In the late 1970s, Lincoln-Mercury tried to build upon the success of the Cougar by marketing their entire Mercury brand as being from “The Sign of the Cat,” as if feline grace was a hallmark of all its cars. In reality, the best selling Mercury products emphasized smooth, quiet ride and traditional, glitzy American styling. So how well would Mercury do when they were finally forced to downsize their fattest cat, the Marquis? Would they get credit from automotive journalists for reconciling the demands for fuel efficiency with the “big car” feel so treasured by Marquis buyers?
To say the least, it was a tough challenge for Mercury. When GM had introduced its downsized full size cars for 1977, Mercury responded by promoting the benefits of the supersized American car, directly equating size with comfort and luxury. In fact, the 1977 Marquis brochure touted that the biggest Mercury had actually added 3 ½ inches—as if huge size was a virtue—though in reality the 3 ½ inches were in the form of a dashboard plaque claiming that each Marquis was “Ride-Engineered by Lincoln-Mercury.” In other words, traditional customers could be reassured that the Marquis would have an abundance of the super-soft ride and marshmallow handling found on the biggest of the big American cars.
Another part of the allure for Marquis buyers was the linkage to Lincoln. Throughout its history, the big Mercury had toggled between being a “fancy Ford” and a “lesser Lincoln.” With the introduction of the Marquis coupe in 1967, Mercury placed an emphasis on Lincoln luxury and styling cues for their flagship full size car, and then expanded the Marquis to a full range of strong selling body styles and brougham trims for 1969. That upscale tradition continued successfully into the 1970s, as many medium-priced buyers gravitated upwards, undoubtedly making the Marquis a nicely profitable line. In fact, the more Ford-like, lower-line full size Mercury Monterey vanished after 1974, leaving only the Marquis as the biggest Mercury.
With its 1975 facelift, the front of the Marquis was extremely close to the style of the Lincoln Continental, a situation that lasted two model years until the Continental switched to the pseudo-Rolls grille of the Mark series. While the Mercury’s 124 inch wheelbase was still shorter than the Lincoln Continental’s 126 inch span, it was longer than the LTD’s 121 inches, adding to the perceived “prestige” of the Marquis. Sales confirmed the logic of the strategy, as the Marquis rebounded nicely after the first Oil Embargo, and held their own even after the introduction of downsized rivals from Buick, Olds and Pontiac.
So Ford Motor Company had a lot to sort out when it came time to downsize the Marquis. Would it retain its traditional “Lincoln-lite” virtues in a smaller package? An early glimpse from the 1979 Car Preview magazine gave a rather surprising first look at the soon-to-be-released design. Rather than drawing out the Mercury as its own car, the illustrator simply combined the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis into one split drawing. Some details they got wrong, like the grille of the LTD Landau was thought to be the front of the Marquis (which they also compared to the front of an Olds to point out the similarities in styling—see the “M” and “O” drawing in the lower right corner). Nonetheless, it was apparent from the sneak peak that the Marquis was clearly going to become a “fancy Ford”…
Consumer Guide reinforced this fact when they selected both the Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis as Top Picks for full sized cars in 1979. However, they positioned the cars as essentially interchangeable, with the reason to pick one over the other coming down to which dealer would give a better deal. So much for that carefully crafted near-luxury image for the Marquis—it went right out the window with the redesign.
That’s not to say that Consumer Guide’s editors didn’t like the Mercury—they did. What they liked, however, were the benefits that came with downsizing, not anything that was unique to the Mercury. The editors found the new Marquis to be more logical and practical than before, and a better competitor to the downsized cars from GM. It was just harder than ever to claim any substantive benefits that made the more premium brand any better than its value priced sibling. It was not a new situation for Mercury in general, but certainly was a change for the Marquis, which had successfully leveraged its “Lincoln-ness” over the preceding decade.
To evaluate the extent of the changes from the traditional big Mercury to the new downsized one, Motor Trend did a comparison test between the ’78 and ’79 Grand Marquis. The editors picked up the identically equipped cars at Ford’s St. Louis plant and then drove to California, getting extended real world experience with both the old and the new.
Not surprisingly, the Motor Trend editors enjoyed all the functional benefits that came with downsizing, such as improved visibility and easier maneuverability. Much of the traditional soft ride was still there too, along with the inherent deficiencies that came with the solid rear axle mounted to soft springs and shocks. Once the mystery of why the ’79 Marquis delivered worse mileage was solved (it was due to a manufacturing glitch, undoubtedly like countless others that caused so much heartache for American car buyers in the late 1970s), the downsized car did finally achieve better mileage than the ’78.
While both Motor Trend editors clearly preferred the new car, there was a bit of longing for the oversized comfort and sheer presence of the older car. They also questioned who, exactly, was a Mercury buyer, and how would the new Marquis be meaningfully better at meeting his needs than the downsized LTD?
It was a good question. When the model year totals were tallied for 1979, the downsized Marquis actually lost ground compared to the 1978, with sales declining 3% to 140,800. Part of the challenge may have been right across the showroom floor in Lincoln-Mercury dealerships: for any customers still wanting a whopper, there was still the Lincoln Continental, which saw a sales increase of 5% over 1978 to 92,600 cars. While the Lincoln was much more expensive, it was also the last of its kind from the company that had touted road hugging weight so hard for so long.
Compared with the GM competition, the Marquis barely made a dent, trailing the LeSabre (150,784), Bonneville (179,416) and Delta 88 (254,939) in sales. In fact, one body style and trim level from Olds, the wildly successful Delta 88 Royale sedan, with 152,626 units finding homes, outsold all the Marquis models combined.
Another challenge for Mercury was pricing, especially at the top of the Marquis range. The Grand Marquis base price ($7,909) was within a few hundred dollars of the base price for an Olds Ninety-Eight Regency ($8,063) or a Buick Electra Limited ($8,156), both considered prestige cars, complete with longer wheelbases and unique styling. The new smaller Marquis just didn’t feel as Grand for the money.
Ultimately, with the downsizing of the Marquis, less fat meant more Ford. Mercury never returned to the “lesser Lincoln” strategy, and continued for the rest of its days as a “fancy Ford.” Considering this, the brand lasted a surprisingly long time before its demise. But the writing was on the wall in 1979—the Mercury magic was getting increasingly fuzzy, and would never again quite connect with buyers like it had in the late 1960s and 1970s with cars like the Marquis.