Today my hometown of New Orleans is celebrating Mardi Gras, replete with lavish parades, revelry and craziness in the streets, make-believe royalty plus lots of parties, including the very formal Mardi Gras Balls. For today at least, established boundaries will be stretched in surprising ways. So I thought it would be fitting to look at a rather wild automotive comparison between two very different cats: one an American arriviste with a bit of Continental flair, and the other epitomizing England’s “Olde Worlde” charms. Plus, one of these cars would be at the center of my parent’s Mardi Gras festivities some fifty years ago.
Actually Carnival has been underway for weeks, with parades and parties throughout New Orleans almost every day. Carnival Krewes are the clubs that put on the festivities, and range from neighborhood groups to large, well-funded operations with incredibly elaborate floats and lavish masquerade balls replete with Kings, Queens and royal courts.
Royalty is a central theme of Mardi Gras, with the city devouring King Cakes, startlingly decorated with green, gold and purple sugar and featuring a little plastic baby hidden inside, to be discovered by one lucky recipient—who then has to buy the next King Cake (unless you are a kid, in which case you just collect the babies).
Kids and adults alike enjoy the parades, where in addition to great music from marching bands and the spectacle of incredible floats (often with wry political and cultural themes), trinkets and tokens like Mardi Gras beads and doubloons are thrown in abundance from the fully-costumed Krewe members aboard each float, to be caught and collected. The net result is that most New Orleanians find other parades rather bit dull: “what do you mean they don’t throw anything?”
The festivities reach a fevered pitch on Mardi Gras Day—aka Fat Tuesday—which is always the last day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Dressing up in costume is the order of the day for almost everyone in the crowds, and two major parades with wildly outfitted Krewes—Zulu and Rex—make their way through the city on their way downtown. Once the parades are done the parties begin.
The crescendo of Mardi Gras comes late in the evening on Tuesday at the formal balls, including the “Meeting of the Courts” when the Krewes of Rex and Comus join together in an elaborate royal tableau in front of a crowd of formally attired revelers in balls gowns, white ties and tails.
The funny part of all this is that the “Kings” of carnival are New Orleans businessmen, doctors, lawyers, civic leaders and the like. In 2017, for example, The King of Rex, was a noted pediatrician while the King of Zulu was a prominent businessman. But for a brief magic moment each man was elevated to a whole new level of showmanship, and the transformation was remarkable.
The same could be said for the first Mercury Cougar. Based on the Ford Mustang, Mercury served up a wheelbase stretch, highly differentiated styling and posher interiors to take the Pony Car upmarket with the Cougar. The “European inspired” XR-7 model gilded the lily even more, and Car and Driver deemed that alluring cat as worthy of a comparison test with one of England’s upper-crust luxury performance sedans.
The Cougar performed remarkably well in the test, demonstrating that conventional Detroit engineering components could be massaged into a remarkably nice package with an attainable price tag. And that was key to the Cougar’s success, both in the comparison test and in the marketplace—as tested, the XR-7 listed for $4,708.26 ($35,280 adjusted), while the Jaguar’s price was far higher at $7,095 ($53,164 adjusted), a sum which would have brought home a well-equipped Cadillac Eldorado. Little wonder Mercury sold 150,893 Cougars in 1967, compared with 5,839 of the much more expensive Jaguars. So for a well-priced, right-sized, good performing and very stylish car, the Cougar was tough to beat.
That’s certainly what my parents thought some 50 years ago, when my Pop bought a 1968 Cougar XR-7 (one of 32,712 XR-7 models sold that year). His was finished in Augusta Green with the styled-steel road wheels like the car pictured above, though Pop’s didn’t have the vinyl top. Underhood, Pop’s XR-7 had the newly available 302 4V V8 (replacing the 289 V8) and Merc-O-Matic. With 230 horsepower and 310 lbs-feet of torque, his car would have had strong performance without the weight and handling penalty as seen with Car and Driver’s 390 V8-equipped ’67 test car.
The interior of Pop’s Cougar was Saddle like the one depicted in this brochure shot, though unless it was a Mardi Gras prop, his car never held a baby wildcat or a pick axe. But it did go to some Mardi Gras balls.
Here are my parents about to head out on Mardi Gras evening circa 1968. Their chariot for the ball was Pop’s brand-spanking-new Cougar XR-7, which made for a grand entrance on a magical night. To this day, my mother still refers to the Cougar as “such a sexy car” and she counts it at the top of her list of favorite cars she’s had (and that list includes some real Jaguar sedans with which she would ultimately indulge years later).
So, for a brief period of time, this Mercury could indeed be considered the belle of the ball. Soon the cat put on pounds and inches, becoming fatter and less nimble, thereby losing the sporty edge and style that had contributed to the Cougar’s early success. Mercury’s surprising flirtation with pseudo-European flair was soon abandoned. But the party sure was amazing while it lasted.
Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!