January 15, 2003

The name was already in the family. It was one of the finalists when the eventual winner, Mustang, was chosen for Ford's ponycar a few years earlier. The name "Cougar" sends a strong message of sleek style and easy gliding, but the powers went another direction in 1964 for Mustang, opting for the speed through the prairie feel.

In retrospect, this allowed for a perfect fit for the next time a need for a name came up. The decision to develop a car in the Mercury product line gave the innovators a chance to improve upon a proven concept. The car-buying public bought Mustangs in record numbers. Now, the company was looking to up the ante with a similar-sized car (as far as perception) with more emphasis on style and comfort. The end result also sold far more than expected.

In reality, the Cougar began well before the Mustang. Known as "T-7," the project to develop this car languished until Ford's Pony bolted out of the gate. Now, with renewed enthusiasm, engineers went to work on T-7. And since no one was using the Cougar name, it was attached to this project. Like the Mustang, the Cougar design came as a result of several teams working independently to come up with the plan.

The design was finalized in early 1965 as a "man's car that a Mustang owner could step up to." Ford believed there needed to be a step between the Mustang and Thunderbird. That part about it being a "man's car" will be addressed later.

The cat was let out of the bag in early 1966. Publicity campaigns started letting the world know of Mercury's plans and the name of the car before the first model was available for sale. The hype leading up to the showroom debut late in 1966 was a multi-pronged effort to fan the fires of the smaller-car buyer.

The world finally got to see the car after media previews in California and the Bahamas. The buying frenzy had begun with strong sales from the first transaction in late 1966. Optimistic projections targeted Cougar sales at 85,000. It was nowhere near the Mustang launch figures, but it was still a heady task to put up that kind of number on an initial offering. When the response started to take shape, production facilities realized this figure was too low. When it was over for the first model year, the car had sold in excess of 150,000 and positioned itself in a respectable position among new ventures.

The Cougar's drawing card was its looks. The Mustang had been on the scene for a few years, selling well. Because the Mustang was considered the root of the idea, there was plenty about the Mustang beneath the Cougar, but the buyers were seeing from the outside in. In its preview of the new Cougar, Motor Trend (Aug. '66) labeled the cat "Certainly one of the prettier cars of the coming year." In its buyers' guide later in the year (November), Motor Trend also acknowledged, "And while it shares a great deal with the wildly successful Mustang, the Cougar has its own aura and personality, so it isn't just a repeat of the car that started the whole rage." That same magazine selected the Cougar as "Car of the Year" for 1967 for good reason.

This was the image the designers had been looking for. In the first marketing campaigns, the Cougar was called "Untamed Elegance," sending the message that strikes a responsive chord that this car is different. Those differences were stunning and remain an integral part of automotive history to this day.

From the unveiling of the car until today, one of the most distinguishing features of the earlier-model Cougars is the "hideaway" headlights. Run on a vacuum-actuating operation, the headlights tuck away to yield a continuation of the grille, itself a strong style point. This unique treatment helped blend the style throughout the whole car, taking a necessary evil (headlights) and making it part of the design concept.

Another element of the early Cougar that drew rave reviews was the use of the sequential turn signals in the taillights. It's something often imitated, but never duplicated, at least with the success of the Cougar. The floating banks of vertical bars at the rear blended perfectly with the grillework at the front, giving the car an aesthetic balance.

In general, the Cougar's overall styling allowed the Mercury line to establish its own niche. The car was clearly not a Mustang. It was a few inches longer, had a bigger wheelbase, and was packed full of the types of goodies the upscale buyer would be seeking. In fact, one of the drawing cards happened to be the number of items found optional on other cars that came standard on Cougar. The 3-inch-longer wheelbase translated into rear-seat legroom. The suspension and ride received rave reviews in testing, even under trying conditions.

The '67 models utilized the popular 289 V-8 engine, offered in three versions (including a low-compression export), and the 390 Marauder big-block. The engine choices were even better when the '68 models were introduced, with the bulk of the production done with 302 engines beneath the bonnet. For the first time, Cougars were available with 427ci and 428 Cobra Jet engines, though the production number of each was small. The 351 Windsor came into the mix in 1969. The following year saw both Cleveland and Windsor versions of the 351 available in a Cougar.

