MERCURY–The Man’s Car!

A bright red 1964 Mercury Comet Cyclone
1964 Mercury Comet Cyclone

Introducing the All New Mercury

Today, Mercury shows up in car shows as a classic, but orphan, make. But in November, 1938, Edsel Ford presented four cars not seen before on American roads. The new Mercury came in four body styles, and was supposed to fit into the sales scheme between Ford and Lincoln. Over the years, Mercury appeared as a gussied up Ford or as a low-budget Lincoln, but seldom had a distinct place all its own. Most likely, in the end that’s what killed the marque. I’ve owned four Mercurys in my day, and they were fine cars. I miss seeing them on the road and in my driveway.

1939-1947

When the first Mercurys hit the sales floor, they came in four body styles. You could get a 2 or 4-door sedan, a 2-door convertible, or a 2-door coupe. The new cars looked similar to the 1939 Ford, but were longer and wider than their older brother. They were also shorter than the contemporary Lincoln. The cars came with Ford’s 239 cubic inch flathead V-8. They sold well, even though they were rather pricey. The standard fordor Ford Sedan had a suggested retail price of $727. The Mercury went for $930, a 28% premium. Of course, a Lincoln Zephyr two-door coupe came in at $1,330, so from that perspective, the Mercury was a bargain. Obviously, Ford needed something between the Ford and the Lincoln. General Motors sold several different marques, and Ford wanted to compete.

The 1950s–what is it?

A 1949 Mercury--Lead Sled
1949 Mercury customized–a Lead Sled

The 1949 Mercury took its styling cues from the new Lincoln.  This car didn’t look like a Ford at all–but did look remarkably similar to its more expensive sibling.  The style has become quite popular with hot rod and custom car enthusiasts.  Popularly called Lead Sleds, they can reach $50,000 or more in price.   

In 1952, Ford offered all new designs across the board.  The family resemblance is obvious, whether you’re looking at a Ford, a Mercury or a Lincoln.  Detroit was moving into the era of annual design changes. The 1956 Lincoln was distinctively different from either the Ford or the Mercury.  The 1957 and ’58 Mercurys were different from both siblings, perhaps the only time that was the case.

In 1957, Ford introduced the Edsel as a 1958 model.   Edsel was supposed to fall between Ford and Mercury in the price line up, but 1958 saw a recession and the car did not sell well.  The line disappeared with the 1960 model, and the only reason I bring it up is the introduction of compacts.

The 1960s–Compacts and Muscle Cars

For the 1960 model year, Ford introduced the Falcon.  America felt the need for a compact car–although the compacts of 1960 were not much smaller than1953 full-sized cars.  The Comet followed closely behind the Falcon, but had no Mercury badging.  Designed to support the Edsel line, without that marque, the smaller car had no true home.  It was handed over to Mercury.

In 1964, the Mustang debuted.  There was nothing like it on the road at that time.  The first car that I truly considered my own was a 1964 Comet Caliente.  Similar to the car in the photograph at the top of the page, my car was not supposed to be a racer.  The Caliente line was fancier than the base Comet, but not as sporty as the Cyclone.  Still, my car had a 289 c.i. V-8, bucket seats, and 3 on the tree manual transmission.  I don’t care what anyone says.  My car was Mercury’s version of the original Mustang.  Fast–boy was that car fast.

I remember driving my father from our cabin in Stevensville, Montana to visit friends in Billings.  That meant crossing the Continental Divide over Homestake Pass just east of Butte.  Interstate 90 was new at the time, and it was my first time crossing the pass.  My Comet drove up the mountain easily at 70 m.p.h.  Heading downhill once over the Pass, my father very quietly said “Don’t you think 100 is a bit fast to be going downhill?”  I slowed down.  But as a teen-aged male, I routinely drove that car on back country roads at 90 or more.  The foolishness of youth.  And yes, I know.  The Cyclone shown above was the true Mercury version of the Mustang.  But the differences between the Cyclone and the Caliente (Hot, in Spanish) are minimal.

The Sign of the Cat

A 1971 bright green Mercury Cougar Convertible
1971 Mercury Cougar Convertible

The 1967 model year saw Mercury’s own Mustang in the form of the Cougar. I have owned two Cougars, and have mixed feelings about the model. My 1971 was the first car I purchased with my own funds. I bought it used from Berkeley Motors, the Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Berkeley, California. It was one year old, and as I recall, I paid just over $2,000 for it. Unlike the gorgeous convertible above, mine was the base-level coupe. Also mine was more an avocado green.

I didn’t appreciate the car driving around the San Francisco Bay Area. My Comet had been fun. The Cougar was not. The coolest thing about it was the sequential turn signals. Cool, that is, until the control module went out and I had to replace it at $300–a lot for a grad student in 1973.

Labor Day weekend, 1974, a fellow grad student got married in her hometown of Gallup, New Mexico. I attended her wedding and drove the Cougar. AH–this car can run! On the open highway, the car was a dream. That’s when I fell in love with my second Mercury.

