Ride Engineered – 1980 Mercury Monarch

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.

1980 Mercury Monarch

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.

1989 Mercury Monarch V8
1989 Mercury Monarch V8

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

Mercury Monarch: ride engineered
Mercury Monarch: ride engineered

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.

1980 Mercury Monarch interior.
1980 Mercury Monarch interior.

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.

IMG_0810[1]

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.

IMG_0819[1]

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.

IMG_0821[1]

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 IMG_0807[1]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.

Cycladic idol, parian marble; 1,5 m high (largest known example of cycladic sculpture. 2800–2300 BC
Cycladic idol, parian marble; 1,5 m high (largest known example of cycladic sculpture. 2800–2300 BC

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?

IMG_0824[1]

**Dammann, George 90 Years of Ford” (Osceola, WI: Crestline Series b MBI Publishing Company, 1993), p.474.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

18 thoughts on “Ride Engineered – 1980 Mercury Monarch”

  1. I mentioned elsewhere on this site that I drove a rental Ford Granada in the US when new. I also mentioned (I think) that, although it was the worst car I’d ever driven, it was certainly not the least enjoyable (that was a Peugeot 207 SW). This piece makes me question what I mean by ‘worst’?

    Yes, if your driving ambitions were low (which is not a bad thing) and if you could be sure that other drivers were never going to cause you to take evasive action and if fuel was cheap and if you were broad of bum, I can see this would have been the car for you. My memory is of its huge and clunky controls.

    We view it today out of context and, just as we view a baroque church in the 21st century as an interesting artifact, without needing to take into account the repressive nature of the religion of the time that it represented, so we can look at the Mercury differently. I can certainly see why the current owner would want it, and it would give them pleasure, but I can’t see why anyone would ever had bought one new.

    Equally though, I can see someone driving, say, an Audi RS6 in 35 years time and asking how anyone could tolerate such a hard riding and aggressive machine when most of the actual roads of early 21st Century Europe were so ill suited to it. We will seem the same fools to them, that the original owner of this car might seem to me – particularly as s/he chose the ‘coop’ which offers reduced rear room and huge heavy doors to no significant benefit – except for the svelte rear roofline featuring European style ‘opera’ styling, all finished in premium textured Naugahyde.

    Incidentally, the Granada I drove was relatively gutless, as it was a 6 cylinder rental special, but I’m sure even it could have managed 60 mph in the mid teens. I think your figures for the V8 can’t be right.

  2. I can´t decide to be a relativist and say most cars are okay on their own terms or else some manner of absolutist and say the only good cars ever made resemble variations on a theme laid down by small and medium sized Benzes and Beemers. For this article I took a relativist stance.
    Why did anyone buy this car? Maybe they didn´t want to have something complex they couldn´t fixt themselves and perhaps they lived in a lightly populated suburb and only drove 11 miles to their job in Foxford, Ct and back. Why did Ford need 5.8 litres to power a car of this modest weight?

    I think this is not a great car but it is a lot better than the compact cars made by GM in the late, late 70s and early 80s. Those would be the X-body cars such as the Chevy Citation and Buick Skyhawk et al. These were front drivers with that coarse Iron Duke engine I once wrote about. About the figures, I will take a look at another source.

  3. At the time, because I was interested in the huge,brave and radical step the US industry was doing in adopting highfalutin’ front wheel drive, etc, I’d actually wanted us to hire a Chevrolet Citation rather than the Granada. I’m glad that didn’t happen and I’m sure the Granada was a more pleasant experience.

    Until I started engaging on the web, I was happy to be a dictatorial absolutist in judging cars. Friends would mention a car they were considering buying to me and I’d grandly dismiss it or, more rarely, bestow my approval. Now I am far more chastened and open minded. I think.

    But, although I’m a sucker for a big V8, I can think of no aspect of the 6 cylinder US Granada that wasn’t bettered by its European namesake, except maybe solidity.

