How Mercury Cars Work

The 1941 Mercury coupe was one of seven models the automaker offered that year.

Mercury was conceived largely by Edsel Ford, who saw a place for it in the Ford Motor Company lineup some time before his father Henry did. It arrived for 1939 in the same price league as the Pontiac Eight but somewhat below Oldsmobile -- precisely where Edsel wanted it and Dearborn needed it.

While Mercury would take many years to approach those GM makes in volume, it was successful from the start. Production averaged about 80,000 per year in the early '40s, good for 12th or 13th in the industry, thus winning important new business for Dearborn by filling the huge price gap between Ford and the Lincoln Zephyr.


The original Mercury engine would remain in production through 1948. A 239-cid L-head V-8, it was a slightly larger version of the Ford "V-8/85," having the same stroke but a larger bore. Brake horsepower was 95 through 1941, then 100.

Mercury quickly gained a reputation for performance appropriate to its name (after the winged messenger god in Greek myth­ology). Well-tuned stock models were quicker than V-8 Fords, and were usually capable of turning close to 100 mph.

Mercury bowed on a 116-inch wheelbase, four inches longer than the '39 Ford's and sufficient to give its similar styling a "more-important" look. A dashboard with strip-type instruments was also like Ford's, but Mercury's column-mounted gearshift was a talking point at the time. Styling for 1939-40 featured a crisply pointed "prow," beautifully curved fenders, and rounded body lines.

Initial offerings comprised two- and four-door "beetleback" sedans, a notchback sedan coupe, and a convertible coupe spanning a price range of $916-$1018. A $1212 convertible sedan was added for 1940, that year's heaviest and most-expensive Mercury. But four-door ragtops had waned in popularity, so this one was dropped for 1941. Only about 1150 were built.

Models expanded to seven for '41 with a two/four-passenger coupe, business coupe, and wood-bodied station wagon. Styling, again in the Ford mold, was chunkier and less graceful despite a two-inch longer wheelbase; with higher, bulkier ­fenders; a divider-bar grille; and fender-top parking lights.

Mercury tried harder for 1942 with a serious facelift, the aforementioned 100-bhp engine, and a new extra-cost semi­automatic transmission called "Liquamatic." The last proved very troublesome, though, and was quickly canceled. America's entry into World War II limited model-year production to fewer than 23,000 units. Chrome was "in," at least before the government diverted it to war use.

All '42 Mercs wore a broad, glittery two-section horizontal-bar grille, double chrome bands on each fender, and a bright full-perimeter molding at the beltline. Parking lights shifted inboard to flank a still-pointy hood. The general effect was busier than '41, which had been busier than 1940. Like other '42s, the mostly chromeless, late-production "blackout" Mercurys are now prized by collectors.

Before war's end, Henry Ford II, Edsel's son and old Henry's grandson, returned from the Navy to run Ford Motor Company. Edsel had died in 1943 of complications due to stomach cancer. Old Henry would live until 1947. HF II quickly resumed civilian production, and Mercury placed 10th in the 1946 industry race with about 86,600 units.

As Dearborn delayed its first all-new postwar models to 1949, interim Mercurys were similar to the '42 editions. The inboard parking lights and two-band fender moldings remained, but the hood was blunted above a new vertical-bar grille carrying a large "Mercury Eight" nameplate. Mechanicals were unchanged except the fact that Liquamatic didn't return. Ford's adoption of the 239 V-8 for 1946 was ­hardly to Mercury's advantage.


Mercury After World War II

This 1949 Mercury convertible shows the "inverted bathtub" styling that debuted that year.

Mercury's prewar lineup also carried over into 1946 with a single exception: The business coupe was replaced by the novel Sportsman convertible. Comparable to the like-named Ford model, Mercury's Sportsman was adorned with maple or yellow birch framing with mahogany inserts.

The wood was structural, not merely decorative. This created a problem at the rear, where standard fenders wouldn't fit. Both Sportsmans thus used 1941 sedan delivery fenders and wood shaped to suit. The solid-wood framing was beautifully mitred and finished with multiple coats of varnish. But with only 205 sold, the Mercury Sportsman was dropped after '46. The likely reason for the low sales was high price: $2209, some $200 more than Ford's version, which did better business and continued into 1948.


