Cougar Day Kickoff: 1968 Cougar – Corvair Monza, Take Two

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Thunderbird Week generated some residual Cougar posts, as a number of the generations were of course related. So we’ve saved them and added to them to give you…Cougar Day. There was no original intent to cover all the generations, but then they appeared like magic, save the first one. So we’re going to do them all today, chronologically. But unlike last time, when I was forced to write up one of my least favorite T-Birds, this time the Contributors cut me some slack, and left my favorite cat to me.

I’ve done a ’68 Cougar CC before, but let’s keep it fresh—if a bit brief —since I found this other ’68 Cougar, which has just been patiently waiting for its day in the CC sunshine. Yeah, it’s a bit rough, but it deserves a bit of love. Just like a Corvair does. Pioneers who fail do pull at the heartstrings.

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The original 1967 Cougar was a brilliant move on Ford’s part, during a time the “Ford Better Idea” light bulb was still burning brightly. The concept was of course a more upscale Mustang, an idea that had been kicked around for a while in the Ford ans Mercury studios. But rather than just literally dressing up a Ford, as was the case with just about every Mercury ever, Mercury drew on the success they had with the 1960 Comet.

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The Comet (originally planned as an Edsel) was a stretched Falcon, but with totally unique styling. And it was quite a hit; not quite in the Falcon’s league, but undoubtedly better than expected, and a savior at a time Mercury was really in the dumps.

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So in addition to a three inch wheelbase stretch, the Cougar was also blessed with totally unique and quite distinctive styling. Folks may (or may not) have known it was closely related to a Mustang under the skin, but it conveyed something new and altogether different.  That started with the “electric razor” front end, with its standard headlight covers that created a face unlike any other.


Well, with the covers actually closed, that is.

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The taillights mirrored the front end, and was given Ford’s sequential turn signals to boot. Those had been a Thunderbird exclusive, but then the Cougar was really all about being a more affordable T-Bird, even if it was a Mercury. The phrase “for the man on his way to a Thunderbird” was even used in its marketing push. The ’67 Cougar started at $2,851, about $400 more than the ’67 Mustang. For that difference, one got a standard 289 V8 , the hidden headlights, and a whole lot more cachet. It really was a bargain (T-Bird).

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Although the Cougar wasn’t overtly European on the outside, its mission clearly was to do a bit of import bashing. The interior made that more than obvious: this was Dearborn’s take on a Jaguar, pure and simple, right down to the toggle switches on the “wood” dash, on the XR-7 models. The leather bucket seats further enhanced the look. This one didn’t strike me as being an XR-7, until I looked inside.

Enough of the car itself; the Cougar’s special place in history is in its pioneering a whole new market segment: the affordable personal luxury coupe.  It’ Ford T-Bird stablemate pioneered the semi-affordable luxury coupe market, but as the Cougar quickly proved, Americans wouldl always rather get more or less the same thing for less money. And that’s exactly what that Cougar was: a T-Bird on the cheap. And in the process, it effectively destroyed the T-Bird and its ilk. T-Bird sales started their long decline right about the time the Cougar appeared and ruffled its feathers.

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But the Cougar’s success was short-lived. It single-handedly paved the way for the 1969 Grand Prix, the 1970 Monte Carlo, and the rest of the GM mid-size-plus coupes that soon took the market by storm. Not surprisingly, Cougar sales were a terrific 150k in 1967, before dropping some to 115k in 1968. But even a complete restyle for 1969 couldn’t get sales to top 100k again. And you’re looking at the reason why. Cougar sales languished, until it belatedly joined the mid-sized-plus coupe crowd in 1974. But it never really reclaimed its initial luster. GM stole the affordable luxury coupe market from right under Ford’s nose. Just like Ford had done to the Corvair Monza with its Mustang.

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Yes, I know; there’s so much more about the ’67 – ’68 Cougar to talk about, like the special high performance models and the 1967 Trans Am effort. But they were all highly peripheral to the Cougar’s initial success and long-term impact. The Cougar was for folks who were ready for a step up from the Mustang, which was a rather spartan affair, never mind its populist image. Who wants to drive the same car as everyone else on the block?

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The Cougar introduced the semi-luxury coupe to Americans, and they loved it. But Americans are fickle, and as soon as GM’s bigger and even more seductive coupes rolled out on dealer’s lots, the Cougar would forever be chasing their tail.

So the Cougar ended up playing the same role as the Corvair Monza: it pioneered a new segment, only to have it snatched away after its first flush of success. That time, it was Ford, with its Mustang. This time it was GM, with its fearsome foursome G-Bodies. But there was a big difference though. The pony car market quickly shrank away to a pittance; but the near-luxury coupes came to dominate the sales charts for the almost two decades. All too often, there’s a painful price in being the pioneer.


Related reading:

CC 1968 Cougar: Mercury’s Greatest (Only?) Hit

CC 1960.5 Corvair Monza Coupe: The Most Influential Car of the Decade