Cats Will Fly

Dearborn 1967: product segmentation was strictly for the birds.

1967 Mercury Cougar. Image: Motor Trend

The 1958 Thunderbird would prove to be a pivotal product for the Blue Oval. Not only did the Square Bird transform the fortunes of the model line, the ’58 T-Bird popularised the concept of the personal luxury car amongst the American car buying public, creating an entire sector it would subsequently bestride. Not only that, the second-generation Thunderbird illustrated to Dearborn management that it was possible to convince buyers to pay far higher transaction prices for a Ford branded automobile – if the product was sufficiently desirable.

This was a huge realisation, since Ford were squandering $ hundreds of millions on ill-conceived brand exercises like the Edsel programme, not to mention several failed attempts at elevating Lincoln sales to rival those of Cadillac. Another lasting impact of the Square Bird’s success was that it codified the appearance of the formal roofline, with its broad and upright C-pillar as the epitome of three-volume aspirational styling – not just for Dearborn’s products, but throughout the domestic industry.

When Ford first introduced the Mercury brand in 1938, it was intended as a means of upselling the Ford customer, while providing a stepping-stone to brand-Lincoln. During the 1940s and ’50s, Mercury had proven a successful formula, offering customers much of the Lincoln style and glamour in slightly more modest package (and price). In 1960, the failed Edsel brand was folded into Mercury, leaving Lincoln-Mercury as a stand-alone division within the Dearborn mothership.

By 1961, Lincoln had been reinvented as a single offering, that year’s Continental having imbibed generously from the Thunderbird well of youth (greatly to its benefit), both conceptually and commercially. Meanwhile, Ford’s product planners had identified another area of white space in the market, for an inexpensive, aspirational, youth-inflected sporty car, sitting below the T-Bird, introduced in 1964 as the Mustang.

It was a commercial bullseye; once again, Ford demonstrating that with the right product, the blue oval could charge more, because while the Falcon-based Mustang could be purchased quite cheaply, it could also be personalised and optioned to a highly profitable degree – which a high proportion were.

As the Mustang entered the market, Ford were also at work scoping the 1967 Glamour Bird iteration of the Thunderbird. Dearborn’s sales and marketing teams saw an opportunity to shift the T-Bird further into luxury car territory. The ’67 T-Bird therefore would mark a stylistic and conceptual shift (the first and only to offer a four-door version), one which would not resonate as well with buyers as hoped.

Ford Thunderbird 1967. Image: myautoworld

But there was another reason for Ford’s desire to elevate the Thunderbird line. The huge success of the Mustang illustrated to Ford’s product planners that a more opulent Mercury-branded version could be developed to capture the price gulf between Mustang and the more upmarket T-Bird they were in the process of developing.

When work began on the new Mercury, the Mustang was still an unknown quantity, so initially at least, it was schemed as an ennobled version of the ponycar. But as development progressed and the Mustang’s success became apparent, it was deemed expedient to go further. Utilising a large proportion of the 1967 Mustang’s Falcon-based floorpan and technical layout (which kept costs down), the Mercury would evolve into a longer, sleeker, more elegant vehicle – and with its 3″ longer wheelbase, a more indulgent one.

1967 Mercury Cougar. Image: Curbside Classic

Styling evolved from a number of concepts from Ford’s own advanced studio and that of Lincoln-Mercury, headed by John Aiken. The resultant car, an amalgam of both studios’ work was refined into the spare, elegant, European-influenced style with which it entered the market in September 1966 for the 1967 model year.

A longer car than the Mustang, the superbly proportioned lines of the Cougar[1] were defined by the strong and sharp-edged concave beltline, which kicked up gently aft of the rear quarter light before fading out at the tail. In this and in the slightly convex unadorned flanks, it represented a marked visual contrast to the Mustang – the sole visual bum note being the falling lower body light line, which suggested a marked nose-up stance.

Image: Motor Trend

More upmarket than its equine stablemate, the Cougar’s headlamps were concealed behind flaps which integrated with the electric razor grille treatment – also reflected aft for the tail-lamps with their T-Bird aping sequential indicators. The overall effect was of a lithe, clean-limbed motor car, unencumbered by an excess of fussy detailing, and suffused with an elegance of line which equalled GM at their best, and certainly could be said to have eclipsed that of the somewhat overbodied Glamour Bird of the same year.

The Cougar was offered only in V8 form and with a single fixed-head body style; overtly marketed to those who might otherwise consider a European import, notably one who also employed a big cat as its visual namesake.[2] And while the Mustang was somewhat cheap and cheerful, the Mercury was a more refined vehicle, offering a richer cabin ambience and better road manners.