Ford's most-important 1947 corporate development was the organization of the Lincoln-Mercury Division. Henry II decided that the two makes could be more competitive as an auto­no­mous operation a la the various General Motors units. That year's Mercurys used more of the raw materials that had been scarce during wartime: mainly aluminum (for pistons and hood ornament) and chrome (interior hardware and grille frame).

Belt moldings now ended just ahead of the cowl. Postwar inflation boosted prices an average of $450, lifting the range to $1450-$2200. Production of the '47 models didn't begin until February of that year, so Mercury's output was about the same as its 1946 tally.

Except for serial numbers and deletion of the two-door sedan, the '48s were unchanged. They were sold from November 1947 through mid-April 1948, when the '49s appeared. As a result, model-year production ended at only about 50,250.

The '49 Mercurys bowed with flush-fender "inverted bathtub" styling like that of the 1948-49 Packards and Hudsons. Mercury's new look stemmed from sporadic wartime work by Dearborn designers. Wheelbase was unchanged, but bodyshells were shared with a new standard Lincoln line instead of Ford, the result of a last-minute change in postwar plans.

Styling was good: massive, yet clean and streamlined. The grille looked something like the '48 affair, but was lower and wider. A single bright molding ran full-length at midflank. As before, a single series offered four body styles: coupe, four-door Sport Sedan (with "suicide" rear-hinged back doors), convertible, and a new two-door wagon with less structural wood than the superseded four-door style.

Like '49 Fords, Mercurys were treated to a new chassis with fully independent front suspension, weight-saving Hotchkiss drive (replacing torque-tube), and a live axle on parallel longitudinal leaf springs, ousting at last old Henry's cherished single transverse leaf.

Resuming its power lead over Ford, Mercury got a stroked V-8 with 255.4 cid, dual downdraft Holley carburetors and 110 bhp to become a genuine 100-mph performer for the first time. Also introduced was an automatic-overdrive option priced at $97, teamed with a 4.27:1 rear axle instead of the standard 3.90:1.

The 1949 Mercury was an attractive buy with its Lincoln-like looks, lower prices ($1979-$2716), and a V-8 more-potent than Ford's (necessary to offset some 100 extra pounds in curb weight). Buyers responded by taking over 301,000 of the '49s -- more than three times the volume of Mercury's previous best year and good for sixth in the industry, another all-time high.

Despite few major changes, sales continued strong for the next two seasons: close to 294,000 for 1950 and a record-setting 310,000-plus for '51, when Mercury again claimed sixth. The 1950 models gained a hood-front chrome molding bearing the Mercury name; the '51s combined this with a large semicircular crest and also sported more-prominent grille bars, larger parking lights (swept back to the front wheel wells), and longer rear fenders with rounded corners and vertical trailing edges.

Horsepower rose a nominal two for '51, when a significant new option arrived in Merc-O-Matic Drive. This was, of course, the new three-speed fully automatic transmission developed with the Warner Gear Division of Borg-Warner (and also offered for '51 by Ford as Ford-O-Matic).


1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954 Mercury Cars

The 1951 Mercury wagon
The 1951 Mercury wagon was the automaker's most expensive model that year, going for more than $2500.

Mercury added a couple of new models to its lineup for 1950: a stripped price-leader coupe ($1875) and the interesting Monterey.

The latter was a spiffy limited edition with upgraded interior and a top covered in canvas or vinyl. At around $2150, it cost some $160 more than the standard coupe, but it wasn't the costliest 1950-51 Merc: The wagon was over $400 more. Monterey's purpose, as with the Ford Crestliner and Lincoln Lido/Capri of those years, was to stand in for the pillarless "hardtop-convertibles" being offered by GM and Chrysler rivals.


Hardtops arrived in force for 1952, when Ford Motor Com­pany was the only Big Three maker with all-new styling. Mercury got a pair of hardtops: a Sport Coupe and a more-deluxe Monterey version (sans covered roof). Monterey also offered a convertible and a four-door sedan (now minus the "suicide" doors). Following an industry trend, wagons were all-steel four-doors with simulated wood trim. Base-trim two- and four-door sedans completed the lineup.

