Curbside Classic: 1977-79 Mercury Cougar XR7 – The First Thundercat

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(first posted 11/5/2014)    After a recent week of Ford Thunderbirds with a healthy dose of the intermediate-sized 1977-79 generation, a profile of the Mercury Cougar XR7 of the same years will create feelings of déjà vu. The 1977-79 Cougar XR7 shared the chassis, body and most of the styling of the contemporary Thunderbird, differing mostly in lacking the Thunderbird’s most distinctive details, its hidden headlights and basket handle B-pillar with inset opera window.

Far removed from the Cougar’s luxury pony car origins in 1967, this mid-size offering of Ford’s middle division suffered from classic middle-child syndrome, which continues to afflict it today, starved for attention among Ford personal luxury cars between the Thunderbird and the top-of-the-line Lincoln Mark V.  This sighting of a well preserved example, which I believe is the same car that I saw regularly in the same parking lot over 30 years ago, prompted this look back at a largely forgotten Mercury.

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In 1977 Mercury changed the Cougar’s purpose in its model lineup, applying the name to its entire lineup of intermediates and creating a Cougar XR7 with some distinguishing styling features to fill the personal luxury car role of the Thunderbird and the previous generation Cougar. Thus in 1977-79 the sedans, coupes, and station wagons formerly badged as Montegos became the Cougar sedan, Cougar coupe, and Cougar Villager.  They were Mercury’s version of the Ford LTD II, which similarly took a formerly upmarket name and applied it to a full lineup of ordinary intermediates on the old Torino chassis.  The Cougar XR7, like the Thunderbird, was the higher positioned personal luxury car version of the Cougar/LTD II.

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Mercury gave the Cougar XR7 some unique styling details to separate it from the ordinary Cougar coupe, but unlike the Thunderbird’s distinctive basket handle B-pillar, the Cougar XR7’s were barely noticeable from most angles and seem to highlight Mercury’s muddled position among Ford’s divisions more than they identify the car as a distinct product. A half vinyl roof with simulated louvers at the front edge of the rear opera windows was an XR7-only feature that only the most fanatical car spotters would have noticed.

Quite noticeable but also quite questionable was the trapezoidal simulated spare tire hump on the trunk lid, added to rear styling that otherwise was reminiscent of the contemporary Mercury Marquis.  Obviously derived from the “Continental” simulated spare tire humps on Lincolns, it no doubt seemed to be a good idea to the marketing department, but it said heavy-handedly that the car was trying to be like a Lincoln, but was not quite one.

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Mercury further highlighted the trunk lid hump in 1978-79 with the Midnight/Chamois Decor Option, which covered the hump with Chamois colored padded vinyl and continued the color scheme on the half vinyl roof, wheels, and side moldings, with the interior also in Midnight Blue and Chamois. “Broughamois” has not entered into car lexicon yet (not even in Francophone Canada), having exactly zero Google hits as of 12:00 AM today, but if this option package had become more popular, it might have.

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The interior of the Cougar XR7 imitated the Thunderbird closely, with the same instrument panels and corporate Ford steering wheel. The same sport instrument package that included a large speedometer and tachometer and five small dials for fuel and engine monitoring gauges was an option.  (This photograph is not of the featured car, whose interior was entirely dark green.)

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Under the hood, the base engine in 1977 was a 302 2 barrel with 134 horsepower, with a 351 two barrel with 149 horsepower and a 400 two barrel with 173 horsepower as options.  In 1979, the 400 was dropped, leaving only the 302 and 351.  Although none of these choices was especially exciting, whatever was under the hood, on top of it the driver got to look at one of the greatest hood ornaments of all time.

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Although not widely or well remembered today, the 1977-79 Cougar XR7 was by far the best selling car to bear the Cougar name.  Mercury sold 124,799 Cougar XR7s and 70,024 “regular” Cougars in 1977, with Cougar XR7 sales alone being 50% higher than for the 1976 Cougar.  Cougar XR7 sales leaped even higher in 1978-79 while sales of lesser Cougars collapsed, with XR7 sales of 166,508 in 1978 and 163,716 in 1979, and others at only 46,762 in 1978 and 8,436 in 1979.  To put the success of the 1977-79 Cougar XR7 in perspective, its sales in 1978-79 exceeded the Cougar’s previous high of 150,893 in its debut year of 1967, which fell to 113,720 in 1968 and 100,060 in 1969.

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Much like the 1977-79 Thunderbird, which sold an average of over 300,000 per year in 1977-79, the 1977-79 Cougar XR7 clearly hit a sweet spot as a personal luxury car that was decently styled and not too bloated for an era of high gas prices. It was not the luxury pony car that the highly regarded first generation had been, but it was a successful personal luxury car and the best selling Cougar of all time.

The ensuing downsized generation caused the popularity of the Cougar to fall off a cliff, with sales plunging to only 58,028 in 1980 and averaging approximately 74,250 in 1980-82.  The aerodynamic 1983 restyling revived the model’s popularity, which sold over 100,000 per year during the mid to late 1980s and peaked at 135,904 in 1986, approaching but not quite equaling the sales figures of 1977-79.

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The featured Cougar XR7 is a well preserved survivor of the approximately 455,000 sold in 1977-79, and it is likely the same car that I saw parked on a regular basis during the 1980s in the same parking lot near a Washington, DC area Exxon station. At the time, a pastel colored American luxury barge seemed like a dinosaur among the sensibly sized and mostly black, white, or silver Japanese and European cars that were taking over suburban driveways and streets, so this car has remained stuck in my memory of this place ever since then.  This cougar probably has been chasing this beagle since the 1980s.

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At least 35 years after it was new, with the benefit of hindsight and more knowledge, the same car appears in a different light. Its “intermediate” size makes it a bit shorter than full size personal luxury cars such as the pre-1980 Lincoln Mark series or pre-1979 Eldorado/Riviera/Toronado; its styling is cleaner than that of the contemporary Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix; and arguably it has aged better, even with the trapezoidal Continental hump as a rather forced styling element. Most likely its presumed long-term owner no doubt finds it to be a satisfying sunny day cruiser, with a quiet and relaxing ride and powertrain, regardless of its lack of acceleration or driving dynamics. I am glad to see it still driving to the same place that it has for over 30 years, instead of cruising around Stockholm or Berlin.


Related reading:

1977 Ford Thunderbird

1977 Mercury Cougar Villager – Classic Wagon Capsule

1977 Ford LTD II Brougham – The Thunderbird’s Less Successful Brother

1971-73 Mercury Cougar – The Brougham Pony Car (And Mom’s First Ride)

1969 Mercury Cougar – Premium Ponycar

1968 Mercury Cougar – Mercury’s Only Greatest Hit