The History of...
The Sign of the Cat
Cougar Celebrates 35 Years of Glory

Photography: Larry Jewett

The name was already in the family. It was one of the finalists when the eventual winner, Mustang, was chosen for Ford’s ponycar a few years earlier. The name “Cougar” sends a strong message of sleek style and easy gliding, but the powers went another direction in 1964 for Mustang, opting for the speed through the prairie feel.

In retrospect, this allowed for a perfect fit for the next time a need for a name came up. The decision to develop a car in the Mercury product line gave the innovators a chance to improve upon a proven concept. The car-buying public bought Mustangs in record numbers.

Now, the company was looking to up the ante with a similar-sized car (as far as perception) with more emphasis on style and comfort. The end result also sold far more than expected.

In reality, the Cougar began well before the Mustang. Known as “T-7,” the project to develop this car languished until Ford’s Pony bolted out of the gate. Now, with renewed enthusiasm, engineers went to work on T-7. And since no one was using the Cougar name, it was attached to this project. Like the Mustang, the Cougar design came as a result of several teams working independently to come up with the plan.

The design was finalized in early 1965 as a “man’s car that a Mustang owner could step up to.” Ford believed there needed to be a step between the Mustang and Thunderbird. That part about it being a “man’s car” will be addressed later.

The cat was let out of the bag in early 1966. Publicity campaigns started letting the world know of Mercury’s plans and the name of the car before the first model was available for sale. The hype leading up to the showroom debut late in 1966 was a multi-pronged effort to fan the fires of the smaller-car buyer.

The world finally got to see the car after media previews in California and the Bahamas. The buying frenzy had begun with strong sales from the first transaction in late 1966.

Optimistic projections targeted Cougar sales at 85,000. It was nowhere near the Mustang launch figures, but it was still a heady task to put up that kind of number on an initial offering. When the response started to take shape, production facilities realized this figure was too low. When it was over for the first model year, the car had sold in excess of 150,000 and positioned itself in a respectable position among new ventures.

The Cougar’s drawing card was its looks. The Mustang had been on the scene for a few years, selling well. Because the Mustang was considered the root of the idea, there was plenty about the Mustang beneath the Cougar, but the buyers were seeing from the outside in. In its preview of the new Cougar, Motor Trend (Aug. ’66) labeled the cat “Certainly one of the prettier cars of the coming year.” In its buyers’ guide later in the year (November), Motor Trend also acknowledged, “And while it shares a great deal with the wildly successful Mustang, the Cougar has its own aura and personality, so it isn’t just a repeat of the car that started the whole rage.” That same magazine selected the Cougar as “Car of the Year” for 1967 for good reason.

This was the image the designers had been looking for. In the first marketing campaigns, the Cougar was called “Untamed Elegance,” sending the message that strikes a responsive chord that this car is different. Those differences were stunning and remain an integral part of automotive history to this day.

From the unveiling of the car until today, one of the most distinguishing features of the earlier-model Cougars is the “hideaway” headlights. Run on a vacuum-actuating operation, the headlights tuck away to yield a continuation of the grille, itself a strong style point. This unique treatment helped blend the style throughout the whole car, taking a necessary evil (headlights) and making it part of the design concept.

Another element of the early Cougar that drew rave reviews was the use of the sequential turn signals in the taillights. It’s something often imitated, but never duplicated, at least with the success of the Cougar. The floating banks of vertical bars at the rear blended perfectly with the grillework at the front, giving the car an aesthetic balance.

In general, the Cougar’s overall styling allowed the Mercury line to establish its own niche. The car was clearly not a Mustang. It was a few inches longer, had a bigger wheelbase, and was packed full of the types of goodies the upscale buyer would be seeking. In fact, one of the drawing cards happened to be the number of items found optional on other cars that came standard on Cougar. The 3-inch-longer wheelbase translated into rear-seat legroom. The suspension and ride received rave reviews in testing, even under trying conditions.