It's clear there was an emphasis on performance in addition to style with the more powerful engines finding a home in the platform. While this may be running parallel to the upgrades in Mustang engines, there is one element Cougar fans point to with pride. In 1968, you could get a 427 in a Cougar, but not a Mustang.

At the start, Cougar owners preferred the automatic transmission, with nearly 80 percent of the cars manufactured with an automatic.

At first, Mercury offered only two basic body styles. More than 80 percent of the cars made in the first year were standard coupes (hardtops).

In very early '67, the XR-7 ("XR" stands for "Experimental Racing" and the 7 may have come from the original T-7 designation of the project) was added and proved to be a popular choice. In 1969, the standard convertible and XR-7 convertible were added to the array, and buyers snatched up the drop-tops while they were still in style. By 1972, Mercury was making more of the XR-7 convertibles than the standard, but production numbers had started to wane. The XR-7 convertible numbers, as well as overall production numbers, picked up in 1973.

While the Cougars of the first generation attracted so much attention, subsequent models have developed their own backers. The car took on a different look to closely emulate its Ford siblings. By the mid-'80s, the Cougar had become a carbon copy of the Thunderbird (interesting when you remember the car was developed as a bridge to the T-bird).

As the years hurtled toward the 21st century, Cougar searched for its own identity in a world of cookie-cutter domestic cars. Mercury continued to build the car until a decision about a year ago to terminate the brand, one of four product lines ousted from the Ford family. It's become a sad end to an American icon, arguably the car that bolstered the Mercury line into prominence among a competitive automotive society. The Mercury line was once seen in the shadow of Ford, but the Cougar changed all that. The popularity of the car allowed Mercury to position itself as a player. The success of the Cougar led to the idea of quality "at the Sign of the Cat," utilizing a snarling cougar perched atop a Lincoln Mercury sign. It was the success of the Cougar that allowed the company to claim "Lincoln Mercury leads the way." The slogan "Try Cougar and see how great a winner can be" urged buyers to consider the car and check out the luxury offerings available at the Mercury showroom, at times keeping them from the Ford dealer down the street.

Yes, Cougar history is one that is filled with plenty of areas of automotive pride. In preparation for a look at the 35 years of Cougar, we sought opinions from different members of present-day Cougar Clubs regarding these cars. These opinions were given in an online survey of Cougar owners who are directly connected to the product and well-suited to understanding the nuances that complete this car.

VALUE
Many of the Cougar owners brought up an interesting point. Cougars can be a bargain in today's car-buying world. If the trends are anything like before, you better hurry.

In the recent Cars of Particular Interest book produced by the National Auto Research division of Hearst Business Media, a '67 hardtop Cougar in good condition was valued at $4,100. The XR-7 hardtop was listed at $5,575. The same prices held for the '68 models.

There are two ways to compare this. The first is against the '65 Mustang, i.e., comparing first-year cars to each other. The '65 Mustang hardtop was valued at $6,600 while the second-year run ('66) was posted at $6,475. Both easily outdistance the value of a Cougar.

Now, we compare the '67 and '68 Cougars to the '67 and '68 Mustangs. The later Mustangs are lower in value, but still greater than the Cougar. The '67 Mustang shows $5,800, while the '68 Mustang is $5,750.

The difference is greater when you compare convertibles. The '69-'70 models for the Cougar show $7,200, while the Mustangs for the same year list at $9,000.

There are two ways to look at this. First, the Cougar is a good bargain. The car had a higher sticker than a Mustang when new, but the production numbers were much lower. Value is often determined by quantities available, so it stands to reason that Cougar value is going to be increasing. In the past two years, the first-year Cougars have increased by $700 (hardtop) and over $1,000 (XR-7). Comparatively, the '65 Mustang coupe and the '66 model have stepped up only $400.

Cougar collector Royce Peterson is well aware of the trend. "Right now, prices are on a big upward swing. The Boss 302 Eliminators are very pricey. Any 428CJ Cougar is way up there. Restored 427 GTEs have been sold in the $40,000-plus bracket.

"There might be a Mustang guy somewhere that doesn't pay attention to these things, but right now Cougars are certainly getting their due. Tried to buy a Cougar convertible from 1969 or 1970 lately? Get out your wallet because they are popular. I invite anyone considering the purchase of a Mustang to look at a similar model year Cougar and see what they will be missing."

