Curbside Classic: 1985 Mercury Marquis – Lesser Nobility

One is not assured of accolades solely on account of noble birth.  History is full characters who embody that cautionary statement, and here we have an automotive version.  The Marquis – an aristocratic nameplate born in the 1960s as the top-line Mercury – eventually became this… an unmemorable, mid-priced, mid-sized sedan.  Nearly indistinguishable from its more common Ford LTD brethren, the 1983-86 Marquis avoided both praise and scorn.  It simply existed in a bland, anonymous manner unbefitting higher nobility.

Mercury unveiled the Marquis nameplate in 1967 as an upscale Ford LTD coupe.  Though sharing LTD’s overall appearance, Marquis boasted a standard Marauder V-8, an “ultra luxurious interior,” and other upgrades that justified a 19% price premium over the Ford.  Though an interesting concept, and well done for what it was, the original Marquis wasn’t exactly a hot seller, as only about 10,000 were produced for 1967 and ’68.  Marquis got somewhat lost in Mercury’s lineup of full-size near-luxury cars, which then included the Park Lane and Brougham as well.

1969 brought about a new full-size Mercury, and this car adopted the Marquis name – not because of the previous Marquis’ sales strength, but because it fit into Mercury’s naming convention – a glitzy name beginning with M.  This generation represented Peak Marquis.  Marquis eventually spawned the more upscale Marquis Brougham and Grand Marquis, and over 1.1 million were sold over 10 model years.  Despite (or perhaps because of) being corpulent and excessive, its strongest sales years came at the end of its long reign.  While certainly not everyone’s idea of automotive nirvana, at least this car was clear about what it was trying to be, which is more than can be said about many subsequent Mercurys.

Downsizing occurred for 1979 with the Panther-body Marquis.  But in 1980, Mercury was hit with a cataclysm.  Divisionwide sales fell 48% as the energy crisis drove buyers away from the larger cars that many people associated with the brand.

Unfortunately, the Mercury division suffered a chronic identity crisis – and this was no more apparent than in the early 1980s.  Mercury’s best-selling car of 1981 and ’82 was the subcompact Lynx, and then for the following three years, it was the resurgent full-size Panther (Marquis / Grand Marquis).  In between these extremes lay the intermediate models that are often overlooked four decades later – largely because they were badge-engineered Fords with only the slightest trim variations, and none of them broke through with outstanding sales success.

Among those intermediate models was the Cougar… no not that Cougar, but rather the poster-child of name debasement shown above.  Introduced for 1981 on the rear-drive Fox platform, and a virtual clone of Ford’s bland Granada, this Cougar represented the epitome of squarish, plain car design.  Even a foxy model with a live predatory cat couldn’t make this car exciting.  It lasted for two years, and was then replaced by our featured Marquis for 1983.

Both Ford and Mercury borrowed names from their respective full-size car lines for the Granada/Cougar replacements.  Ford went with LTD; Mercury with Marquis.  In Mercury’s case, the larger Panther-body car continued as the Grand Marquis (most ’79-’82 examples had been sold as “Grands” anyway), and the lesser Marquis nameplate instead went to this new mid-size car.  Well, new might not be the right term to use here…

The LTD/Marquis was essentially a reskin of the Granada/Cougar, which itself was a restyled Fairmont/Zephyr, which debuted for 1978.  Therefore, Ford entered the mid-’80s with a six-year old “new” car in the crucial mid-size market.  That’s not quite a recipe for sales success.

Offered as sedans or wagons, Marquis carried a base price of $7,893 for 1983 – a scant 1.5% more than Ford’s equivalent LTD.  For the extra $116 Mercury buyers received… well, Mercury badges, a different grille design, and somewhat awkward-looking tail lights with black panels, which eventually gave way to more conventional lights two years later.

Though certainly not a bold effort at a new car, there were some enhancements over its short-lived predecessor.  Styling, for one, was much improved… now including actual style. Whereas the Granada/Cougar featured vertical front and rear panels, on the Marquis these sloped gently, providing a flowing design augmented by a rear window that sloped at a 60° angle.  Somewhat contradictory to the ethos of a 1980s traditional sedan, Ford touted the aerodynamic efficiency of this design, which achieved a respectable drag coefficient of 0.38 (as perspective, Ford’s “wind-cheating” Tempo achieved a Cd of 0.37).

Ford embraced the aero-look during the 1980s, and the Marquis can be considered “Aero Lite.”  It has a contemporary design, but without cutting-edge design features such as aircraft-style doors or concealed wipers as appeared on other Ford products of the mid-’80s, such as the 1983 Thunderbird.

Comparing this 35-year old Mercury to modern sedans with their portly rumps and chunky sides, one gains an appreciation for an overall design effort that produced a rather graceful profile.

The Marquis’ greenhouse was opened up with the addition of C-pillar windows, though the various windows created a bevy of vertical lines cluttering what was otherwise a cleanly-styled car.  Yet overall, this was a good-looking design for its day – actually, it would have been a great-looking design in 1981, if Ford had just used this instead of the overwhelmingly dull Granada/Cougar.

Marquis also received a new interior.  Sort of.  Though different from its predecessor sedan, this new car used the dashboard and center console from the 1980-82 Thunderbird/Cougar XR-7.  Such hand-me-down parts-bin picking came off as rather pitiful.