The ’67 models utilized the popular 289 V-8 engine, offered in three versions (including a low-compression export), and the 390 Marauder big-block. The engine choices were even better when the ’68 models were introduced, with the bulk of the production done with 302 engines beneath the bonnet. For the first time, Cougars were available with 427ci and 428 Cobra Jet engines, though the production number of each was small. The 351 Windsor came into the mix in 1969. The following year saw both Cleveland and Windsor versions of the 351 available in a Cougar.

It’s clear there was an emphasis on performance in addition to style with the more powerful engines finding a home in the platform. While this may be running parallel to the upgrades in Mustang engines, there is one element Cougar fans point to with pride. In 1968, you could get a 427 in a Cougar, but not a Mustang.

At the start, Cougar owners preferred the automatic transmission, with nearly 80 percent of the cars manufactured with an automatic.

At first, Mercury offered only two basic body styles. More than 80 percent of the cars made in the first year were standard coupes (hardtops).

In very early ’67, the XR-7 (“XR” stands for “Experimental Racing” and the 7 may have come from the original T-7 designation of the project) was added and proved to be a popular choice. In 1969, the standard convertible and XR-7 convertible were added to the array, and buyers snatched up the drop-tops while they were still in style. By 1972, Mercury was making more of the XR-7 convertibles than the standard, but production numbers had started to wane. The XR-7 convertible numbers, as well as overall production numbers, picked up in 1973.

While the Cougars of the first generation attracted so much attention, subsequent models have developed their own backers. The car took on a different look to closely emulate its Ford siblings. By the mid-’80s, the Cougar had become a carbon copy of the Thunderbird (interesting when you remember the car was developed as a bridge to the T-bird).

As the years hurtled toward the 21st century, Cougar searched for its own identity in a world of cookie-cutter domestic cars. Mercury continued to build the car until a decision about a year ago to terminate the brand, one of four product lines ousted from the Ford family. It’s become a sad end to an American icon, arguably the car that bolstered the Mercury line into prominence among a competitive automotive society. The Mercury line was once seen in the shadow of Ford, but the Cougar changed all that. The popularity of the car allowed Mercury to position itself as a player. The success of the Cougar led to the idea of quality “at the Sign of the Cat,” utilizing a snarling cougar perched atop a Lincoln Mercury sign. It was the success of the Cougar that allowed the company to claim “Lincoln Mercury leads the way.” The slogan “Try Cougar and see how great a winner can be” urged buyers to consider the car and check out the luxury offerings available at the Mercury showroom, at times keeping them from the Ford dealer down the street.

Yes, Cougar history is one that is filled with plenty of areas of automotive pride. In preparation for a look at the 35 years of Cougar, we sought opinions from different members of present-day Cougar Clubs regarding these cars. These opinions were given in an online survey of Cougar owners who are directly connected to the product and well-suited to understanding the nuances that complete this car.

Many of the Cougar owners brought up an interesting point. Cougars can be a bargain in today’s car-buying world. If the trends are anything like before, you better hurry. In the recent Cars of Particular Interest book produced by the National Auto Research division of Hearst Business Media, a ’67 hardtop Cougar in good condition was valued at $4,100. The XR-7 hardtop was listed at $5,575. The same prices held for the ’68 models. There are two ways to compare this. The first is against the ’65 Mustang, i.e., comparing first-year cars to each other. The ’65 Mustang hardtop was valued at $6,600 while the second-year run (’66) was posted at $6,475. Both easily outdistance the value of a Cougar.

Now, we compare the ’67 and ’68 Cougars to the ’67 and ’68 Mustangs. The later Mustangs are lower in value, but still greater than the Cougar. The ’67 Mustang shows $5,800, while the ’68 Mustang is $5,750.

The difference is greater when you compare convertibles. The ’69-’70 models for the Cougar show $7,200, while the Mustangs for the same year list at $9,000.

There are two ways to look at this. First, the Cougar is a good bargain. The car had a higher sticker than a Mustang when new, but the production numbers were much lower. Value is often determined by quantities available, so it stands to reason that Cougar value is going to be increasing. In the past two years, the first-year Cougars have increased by $700 (hardtop) and over $1,000 (XR-7). Comparatively, the ’65 Mustang coupe and the ’66 model have stepped up only $400.