Bodyshells were again shared with Ford, though Mercury retained a three-inch longer wheelbase, all of it ahead of the cowl. Also shared with Ford was tight, clean styling, though the resemblance with that year's equally new Lincoln didn't hurt. Higher compression boosted the flathead V-8 to 125 bhp on unchanged displacement. The Korean war limited 1952 production throughout Detroit, so Mercury built only 172,087 cars to finish eighth in the annual race.

Mercury bowed its first formal two-series line for 1953: the Custom series offered a hardtop and two- and four-door sedans, while the Monterey line listed a convertible, hardtop, wagon, or four-door sedan. Retained from '52 was a trendy dashboard with big aircraft-type levers flanking a large half-moon gauge cluster.

Business picked up with the end of Korean war restrictions, and Mercury moved nearly 305,000 cars, though it once again ran eighth. Prices ranged from $2000 for the Custom two-door to nearly $2600 for the Monterey wagon.

A significant engineering change for 1954 was Mercury's first overhead-valve V-8, a bigger version of the new "Y-Block" design featured on that year's Ford. Though little larger than Mercury's previous L-head at 256 cid, the ohv had modern short-stroke dimensions, a five-main-bearing crankshaft, and much more horsepower -- 61 with the standard four-barrel carburetor. With a low 3.90 rear axle and standard transmission, the V-8 made any '54 Merc quick off the line. Equally note­worthy was a ball-joint front suspension, another development shared with Ford.

Styling improved for '54 via wraparound taillights and a clean but more-aggressive grille with larger bullet guards. Joining previous models was a new top-line hardtop, the Monterey Sun Valley (a name that must have amused Californians), which is more famous now than it was then. An outgrowth of Dearborn's experiments with plastic-topped cars (as was Ford's similar '54 Skyliner), the Sun Valley was nice in theory: the airiness of a convertible combined with closed-car comfort and practicality.

In practice, though, it was something else. Though the Plexiglas front half-roof was tinted and a snap-in shade was provided for hot weather, customers complained the interior heated up like a sauna. Sales were unimpressive: just 9761 of the '54s and a mere 1787 for the follow-up 1955 Montclair version.

At about 260,000 units in all, 1954 wasn't Mercury's greatest sales year, but hopes were high for '55. With colorful new styling on the basic 1952-54 shell, Mercury's first wheelbase increase since 1941 -- to 119 inches except on wagons, which remained at 118 -- and a more-potent V-8, the '55s couldn't miss. They didn't: Model-year production was a record 329,000-plus.


1955, 1956, 1957 Mercury Cars

Phaeton versions were available for the 1956 Mercury Monterey and Montclair. See more pictures of Mercury cars.

Topping the '55 Mercury fleet was the new Montclair line: four-door sedan, hardtop, convertible, and Sun Valley. All wore a slim contrast-color panel outlined in bright metal beneath the side windows.

A step below were the Monterey sedan, hardtop, and wagon, followed by the Custom series with the same body styles plus a two-door sedan. Common to all were Mercury's first wrapped windshield, an evolutionary form of the '54 grille, hooded headlamps, and eye-catching surface ornamentation.


A Y-block V-8 swelled to 292 cid was offered in two forms: 188 bhp for Custom and Monterey and 198 bhp for Montclair. The higher output version was also available as an option for lesser models with the optional Merc-O-Matic.

Four-door Phaeton hardtops arrived for 1956's "Big M" line, which represented an ambitious expansion into somewhat uncharted territory. To stay competitive in the face of rising prices, Mercury fielded a cut-rate group of Medalist two- and four-door hardtops and sedans at the bottom end of the medium­-price ladder.

But inflation made these "low-price" Mercs more expensive than 1955 Customs ($2250-$2460) -- and not that much cheaper than the better-trimmed '56 Customs ($2350-$2800). Dealers pushed hard with two-door sedans, but Medalist sales came to only 45,812 in all. Custom, Monterey, and Montclair all beat the price-leader by more than 2-to-1. With that, Medalist was duly dropped, only to resurface for '58, when it interfered in a price bracket that should have been reserved exclusively for the new Edsel.

Mercury's '56 styling was a good update of its '55 look. All models save Medalists wore jazzy Z-shaped side moldings that delineated the contrast color area with optional two-toning (the area below was generally matched to the roof).

