COAL: 1989 Mercury Cougar XR7 – The Right Car at the Right Time

89 Mercury Cougar XR7 front view

Like many old car enthusiasts (and a good portion of the CC readership), I sometimes pass a few hours looking through old car classifieds and forums to see what cars are for sale from the short list in my head of “cars I’d like to have someday.” Most of the time this results in little more than a bit of daydreaming and a search history filled with eBay queries on old car parts. Sometimes, though, a trip through the forums reveals a deal impossible to pass up.

When I purchased my ’89 Thunderbird SC a number of years ago I became a member of the Super Coupe Club of America (SCCOA). Part of their website is dedicated to forums for repair advice, parts sales, and car sales. I’d visit the forums every now and then but always came back empty-handed as I never found anything as nice as my SC. One day recently my visit to the cars for sale yielded a promising lead. Advertised for sale was the companion car to my SC, an ’89 Mercury Cougar XR7, showing just 49,000 miles. Uh-oh.

The Cougar XR7 was built on the same MN12 platform as the SC and shared its 3.8 liter supercharged engine, automatic ride control suspension, and other performance goodies. Styling was much more understated as the XR7 did not include the deeper front fascia with fog lamps, side skirts, or simulated rear diffuser of the SC. Interiors were very similar, with both cars having the same multi-adjustable sport seats, four-spoke “sport” steering wheel, and analog instrument cluster. About the only difference was that the Cougar dash shape was a bit more squared off than the Thunderbird, something only an MN12 enthusiast would even notice. This was one of the cars I’d always been interested in having, but they are even more difficult to find than the Super Coupes as production numbers were tiny. Less than 3,000 supercharged XR7’s with manual transmissions (the more desirable powertrain) were made, and the very few that I’d found online were pretty rough in ways that would be expensive to fix (ratty interiors, damaged body panels, etc.)

This car, however, was a different story. The seller’s entry in the forums stated he’d bought it from the SCCOA forums himself and pictures could be found in that entry from roughly 18 months previous. I searched around and found the photos from the previous owner’s listing, and they showed a car that was obviously well cared for and very original. The car was black with a gray interior, matching the XR7 on the cover of the ’89 Cougar brochure. This really got me interested in learning more, so I asked if the car was still available. Unfortunately for my bank account, I got the positive “yep, still available” answer. Guess it’s time to sell the Mustang!

89 Mercury Cougar XR7 rear view

Having learned hard lessons about buying cars impulsively sight-unseen, I called the owner on the phone to talk more about the car. He said that he’d bought it from the previous owner in northeast Ohio (not Akron, but close enough) and had driven it all the way home to his place in western Kansas. Since that time he’d not used the car much and his wife wanted him to sell it because she wanted an SUV. He said that the original owner of the car was a high-level executive at the Ford plant in Lorain, Ohio where the MN12 cars were built. He was pretty honest about the car’s condition, saying it was pretty nice but the paint needed some work and highlighting some other minor problems. I asked for some photos, a bit worried about the fact that the current owner didn’t post any current pictures in his ad, but my worries were somewhat alleviated when he sent new photos of the car from all angles, interior shots, and engine shots. Of course, the photos were taken when the car was freshly washed and still wet, so the actual condition of the paint was pretty tough to ascertain, but overall the car looked good. In addition, the car came with some tough-to-find spare parts including a complete moonroof assembly and a new clutch (which probably should have told me something), as well as some taillight panels the original owner had gotten from the factory prior to the application of the Mercury and Cougar nameplates (he’d never installed them so they were essentially brand-new).

The original owner had made some interesting choices of equipment for his special-ordered XR7. The car came with the high-end JBL stereo and CD player like my SC did, as well as the extra-cost moonroof. However, the original owner didn’t buy the package that included keyless entry or automatic headlights like my SC had. Everything you need and nothing you don’t, I guess.

89 Cougar XR7 interior

After some discussions here at the homestead (which went something like “you want to buy ANOTHER car?”) I made a deal with the owner and made arrangements with a shipper to bring the car most of the way cross-country. Although it was expensive, the shipper’s service was great – I knew I’d made the right choice when 1) he showed up at our meeting place at the correct time, and 2) he said he was on the way to pick up a Bugatti Veyron to fill the spot where my car had been. I believe the truck also had Clark Gable’s Mercedes Gullwing on its way to a new owner.

Getting the car home highlighted a couple of problems, but nothing too scary. The power steering pump groaned quite a bit, the clutch was a bit spongy (probably explaining the spare clutch in the trunk), the shifter was a bit loose in its action, and the ABS light was on. The paint was obviously the original black finish that had some scratches and other marks, but looked like it would come back to life with some work.

89 Mercury Cougar XR7 rear view

As I expected based on my previous experience with these supercharged engines, work under the hood wasn’t a walk in the park. Replacing the power steering pump required removal of some of the supercharger plumbing, which in turn required the purchase of special (read: expensive) Teflon gaskets to reseal the joints in the high-pressure intercooler circuit. It was an opportunity, though – since the engine was mostly apart we could do the always problematic valve cover gaskets and spark plugs. The clutch just required some adjustment, and a shifter rebuild kit took care of the floppy shift lever. Reclaiming the paintwork took an entire weekend of polishing and waxing (reminding me why I don’t usually buy black cars). As you can see from the photos, it came back fairly well. I learned not long after I bought the car why there was an extra moonroof mechanism when the moonroof stuck halfway closed. Luckily, fixing that was a simple matter of lubricating all the moving parts. I was fortunate in that a restored original cassette/CD system plugged right back into the dash to replace the sketchy aftermarket radio that had been poked into the dash.

89 Mercury Cougar XR7 front view 2

The first Carlisle Ford show after I bought the car was in 2017, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Cougar. The show management planned a big indoor display of Cougars, so I figured I would take a chance on getting my car in the show. Given the limited space available, I didn’t expect much so I was quite surprised that my car got picked to be in the special display. The display organizers said that they were glad I’d applied because they hadn’t gotten very many nice later model Cougars for the show. The show itself was great – I got to talk to a number of people who fell into one of two categories: people who used to have one of these MN12 supercharged cars and wished they still had one, and people who still have one. My car was one of the only 1980’s vintage cars in the display, as I recall.

I have owned the car for about 18 months now, and there are still some things to address. I’ve not yet fixed the ABS problem – it appears to be an issue with the solenoid block, a part that turned out to be quite difficult to find (and heart-stoppingly expensive to buy). The air conditioning doesn’t work, so I’ll have to take care of that before the summer driving season comes. Despite its faults, the car is still a blast to drive. The manual transmission changes the character of the car and makes it a much different beast than the automatic-equipped SC. It’s much easier to keep the engine near its power band – the automatic is in a huge hurry to get to top gear and demands for more power usually involve sluggish engine lugging, then a snap downshift and ALL THE POWER. The manual transmission can be a bit cantankerous at times (I believe they were actually used in Mazda pickups too) but it is much easier to take advantage of the engine’s power.

I am very glad I kept up the search for a good XR7 to match my SC. I think I’ve probably found one of the nicest ones around, and I plan on keeping it for quite some time to come. Now, if I could only get my coworkers to stop bugging me about how dumb I was to sell the Mustang…