Curbside Classic: 1988 Mercury Tracer – The Road To Hiroshima Runs Through Hermosillo

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When I wrote up the Mercury Mystique a few months ago, I got a twofer; this Mercury Tracer was lurking in the background and Jason Shafer, ever observant, inquired if I’d ever get to writing about it.  Of course, I had planned to from the moment I saw it, given its solid condition and relative scarcity, so here it finally is, in all its pale blue glory.

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The car hasn’t moved since I first took pictures of it on a bitterly cold February day, and even then it had a thin film on it from having sit for some time.  I spoke to the gentleman who owns it; due to health problems, he doesn’t drive it and due to no longer being alive, neither does his mother.  I’ve never understood why anyone just lets their cars sit around when money could be easily made for their sale, but I suppose it’s no fun having people call you, poke and prod at your car and then dealing with the hassle of signing the title over.  There’s not a ton to be made off of a thirty year old rebadged Mazda anyway, not that profit margins could have been very high when these cars were new.

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My guess is that these served as a way for Ford to test the waters for the upcoming, Mazda Familia-based ’91 Escort in addition to face off against cars like the NUMMI-built Nova and the Colt.  It also enabled Ford to get their Hermosillo plant, where the five-door version of the Tracer was built, online with a small number of US-bound cars.  The Mercury Lynx wasn’t a huge seller, and the Familia was already being sold as the Ford Laser in Pacific markets, so it was as safe an experiment as management could have hoped for.  The resulting cars weren’t especially cheap, relative to some of the competition, but they were well trimmed and a good value given that the car upon which they were based was at or near the top of its class since switching to front-wheel drive in 1981 and had remained so after its 1985 redesign.

The Tracer was marketed differently than the equivalent 323, with a fuller array of standard equipment and fewer trim variants than the Mazda, which was available with a turbocharged twin-cam version of the 1.6 liter B-block (speaking of, how many companies have an engine named B-block?) found in the Tracer in combination with all-wheel drive.  Given Mercury’s perpetually muddled image, it’s doubtful any such animal would have boosted the brand’s fortunes, that is, if Mazda were to provide such a car to Ford for US sale.

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If Mercury’s significance in Ford’s product planning strategy was no more certain than it had been for most of its existence, the same could not be said of the Mazda-Ford alliance at the time, a long running effort no one could’ve seen ending in the late ’80s.  At the same time Hermosillo was coming online, Auto Alliance was also in the works, bringing the 626-based Probe to join the Tracer, the upcoming ’91 Escort/Tracer and the Festiva in Mazda-A-Go-Go.

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Today, we know Hermosillo as the source of the Fusion and MKZ, but the plant was opened in 1987 as a way for Ford to learn lean-production methods while providing increased production capacity with lower labor costs.  By most measures, it’s been a success, with quality and reliability in line with similar products from other plants (i.e. the Focus from Hermosillo was just as plagued with recalls as the Focus from Wayne, Michigan while the Tracer’s reliability was just as above average as its Hiroshima-built three-door counterpart) and continued production today.  Ford’s 2010 divestiture of Mazda shares put the latter company in a bind, with a newly-opened (in February) plant in Mexico co-owned with Sumitomo Corporation providing much needed relief and production capacity for Japan’s most export-dependent automaker.

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While the Tracer was perhaps the least popular of the Ford-adapted Mazdas, it was a token of good things to come.  Dearborn was generous enough not to put its CVH engine in this car, as they did with its 1991 successor, and even though that car was thoroughly competitive, it faced off against more formidable rivals than the first Tracer, which was arguably better than any other domestic compact at the time, as well as the thoroughly dour Sentra (which, by 1991, matured into a rather spry sedan).  Unfortunately, Marcury did a horrible job of capitalizing on the car’s actual refinement, instead pitching it–mainly to women, it would seem–as a trusty, low aspiration first car.  Even the very compromised 1981 Escort got better treatment as a sophisticated device.  If Ford had disappointed small car buyers with that car, sales certainly didn’t reflect such, meaning there was no need to be so modest in promoting the vastly superior Tracer.

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It’s still difficult to believe the collaboration between Ford and Mazda ended four year ago.  It was a much less toxic relationship than that which existed between GM and Isuzu, for example, or Chrysler and Mitsubishi.  Ford had the humility to adapt Mazda’s then-superior small car engineering when developing the second-generation Escort at a time when Cologne and Dagenham delivered a poorly received European model, and when Mazda’s fortunes were at an all-time low, they were given access to a genuinely good C-segment platform to create a car (the Mazda3) which helped keep them afloat in the US market.  There were, unavoidably, negative aspects of the partnership but no one could know, looking at this indifferent rebadge, that there was actually a harmonious story behind its existence.

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