  4. That gearshift looks so rudimentary stuck on top of the carpeted tunnel. It looks even odder being wood finished with visible screw heads. Yet I assume this was there to make it look more classy and/or sporty. I am pretty sure that the base Granada had a column shift – which was better integrated and more convenient. Mind you, memory might be playing tricks. The Granada controls were so oversized that I might be remembering the indicator switch.

  5. It’s the mismatch between the form and material that jars. I don’t mind fake wood but it should be used as if it were wood. They could have used wood-effect on flat surfaces and left other materials to handle the complex parts. About it looking rudimentary, I think we take for granted the presence of a huge pier of plastic stretching from the centre of the dash to the driver’s hip. Maybe one isn’t needed. The DS doesn’t have one. Do you think US designers of interiors had notions based in traditions of furniture as there is a strong feeling of complex Victorian furnishings in these interiors? Or was it that they were eclectic, using any metaphor that was to hand, like the showbiz commercial architects of Las Vegas?

  6. “Don, it’s Ned, marketing, we gotta have a way of reminding the customer it’s special, like we said. We need a badge somewhere. How about a nice silver plate with Ride-Engineered written on it. That’l fill that space on the wood panel over the glove box. Maybe something that looks like a crest would be good. Buick have a crest. I think Goodson Plastics have a pattern book with some curlicue doodads we could use.. We used it to get a pattern for the Cougar C-pillar ornament…. Do me a sketch and have it for me by lunchtime….”

  7. It’s easier to appreciate the irony of another culture’s products than your own. Anger and shame might well prevent me from looking in detail at a Morris Marina Coupe, but the naivete of the Monarch is becoming endearing. To my mind the T-Shift without any other accoutrements to justify a centre console is just taking up space that could be better used – see earlier pieces on bench seats and column changes.

    The Granada based vehicles were very successful and this was a very affordable car, less than 20% of the $24K cost of an SLC, another Mercedes that it was compared to directly in the advertising of the time. Although the SLC was not one of Stuttgart’s more elegant efforts, that 20% factor would have had to play a large part in you convincing yourself about the resemblance. “Hey Joe, it says here your Monarch looks like a Mercedeeez Benz. Hey Joe, and don’t you think my old lady looks like Raquel Welch? Hey Joe, shall I give you my oculist’s phone number?”

    To create an alternative narrative for the Monarch, Joe worked as a carpenter in construction. When he retired, his firm gave him the old Ford pickup he used to drive. Joe’s dream had always been to own a Mercedes SLC and he set to work. He produced a cover for the load bay and even fashioned a simple rear accommodation area which, being made of plywood and rather hard edged, he covered with leatherette. Inside he ingeniously incorporated the timber laminate from old TVs he’d been storing in his garage. Topping it off, to give it a truly sports car ambience, he fitted a high performance style ‘T-Shift’ transmission control on top of the transmission tunnel. Joe tells us that he once took the car to a Mercedes Benz owner’s rally and several people complimented him and, indeed, asked him what Mercedes model it was. Joe believes that Barack Obama is in fact a lizard from the planet Zeto.

  8. Now that’s a good point: locating the shifter on the tunnel is wrong in a car like this. Not the Timberlex or the furniture detailing. The DS shift is column mounted too.
    That’s a challenge, to offer a revisionist take on the Marina. We need Martin Buckley here urgently.

  9. A friend of mine from the US read this article and wrote this in an e-mail to me (he agreed to let me reprint it):

    “To attempt to answer one of the questions from the back-and-forth with Sean Patrick, “Why did anybody buy this car?” I remember nothing about what it cost, and never rode in one, but I remember very well a handful of our neighbors who owned them. They wore sensible shoes, considered themselves handy, ran the same lawnmower/snowblowers for 30 years and never ate out. There was ALWAYS something with an engine in some state of dis-assembly in the garage, drive, or side yard.