My 1971 avocado green Mercury Cougar
My 1971 Mercury Cougar

My Third Mercury-a 1978 Zephyr Wagon

I spent Christmas and New Years, 1976-77 in California with my parents. Driving home, I ran into a patch of ice on Interstate 90 at Mullan, Idaho. Losing control of the car, I ended up ramming the front end into the concrete medium. Unable to drive it home, I had my Cougar towed to the Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Kellogg, Idaho. They kept my car for over two months. Finally, I said, get it running. I’m coming to pick it up. They never finished putting my car back together, and I drove it that way for rest of the year. Finally, in Fall, 1977, I headed to our local L-M dealer, Grizzley Lincoln Mercury, and looked at a new model.

Ford introduced the Fairmont and its Mercury sibling, the Zephyr, for the 1978 model year. Grizzley had a silver wagon, and I fell in love. I asked about taking the car for a test drive, and the salesman handed me the keys. The car’s odometer read 7. I took the car out, by myself–no salesman. When I brought it back, the odometer was past 100. I bought the car.

That little wagon was a work horse. It had a payload of 900 pounds, but it was a station wagon. I don’t know how many times I put five adults in it and drove to Edmonton, Alberta for a Scottish Dance Weekend. It never failed me–although we did have a rough go one February weekend when the temperatures in Alberta were forty below. I loved my little silver wagon. It died in a horrid crash in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s.

My 1978 Mercury Zephyr Wagon under a layer of Mount St. Helens volcanic ash.
1978 Mercury Zephyr After Being Dusted by Mount St. Helens

My Last Mercury–A 1986 Cougar

With the death of the Zephyr, I had to rely on my 1976 Triumph Spitfire. Triumph’s are not terribly reliable, and while fun, they are not practical either. Especially in a Montana winter. 1987 found me back at Grizzley looking at a variety of rigs. One really caught my eye, but I wondered if I could afford it. They had a midnight blue Cougar–one model year old. A dealer’s demo car. What the hey. I bought it. It was my first car with cruise control. I was not fond of that option, but after my first trip to California, well what can I say. I use it all the time now.

That first trip to California was an eye-opener in other respects. Eating breakfast at Cousin’s in The Dalles, Oregon, I perused the Sunday Oregonian. There, in a full-page ad, was my car. Exactly the same. Brand new. For $3,000 less than I had paid for my used car. That’s what you get for shopping locally, I guess.

My cars usually tell me their name. The ’86 Cougar was Curt. Well, he was Curt when we were out cruising around, playing. But he had an elegant side to him as well. I mean look at that color. Look at that formal roof line. If we dressed up heading for the Symphony, his name was Curtis! He made that very clear. I drove that car for six years and had three problems with it. Grizzley’s service department couldn’t fix any of them. I ended up trading him for the first of my three Ford Explorers. I drive an Explorer today–a 2012 model and I love it. It may well be the last car I ever buy. But then, that Lincoln Aviator keeps catching my eye.

My midnight blue 1986 Mercury Cougar with a sail board and bike on top.
1986 Mercury Cougar ready to go out an play

Not just cars–the Mercury Pickup

Ford of Canada built Mercury pickups from 1946 to 1968. Essentially badge-engineered versions of Ford F-series trucks, Mercury pickups had slight styling differences. Just enough of a difference to make you look twice. You can read more about Mercury pickups on this website. I believe the author is Warren White. He was rebuilding the site in 2015-16. but I have seen nothing new since. A Canadian friend once told me to go to his family’s business in Saskatoon. There I could buy their old Mercury delivery truck. I believe it was a late 40s or early 50s model. I wish I had done that. Instead, here’s a Mercury M-1 pickup I caught at the Libby, Montana, Ignite the Night car show in 2011. Enjoy.

A 1950 Canadian Mercury Pickup superimposed on the Canadian flag.
1950 Mercury M-1 Pickup

The End of Mercury

Ford made the decision to kill the Mercury name in 2010. A 2011 Mercury Grand Marquis was the last Mercury to roll off the line. Beautiful cars carried the Mercury name for seventy-three years. But Americans have stopped buying sedans. Since 2000, Chrysler has killed off Plymouth (2001). General Motors did the same with Oldsmobile (2004) and Pontiac (2010). And Ford tells us that henceforth, they will make only SUVs and Mustangs. Supposedly General Motors is considering the same track. It makes me sad, but there are only so many cars I can buy. And as I mentioned above, I drive an SUV.

Oh, that slogan? Mercury–The Man’s Car? I have no idea when Ford started using that particular phrase, but it caught my eye. It shows up on Mercury ads and billboards in the mid 1960s. The slogan I remember is The Sign of the Cat–complete with a large cat lying on top of the Mercury name. That slogan originated with the Cougar, and continued with the Mercury Bobcat (an upscale Pinto) and Mercury Lynx (Mercury’s Escort). My father’s last car was a 1978 Bobcat coupe. It looked great, but drove like a miniature boat.

Car shows are a weekend event. Next Saturday, I’ll take a look at another orphan brand: Saab. Stay tuned boys and girls.

TTFN

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