Curbside Classic: 1968 Mercury Cougar – Mercury’s Greatest (Only?) Hit

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(first posted 12/21/2012)   There were plenty of reasons why Mercury failed, but the 1967-1968 Cougar certainly wasn’t one of them. Yes, there were a few others too, but the original Cougar clearly stands out. It was distinctively styled in a way that captured the essence of what it was trying to be: an American Jaguar.

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I know that sounds like a bit of a stretch, but the name doesn’t exactly belie its intentions, eh? And what made that work is that the Cougar wasn’t actually imitating a Jag, but just going after what a Jag evoked: classy, comfortable sportiness. Thankfully, as there were no overt Jag styling cues anywhere on the exterior; the Cougar’s styling was unique and the most un-Ford just about ever. Given that it was essentially a re-skinned Mustang, one almost wouldn’t have known. The interior’s ambitions were a bit more obvious, especially in the XR-7, which featured one of the most Anglo-centric dash boards ever.


This XR-7 interior shot is not from our featured car, which is a more pedestrian version, despite the XR7 badge on the trunk. Call me a sucker, but in the fall of 1966 at the age of thirteen, this XR7 dash “board” impressed me just a wee bit. It was the first attempt by an American car at something Anglo like this. But I’d totally forgotten though what the console looked like until I found this picture; Ouch; talk about a cross-cultural mish-mash. Oh well; this was about the same time some Yank bought the original London Bridge, had it taken apart and reassembled in Arizona. He probably drove a Cougar XR7.

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Our CC’s pedestrian base interior was still a half-way decent affair, especially in light of the dark vinyl-walnut appliqued caves that were to come in just a few years more. But it looks much more Mustang than Jag.

Even though the Cougar’s emphasis was on American elegance and a more refined and quiet ride than its Mustang stablemate, thanks to a three inch longer wheelbase and plenty of sound insulation, the big cat had a racy edge too, at least in its first year.

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No less than Dan Gurney was hired to put a Cougar team in the Trans Am series, which was the nexus of the actual pony wars during those years. Despite a hell of an effort and four wins, the Cougars couldn’t touch Roger Penske’s Camaros.

If I’m skimming Cougar history too lightly, Aaron Severson at ateupwithmotor has a fine article about all things Cougar. It doesn’t happen very often, but I do disagree with him about the affect of the one-year Cougar TA racing effort. He says that the Cougar’s all-time high sales in its first year (150k) was the result of the racing effort, and implies that sales dropped in 1968 and subsequent years because of the Ford’s decision to kill the TA effort.

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I’m going to guess that 90+% of 1967 Cougar buyers were utterly oblivious of what happened on the TA circuit, or that it even existed. TA racing didn’t really have that much of a following anyway, certainly not with typical Cougar buyers. They predictably were…your suburban next door neighbors, who were trying to one-up your 1966 Mustang.

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For an extra two hundred bucks over the price of a Mustang, the brand new ’67 Cougar was dripping with cheap cachet and Safeway lot prestige. An instant recipe for success in suburbia…and what the hell is Trans Am anyway? Ford most likely killed the Cougar racing program precisely because they realized it had no relevance to its terrific initial success. And all the racing in the world wasn’t going to bail out the endless sales decline of the ever paunchier cats.

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Yes, there were some hot GT-E models with 427s under the hood (unlike this 302), and the GTO-Judge imitator Eliminator. but their numbers sold were minuscule compared to Z-28 and SS396 Camaros and the various hot Mustangs, ‘Cudas and Challengers. The Cougar sold on its other qualities, which unfortunately were all too quickly watered down, and sales followed.

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The ’67-68 Cougar had a sinewy body that showed off the highly toned cat muscles in an effective way. By 1969 (above), the Cougar’s newly found fat obscured the sinews. It lost much of its distinctive and crisp styling edge, gained very GM-esque hips, and its long blandification and decline was well underway. Any association with Jaguars, real or imagined, was over after 1968. I’ve often railed about how successful new American designs quickly get watered down and destroyed, and the Cougar is the poster cat of that. It was a sexy beast in its first two years, and after that it quickly became a cougar of another sort.

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