 1977, that figured increased by around 40k units, and reached 166,508 for 1978. In its swansong year, the big Cougar still managed a commendable 163,716. These were the highest sales numbers ever for the Cougar, as more of the XR-7 model alone were sold in 1978 and 1979 than even the Cougar’s debut year of 1967.

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Cougar XR-7 coupes were available with various different décor packages, including a unique and heavily-promoted midnight blue and chamois package with coordinating interior trim and a padded trunk lid. You could load up your Cougar with various luxury goodies like power seats and windows, a power moonroof, and a bucket/console setup. All XR-7s came with distinctive louvered opera windows, as well as unique rear styling that included a raised trapezoid on the trunk resembling a squared-off version of Lincoln’s iconic trunk hump. You paid $500-900 over a standard Cougar coupe for the privilege of owning an XR-7. Heavy-duty suspension and full instrumentation were optional, but rarely ordered. These cars were cruisers, and handling ability was as mediocre as in the Torino and LTD II. Buyers didn’t care: they wanted a plush ride, sharp styling and a comfortable interior, and the XR-7 delivered.

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The Cougar was a much-needed success for Lincoln-Mercury dealers, but it wasn’t the best-selling personal luxury coupe. Its Thunderbird twin sold more than twice as many units in 1977 and 1978, as did the hugely successful Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme also outsold the Cougar XR-7, but the big cat did comfortably outsell the downward-trending Chrysler Cordoba in 1978-79 and decimated the Dodge Charger and Magnum.

Its rivals also didn’t have such sultry and stylish television commercials. Farrah Fawcett initially advertised the new Cougar line as she had its predecessor, before Cheryl Tiegs took over spokeswoman duties.

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This XR-7 I spotted in East Harlem looks sturdy and rust-free, although the paint is looking a little dull nowadays. This seems to be an honest-to-goodness daily driver, and I wish I could have spoken to the owner.

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The downsized 1980 Cougar XR-7 (sedans and wagons took a short break) saw sales more than halve. Certainly personal luxury coupe sales had reached their zenith, but GM’s offerings didn’t sink quite as quickly. Blame fussy styling most of all: while GM’s downsized coupes were generally fairly well-resolved, if much less ostentatious than their predecessors, Ford attempted to incorporate as many 1970s styling cues on a much smaller car. The end result was awkward, and the related Thunderbird saw a similarly catastrophic drop in sales.

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Eventually both Cougar and Thunderbird sales would rebound with the aerodynamic 1983 models. Although they rode the same Fox platform as the poorly-received 1980s, they had much more attractive and modern styling. Also, they represented a return to performance as the domestic automakers began to figure out how to make engines that were both powerful and relatively efficient.

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These 1977-79 Cougars were the biggest cars to ever wear the feline nameplate. They are as powerful a visual statement of that era as bell-bottoms and leisure suits, so you either love or hate them. The 1970s were the decade of the big personal luxury coupe, and these big cats were easily one of the most striking to look at. Sure, they don’t make much sense, but don’t you want one anyway?

 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham

Curbside Classic: 1976 Chrysler Cordoba

Car Lot Classic: 1980 Mercury Cougar XR-7