Critically acclaimed (it took Motor Trend’s COTY award in 1967), the Cougar was a notable sales success out of the box. With pricing which perfectly straddled Mustang and Thunderbird, it offered the man (or woman) with means a more lithe, more responsive and considerably more wieldy proposition to that of the increasingly corpulent personal luxury coupé, without the somewhat blue collar aura of the ponycar.[3]

For these European eyes, the ’67 Cougar represented a high water mark in American car design, certainly little Mercury produced thereafter seemed to make any visual impact on this side of the Atlantic. By the new decade, and in line with the Mustang’s growth, so too did the Cougar, whereas by 1974, both Cougar and Thunderbird had became essentially two sides of a broadly similar coin – both enormous land yachts and until the 1973 oil embargo, highly successful ones.

The nameplate would live on through the intervening decades, trapped in a death-grip with the T-Bird, to both model lines’ detriment, before dying ignominiously in 2002 as the US version of what was sold in European markets as the Ford Cougar. Brand-Mercury itself was given the Dignitas treatment in 2011.

Image: oldcarbrochures

The trajectory of the Cougar echoed that of both Mustang and Thunderbird. As they deviated from the core values which had established their initial success, gaining weight and visual heft; while they moved with the market, they ultimately reached the outer limits of what the customer would accept.

So while Mustang has survived and continues to evolve, both Cougar and Thunderbird have been lost to history. Did nobody tell them in Dearborn that cats and birds are sworn enemies?

[1] Cougar was a proposed and rejected name for the original ’64 Mustang.

[2] Car and Driver magazine famously pitched a Cougar XR7 against a Jaguar 420 in a 1967 comparison test. The less costly Mercury unsurprisingly took the honours – and by then, rightly so.

A convertible model was added later, but while the car was in gestation, a scheme for a four-door version was proposed, but got no further than a full-sized render.

[3] It could be said that the Cougar supplanted the Thunderbird in its less pretentious, earlier form. But how much of its success was at the T-Bird’s expense?

The Cougar was for some reason marketed as “The Man’s Car”. Curious, as its style and compact size would have also been highly attractive to female customers.

Sources: Curbside Classic

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

12 thoughts on “Cats Will Fly”

  1. Good morning Eóin. Thanks for the reminder of what was certainly a great era for American car design, with clean and elegant shapes with minimal ornamentation.

    That said, I hadn’t noticed it before, but that falling lower bodyside crease really was a misstep on the 1967 Coguar. Coupled with the taller (than the rear) front wheel arch, in profile the car really does have a pronounced ‘nose-up’ stance, as you say. This is very evident in the side-profile photo of the blue car above. It’s a shame because, in all other respects, the car is sublime.

    The ‘personal car’ concept, at least with the formal roofline, never really made it across the Atlantic, but an early Capri design sketch experimented with it:

    It did, however, make it across the Pacific:

    1. I choose to pretend not to understand objections to a snooty, if illusory nose-up demeanor. If the Parthenon can waft, why not a giant electric razor?

    2. gooddog: Amongst the things I’d want an electric razor (of any size) to do, I would not have been inclined to include the requirement to waft. I’m not sure I can explain why exactly, but it doesn’t sound entirely conducive to a satisfactory shaving experience. But then I suppose that depends on what kind of effect one was after.

    3. Crikey! My Phantom image failed to display, well we all know what it is.

  2. Here’s an admittedly terrible photo of a ’68 Cougar XR7, close to where I live. At least it’s winking 😉

  3. I think this could be a candidate for my favourite car of all time. As a young child, I recall thinking it was unbelievably cool and special. It captures the mix of power with slightly feminine elegance that some of the big cats have.

    Re the headlights, as this ad shows, it was quite hard to get them to line up properly with the rest of the grille, even when new.

    1. Hi Charles, thanks for sharing. There’s certainly nothing in those sketches that looks like a missed opportunity compared to the production car.

    2. I don’t know, I quite like this one, and I think James Bond would rather like the wheels.

      I always thought it was a generational thing with American cars: that until the mid-sixties there were well-sorted designs like the one covered here and things went pear shaped (a well cooked pear) in the seventies. As evidenced by the consumately excellent film Le Cercle Rouge, though, the two were concurrent. The protagonist drives a ’66 Plymouth Fury that’s rather excellent, but others drive similar vintage cars that are already harbingers of early seventies landbarge-itis:

  4. The ‘nose-up’ stance of th Cougar is a bit special indeed. It looks like the lower crease is falling in a steeper angle than the bonnet is rising. When I first looked at the picture of the light coloured one (third picture), I got the impression that the car is accelerating heavily (although there is no driver in it). Maybe that’s the effect they wanted to achieve with this design – showing speed even when the car was at standstill.

  5. The Mercury Cougar is an acquired taste though certainly better compared to subsequent versions (the later Mercury Cyclone would have been a better starting point).

    Thinking of the Maverick-derived Mustang II proposal, the 3rd-4th generation Cougar should have been based on the Maverick / 6th gen Mercury Comet platform at minimum.

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