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A MAN'S CAR?

When the Cougar was revealed to the public in 1966, the mindset held that men controlled the money and made the decision on the major purchases. That may have held true, but it was an idea on its way to extinction. From the beginning, women were clearly taken by the comfort and luxury of the Cougar. At the end of the first year, statistics indicated that one in six of Cougars sold was purchased by a woman.

Five years ago, when the Cougar hit its 30th anniversary, the latest statistics indicated that the Cougar remained a car of choice for female buyers. At that point, 46 percent of the Cougars sold were purchased by women.

CATS ON THE PROWL

They were noted for their style and luxury as far as the sales approach went, but there was always the idea that a Cougar would make a fine race car. There is no better proof than the Group II racing campaign (also known as Trans-Am racing) of the Sports Car Club of America in 1967. Mercury put the Cougar to the test, going head-to-head with Mustangs, Barracudas, and Darts. This newcomer (another newcomer, Camaro, was entered as well) proved more than adequate. Cougar started in the front row in the first event at Daytona, which set the stage for the rest of the year. The car's first win came in Texas, and Peter Revson subbed to make it two in a row with a Lime Rock victory. Going into the season finale, the record book showed four wins for the Mustang and four wins for the Cougar, definitely a surprise to the Ford camp. Parnelli Jones' Cougar experienced some pit-stop misfortune and Ford ended up winning the title by a mere two points. It was a defeat that sits hard with Cougar fans even to this day. The car did not compete in subsequent sanctioned road-course racing.

The twists and turns weren't the only places where Cougar racing was evident. Dyno Don Nicholson and Fast Eddie Schartman, among others, piloted Cougars to many drag race wins.

While not on the major league level, Cougars have been put to work on oval tracks as well. Mark Myers of Wheatfield, Indiana, shared the story of his Cougar oval track car. "The picture of the car is from 1980. I used to run the car at Rensselaer Raceway (no longer in operation) and Broadway Speedway (now Crown Point Speedway), both in northwest Indiana. A guy who had been running a '68 Cougar with a Boss 302 engine was whipping the Chevys pretty good. When I hurt my Mustang pretty bad, I had already been hooked on the Cougar, so I knew what my next car would be."

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CATS OVERSEAS

Not suprisingly, the Cougar is a hit well beyond the North American continent. Leon Bray of Brisbane, Australia, owns a litter of Cougars and believes there may be as many as 250 classic Cougars in Australia. "They have been imported from the '60s, including two that were imported by Ford and have compliance plates attached by the factory," he says.

Leon Bray's cars in Australia

These cars include a full range of models: a couple of Boss 302 Elimiators, '69 R-code and S-code cars, '69-'70 GT convertibles, and '68 GTs. The '69 convertibles are really popular and there may be a GTE on the continent. The searchers are on its trail.

The Cougar Club of Australia is a chapter of the Cougar Club of America. It's basically a registry because the Cougars are spread so far and wide that meetings and gatherings are impractical. There are a number of Cougars enthusiasts with mulitple cars. One Cougar owner in Briscane can claim seven cars, all '69 and '70 models. A few more have three cars and a number possess two.

In the course of our survey, we also received a response from an owner in South Africa, so you can see the Cougar truly has universal appeal.

POST-'73

While much of the attention is given to classic Cougars of the 1967-1973 era, the car continued to occupy a place on American highways with new models each year. As is the case with every long-running marque, there are some periods that are less positive than others.

A complete history of the Cougar from 1967 to the present is found at www.coolcats.net. This site is primarily devoted to '83-'88 models, but does utilize cyberspace to inform interested readers about changes in the cat's evolution. The following information was obtained from that source. (Thanks to Eric Dess for permission and great insight.)

* '74-'76--Low on power, using LTD II/Montego platform and virtual clones to these cars
* '77-'79--Thunderbird chassis. Realize best sales year (213,000) in 1978
* '80-'82--Fox chassis, starting to lose some identity. Offered with four-cylinder engine and V-6
* '83-'86--Fox chassis, but gaining back styling cues. XR-7 offered with turbocharger
* '87-'88--Encompassed 20th anniversary and special cars were sold before they were made
* '89-'90--Car was stretched and suspension was improved. Unfortunately, no V-8 engine
* '91-'92--H.O. 5.0 engine now available. The controversial 25th anniversary edition released

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WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE COUGAR?

