1968 Mercury Cougar
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Story and photo by Bill Vance

When Ford introduced the Mustang in mid-1964 it launched a new class of automobile that was soon dubbed the ‘Pony Car’. Its long hood, short deck, low profile was an immediate marketing success, in spite of its somewhat mundane Ford Falcon underpinnings.

Imitators followed as quickly as they could, although Ford had sprung such a surprise on the industry it took Chevrolet until the 1967 model year to respond with its Camaro. It was followed six months later by the Pontiac Firebird. Chrysler had introduced its sporty Plymouth Barracuda with a huge, wrap-over rear window at about the same time as the Mustang, but it was overshadowed by the new Ford Pony Car.

The new Mustang created so much good publicity for the Ford division that its sister division, Lincoln-Mercury, looked over the corporate fence with at least a little envy. It wanted a Pony Car too.

In developing its version, Mercury had to walk a fine line between the Mustang and the Thunderbird. To preserve its more luxurious image, Lincoln-Mercury wanted to create a car that was a little more up-scale than the Mustang, yet was still not a Thunderbird competitor. Also, with projected first year sales of only 60,000, it had to be developed within a modest budget.

Lincoln-Mercury chose the name Cougar to conjure up the image of a lithe, powerful cat. The intended badge design raised the ire of England’s Jaguar company who resorted to the courts, but after some skirmishing a compromise was reached.

To control costs, Mercury used as many Mustang components as possible, such as the deck lid, roof and inner skin, and a good number of mechanical parts. But the Mercury stylists masked them well, and gave the Cougar its own distinctive persona. They stretched the front fenders and hood and fitted a split grille with the quad headlamps hidden behind doors that formed part of the grille when closed. An added stylish touch was a kick-up added to the rear fenders. The Cougar had the long-nose, short-deck pony car profile, but looked sleeker and more expensive than the somewhat angular Mustang.

The split, vertical-bar grille was echoed in grill-like embellishments for the tail-lights. A special feature of the rear lights was the use of three-element sequential turn signals which were not only gimmicky, but expensive to replace.

In keeping with its more luxurious pretensions, the Cougar had a 2,824 mm (111.2 in.) wheelbase, 81 mm (3.3 in.) longer than the Mustang’s, although this resulted in only a marginal increase in interior space.

The suspension, coil springs in front and leaf springs at the rear, was tuned for a softer ride than the Mustang. A more luxuriously appointed interior, including generous use of sound-deadening material, assured a quieter cabin in keeping with the Mercury image. The Cougar came as a two-door, notchback hardtop only, Mercury’s budget not allowing for the development of other models initially.

Although the Cougar came well equipped, like the Mustang it also offered a long list of options. Under the hood, for example, a buyer could replace the standard 4.7-litre (289 cu in.) 200-horsepower V8 with a 225-horsepower four-barrel-carburetor version, or go all the way to a 6.4-litre (389 cu in.) 320 horsepower “Marauder GT” V-8. For more serious drives a stiffer “Performance Handling Package” was available with the 6.4 engine. A GT version came with the big engine, stiffer springs and shock absorbers, a larger anti-roll bar and wider wheels.

Available transmissions, all floor shifted, were a standard three-speed manual, optional four-speed manual, or three-speed “Merc-O-Matic” with “Select Shift” that allowed the driver to control the shift points.

The 1967 Cougar made its debut on September 30, 1966, and because there weren’t enough built initially to supply every dealer, it was marketed first in California, the theory being that if it sold there it would sell anywhere.

It was well received on the West Coast and in the motoring press, selling far beyond initial expectations. Motor Trend made it their 1967 Car of the Year. The addition of a dressed-up mid-year XR-7 version helped push first-model-year sales to over 150,000, which would be the best year for the first-generation Cougar.

Performance was middling for the era. Car Life magazine (2/67) tested a four-speed with the 4.7-litre (289 cu in) engine and recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 10.7 seconds, and a top speed of 177 km/h (110 mph) for the 1,488 kg (3,280 lb) two-door.

With the bigger engine it was a different story, of course. Car Life (7/67) tested a Cougar GT 6.4 (389) automatic and reported zero to 96 (60) in 7.7 seconds, although top speed was only up 8 km/h (5 mph) to 185 (115).

The Cougar was little changed for 1968, but it had turned out to be so popular that Mercury still managed to sell over 113,000 of them. For 1969, the Cougar was restyled and a convertible added. In the best Detroit tradition, it became longer, lower and wider. It was already starting to stray from its original Pony Car roots.

The name survived until 2002 in the U.S. market (Mercury disappeared from the Canadian market in 1999), by which time it was a crisply styled, front-drive, four-place coupe. To many, however, the “real” Cougars were those original Pony Car versions of the 1960s.

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