Monterey and Montclair added Phaeton hardtop sedans at mid-season, replacements for their low-roof pillared Sport Sedans held over from mid-1955. Mercury also offered a second convertible for the first time, a Custom. The Y-block was enlarged again, this time to 312 cid, good for 210 bhp that could be tuned to 235; the latter was standard for Monterey and Montclair.

Though 1956 was a "breather" for the industry as a whole, Mercury was an exception with some 328,000 sales, slightly off its '55 pace. An encouraging sign was the premium Montclair, which proved almost as popular as it had in frantic '55. The midline Monterey was still the big breadwinner, though. The '57s were all-new, trumpeted as "a dramatic expression of dream car design." They were previewed in 1956 by the XM-Turnpike Cruiser show car, which also had direct showroom counterparts in new top-line Turnpike Cruiser two- and four-door hardtops.

The Turnpike Cruiser had glitz and gimmicks galore: "skylight dual curve windshield," drop-down reverse-slant rear window, and dual air intakes over the A-posts housing little horizontal antennae. If that wasn't enough, there was optional "Seat-O-Matic," which automatically powered the front seat to one of 49 possible positions at the twist of two dials.

Mercury also joined Chrysler in offering pushbutton automatic transmission controls, another "space-age" Cruiser standard. Arriving late in the season was a Convertible Cruiser, honoring Mercury's selection as the 1957 Indy 500 pace car, and supplied with replica regalia decals. Yet for all their gadgets -- and likely because of them -- the Cruisers failed miserably. They were not just expensive -- $3760-$3850 for the hardtops, $4100 for the ragtop -- they were too far out, even for the dawning space age.

Significantly, the '57s had their own bodyshells on a new 122-inch-wheelbase chassis -- the first time Mercurys were neither "senior Fords" nor "junior Lincolns." Like that year's all-new Ford, this was done partly to prepare for the '58 Edsel line that borrowed some from both makes.

Monterey and Montclair were bereft of station wagons, which were split off as a separate series with six models. Offered, from the top, were a woody-look Colony Park, a four-door nine-seater; metal-sided two- and four-door Voyagers; and three Commuters with the various seat and door combinations. All had pillarless-hardtop rooflines, the new rage in Big Three wagons.

Styling matched the "Big M's" more-expansive '57 dimensions, looking square, heavy, and contrived. Up front, a massive dual-oblong bumper nestled beneath a slim concave grille of vertical bars. Headlights were quads where legal, regular duals otherwise. Long scallops, typically contrast-colored, carried the beltline from midbody through the upper rear fenders to huge pie-slice taillamps.

Weight was up, but so was horse­power. A 255-bhp 312 was newly standard except on Cruisers, which carried a 290-bhp, 368-cid Lincoln V-8 that was optional elsewhere.

The 1957 Mercurys did fairly well, but less so than the '56s. Volume dropped to about 286,000 and the make's production rank fell from seventh to eighth -- not encouraging for an all-new design in a fairly strong sales year.


1958, 1959 Mercury Cars

The 1959 Mercurys, such as this Montclair Cruiser, were bigger than the 1958s with a four-inch longer wheelbase.

A minor facelift yielded slightly quieter styling for 1958 Mercury models, but production plunged to 153,000 in a disastrous industry year. The Convertible Cruiser was abandoned (after only 1265 of the '57s) and the two closed Cruisers became Montclair submodels. Lower prices failed to perk up sales (barely 6400 between them). The cheap Medalist returned for a brief encore with two- and four-door sedans, but again proved disappointing: Only 18,732 were sold.

Topping the line was the new Park Lane series of two hardtops and a convertible (also available as Montclairs and Montereys). These were ostensibly Cruiser replacements with less hoke and a giant 360-bhp 430-cid V-8 shared with that year's Lincolns.


A new auto­matic transmission called Multi-Drive debuted (basically Ford Division's Cruise-O-Matic), as did a 383-cid V-8 -- the same size as one of Chrysler's new '58 wedgehead engines but with more-oversquare dimensions. The 383 was standard for all '58 Mercs, save Medalists (which came with a 235-bhp 312) and Park Lane, and delivered 312 or 330 bhp depending on model. Although the bottom dropped out of the medium-price market in '58, Mercury remained eighth despite building only 40 percent of its 1957 volume. But significantly, Rambler passed the Big M in sales and was fast gaining on Pontiac, Olds, and Buick. Mercury would join the rush to compacts and inter­mediates soon enough. In the meantime, it could only offer more of the same.