Despite this relatively austere-looking interior, our featured car is a Brougham, identifiable by – among other details – the door pull strap, which was unavailable on base models.  And yes, this is the “luxury seat and door panel trim,” though it sure doesn’t look too opulent.  In addition to these mighty Brougham luxuries, this particular car came equipped with air conditioning, AM/FM stereo, and power windows/locks.  The “flight bench seat” had three seating positions, but any middle passenger would be squeezed in width and would need to straddle the bulky center console.

Marquis was billed as a “driver’s car” in some early ads, which wasn’t quite accurate.  No one would mistake this for a sports sedan.  For example, consider the instrument cluster.  The above image of a similar car’s dashboard shows the typically domestic silver-backed gauges, and instrumentation wasn’t exactly plentiful.  Although reasonably comfortable, the Marquis’ interior and driving environment wouldn’t receive any awards for ergonomics or innovation.

The front license plate here identifies this Marquis as a 1985 model, a fact I corroborated by checking the VIN, but at first I assumed it was a final-model-year ’86 instead.  Why?

…Because the car sports a factory-looking center high-mounted stop lamp (CHMSL), mandatory for ’86+ US passenger vehicles.  I wasn’t aware of these cars offering CHMSLs before the ’86 models, so either I’m mistaken, or someone took the effort to install a factory light on an older car.  If anyone has insight to shed on this, I’d love to hear it.

Marquis spotters need to rely on specifics like brake lights because over its 3½-year lifespan, the Marquis received few changes.  1984 models saw detail changes like adding fuel injection to the available V-6.  1985 brought about a new grille (which Mercury claimed “helps reinforce its luxurious image”), body-color side rub strips, redesigned tail lights, some minor trim changes, and slightly wider tires.  And for the short 1986 model year, the center brake light was the only change.

For our featured car’s year, Marquis sedan prices started at $8,996 for the base model, and for an extra $327 buyers could spring for the Brougham, which added upgraded interior trim (upholstery, door trim, carpet, etc.), additional lights and mirrors and a digital clock.  Our featured car likely carried a sticker price of about $12,000 – or about the price of Honda Accord LX.  Marquis Wagons, also available in base or Brougham trim, listed for about $500 more than sedans.

Engine choices for 1985 included a standard 88-hp 2.3-liter carbureted 4-cylinder (perfect only for patient drivers), or an optional 3.8-liter fuel injected V-6.  The V-6, spritely in a malaise-y way with 120-hp and 205-lbs/ft of torque, carried a $418 premium for 1985 Marquis sedans (it was standard on the wagon), but for most drivers was well worth the cost.

In terms of driving, Marquis’ softly sprung suspension, tuned for traditional comfort, provided a floaty ride, typical of what one might expect from a Mercury sedan.  A sport version of this car was offered, but was produced in shockingly low numbers: Just 134 V-8 Marquis LTS sedans were made – sold only in Canada and only for 1985.  For those who think Ford’s LTD LX sport sedan was a rare sight, just try finding one of the equivalent Mercurys!

Consumer Guide summed up the Marquis by describing it as “a basic, mid-size sedan whose most exotic feature is gas-pressurized shock absorbers.”  Certainly an apt portrayal – though while lacking in excitement, the Marquis accomplished its unexciting task very well.  It was well-made, reliable, decent-looking, and had no irredeemable faults.  But it wasn’t what most mid-1980s sedan buyers yearned for, either.  Front-wheel drive, European driving characteristics, Japanese-like quality of materials… these traits were undeniably taking hold of North American buyers’ preferences at the time.  A car with none of these characteristics was doomed to struggle against an irrepressible current.

Source of Production Figures: Standard Catalog of Ford, 1903-1998

Marquis did not sell badly, though not great, either.  Over 300,000 examples were made over the model’s lifespan, and during 1984 and ’85, production topped the 100,000 mark.  Sedans outnumbered wagons by about 5-to-1.  This generation of Marquis sold about half the number of units than the largely similar Ford LTD – and interestingly, this was a virtually identical proportion that the 1981-82 Cougar sold compared to Ford’s Granada.

The Marquis’ tepid dynasty continued into 1986, but production was cut short as the Chicago Assembly Plant where these cars were produced was retooled for Taurus/Sable production.  Ford’s thinking in terms of mid-size cars certainly shifted with the Sable, though annual sales of this generation of Sable weren’t much different from the peak two years (’84 & ’85) of Marquis sales.  Still, not many folks wept as the Marquis slipped into history.

When we look back on the Marquis, we can see several things: A staunchly conventional sedan built in the waning years of traditionalism… A placeholder until Mercury could come up with a more definitive offering in this segment… An insipid sedan that fell through the cracks in our collective memory.  But what I see more than anything else is a lost opportunity.  The Marquis was a decent car, but Mercury needed a product that would distinguish itself in at least some aspect — the Marquis simply did not accomplish that goal.  For a division struggling to clarify what its purpose really was, a directionless car in the mid-size segment was just about the least helpful product imaginable.  Instead, the once noble Marquis slumped into obscurity…. with Mercury itself not far behind.


Photographed in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania in April 2019.


Related Reading:

1985 Ford LTD: The Father of the Brougham Era Becomes the Surrogate Mother of the Aero Era   Paul Niedermeyer

Vintage Reviews: 1983-86 Ford LTD, LTD/LX & LTD Brougham: Lethargic, Tuned or Dutiful?   GN