Curbside Classic: 1969 Mercury Cougar – Premium Ponycar

(first posted 3/25/2013)     Mercury, that recently-departed Ford division, never really had an easy life. From the beginning, in 1939, it vacillated between fancy Ford and cheap Lincoln while never really finding its place. But still, there were some neat cars built during its seventy-two-year existence. Perhaps the best of them was the 1967-70 Cougar.

1967 Mercury Ad-03

The original ’67 Cougar (’68 CC here) definitely was a hit. Though clearly derived from the Mustang, it still had an identity of its own and was, in your author’s opinion, better looking. The plusher interiors, sequential taillights and electric-shaver grille all enhanced the Mustang underpinnings, and the flossy XR-7 model took the American Jaguar look to its best-developed form.

While the 1968 models were only slightly changed from the inaugural ’67, the expected two-year refresh resulted in a bigger, more ornate Cougar for 1969. For some reason, it wore its extra bulk better than its Mustang cousin, perhaps because it was a more luxury-oriented model. But that same year, the Mustang started ripping off the Cougar formula with its plush Grandé model.

Frankly, a pet peeve of mine is how every time Mercury had a rare hit, Ford would steal it and in the process screw up the Mercury version’s success. Let’s review: 1958-64 Park Lane? 1965 LTD. 1967 Marquis? 1968 LTD Brougham. 1967-68 Cougar XR-7? 1969 Mustang Grandé. And Ford wondered why Mercury had trouble in the market–it was the classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” syndrome. Arrgh!

But I digress. In addition to new sheetmetal, the 1969 Cougar added a convertible version. Offering a soft-top just a few years before the convertible market would crash and burn was a bit odd, but I imagine it was not too difficult to wrap the Mustang top’s mechanism around the Cougar’s flanks. The real question is why one wasn’t included in the 1967-68 lineup.

1969 Mercury-22

The top-of-the-line XR-7 was continued; like the standard Cougar, it included a drop-top model. Extra features included a rim-blow steering wheel, light group, electric clock, leather seating and unique wheel covers. Continued was the Jag-inspired, faux-walnut dash that featured a standard tachometer and trip odometer. XR-7 coupes ran about $300 dearer than the base model, and convertibles $200 more.

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The rarest ’69 Cougar body style was the $3,578 XR-7 convertible, with 4,024 assemblies. The base $3,365 Cougar convertible was slightly more common, with 5,796 finding buyers. Base Cougars included rocker moldings, wheel opening moldings and dual upper-body pinstripes as standard equipment. In all likelihood, most went out the door with plenty of options.

All XR-7s got standard bucket seats, but Brougham creep was starting to make inroads, as 1,615 Cougar hardtops came with bench seats. Selected options included power steering ($99.80), a sunroof (with mandatory vinyl roof, $459.80), power windows ($104.90) and speed control ($71.30).

1969 Mercury-23

The standard powertrain for all Cougars was a 250 hp 351 V8 with an Autolite two-barrel carb mated to a three-speed manual. There were several optional engines available, as were HD three-speed, four-speed, and Select-Shift automatic transmissions. Engine choices included a 290-hp 351; a 290-hp 302; a 320-hp 390; a 390-hp Cobra Jet 428; and a 360-hp 429, all with four-barrel carburetion. The most valuable ’69 Cougar is the Boss 429-equipped version: Only two were built.


And since we’re talking power, of course I have to mention the Cougar Eliminator, Lincoln-Mercury’s version of the famed Boss 302 Mustang. In addition to the standard 302 V8, Eliminators received a two-speed rear axle, blackout grille, hood scoop, sport stripes and front and rear spoilers. The Eliminator was continued for the 1970 model year.

As previously mentioned, the 1969 model bulked up a bit versus the ’68, growing 3.5″ in length, to 193.8″, with the 111″ wheelbase remaining unchanged. A curious new feature was a Buick-like sweepspear stamped into the sides. Hidden headlamps were carried over, but the cool electric-shaver grille was replaced with a less distinctive horizontal affair.

The rear end was less tampered with by the designers, with the sequential full-width tail lamps being only slightly restyled, and the license plate moving down into the bumper. From the back, there was no mistaking a Cougar for a Mustang!

All told, just a bit over 100,000 Cougars came off the assembly lines in 1969–almost 14,000 units below 1968’s total of 113,726, despite the addition of a convertible. That pales in comparison to the over 299,000 1969 Mustangs sold, but it was not bad for L-M’s premium pony car. I wonder how many of the 22,000 Grandé buyers in 1969 would have gotten a Cougar had the Broughamy Mustang had not been offered?

tve762-19651230-136Jim Backus photo:

I’m sure many Lincoln-Mercury dealers were happy to see younger folks visiting their showrooms to look at Cougars, Comets and Cyclones. It must have been a bit of a break from Thurston Howell III-types buying Continentals and Lou Grant-types buying Montereys and Marquis Broughams.

It is interesting to note that although all the pony cars could be loaded up with options and made into mini-Cutlasses and Park Lanes, there was but one direct competitor to the Cougar in the luxury pony car market: the Dodge Challenger.

1970 Dodge Challenger-03

It had come a bit late to the party, three years after the Cougar’s introduction, but the Challenger was originally meant to be Mopar’s Cougar. It had a longer wheelbase than the Barracuda, and offered a plush SE version with an overhead console, formal rear backlight and other amenities. Though it’s hard to tell these days, what with most if not all of the Slant Six and SE Challengers turned into High Impact-painted, striped and bespoilered fake R/Ts (please don’t call them “tribute”– they’re just fakes).

1970 Mercury Cougar- 04

The Cougar continued in much the same fashion for 1970, albeit with the expected annual facelift. The base Cougar, the XR-7 and the Eliminator package all returned, but it would be the last year for the true “pony” version. After the 1970 models, Cougars would begin to change.

1972 Mercury-18

Just like the Mustang, in 1971 the Cougar began its descent into larded-up Broughamdom; as you can see, this ’72 model is even closer to the Mustang Grandé than was the 1969-70 model.

1977 Mercury Cougar Prestige-08

By the late ’70s it was a plush, anemic boulevard cruiser with not one speck of sportiness. Except for the mini-Mark V XR-7 model, the 1977-79s were LTD II corporate clones, with even a four-door sedan and Villager station wagon!

1939 Mercury Ad-04

I found our featured Mercury convertible almost a year ago in downtown Davenport, in almost exactly the same location as the Land Rover Series I wrote about last summer. It was very clean, and looked pretty good in sky blue with navy interior. It was a good thing I stopped, as I haven’t seen it since.

Mercury did not have too many greatest hits: the 1939 original, 1949 Eight, 1965 full-size, 1969 Marquis and 1967 Cougar are about it. A shame that Mercury did not maintain its identity through the years, instead becoming a Ford trim level for all intents and purposes. But cars like this Cougar show us what could have been–and what was, for a while at least.