Curbside Classic: 1971 Mercury Monterey – Why Am I Here?

1971 Mercury Monterey left front

Have you ever had a day at work when you thought “What am I supposed to be doing here?”  Maybe your job became directionless, your tasks poorly defined, changed over the years to something unrecognizable, or maybe your duties were subsumed by your co-workers.  If the Mercury Monterey was a person, it would have realized that all these things applied by 1971.

After all, Ford Motor Company’s Mercury brand had itself developed chronic uncertainty, unsure of just what it was supposed to be.  A fancy Ford, or an attainable Lincoln?  Slotted between those two brands, and selling models that were rarely unique, Mercury’s personality seemed non-committal through much of its seven-decade lifespan.  Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than with the Monterey.

Mercury itself was founded in 1939 by Edsel Ford, who wanted a somewhat flashier and more aspirational model range to join Ford-branded vehicles in the company’s lineup.  But Mercury’s precise marching orders were never quite clear.  While the brand displayed occasional moments of clarity – for instance, the 1949 Mercury Eight, the flamboyant Turnpike Cruiser, the exciting Cougar – such examples appear in hindsight as random flashes of inspiration rather than evidence of building momentum.

1950 Mercury Monterey

The Monterey highlights this unfocused wandering.  First introduced in 1950 as a slightly more upscale version of the Sport Coupe, the concept of a higher-end Mercury proved immediately successful.  Monterey was anointed as its own model range (at the high end of Mercury’s lineup) two years later.  However, despite its success, this newcomer didn’t remain at the pinnacle for long, as the top spot was taken over by the Montclair in 1955.

196 Mercury Monterey

During the late 1950s and early ’60s, Mercury models and pricing strategies meandered in several directions.  Monterey itself migrated to the bottom of Mercury’s lineup – a spot that was similar in price to that of a fully equipped Ford.  As for Mercury itself, after briefly experimenting with premium models like the Turnpike Cruiser and Park Lane, the brand focused increasingly on conservative mid-priced cars.  But conservative didn’t equate to unambiguous: what Mercury offered over equivalent Ford models was often hard to demonstrate.

1965 Mercury ads

1965 was a revealing year for the future of the 26-year-old Mercury brand, particularly for the direction of its full-size models such as the Monterey.  Full-size Mercurys grew that year – both in dimensions and also in aspirations.

Lincoln-Mercury Division General Manager Paul Lorenz hosted the press release for these cars, during which he stressed that “Lincoln-Mercury is the only division offering products in the medium-price field that also has extensive experience and acceptance in the luxury field.”  It must have taken some bureaucratic gymnastics to conjure that up as a selling point, but the implication was clear: think of big Mercurys as quasi-Lincolns.  And this was no slip of the tongue from Mr. Lorenz – for he was awarded that job just months before and tasked with charting a more successful course for the Mercury brand.  While the design itself was well underway by the time Lorenz took Lincoln-Mercury’s helm, he plotted to restore customer interest in full-size Mercurys by making them (both in product and marketing) more closely resemble Lincolns.

Such a task was well suited to Lorenz, an accountant whose previous position was executive director of Ford’s marketing department.  Promoting a car whose main attribute is an implicit resemblance to a more premium model is a combination of beancounting and marketing triumphs.  Or tragedies, if you prefer.

1965 Ford Motor Company ad

With the Continental, Ford found its Halo Car

Sales jumped for 1965, and Mercury’s product planners figured they found the right market position for their big car.  As Lorenz stated months after the ’65 model’s launch: “Mercury is now positioned correctly in the market.  It is the kind of product we are going to maintain from now on.”  While Mercury’s overall brand image still wandered in circles, the trajectory of the full-size Mercury was now set: these cars would emulate Lincolns for the next four decades.

1969 Mercury Marquis ad

Between 1965 and 1968, Mercury sold over 600,000 full-size cars – successful enough to spawn a successor created from the same concept.  Within months of Lincoln introducing its Continental Mark III, Mercury introduced its own new 1969 full size models, whose resemblance to big brother Lincoln hardly needed words to explain.  Not surprisingly, Mercury’s top-of-the-line Marquis, with its concealed headlights and luxury equipment, got the most ad focus.

