Curbside Classic: 1988 Merkur (Ford) Scorpio – Nice Landing, Wrong Airport

Yes, it’s easy (and a bit cheap) to rip Ford a new anus for the Merkur fiasco;  it’s been done here before exactly a year ago with the XR4TI. But the fact that this Scorpio was found and shot in the U.S. alone is quite a story. Here was a chance for “Euro lovers” to buy a car that they might only have read about in foreign mags–like I did–in auto, motor und sport, which heaped plenty of praise on the Ford Scorpio (Granada in the UK) for its roominess, supple ride and good handling. Sure, Americans had become quite used to Mercedes, BMW, Jaguars and such. But a euro-Ford executive-class sedan, and one that had some serious chops to compete with them? As we all know, it didn’t exactly pan out as Bob Lutz thought it would. But that doesn’t take away from the Scorpio’s charms.


The Merkur story (as well as the Scorpio itself) revolves mostly around the XR4Ti, Lutz’ attempt to create a BMW 3-Series competitor out of the European Ford Sierra.  With its brisk but harsh turbocharged 2.3 L four from the T-Bird Turbo Coupe, the XR4Ti was fast for the times and handled very well. This was the era when euro-Fords were becoming top-notch handlers on a consistent basis. The Sierra had fully-independent suspension all around, and its balance between ride quality and handling was solidly in BMW territory.

Unfortunately, its cheap interior and a few other shortcomings made it apparent that it shouldn’t have been priced almost head-to-head with the 3-series, a fact that the 2.3-liter four only accentuated further. Still, it provided, in certain ways, a better platform for that engine than the Thunderbird and Mustang did.

The second prong of the Merkur invasion was the Scorpio, which arrived two years after the XR4Ti, in 1987. It took a rather different approach, emphasizing its refined manners and ride, as well as a smooth Cologne 2.9-liter V6. A hot-rod it wasn’t–the V6 made just 140 hp, a bit less than the turbo four in the XR4Ti. That was adequate, but only barely so for the times. By the late ’80s, Mercedes had pretty much left behind its pokey diesel era, and the dominant W124 300E was not only fast but superlative in almost every other way. Meanwhile, BMW had left its eta-era behind with their new E34 530i. The Scorpio was up against two of the best executive-class cars ever built.

Wisely, the Scorpio was priced a bit less aggressively than the XR4Ti, which itself cost some 15-20% less than a BMW 325. The Scorpio’s MSRP was in the $24-$26k range, some 35% below that of the lower-end Mercedes 260E and 525i. Essentially, the Scorpio slotted between domestic sedans and the BMW/MBZ. That may have been both a good and not-so-good thing.

To someone who really wanted a genuine European sedan, and could truly appreciate the qualities it brought to the table, the Scorpio might have looked like something of a bargain. But perhaps the biggest problem was the in-house competition it faced from both Mercury’s Sable and Ford’s Taurus.


Needless to say, certain design similarities to those cars were all too obvious. Since the Ford Scorpio/Granada appeared in Europe one year ahead of the Sable, it would be easy to point a finger at Mercury for cribbing the wrap-around rear window look.

Then again, that design feature obviously reflected the Probe V, with its hyper-aerodynamic body and flush glass all around.

The Scorpio/Granada replaced its long-running predecessors, the decent, if slightly pedestrian, Granada Mk I and Mk II, which had found much favor in fleet, police and taxi use. But Ford, like Opel and other mass-market brands, still managed to carve out a decent share of the “executive sedan” market before its dominance by the German trifecta of Mercedes, Audi and BMW.

The new Scorpio/Granada Mk III was intended to keep Ford’s prospects alive in that highly competitive segment. Dynamically, the Scorpio was improved, but that it arrived only in hatchback form probably hurt sales considerably. That had also been the case with the Sierra, which was the basis of the XR4Ti. In both cases, Ford had to backpedal and introduce conventional four-door sedans.

The result was…bland. It substantially changed the character of the original Scorpio’s quite advanced design, and helped assure its inevitable decline into a classic fleet queen that was built way too long.

Since we’re on the subject of the Scorpio’s sad decline and demise, we might as well get something out of the way: the redesigned Mark II of 1994-1998. I literally fell off my chair when I opened ams and saw this pathetic frog-face staring back at me. And you think the ovoid Taurus redesign of 1996 was ugly! There was an obvious family resemblance, but the question was which relative’s front end was worse. After becoming a butt of jokes and derision in Europe, the Scorpio slithered off the stage in 1998.

Ironically, most modern “sedans” look like hatchbacks but lack an actual hatch. The conservative reaction to the Scorpio’s fastback ended up as another dead end; the aerodynamic advantages of a tall, stubby tail eventually won out, and that design element has become ubiquitous.

What really did the big Fords in was their terrible depreciation. In truth, it was really no more expensive to buy (or lease for three or four years) company cars from one of the premium German brands. This did in not only the big Ford, but caused similar consequences for the big Opels, Peugeots, Citroens, and Renaults. The face of Europe’s executive-class market was changed during the Scorpio’s life span, and still remains a struggle for every model competing in it.

I need to cheer myself up a bit after that, and I do admit to probably having a bit more love for the Mekur Scorpio than might be justified rationally. When it comes to cars, what else is new? The Scorpio arrived during my peak “euro” years, when I was driving a W124 300E. But it’s not as though I looked down on the Scorpio; rather the opposite, in fact. I saw it as a fairly legitimate contender in that club. Of course, that was an entirely cerebral opinion, given my very little direct exposure to it.

But in what American car would one find seats like this? (don’t look at that hard and cheap the instrument cluster, though).Yes, the Great Aero Era was on, with the Taurus and Sable leading the charge. But until the Taurus SHO arrived in 1989, they were still pretty tame except for their styling.

Come to think of it, the SHO undoubtedly showed up the Scorpio in more ways than one, save the lack of an automatic transmission. Now if the SHO’s engine had been available in the Scorpio…   In reality, the whole Merkur misadventure was doomed, at least in part because the brand couldn’t carve out a sufficiently distinctive niche within Ford’s various US divisions. All too many folks probably mistook the Scorpio for a Sable.

Euro lovers like me were happy to know the Scorpio was available, but still probably wouldn’t have bought one due to its modest performance or lack of prestige…a lot of good that did. And that’s the Scorpio story in a nutshell.