More the '59 Mercurys definitely had, with even bigger bodies on a four-inch longer wheelbase. Styling was still square but more sculpted, marked by a mile-wide grille, huge bumpers at each end, enormous windshields and rear windows, and a more sharply creased version of the odd 1957-58 rear-fender scallops. The Medalist and Turnpike Cruiser models were forgotten, and Montclair and wagons each slimmed from six models to four.

Engines were detuned in a faint nod to a newly economy-conscious public. The '59 slate listed a 210-bhp 312 for Monterey, a 345-bhp 430 for Park Lane, and 280- and 322-bhp 383s for others. Despite the retrenchment, model-year volume failed to top 150,000 units -- hardly the hoped-for recovery.

Looking back, Mercury sales stumbled after 1956 at least in part because the fleet, good-looking cars of earlier years were abandoned for shiny, begadgeted behemoths that couldn't hope to sell well in a down economy. But the make would return to "hot cars" in the '60s and, with them, achieve new success.

Indeed, volume went up substantially for 1960 -- to over 271,000 -- though that was owed mainly to the new compact Comet. The four-series big-car line (which might have been Edsels had things gone better there) remained two-ton heavyweights with huge compound-curve windshields, but a handsome facelift removed a little chrome while adding a tidy concave grille and more-discreet "gullwing" rear fenders.

Model choices were mostly as before: Cruiser two- and four-door hardtops in each series, four-door Monterey/Montclair sedans, Monterey two-door sedan, Park Lane convertible and, still a distinct series, four-door Commuter and wood-sided Colony Park hardtop wagons.


The 1960s: More Mercury Models, Fewer Buyers

Mercury underwent frequent model and name changes in the 1960s, but the Monterey, shown here as a 1967 in S-55 trim, spanned the decade.

Mercury offered three V-8s for 1960, all with lower compression for the sake of economy (such as it was). The 312 was cut to 205 bhp for Monterey and Commuter, the 383 returned as a single 280-bhp option, and a 310-bhp Lincoln 430 was standard elsewhere. Production rose slightly to some 155,000.

The "Big M" shrunk noticeably in both size and price for 1961. In fact, it was again a "deluxe Ford," though on an inch-longer, 120-inch wheelbase. This was done in the interest of production economies as well as fuel economy, and the resulting cars were indeed lighter, thriftier, and more maneuverable.


Of course, this also ended four years of unique Mercury chassis and bodyshells, reflecting the collapse of Dearborn's grand mid-'50s "divisionalization" scheme, a stab at a GM-style five-make structure that had spawned separate Edsel, Continental, Lincoln, and Mercury Divisions. Dismal sales since '57 had rendered a separate Mercury platform unacceptably expensive, hence this return to the make's original concept.

Beginning with the 1960 Comet, Mercury followed the growing industry trend of adding models in new sizes, with name changes sometimes confusing buyers. The latter was perhaps symbolic of the make's mixed fortunes in the '60s.

Still, Comet and Monterey spanned the entire decade. A new name was Meteor, long the brand of a Canadian-made Mercury derivative, which appeared on two quite different U.S. Mercurys.

The first arrived at the low end of the 1961 full-size line: two- and four-door sedans and hardtops in "600" and nicer "800" trim, offered at vastly reduced prices beginning at $2535. In effect, they filled the gap left by Edsel's demise the previous year.

Monterey resumed as the premium Mercury, listing a four-door sedan and hardtop, a two-door hardtop, and a convertible. The separate Station Wagon series reverted to conventional pillared four-doors: six- and nine-passenger Commuters and Colony Parks.

Styling was even more conservative than in 1960. The grille remained concave and fins vestigial, but flanks were rounded and '50s gimmicks were mere memories. Meteors carried a standard 223-cid Ford six with 135 bhp; the optional V-8, included on Montereys, was a 175-bhp 292. Across-the-board options comprised a 220-bhp 352 and new big-block 390s with 300 or 330 bhp.

