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How Mercury Cars Work


Mercury Badge Engineering
The 1975 Mercury Bobcat, like many Mercurys of the decade, was a version of a Ford car, the Pinto.

Outside of ponycars, Mercury's new-model development story in the '70s was primarily one of "badge engineering." It began when the Comet name was revived for a restyled version of Ford's new-for-1970 compact Maverick, distinguished mainly by a Montego-style nose. Announced for 1971, this Comet soldiered on through '74 as the division's sole representative in a size and price sector that took on urgent new importance in the wake of the 1973-74 Middle East oil embargo.

Help arrived for 1975 in the form of two new entries. One was the Comet's once-and-future replacement, the slightly larger Granada-based Monarch. The other was Mercury's belated, if inevitable, rendition of the subcompact Ford Pinto, bearing the cute name Bobcat and a pretentious little stand-up grille. Ford replaced Maverick with the more-able Fairmont for 1978, so Mercury got a look-alike derivative, the Zephyr. If none of these moves was exactly original, they at least combined to leave Mercury much more competitive in a market that had been forever changed by an unprecedented combination of forces.

As with Buick and Oldsmobile, intermediate and full-size cars remained Mercury's mainstay through the '70s, and it was here that the changes were most dramatic -- and most needed. Mercury's midsize contender was a near duplicate of the Ford Torino/LTD II, under the Montego name for 1972-76, then, as noted, with the Cougar badge from 1977 through the last of this body-on-frame design for 1979. Like the Fords, there was little praiseworthy about these Mercurys, though they arguably looked nicer.

Up in what was loosely called the "standard" class sat the big two-ton Marquis and Monterey. Neither changed much through 1978. Model names centered on Marquis exclusively after 1974, and styling became progressively more like that of the big Lincoln Continental, particularly up front.

These Mercs were mammoths, but good ones: smooth and reliable, powered by reasonably potent V-8s (400s, 429s, and Lincoln 460s), and fully equipped (if not always tasteful). Pillarless hardtops gave way to pillared styling after 1974.

Like Ford's LTD, the Marquis underwent the "big shrink" for '79, losing 10 inches in wheelbase and about 700 pounds in curb weight. The result would prove amazingly long-lived, though no one could see that at the time, least of all Ford Motor Company.

In retrospect, the '70s were not very good years for Mercury. The make again abandoned performance, and not all the fault lay with Washington and OPEC. A succession of heavier, clumsier Cougars and confusingly named intermediates hardly helped, while moves into the compact and subcompact arenas were blunted by higher prices on cars that offered little more than the Fords they so obviously were. Meanwhile, Mercury's traditional big-car foundation was rocked by the new ­economic order of a more energy-conscious world. Yet by 1980, Mercury was turning the corner with cars like the exciting Capri, the practical Zephyr, and reborn Cougar and Marquis.

The 1978 Mercury Zephyr was part of the automaker's efforts to downsize its cars.

Mercury decisively completed that maneuver in the '80s, benefiting from the same astute management and timely product introductions that made Ford Motor Company the industry's profit leader by 1986. Though no one Mercury line was among Detroit's top-selling nameplates, the make's total production rose rapidly from 347,700 for 1980 to a decade high of nearly half a million U.S.-built cars for '84 -- an impressive recovery, though still far below record '79 (669,000-plus). On the model-year board, Mercury sat anywhere from sixth to ninth, as it had since the '50s, but managed fifth for 1983, its best finish ever.

As before, the Mercury line paralleled Ford's except for somewhat higher prices and different model/equipment mixes. Styling also remained similar through 1982, but the following year saw the return of a more-distinctive Mercury look.

Much sooner than GM, Dearborn had correctly concluded that too many clones spoil the sales broth. With the 1983 models, Mercurys again began standing more clearly apart from parent Fords -- and GM rivals -- to the ­undoubted ­benefit of sales.

Still, volume throughout the '80s remained much lower than Ford's model-for-model, and Mercury didn't have the same rela­tive success with some of the same products. The Capri ponycar was one telling example. Like Mustang, it received almost annual power increases and higher performance, commencing with 1982's "high-output" 157-bhp 302-cid V-8. But then Mustang got a handsome facelift and a revived convertible, while Capri soldiered on for '83 with just a hatchback coupe and basic '79 appearance except for a huge "bubbleback" rear window of dubious aesthetic merit.

It's almost as if L-M was ashamed of Capri, and it showed in half-hearted promotion that aggravated the lack of overt change. Production thus steadily waned, from nearly 80,000 for 1980 to only some 18,500 of the '85s (compared with over 156,000 Mustangs). At that level, Capri was too costly to sustain, and it was banished after '86.

The same fate awaited another "bubbleback" Merc: the two-seat LN7, introduced in early 1982 alongside the related Ford EXP. Both were sporty coupes derived from the front-drive Ford Escort/Mercury Lynx subcompacts, which had scored big sales since replacing the old Pinto/Bobcat twins for 1981.

Unfortunately, the coupes were anything but lovely, and no match for a number of Japanese competitors in performance, refinement, or workmanship. Perhaps buyers didn't expect a two-seater in L-M showrooms, for the LN7 attracted a middling 40,000 customers before being retired after 1983. A facelifted EXP then took on its bulbous backlight and proved somewhat more popular.

For more information on Mercury models, see:

  • Mercury New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Mercury Used Car Reviews and Prices