Curbside Classic: 1971-1973 Mercury Cougar – The Brougham Pony Car (and Moms First Ride)

It almost seems natural that the youthful rebellious mission of Pony Cars and the isolationist nature of Personal Luxury Coupes would eventually meld somewhere in the brougham seepage of the late 1960s. And Mercury, perilously devoid of a unique image for all of its life as Ford’s middle step on the ladder took one of the finest fillies of the Pony Car world, and wood appliqued its way into the muddle.

It can be said the original Cougar was already a step in the direction of the merge between Pony and Personal Coupes. Especially in XR-7 guise with genuine leather seating and a lot of 3M walnut applique, the Cougar melded the best of both self centered worlds: the relative light and carefree personality associated with the Pony Car, with the rich, unique touches and finishes of a personal luxury coupe. It didn’t hurt matters that it had sequential turn signals like the Thunderbird. Borrowing from the gadget trendsetter pioneer of market segment busters surely helped matters.

The blurring of character lines (and possibly the only fully distinctive product Mercury ever had) was in full swing as the Cougar bloated up a little bit in the 2nd generation. Not only could it count the Pontiac Firebird as a challenger, it could also count the all new Grand Prix as a rival.

But in the diversity of rivals, production started to slide, so the full Brougham treatment was called for. From the love child of a Flair Bird and a Mustang, the 1971 Cougar was a love child between a Pontiac Grand Prix (or the Bunkie Beak 1970 Thunderbird) and a Continental Mark III.

Apparently the Cougar was losing the scent of the prey. Sales slid again for the even larger, heavier pony car, as the sophisticated boomers traded their ever bloating pony cars (except for the lean and lithe F-bodies at General Motors) for Cutlass Supremes, quickly becoming the 800 lb gorilla in segment deifying cars. At least it wasn’t as fatal a step as the big new 1970 Barracuda/Challenger were proving to be for Chrysler.

Admittedly the Cougar pulled off the newfound bloat far better than its sister ship, the woefully purposeless 1971-73 Mustang. Actually out of all Brougham Era cars, these Cougars are my favorite, and perhaps the only ones of that school of thought that I like. Granted it helps that they came as convertibles, don’t have any pillow tuft velour seating options and could still shake a tail feather well enough in standard guise. For a Ford Product of the era it cuts a remarkably clean suit compared to the rolling wave of fenders or T-Square bricks that were normal from Dearborn in the early 1970s. It’s handsome, burly. Kind of like Burt Reynolds on that bear skin rug.

Were these attributes that my mother fell for when she got her drivers license in 1977? No. Basically it was the compromise between the 1972 Corvette she wanted, but my grandmother forbade, and the 1973 Plymouth Duster that was presented as a rebuff. So a split pea green XR-7 was the compromise. I wonder if that particular shade of green in epic use by Ford from 1968 through 1974 became a “discount” color as time wore on.

I also had experiences with these Cougars as my best friend in High School had a white 1973 XR-7 Convertible. I think one of the biggest things I still cannot grasp about Pony and Personal Luxury cars were, for their outward size, how cramped they were in the pursuit of style. I dreaded the times I had to ride in the back seat, just only marginally less than dreading climbing in the back of a classmates old Nova or Monte Carlo.  The Cougar had to be the ultimate Personal Coupe in terms of “nobody wants to ride in your back seat.”

Well after 3 years of selling at a third of the rate of the inaugural Cougar, the ultimate bloat set in as Cougar moved up to full Brougham Personal Coupe, parting ways with the Mustang (as that car became some kind of personal coupe monstrosity rework of the Pinto) and spawning a comparable Ford product, The Elite. Otherwise Mercury took the one unique, good idea it possibly ever had and continued to morph it into something totally bland in a field of half baked pretentious “mid sized” coupes for the decade of ultimate isolation.

As it stands, the 1971-73 Cougars were possibly the boldest statement the Mercury brand ever made. The Brougham Pony Car, available as a convertible. You were a car whose intentions were good, but oh lord were you ever misunderstood.