Cougar collector Royce Peterson is well aware of the trend. “Right now, prices are on a big upward swing. The Boss 302 Eliminators are very pricey. Any 428CJ Cougar is way up there. Restored 427 GTEs have been sold in the $40,000-plus bracket.

“There might be a Mustang guy somewhere that doesn’t pay attention to these things, but right now Cougars are certainly getting their due. Tried to buy a Cougar convertible from 1969 or 1970 lately? Get out your wallet because they are popular. I invite anyone considering the purchase of a Mustang to look at a similar model year Cougar and see what they will be missing.”

Owned by “Cougar Bill” Quinlisk

Owned by Scott Ferguson

Logan McLeod’s ’69 XR-7 coupe, complete with Cleavor engine. This car was featured on the cover of the 2002 “Cougars and Kittens” calendar.

Garey Maib’s ’67 Standard.

Frank Paty’s ’68 GTE model.

Scott Behncke’s Cougar will snarl. It’s a Drag Pack 428 car, an R-code Super Cobra Jet 428 with a four-speed.

Charles Powell’s ’68 XR-7 GT packs the 390 engine.

Tiffany, won by Don Jaeger, at the Southern California Cougar Club raffle. The car, which went through extensive work in a volunteer effort by the club, will definitely be going to a good home.

Wayne Wachter is the proud owner of a ’68 XR-7-G, a high-option XR-7 that carried status similar to the Shelby Mustang. The “G” stands for Dan Gurney, but this car is different from the “Dan Gurney Special.” Only 619 of the XR-7-G cars were produced for 1968.

Ron Dunn keeps a picture of his ’70 XR-7 in his office, his home office, and on his computer screen. It’s easy to see why.

Mike Best’s ’69 convertible.

The Southern California Club hosted the West Coast regional event in late July. This was indicative of the quality cars on display.

Paul Damato’s Cougar convertible gets plenty of driving time and has the original top, still in excellent condition.

Wiley Live made this Cougar a GT, even though there were no GT Cougars in 1970. It was rescued about four years ago from unprotected abuse from El Nino weather and converted to a driver.

One of Don Jaeger’s Cougars, this ’68 Standard is named RedCat.

Yes, it’s OK to own more than one. This is Mike Tarlton’s Maryland Menagerie, including a ’67 model, a ’68 car, a ’69 convertible, and a ’97.

It’s been owned since 1989 and it’s one of 24. Pat Beauchamp’s Florida Cougar is a ’70 model that’s triple white—exterior, interior, and convertible top.

When the Cougar was revealed to the public in 1966, the mindset held that men controlled the money and made the decision on the major purchases. That may have held true, but it was an idea on its way to extinction. From the beginning, women were clearly taken by the comfort and luxury of the Cougar. At the end of the first year, statistics indicated that one in six of Cougars sold was purchased by a woman. Five years ago, when the Cougar hit its 30th anniversary, the latest statistics indicated that the Cougar remained a car of choice for female buyers. At that point, 46 percent of the Cougars sold were purchased by women.

Not surprisingly, the Cougar is a hit well beyond the North American continent. Leon Bray of Brisbane, Australia, owns a litter of Cougars and believes there may be as many as 250 classic Cougars in Australia. “They have been imported from the ’60s, including two that were imported by Ford and have compliance plates attached by the factory,” he says. These cars include a full range of models: a couple of Boss 302 Eliminators, ’69 R-code and S-code cars, ’69-’70 GT convertibles, and ’68 GTs. The ’69 convertibles are really popular and there may be a GTE on the continent. The searchers are on its trail. The Cougar Club of Australia is a chapter of the Cougar Club of America. It’s basically a registry because the Cougars are spread so far and wide that meetings and gatherings are impractical. There are a number of Cougar enthusiasts with multiple cars. One Cougar owner in Brisbane can claim seven cars, all ’69 and ’70 models. A few more have three cars and a number possess two. In the course of our survey, we also received a response from an owner in South Africa, so you can see the Cougar truly has universal appeal.

This is the symbol that stirs the home fires for Mercury supporters. Mercury positioned itself as the “Sign of the Cat” with the snarling Cougar. It showed the strength of the company’s bloodlines and the car that brought them to the dance.

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