The Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch pair are not known to be among Ford’s finest cars. Recently I had a closer look at a 1980 Mercury Monarch to see what it was really like.
Given that reputation, it may come as a surprise to some (it surprised me) that Ford marketed it as a rival to Mercedes’ W-123 in its 280E guise. Ah, that car again. The car shown here is a 2-door Monarch with the Windsor 4.9 V8. Ford also made 3.3 and 4.1 straight sixes available along with a 5.8 V8. The Ford version was almost the same barring cosmetic details at the front and back.
Production ran from 1975 to 1980. The intention with the Granada/Monarch was to keep the comfort features of traditional large saloons but put them on a smaller wheelbase. This was in response to increasing fuel prices and the general economic downturn prevalent in the mid to late 70s. Just under 600,000 Monarchs were produced, which is a fair number in a five-year period.
This car ended up in Denmark (I was not able to ascertain how) and was bought fifteen years ago by its present owner who uses it for short trips around his local area. It might be one of two in the whole country.
While somewhat small by American standards, the Mercury is still a substantial car today. A full list of dimensions is available here. The most important detail is that the car is just over 5 metres long which is a lot of metal. Most of that length seems to be in the boot (just 368 litres SAE though) and bonnet (a huge expanse when seen from inside) while from within
one notices width: from door to door and seat to seat and seat width itself. Notice the little 3-speed automatic shifter sitting all alone on the huge transmission tunnel. The car feels different even when sitting inside, stationary.
The Monarch weighed about 1500 kg (less than I thought) and here are a few of the stats to put that in perspective. The theoretical top speed: 135 km/h (84 mph). Nought to sixty took 22 seconds and the fuel consumption was estimated to be 15 l/100km or 18.8 miles per gallon. While the fuel consumption is not so planet-friendly, it’s not wildly different from the 2.5 litre fuel injected Opel I tested recently.
The difference is in how the power is used. The Opel is designed for much higher speeds. The V8 is good at moving the car from rest up to a modest top speed. Press the gas pedal and the prow raises up as the car’s weight is pushed back. You are not pressed into your seat at any time. The engine is also noisy on the outside, as if a muffler has fallen off. The car is simply not intended for autobahn use and it’s patently not a sports car.
On paper it seems easy to ridicule the car’s capacity for forward motion. It’s when you drive it around on the badly surfaced, speed limited roads of middle Denmark that you realise that space and comfort matter too. The broad seats are pleasing to sit in (though one sits very low). Since the speed restrictions in Denmark are rather severe and urban roads rather poorly surfaced this Monarch fits quite well into the environment.
Go slowly in comfort. What one might not want to do is to drive the car anywhere south of the border where its modest top speed and heavy fuel consumption would be exposed on the high-speed tarmac of Germany’s autobahns. I stand by my assertion that the cars in Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland could just as easily be American saloons like this, along with Jaguars, Citroens, Volvos and Rovers, all those softly-sprung and laid back cars that have been terrorised by the dynamic predators from Ford and Honda up to BMW and Audi in recent years.
It’s very tricky to assess a car like this since it is so wildly different in concept from European cars of any time and all cars today. Some years back I was confronted by the florid, luxuriant carvings of the cloister church of St Gallen which is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. If you are used to the barely finished concrete boxes and utilitarian constructions of every day life, it is a challenge to stop and take the time to read each detail of a Baroque interior. As much effort was spent on one bouquet/cherub assemblage as is spent on a whole modern house’s decoration. Perhaps more. The tremendous visual density of Baroque shapes is at a different order of magnitude compared to the virtual sensory deprivation of modern architecture, inside and out. In an analogous way, the decorative flourishes of the Monarch are off the scale compared to a contemporary car though I know modern cars are intensively designed (polished to perfection).
You have to adjust your mind to take in what the designers were trying to do with these old US cars, even if it’s not your thing. That’s necessary in order to assess whether the car is any good on its own terms. Another approach is to view it as a cultural artefact as you would a carving from Polynesia or Cycladic art from the Greek Early Bronze Age. From about 20 metres the Monarch makes sense. Up close it’s all rough joins and simple pressings. Ignore it all. You don’t look at Notre Dame from one metre’s distance.
From my side, I left my preconceptions at the door and enjoyed the vehicle as it was. For one thing, it was not the “malaise” car I had expected. It seemed solidly put together and extremely robust and those sorts of things matter in the US more than the kinds of detail refinement that we can sometimes put on a pedestal. What I think is a little disappointing is that for a car that was supposed to be “one of the most luxurious compacts on the market”** it lacked much room in the back and had no rear arm-rest or head-restraint. These things don’t cost much money to install and far from being merely niceties they are fundamental elements of armchairs, which is what those back seats were supposed to be.
The main learning experience here is that to know where we have got to, we need to know where we have been. There are elements of the American conception of a big car that are still relevant. They put in perspective the focus on speed and handling which shape modern cars’ design and engineering.
There is no excuse for dangerous handling but I think that there is room for cars that trade the ultimate average handling (if I can say that) for comfort which is relevant at normal speeds. An interesting counterfactual to consider was if the American conception of comfort had been allied to the European fastidiousness of materials and fit and finish.
Take the Monarch and roll it forward five generations so it keeps its relaxed character but is as thoughtfully put together as a good European or Japanese car. Isn’t there space in the market for a few vehicles like that?
**Dammann, George 90 Years of Ford” (Osceola, WI: Crestline Series b MBI Publishing Company, 1993), p.474.