(first posted 5/26/2016) True story: I’ve never been more dumbfounded at finding a Curbside Classic than I was when I spotted this Merkur Scorpio two weeks ago. Ever since I learned of this car over a decade ago, I’ve made it my great quest to find one. Unfortunately, selling just over 22,000 examples in North America, now almost three decades ago, the chances of finding one in existence, in any condition, are slim to none.
I did manage to spot this one out in the CC-rich climate of northern California three years ago. Unfortunately, I was a passenger in a moving vehicle coming back from a tour wine country, so this was the best picture I could get, and as a result, it doesn’t really count for me.
Yet in an odd twist of fate, I was recently lost in the appropriately-named “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut. A result of the usually accurate navigation app, Waze, taking me off Interstate 395 to the wrong address on a street that didn’t exist, I came to find that there was no southbound re-entry to the highway. Begrudgingly trusting Waze again to take me back to the interstate, I was shocked when on the horizon I spotted this distinctive hatchback shape aside the rural country road I was traveling on, for it was indeed a Merkur Scorpio!
So what’s so special about the Merkur (pronounced “Maer-koor”) Scorpio? Well, it was Ford’s most serious attempt at making a European sports sedan for the North American market. By the 1980s, with an ever-growing population of upwardly-mobile buyers flocking to European import brands such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, and Volvo, American car companies slowly began introducing models aimed at these buyers who preferred the tighter handling, driving dynamics, and understated appearance of most European cars.
Typically, these European-inspired sports sedans were limited to trim levels on existing mid-size vehicles, differentiated by blacked-out exterior trim, alloy wheels, stiffer suspension, an interior with different trim and bucket seats, and if lucky, upgraded powertrain. Examples of this included the Dodge 600 ES, Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera ES, Pontiac 6000 STE, and Ford’s own 1984 LTD LX.
The Merkur Scorpio, however, was a totally different approach, and arguably the most legitimate domestic “European sports sedan” of the Eighties. This is because the Scorpio was in fact a born and bred European executive car, developed and built in Köln (English spelling: Cologne), West Germany, and sold across continental Europe as the Ford Scorpio. In Ireland and the U.K., the car was still called “Granada”, retaining the name of its predecessor.
With rear-wheel drive, a choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic, a host of gasoline or diesel inline-4s and gasoline V6s, and numerous available luxury features, the European Ford Scorpio was positioned as a legitimate alternative to cars such as the 5-Series and E-Class, much as the Merkur version would be when imported to North America.
In a bold move, Ford chose to offer the Scorpio only as a 5-door hatchback, a decision that somewhat limited the car’s appeal, especially when it came to America. A somewhat angular Taurus-styled 4-door sedan and a 5-door wagon were eventually added, though by this point the Scorpio’s short stint in the States was over.
The Scorpio hatchback was clearly the looker of the lineup, boasting a sleek, aerodynamic silhouette. With steeply-raked front fascia, front windshield, and rear hatch windshield with wraparound rear glass, the car was a compelling, futuristic shape even in Europe where aero designs were already common.
Keeping that praise in mind, the Scorpio design did have its flaws. Despite being rear-wheel drive, the Scorpio featured an uncharacteristically short and tall hoodline, for a somewhat less elegant look than competitors such as the drop-dead gorgeous BMW E34 5-Series. More noteworthy, was that the tall rear roofline and expansive glass hatch tended to give the car an un-sporty, top heavy look from some angles, in addition to making the car look externally larger than it really was.
Regardless, the Scorpio was a hit in Europe, becoming one of the best-selling cars in its class, and receiving numerous praise and awards, including European Car of the Year in 1986. By the time it arrived in North America as the second (and ultimately, final) vehicle added to the new Merkur marque, the Scorpio had a stellar reputation to back its market positioning.
Predictably, the Merkur version was only sold with the top engine available on the European model, a 2.9-liter version of the Cologne V6. Engineers completely redesigned this engine over the older 2.8-liter version, with improvements including a lengthened stroke, stiffer engine block, and a dual manifold arrangement, all made to achieve a more favorable torque curve. Rated at 144 horsepower and 162 pound-feet torque (slightly less than in Europe), this engine was capable of achieving over 90 percent of peak torque between 1800 and 5200 rpm.
The Scorpio was one of the first production vehicles to feature four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes as standard equipment. Suspension was fully independent, consisting of MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar and coil springs up front, and semi-trailing arms, anti-roll bar and coil springs in the rear. The Scorpio also came with power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and at least in North America, was fitted with 15-inch cast aluminum wheels wrapped in low-profile Pirelli all-seasons.
Contemporary reviews of the Scorpio’s handling were typically positive, with ride quality, braking, and the expected tight Germanic steering praised. What most reviewers felt lacking though was acceleration. Although the Scorpio felt confident and composed at triple-digit speeds (top speed was 117 mph), getting there was a bit leisurely, with a zero-to-sixty time of around 10 seconds. In 1987, Car and Driver ran the Scorpio up against the Saab 9000 Turbo, Acura Legend, and Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan, with the Saab and Acura requiring nearly 2 full seconds less to get to sixty mph.