1969 Mercury Monterey brochure

Still, a third of Mercury’s full-size cars of this generation were the cheaper Monterey or Monterey Custom models.  Montereys were less dramatic – showing a prototypical early-’70s look of a base-model mid-size car, not unlike Chrysler’s Newport or Oldsmobile’s Delta 88, bereft of high-end styling cues and equipment.  This design was either crisp and clean, or plain and dull, depending on one’s viewpoint.  Prices reflected this frugality, as the Monterey was priced 20-30% less than the Marquis.

1969 Ford LTD brochure

Why upgrade to a Mercury when your Ford LTD could look this elegant?

The pricing situation became complicated when comparing Monterey to Fords. For example, in 1969, Monterey prices started at $3,141 while Ford LTDs started at $3,192 – an overlap that remained with full-size Mercurys for years to come and made it difficult to ascertain just what advantage one car had over the other. Our featured car – a 1971 Monterey – serves as a good case study to examine just how Mercury’s entry-level full-size model tried to accomplish its ambiguous job.

1971 Mercury Monterey left side

For 1971, the full-size Mercury entered its third year of what would be a six-year run, and was treated to a minor design refreshing, highlighted by even more length – the car grew by 2¾”.  Monterey now matched the Marquis’ overall length… or “grown up to Marquis size” as a Lincoln-Mercury spokesman said at the press introduction.

1971 Mercury Monterey left rear

Much of the sheetmetal below the beltline was redesigned in a way to be “bolder” with smoother lines, and also enabling the entry-level Monterey to better visually match the Marquis.  Above the beltline, the car was unmistakably a Ford, looking suspiciously similar to an LTD.

Other touches new for ’71 included a more pronounced, pointed grille, ventless side windows, hidden windshield wipers and flush door handles – all intended to “add distinctiveness and glamour.”

1971 Mercury Monterey badge

And in case anyone had doubts, this car was produced by the Lincoln Mercury Division.  A revealing bit of name-dropping there.

1971 Mercury Marquis brochure

The top-line Marquis & Brougham continued to be distinguished by covered headlights.

Full-size Mercurys for 1971 came in four models: the base Monterey, a slightly better equipped Monterey Custom, and two upper-end models, Marquis and Marquis Brougham.

1971 Mercury Monterey brochure

A sizable price difference separated the top and bottom.  Monterey prices started at $3,423 ($26,000 in 2022 dollars), while a fully-loaded Marquis Brougham could sticker for nearly $6,000 ($45,000 today).

1971 Mercury Monterey

Sedans throughout Mercury’s full-size range came in hardtops (like our featured car) or pillared versions.  Hardtops cost more – adding between three and four percent to a car’s price.  More customers of the higher-end Marquis lines opted for hardtops… for example, over a third of Marquis Brougham buyers.  Naturally, the take rate for lower-end hardtops was less, and that makes our featured Monterey somewhat of an oddity.  Of the 25,000 Monterey sedans produced in 1971, under ten percent (2,483) of buyers sprang for the extra $165 to get a hardtop.

1971 Mercury Monterey

Let’s take a look at this car’s details.  At first glance, it appears to be a Monterey Custom, sporting the deluxe wheel covers and protective side moldings that came standard on Customs.  However, these were optional on base Montereys, and this car’s original owner checked those boxes, as well as opting for a vinyl roof.  A glance inside reveals some other interesting options.

1971 Mercury Monterey interior

While this may look like a base model’s typically frugal interior, this car is equipped with automatic temperature control – certainly a luxury fifty year ago, and at $525, the full-size Mercurys’ costliest option.  Other options here one wouldn’t expect on a base Monterey include an AM/FM stereo ($252), power windows and locks, and speed control.

Meanwhile, although the original owner ordered some pricey options, he or she chose not to spend an extra $82 for upgraded seats.  Undoubtedly there are other intriguing option combinations among this car’s equipment.  From a modern-day perspective, I’d love the opportunity to buy a base-model sedan, binge on a few expensive options, and then pick and choose between a few dozen other available goodies.  This could be fun: I’d order a Monterey with the twin comfort lounge seats and also a three-speed manual transmission (Monterey was the only full-size Mercury in 1971 to offer a standard manual).