    Mom tells a story of being awoken by an ambulance in the neighborhood one night, pulled up to Bob and Judy’s house (Bob had a Granada, I think back before his Plymouth Reliant K). Judy was standing in the street in her housecoat, turned to my mom, smiled a little, and said “He’s gone”. Several weeks later, mom sees a plumber in the driveway toting a new toilet up the stairs. “Bob would never let me take out the old one.” Next came the new kitchen, the landscaping, the trips with the kids. Neighbors were invited over to clean out the shed of small engine parts, tools, bits of machinery, whatever they wanted. Then, she knocked down the shed.

    He never let her spend anything and she was making up for lost time. Judy was living it up.

    I don’t know nearly as much about the other neighbors but they pretty much all fell in to the same mold – all men whose yards you did NOT want to lose a ball in.

    No word as to how their wives blew their inheritances.”

  10. That’s a nice insight into the US Granada buyer, though it isn’t mentioned whether Judy retired to Florida and bought a Mercedes SLC. Yes, it was a car you bought on price and it could be seen as a lot of car for the money, hence the cheapskate detailing.

    On the matter of relative perceptions, I read on one US website that the (US) Granada had a European cousin, but it pointed out that this was a “larger and more sophisticated” car. Yes to more sophisticated, but no to larger. The European Granada was the largest Ford you could get here and viewed by us as a big car, but it was nearly half a metre shorter than the US Granada, even though that car hovered in classification on the edge of the Compact class, being derived from the Maverick (which actually was the same size as a Euro Granada). When I drove a US Granada, it seemed a big car but I went from that to a Buick Electra which seemed a lot bigger yet even that had been downsized from the previous Electra which would have been almost a metre longer that the US Granada.

    https://autopolis.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/1975-1980-ford-granada-a-poor-mans-mercedes/

  11. Incidentally, regarding performance, elsewhere I read that, in Ford guise, the 6 cylinder could manage 60 mph in the mid teens, whilst the 302 V8 puffed there in just under 13 secs. This last figure is particularly sad for someone who remembers drooling over the Boss 302 Mustang in the late 60s. A 3 litre (Euro) Granny would have see them both off, royally. Even a 2 litre would have put on a good show.

  12. I followed the link. If you squint there is some resemblance between the SLC and Monarch but only in the same way a donkey and elephant look the same if you squint. With hindsight it is really difficult to believe that Monarch buyers imagined this car was a patch on the SLC but then again maybe many never saw a SLC up close. I note the link stresses that the Granada was a success for Ford. TTAC have it painted as a malaise-era embarassment.

    1. Surely they are both right. It was a success – it did sell very well. Which makes it all the more embarrassing to think that your or your parent’s generation would have even considered such a car.

      Actually, looking at a rear 3/4 view of a Granada yesterday, I felt there was something of the W113 Mercedes SL about it. Have I been thinking about this piece of junk for too long?

    1. This view does indeed suggest how Ford had been influenced by Mercedes styling. But the more I consider the Granada, the more its supposed relation to a Mercedes reminds me of the totemic artefacts of a cargo cult.

    2. ‘Ride Engineered’ is one of those gloriously meaningless terms that are created to trumpet the utter mediocrity of a vehicle. ‘Performance Vectored’. ‘Torque Enabled’. ‘Kinetic Suspension System’. ‘Integrated Seating Technology’. ‘Cheap Bullshit Tat’. Spot the odd one out.

  13. The two cars differ profoundly at the detail level. In the 70s Merecedes were all about lavish refinement. This distinction may not have been so clear to the Monarch’s customers.
    I noticed the hyphen: ride-engineered. That’s grammatically very fastidious.

    1. I think the idea is that hyphens look scientific. However, the florid typeface and offset crest do not.

      In the photo I posted, the Merc-At-A-Distance effect is heightened by what appear in the photos to be colour matched hub caps – sorry Color-Matched.

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