In that same June 1987 issue, Car and Driver summed up the Scorpio as a “model of equanimity”, offering a idealistic balance of handling and comfort. C&D went on to say that in the Scorpio “you feel exceptional poise rather than sportiness”. If there was any question about the Scorpio’s sports sedan claims, there was none whatsoever on its claims of luxury, which most agreed was the car’s most endearing quality.
Uncharacteristic of most German cars, the Scorpio featured thickly padded yet still highly supportive seats, for maximum long-haul comfort. Front buckets were 16-way power adjustable, although the unsightly squeezable lumbar support inflators tended to conjure images of a blood pressure monitor, or worse. In any event, rear passengers were treated to limousine-line legroom, and rear seatbacks could even recline nearly 20 degrees at the touch of a button — one of the car’s most unique features.
Standard on all Merkur Scorpios were the expected power windows, power locks, power mirrors, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and cruise control, to name a few. An overhead console with information center and automatic climate control were both standard, and heated front seats were added to 1989 models. The available Touring package (which most Scorpios seem to have been equipped with) added leather seats, power moonroof, and an electronic fuel computer.
The Scorpio’s interior was well-laid out, with clear analogue gauges and controls positioned within easy driver reach and view. Despite their easy accessibility, some controls and switches were criticized for being confusing to use. Additionally, though it featured high-quality materials and fit-and-finish, the Scorpio’s interior came across as more Mercury Sable than Mercedes-Benz.
Regardless of any subjective qualities, from an objective standpoint, the Merkur Scorpio had many strengths making it a competitive car up against other premium imports. It certainly embodied most of the qualities buyers in this class wanted. Yet despite modest sales projections of 15,000 units per year, why did the Scorpio only manage to sell just over 22,000 in the nearly three years it was sold in North America? If there is one undisputed answer to this question, it is poor marketing.
If it wasn’t bad enough that the Scorpio was sold under a brand that was absolutely meaningless to most people, as few had heard of it and even fewer knew how to pronounce, it was that this BMW/Mercedes/Audi/Saab/Volvo/Acura-alternative brand was sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers, and only select ones at that. Merkur was targeted to a completely different demographic of buyer than the typical Lincoln-Mercury clientele, making it virtually impossible for the Scorpio and XR4Ti to score any sales or even interest from Lincoln-Mercury owners and shoppers.
On that same note, it was highly unlikely that anyone shopping for an import sports-luxury sedan would consider visiting their local Lincoln-Mercury dealer. Other new brands in this segment such as Acura did not encounter these same problems, as the brand was sold through an exclusive dealer network and had a large customer base of current Honda owners looking to trade up.
Then of course, there was also the Mercury Sable and Ford Taurus. Sure they were front-wheel drive and offered a less invigorating driving experience, but they sure looked an awful lot like the Scorpio, boasted greater interior width, and cost nearly half as much, even fully optioned. While it’s probable that almost nobody was cross-shopping Mercedes-Benzes with Taurus and Sables, it is equally unlikely that anyone looking at the Taurus and Sable was allured by the Scorpio. Furthermore, any performance deficiencies were largely nullified by the 1989 Taurus SHO.
As a matter of fact, in more ways than one, the Merkur Scorpio draws parallels to the Eagle Premier. While not necessarily positioned as a premium “European sports sedan”, the Premier was a similarly-sized car, owing much of its mechanics to a European vehicle, and one of the most technologically-advanced cars available in the U.S. at the time. Much like the Scorpio, the Premier was a sales flop, largely a result of its poor marketing under a newly-created “import fighter” brand that failed to resonate with buyers. But that’s a story to revisit for another time.
Ultimately, selling European Fords under the Merkur brand in North America was a failed venture, and one that still raises as many questions today as it did in the 1980s. On the one hand, selling genuinely European engineered and built cars with all the characteristics import buyers demanded for a lower cost than other German cars sounded totally ingenious.
Yet at the end of the day, who exactly was Merkur supposed to appeal to? And I mean no shame at all, but it’s no secret that a large majority of European luxury car purchases were and still are today image-driven. Those looking to shell out big bucks for the prestige of a Bimmer or Benz were not likely to be swayed by some no-name Ford product, even if it was from Germany. Likewise, Japanese luxury brands such as Acura and later, Lexus, appealed to those who once drove more pedestrian Hondas and Toyotas. Any extra conquests they picked up along the way were additional profit.
The idea, execution, and general goals of Merkur still raise many obscurities, which will likely never be fully understood. Merkur disappeared just as quietly as it arrived, seeing less than five years of existence — a period of time significantly less than the time it took me to find one. The Ford Sierra (basis for the Merkur XR4Ti) and Scorpio continued in Europe, fully living out their design cycles, before being replaced. As for the North American market, Ford largely gave up on trying to sell upscale Euro sports sedan fighters, making the whole Merkur story all the more bizarre.
1988 Merkur Scorpio (Curbside Classic)
1988 Merkur Scorpio (Vintage Road Test)
1985 Merkur XR4Ti (Curbside Classic)