A common answer was usually the year and model currently housed in each respondent's garage. Most common responses included the '67 and '68 models, the '70 Eliminator, and the convertibles.

"The '67 XR-7 Cougar is my favorite. It has clean lines on the outside, unlike the '68 models which carried the mandated sidelights and reflectors."
-Joe Celio, California

"My favorite year is the '69. The larger body makes the car look lower, longer and sleeker, and also separates it from the Mustangs of that year. The '67-'68 was too close to our Ford cousins, in my opinion."
-Robert McMullen, New Hampshire

"Our personal favorite is the car/style/type we own, the Cougar Eliminator. It's Mercury's version of the Pony musclecar."
-Phil and Nancy Elder, Florida

"My favorite is the '69 convertible. I like the style and lines. You get both power (351 Windsor) and grace in one package. Top up or down, it's one of the best-looking cars Mercury ever built."
-Mitch and Kerri Morehart, Virginia

"Unlike most Cougar owners, I appreciate the '71-'73 XR-7s the best. The steering is much more precise and the engine bay will hold any engine easily."
-David Parisi, Georgia

"My favorite Cougar is the '68. Some may argue that the '67 is prettier with its unencumbered fenders and quarter-panels, but the '68 offered many safety upgrades as well as the widest variety of specialty models, engine selections, and options."
-Jeff Bingaman, Washington

"The '68 XR-7 W-code GTE is my favorite. It is a very "sixties" kind of car. Lots of trim, emblems, colors, and cool unique features. It's a very busy looking car and I like that. It has something no Shelby or Mustang ever got, a 427 side-oiler straight from the factory. Most Ford people do not know or believe they really exist and it's always fun at a car show."
-Frank Paty, Florida

"The '70 Cougar Eliminator. It was the complete package of awesome power, great styling with the competition color paint, scoop, spoiler, and still a great road car, as all Cougars were."
-Scott Taylor

ARE COUGARS UNDERAPPRECIATED?

"Yes, definitely, but I am OK with that. Their status keeps the prices down to an affordable level. It also makes Cougars that much more special in my eyes."
-Paul Damato, New Jersey

"Cougars have been left out in the cold. Mustangs and Camaros were cheaper and more readily available (more Ford and Chevrolet dealers than Mercury dealers). Cougars were priced and positioned as luxury sports cars and, as a result, fewer were made and fewer remain."
-Mike Best

"Cougars are absolutely one of the least respected or appreciated cars. Once someone sees and gets involved with these cars, they come around. I've converted quite a few bystanders."
-Marc Wolitz, Virginia

"I don't feel like Cougars are unappreciated or underappreciated. I believe they are just sort of overlooked. People will move to Cougars in numbers sometime. When they do, we can be smug for being here first."
-Teddy Parks

"Yes, very much so, but I rather like that. It is part of the Cougar's appeal and mystique as far as I'm concerned."
-Phillip Payne

MORE PRETTY PICTURES

The latest edition of the "Cougars and Kittens" calendar is now available for 2003. A must-have for Cougar owners, this calendar features beautiful cars and kittens throughout the Cougar world. Produced by Overton Photographic, this calendar seeks out top-quality cars and presents them in large format for maximum enjoyment. A balance of model years and body styles makes this calendar more attractive.

For more information on how to obtain the calendar, please see the advertisement in this issue or contact Overton Photographic at www.overtonphoto.com.

SPECIAL THANKS
Jim Karamanis, President, Delmarva Cougar Club
Carl Graziano, Editor, At The Sign Of The Cat (Cougar Club of America)
Scott Ferguson, President, Cougar Club of America
Phil Parcells, National Database Registrar, Cougar Club of America
Kevin Marti, Author, Cougar by the Numbers (1967-1973)
Eric Dess, Owner, www.coolcats.net

CONTACT INFORMATION
Cougar Club of America: www.cougarclub.org
Delmarva Cougar Club: www.dcconline.org
Southern California Cougar Club: www.socalcougarclub.com
Cool Cats: www.coolcats.net
Marti Auto Works: www.martiauto.com
Sunshine State Cougar Club: www.sscconline.com