Curbside Classic: 1986 Merkur XR4TI – What’s In A Name?

One good thing about visiting the dry, warm southwest is that if you are paying attention, it’s like a great big open air car museum. It’s astonishing to see the older and quite interesting cars that are still in everyday use out here. My week in the Rio Grande valley of north central New Mexico has been like a soul vacation because the movable scenery is almost as interesting as the backdrop of mountains and desert. I’m way too cheap to play the lottery, but I felt like I had hit the jackpot when I spotted this rare bird (for sale, no less) in Albuquerque. It was only on the double take that I realized that it was FoMoCo’s last new nameplate, which came and went rather suddenly on these shores in the late 80’s-  The Merkur XR4TI.

First, a (very) brief economics lesson. Rule number one: high profit margins attract competition. Rule number two: low profit margins repel competition. There. Now you know all you need to understand the whole Merkur episode that unspooled at Ford from 1985 to 1989. FoMoCo had caught lightning in a bottle with its captive import first gen Mercury Capri in the decade prior, and the feeling was that anything that Ford sold in the Europe could pass for “sport/luxury” if the hype machine could be turned up high enough. Thus an idea was hatched in the good offices of auto industry enfant terrible Bob Lutz to bring a workaday Ford Sierra across the pond, jack up the asking price and pretend that the car was some secret-handshake Teutonic exotic. The project was duly green lighted in the summer of 1983.

Lutz, fighter pilot, ex marine and all around car industry bon vivant was canny (or cynical) enough to know that re badging a Sierra would be transparent, and sales would be soft unless there was some “hook” that Ford could use to smear some Deutschland on a British middle manager’s car. Thus the idea of the Merkur brand as a stand alone make. The scheme called for the Merk to be sold in tandem with its line mate Scorpio as a high strung, no nonsense euro rally/racer that could eat BMW’s for lunch and push Audis and Saabs out the other end.

The car would be sold at “select” Lincoln -Mercury dealers only. Go fast budget buyers (the kind that were gobbling up Toyota Supras) need not apply. The cars $20,000 sticker (nicely equipped) was within a wienerscnitzel of the 318/325 Bimmers, and Ford thought that it would have to rent warehouse space for all of the money that would roll in.

At home, the Sierra was aimed at the buyer that would have bought the Ford Cortina (which the Sierra replaced) and the Sierra saw lots of fleet sales across the pond. The marketing plan for the states was very different: The BMW 3 series and Audi’s 5000 Turbo were absolutely minting money in those days and had no direct competition from the Big Three. Time to review rule number one above. Pry a few yuppies out of their Bimmers (the thinking went), and we’ll be like the cat that ate the canary.

The motive power for the XR was the tried and true 2.3 “Lima” mill that Ford had installed in the new- for -’83 Turbo T-Bird. (It also found its way into some Fox platform Mustangs in those years). The difference that buyers saw was an eccentric turbo philosophy that eschewed the intercooler that came standard on the ‘Bird (ED: after 1985). The resulting heat played havoc with oil cooler and A/C hoses and thus caused some costly shop labor to fix.

That warm engine room could be dialed up for 175 horsepower with the 5 speed manual and as such,the car could make tracks when so equipped. A Ford C3 was optional, but not popular. Heated leather seats,moon roof and power locks and windows were the few options on the list for buyers to choose from.

Not on that options list was a presentable interior. To say that the Merkur’s interior was generic is way too kind. “Antiseptic” is more like it. Sharp corners, gray plastic (which often cracked) and a poor copy of the Mercedes shifter made the interior a place that bore way too much resemblance to cheaper Fords. Speaking of which…

Long time Ford pitchman Jackie Stewart was trotted out again to put his stamp of approval on a Blue Oval offering. Customers should have been wary after seeing the diminutive Scottish racer wax eloquent about the Tempo in ’84, but for $5000 a day, (plus expenses) he would probably have urged buying a Ford 8N farm tractor if he could cash a paycheck. Stewart would later shill for the slug-a-bed linemate Scorpio.

The “select’ dealers that carried the car had to make a sizable investment in signage, spare parts and local advertising for what even they saw as an enigmatic line with questionable appeal. The 1st generation Capri’s demise was still within memory of L-M dealers. When Ford discontinued that line, there was the disposal of NOS parts, product support issues and some lingering resentment from store owners that had made a commitment to a model that they felt hadn’t been reciprocated.

Thus only about 800 or so L-M dealers took the plunge on the new Merkur line. This should have alerted corporate HQ that they were playing with dynamite by having such a weak response, but small mistakes are for amateurs. Bob Lutz and company thought that the new Merkur line would reinvigorate the stodgy image that was starting to take hold at the sign of the cat.

The styling of the XR was in keeping with the jellybean/aero look that Ford had adopted first in Europe and then on the T-Bird and refined to its highest expression with the Taurus the next year. On the Merkur, the look fit, but took lots of getting used to. The rear bi-plane spoiler looked rather silly and was cut back to one tier by ’88. 15 inch wheels replaced the 14 inchers in ’87. Other than a few paint colors, the rest of the car stayed status quo during the rest of its run here.

Performance was okay, but nowhere near the benchmark BMW or Audi’s. Ford claimed 0-60 in about seven seconds, but owners couldn’t replicate this in real world conditions (especially with the autobox). For 20 large in 1985, that should have been the car’s biggest selling point. Ford had built a “sporty” car that could barely out run a ’73 LTD.

Even the name caused some giggles when Ford had to phonetically spell it again and again for the press, customers and even dealers. For the record, it was pronounced mare-koor (accent on the second syllable) . Merkur, of course, being the proper German pronunciation of…Mercury. It means the same thing in Czech, Slovene, Norwegian and Serb -Croat. Only in America did Merkur mean something other than a Mercury. And just in case you didn’t get the connection to the home of the autobahn, the grille badge reminded you that this car was not imported from Detroit.

A narrow marketing approach combined with fewer boots on the ground to sell the things resulted in an all out disaster for the Merk/Merc. First year sales came in at less than 12,500 (less than two per month per dealer) and never topped the 13,500 units retailed in ’86. By the end, lots of dealers had taken their signs down and washed their hands of the latest captive import from Ford. Mercury would stagger on somehow without an overpriced import in the showroom until it went out feet first on January 4, 2011.

Bob Lutz, meanwhile, had his best years in front of him. Far from ending his career as a corporate cobra, he completed the hat trick of working for and attaining high positions in all three major domestic car makers. He retired in 2010 from GM.

The car itself is largely forgotten, though there are a couple of active clubs that try to keep them on the road. The XR4TI was like a lot of other eurobuggies that are sent to the states: their inherent problems are magnified by Americans’ high demands on their cars. The steering rack is known to be a recurring headache and the engine has a habit of going dead due to faulty TFI  modules. And don’t expect any help from a L-M dealer. They’ve all closed up shop and Ford mechanics generally go no habla when asked to work on a Merkur.