I remember being both relieved and intrigued when the Mercury Tracer was introduced for ’87 to replace the Lynx. It looked suspiciously like a Mazda 323, which made sense, since it was basically a federalized, 323-based Ford Laser, a model that was sold in many foreign markets. Being the gung-ho “buy American” kid that I was, having grown up in a GM factory town, I didn’t love that it was based on a foreign design, but it was a unique product offering at Lincoln-Mercury that didn’t have a Ford counterpart. This earned it points in my mind.
Being based on Mazda componentry meant that it was going to be more class-competitive than the ’81-vintage Lynx, and by association, the Ford Escort. By this point in my adolescence, I was starting to tire of the cynical pitch that a different grille texture and taillamp lenses were supposed to mean “it’s a whole, different car!” Even the smoke-effect taillamp lenses of the early, U.S. market Escort GT weren’t that far off from what was seen on the first Lynx.
1987 Mercury Tracer.
Many with same-gender siblings can probably relate to this: nobody loves a copycat. Before anyone finds and posts links to any of my previous essays in which I had referenced idolizing my older brother as a young kid, allow me to restate that there was a significant age gap between him and me. Six and a half years is a substantial percentage of the life of a minor. No matter how I might have striven from time to time to dress, act, and/or look like him up to a certain age, nobody was going to confuse us. If anything, it was going to elicit, “Awwww….” from his girlfriend or other adults who might have been around to see me trying to appear “cool” in the same manner as him.
It was different with my younger brother, who is only three years younger than me. It certainly didn’t help that our mother would sometimes buy us identical outfits, including one year where matching off-brand, light blue Members Only jackets were part of our haul of new school clothes. Of course, I had my piano skills and love of cars to set me apart, but I wanted to be seen as special and unique and not just a version of a “small, medium, or large” Dennis kid.
Even at the time, I sort of understood where this came from. My mother had been the middle of three girls, and looking at pictures of the three of them from when they were young, it was clear that she had gotten the same treatment. Parents often project their own experiences onto their kids, who they may feel don’t deserve any better. This doesn’t excuse it, but it explains it. This understanding didn’t help me that much as a preteen, with people already confusing the names of my brothers and me, significantly different in size though we were. More individuation was possible by the time I reached the end of my high school years. Earlier on, though, I hated being copied to the point of what had felt like mimicry just for the sake of irritating me, with nothing I could do about it without parental reproach.
1982 Mercury Lynx. When a Ford Escort just won’t do.
And so it went with the Escort and Lynx upon their introduction as Ford’s new subcompact “world cars” upon their introduction to the U.S. market for model year ’81. It was fun for me, up to a point, to see how a parent company like General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler would differentiate models on the same platform among their different, respective makes. GM, with the biggest budget, would usually do just a little bit more than Ford or Chrysler to distinguish between their brands. For example, an ’84 Chevy Cavalier looks significantly different than a Pontiac Sunbird, Olds Firenza, or Buick Skyhawk (even if it did accidentally look a lot like the “Cimarron by Cadillac”). Styling differences among the makes at Chrysler seemed to be a lot more tedious in the early ’80s, even before Dodge had adopted the generic cross-hair grille theme as its signature.
1987 Mercury Tracer.
When the first Tracer arrived, however, it was its own thing, and though it looked similar to the Mazda upon which it was based, it looked just different enough from it to position it as a unique offering exclusive to L-M. When the second generation Escort arrived for the ’91 model year, it was offered in the same three body styles as before: three- and five-door hatchbacks, and a station wagon. This time, and while the new Tracer shared this basic, new design with the Escort as had the Lynx had before it, there was one exception: The non-wagon Tracer was a traditional, three-box, notchback sedan. This made total sense to me. Weren’t Mercury buyers supposed to be traditionalists, anyway? A “Mercury hatchback” had always seemed something of an anomaly, even if I had loved the Fox-body Capri and would later love the ’99 Cougar. (The short-lived, two-seat LN7 was alright, and a better-looking Ford EXP.)
Beside the introduction of its new, trunked profile, the new Tracers had at least one other styling feature that had become an easy, visual identifier for the brand, which was the full-width “light bar” on its face, a feature first introduced with the futuristic ’86 Sable. It was as if the parent company had thrown the Tracer a bone by telling buyers that if they wanted their new subcompact with the trunk, they’d have to move upscale… to a Mercury. If a potential customer was okay with a hatchback, then they could just get the Ford. Then ’92 happened, and the Escort was given the Tracer’s four-door body style. There went that last trace (see what I did there?) of this little Mercury’s individuality.
1991 Mercury Tracer.
What’s interesting is that the ’91 Tracer sedan sold almost 60,000 copies in its first year, but the ’92 Escort four-door managed only 44,200 units, the second year of this generation. (The ’92 Tracer sedan sold about half as many as its Escort counterpart.) The reason I point this out is because the Lynx had always sold but a small fraction of the Escort’s numbers. Against 320,700 Escorts sold in ’81, the Lynx had managed only 112,000 sales, or roughly 35% of the Ford’s figure. By ’86, the first-generation Escort’s high water mark for sales with 430,000 buyers, Lincoln-Mercury moved only 86,000 Lynxes, or just 20%. My point is that I would have thought the four-door ’92 Escort would have at least met the ’91 Mercury’s tally since Ford was a much higher volume make, but it didn’t. By ’95, the year of our featured car, overall Tracer sales were just 13% of those of the Escort’s (44,700 vs. 320,700).
Product planners probably saw a good thing in the four-door body style and sacrificed the Mercury’s individuality in the name of greater sales as a slightly more basic Escort. What did shoppers in 1995 get for their extra $240 in selecting the Tracer four-door over the Escort? Without even knowing or poring over the sales brochures, the answer for me is that the light bar up front was not enough. Ultimately, Mercury lost that battle for greater identity and individuality in the Ford portfolio of products, with the brand having been phased out after 2010.
Do I miss Mercury? I miss its potential and an assortment of its more memorable models, but I don’t miss watching what seemed like a protracted period of neglect, confusion, and its slow death. I get that this Tracer was just a little subcompact sedan and that it wouldn’t have made financial sense to invest more in its individuality. Still, its barely-there disguise lightly ladled on top of what was obviously just a slightly more expensive Ford still seems sadly emblematic of the unease that persistent, unimaginative copying can produce in certain contexts and situations. Can you even tell from the above picture that this car isn’t an Escort? It no longer matters.
Edgewater Glen, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, July 9, 2023.
1987 Mercury Tracer print ads were sourced from the internet. 1982 Mercury Lynx & ’91 Tracer brochure pages were sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org.