Curbside Classic: 1973 Mercury Monterey Custom – A Great Name’s Last Ride

(first posted 9/8/2011)    What’s in a name?  A car name, in particular.  Pick a beautiful, exotic locale, and smack that name on your top-end model.  If it does this, a carmaker can earn instant cachet, even snob appeal, so that it can charge a few dollars more.  The Chevrolet Bel Air may be the most famous example.  Chrysler’s Newport and Packard’s Carribean also come to mind.  But all too often, the process starts anew and the former fair-haired child is replaced by another, more desirable model.  Soon, that grand and luxurious nameplate is on a very, very ordinary car.  Is there a better example of this than the Mercury Monterey?

Monterey.  It must have been a happening place after the second world war.  At least Frank Sinatra sang about something happening there.  Come to think of it, are we talking about the Mexican resort area or the seaside town along California’s Pacific Coast Highway?  Either way, it didn’t really matter, because it was someplace that would capture the imagination of an ordinary American in Delaware, Indiana or South Dakota.  Whichever Monterey (or Monterrey?) was intended, Mercury grabbed the name for its top of the line model in 1950.

Fun fact of the day: Did you know that the 1950 Mercury Monterey (along with that year’s Lincoln Lido Coupe) was the first with what would become widely known a generation later as the vinyl roof?  In any event, the Monterey was THE Mercury to have through 1954.

Then, along came the Montclair.  This has always been a bit of a mystery to me.  How, exactly, did Ford take it’s top Mercury, named after a picturesque resort city, and trump it with one named for someplace in New Jersey?  Maybe this would make Mercury the Coast to Coast car?  Anyway, so it continued through the years.  Turnpike Cruiser, Park Lane, Marauder and Marquis, each got a turn as the Monterey’s richer and better looking brother.  Actually, the Monterey got a second shot as top dog in 1961-62 before the Montclair and Parklane returned and put the Monterey back into its second-class status.


Think about it: Did Mercury ever have a better sounding nameplate?  Mercury Monterey.  It just sounds right.  And even though it was usually the bottom-rung big Merc, it never became associated (at least in my mind) with an el-cheapo model the way Bel Air eventually did.  So to me, it is all the more maddening that FoMoCo management was never able to do more with such a classic name.  Mercury Monterey.  Sigh.

This 1973 model has always been doubly maddening to me.   All through the 1960s, the Ford Motor Company had been on a steady move up the auto industry’s caste system.   The Lincoln was becoming a legitimate contender as a first class luxury car, and the Ford LTD was keeping up from the other end.  The 1969-72 generation saw the Ford LTD hit new heights in social acceptance, with Mercury doing the same with its new Marquis.  Couldn’t they have done a bit more with the Monterey?

The 1973 big Ford and Mercury were extensively redesigned cars.  Mercury retained its 3 inch wheelbase advantage (124 compared to Ford’s 121 inches) and shared virtually no sheetmetal with its Ford counterpart.  So why did they have to be so similar?  It is a shame that Mercury could not have  distinguished the Monterey more from the LTD and the Marquis.

Inside, the car was all but indistinguishable from the LTD.  Was there any other company that had a more generic interior design in the 1970s than the Ford Motor Company?  It seems that this basic dashboard (with your choice of round or rectangular guages) was used in everything from the Mustang II to the Mark IV in the 1970s.  They could spend money for unique sheetmetal but could not even give the Mercury a unique dash, or even its own steering wheel?

Alas, it seems that with the success of both the Marquis and the LTD, there was just no room for the poor old Monterey any more.  This showed up in the sales figures.  In 1973, the more expensive Marquis series outsold the Montereys (regular and Custom) by over two to one, and the Ford LTD series did so by about ten to one.  The Monterey Custom sedan (this car) was the most popular of the entire Monterey series, and was still good for only about twenty thousand units (beating the base Monterey sedan’s sixteen thousand).  These numbers were mediocre for a dying Studebaker during the recession of the early 1960s, let alone for a newly redesigned Mercury in a record breaking year for the industry.

In spite of all of the disappointments, this car is actually kind of attractive, in a vanilla ice cream sort of way.   Really, if you were going to sell a car in black and white generic packaging that said “Large Sedan” on the label, wouldn’t the car look just like this?  The slab sides and fender skirts give the car a look of importance, although the look was leveraged better on the Marquis.  Even with its plain-Jane looks, I always considered this car an improvement over the roly-poly ’73 LTD, which struck me as the automotive equivalent of a 47 year old guy with a beer belly.   The Monterey also looks decidedly middle aged, but still, it looks a little more square-jawed and broad shouldered.  More like a slightly overweight ex-football player.

Is there an automaker that did a worse job on the 1973 Federal five m.p.h. bumper than FoMoCo?  If there is such a thing as the best of the worst, at least this big, square Mercury wore these bumpers better than the rest of the Ford Family of Fine Cars.

In truth, I had forgotten that this car (and the virtually identical 1974 model) was the end of the line for the Mercury Monterey.  I refuse to count the short-lived re-badged Windstar that abused the name for a couple of  years very recently.  In 1975, each of the big Mercs became a Marquis (in base, Custom or Brougham flavors).  I should have recalled this, as my drivers ed car was a yellow ’75 base-level Marquis sedan.  Come to think of it, every drivers ed program in the country ought to maintain one or two of these cars to teach today’s hapless teens how to parallel park.  If you can learn to parallel park one of these beasts, driving anything else is child’s play.

It seems that Curbside Classic is becoming the place to come if you have a thing for old Mercurys.  I found this car at a drive-in restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana.  I drove past it once, but did not have time to stop.  Behold, it was there again the next time I was in the city, so it must belong to an employee or a regular customer.  To find this car in this condition, nearly 40 years after it was built, is amazing.  First, there were not that many of these to start with.  Add in the fact that salt ate away most of them, and multiple fuel price spikes over the years took most of the rest.  Yet, here is this car, making it seem like we are back in about 1978.

It is a shame that Ford could not find a bigger niche for this car.  It is not bad looking (by the standards of 1973) and with a little more effort, it could have been a good alternative to the Bonneville or the 88, allowing the Marquis to move up a bit more into Olds/Buick territory.  Perhaps the folks at Ford were still smarting from their disastrous attempt 15 years earlier at moving Mercury drastically up-market.  By the early 1970s, the time may have been right, but the product was not there.

I miss the Monterey, although I never knew anybody who actually owned one.  Weren’t they all owned by someone like the batchelor uncle of the guy down the street?  Still, we should all have a little sympathy for the Monterey, given the way that it was treated.  “Congratulations, Monterey, for twenty-five years of faithful service to Mercury and to the Ford Motor Company.  Now, please clean out your desk, because you’re fired.”  A sad ending for one of the best and most durable names of the post World War II auto industry.  At least, unlike some other old-timers like New Yorker or Bonneville, it got to ride off into the sunset on a pretty respectable car.