From this angle, one can see Monterey’s new-for-’71 dashboard, with instruments (speedometer, fuel gauge and a giant clock) recessed into deep, square pods surrounded by simulated cherrywood applique.

1971 Mercury Monterey brochure dashbboard

Here’s a better view of the dash, courtesy of the Mercury brochure.  Incidentally, while front-seat passengers couldn’t see the clock due to it being sunken in a deep pit, they were treated to their own ashtray.

1971 Mercury Monterey

It’s unknown what lies under this Monterey’s long hood, other than a V-8.  Montereys came standard with a 240-hp, 351 cu. in. V-8, while a 400 cu. in. and two versions of the 429 (with 260, 320 and 360 hp respectively) were optional.  Although a 3-speed manual came standard, the vast majority of Montereys left the factory with the Select-Shift automatic.

As one might expect from a car billed as offering the “smooth, quiet ride of a luxury car at a lower cost,” Monterey provided customers with a pillowy-soft ride.  Evidently though, a Monterey could outhandle some of its competitors.  In a 1971 Motor Trend comparison test between Monterey and Buick’s Centurion, the author noted that the Monterey handled better than the Buick – “considerably less uncomfortable when cornerning” was the quote… faint praise indeed.

1971 Mercury Monterey

And that big, flat decklid served a purpose, other than to visually balance the even longer hood.  Monterey’s trunk could hold a whopping 20.4 cu. ft. of cargo.

1971 Mercury Monterey

Of course, looking at our featured car still won’t answer the question about just what role Monterey was supposed fill in Ford Motor Company’s lineup.  But few probably asked that question at the time, because it turns out that Mercury’s combination of near luxury, formal design and relatively good value was successful.  And who questions success?

1971 full-size Mercury production

Source of production figures: Standard Catalog of Ford, 1903-1998.

For 1971, Mercury sold about 162,000 full-size cars (though the new compact Comet stole the brand’s limelight that year).  The above chart shows how those full-size sales were dispersed over various models and bodystyles.  The big sellers resided at the top and bottom of the price scale, with the value-oriented Monterey and the plush Marquis Brougham accounting for the majority of production.  Additionally, this chart illustrates the relative rarity of 4-door hardtops among the lower priced Montereys and Monterey Customs.

1972 Mercury Monterey ad

Interestingly, the base Monterey’s share of total Mercury sales rapidly diminished through the early 1970s.  While Monterey made up over 40% of the 1965-68 generation’s full-size Mercurys, by 1971 that proportion shrank to about 24%.  That share withered even further after ’71.  By our featured generation’s last year of 1974, Montereys accounted for just 11% of full-size Mercurys.  Reflecting the Great Brougham Epoch’s full bloom, the plush Marquis Brougham consumed well over half of total sales by 1974.

1974 Mercury Monterey brochure

1974 was the end of the line for Mercury’s Monterey.  When updating its full-size line for ’75, Mercury retired the Monterey nameplate after a quarter-century of service.

Perhaps the closest thing to a job description that 1970s Montereys had was to be different things to different people.  After all, these cars were like a patchwork of concepts.   From some angles they looked like a Ford, from others more like a Lincoln.  They were staid enough not to seem flamboyant, but not so much as to appear frumpy.  They shouted out neither wealth nor austerity.  But eventually, the notion of a car with this combination of qualities just naturally lost much of its appeal.

1971 Mercury Monterey

It’s safe to assume that by the 1970s Ford had no definitive plan for the Monterey.  By the time our featured car was produced, the Monterey name itself was simply coasting along on recognizable brand equity.  Inevitably, the concept of a full-size entry level Mercury with an identity crisis ceased to be marketable, and the model faded away.

And while the Monterey may never have figured out just what its role was supposed to be in Mercury showrooms, five decades later, that’s perfectly OK.  This particular car’s current role as one of the few survivors of its kind surpasses any function or purpose it may have had when new.


Photographed in January 2019 in Burke, Virginia.


Related Reading:

1971 Mercury Monterey: You Could Have Had A Marquis   Jason Shafer