Although Meteor actually outsold Monterey, sales were not spectacular. Accordingly, the line was replaced for '62 by a "Monterey 6," and the name moved to Mercury's version of the new intermediate Ford Fairlane.

The Meteor's styling was busier than the Fairlane's and model names were different, but bodies were shared. So were powertrains, including Ford's fine new small-block V-8 with 221 cid and 145 bhp or 260 cid and 164 bhp. Custom denoted the upmarket midsize Meteors, S-33 the sportier bucket-seaters -- a two-door sedan for '62, a hardtop coupe for '63. Wagons -- woody-look Country Cruiser and plain-sided Villagers (a name transferred from the Edsel line) -- joined hardtops as 1963 additions. For all that, this Meteor didn't sell nearly as well as the Fairlane, and Mercury dropped it for 1964 in favor of an extensively upgraded Comet.


Mercury Comet

Station wagon was one of several body styles available for the 1963 Mercury Comet.

Once planned as an Edsel, the first Comet was basically Ford's hugely successful 1960 Falcon compact with squared-up rooflines, a double-row concave grille, and an extended stern with canted fins and oval taillamps. Wheelbase was 114 inches on two- and four-door sedans; wagons used Falcon's 109.5-inch span.

Comet wasn't exciting, but it sold well: over 116,000 for the abbreviated debut season. Sales set a record for '61 at 197,000 and were strong for '62, which hurt Mercury's new Meteor model. In fact, one reason Meteor didn't sell well is that Comet was comparably sized yet more affordable. Mercury was thus wise to make Comet its only small car after '63. Sales jumped by 55,000 units for '64 and remained high into '67.


Early Comets ran less than $100 above comparable Falcons, yet were more elaborately trimmed. S-22, a $2300 bucket-seat two-door sedan, responded to the sporty-compact craze beginning in 1961, when all Comets gained an optional 101-bhp six. Custom sedans and wagons and a posh Villager wagon with imitation wood trim aided '62 sales.

The following year brought Custom and S-22 convertibles and Sportster hardtop coupes. A squarish facelift arrived for 1964, when S-22 was renamed Caliente and any Comet could be ordered with the outstanding 260-cid small-block. A midseason Caliente offshoot, the $2655 Cyclone hardtop, offered even higher perform­ance from a standard 210-bhp 289.

Comet received its first major overhaul for 1966, going from compact to intermediate by shifting to that year's new Fairlane platform. This underlined a basic marketing assumption: Mercury buyers were wealthier than Ford's, and thus probably wanted a compact larger than Falcon.

This 116-inch-wheelbase platform continued on Comets through 1969, but sales waned. By 1967, the Comet line started with a pair of very basic "202" sedans. The rest of that year's line comprised Capri (borrowed from Lincoln to replace "404"), Caliente, Cyclone and Station Wagon.

All gave way for 1968 to a three-series Montego line on the same wheelbase. This offered a standard sedan and hardtop coupe; MX sedan, hardtop coupe, convertible, and wagon; and top-line MX Brougham sedan and hardtop. The last was furnished with a high-quality cloth interior and other luxuries. The Comet name was retained for one price-leading two-door hardtop, then was temporarily shelved after 1969.

Mercury jumped into the midsize muscle-car market with both feet and won several racing laurels. Model-year 1966 brought a smooth Cyclone GT hardtop coupe and convertible powered by Ford's 335-bhp 390 and offered with a variety of useful suspension upgrades. The '67 was even more thrilling with optional 427s delivering 410-425 bhp.

Similar street racers were available for '68, though the 427 was detuned to 390 bhp. Besides Montego, that year's midsize line included new base and GT Cyclone hardtop coupes with curvy new lower-body contours and racy full-fastback rooflines a la Ford Mustang/Torino. There was also a one-year-only GT notchback hardtop.

For 1969, Mercury unleashed the Cyclone CJ with Ford's 428-cid big-block Cobra Jet engines. GTs and CJs had black grilles, special emblems, bodyside paint stripes, and unique rear-end styling. CJs carried a functional hood scoop when equipped with optional Ram-Air induction.

Although Ford won the 1968-69 NASCAR championship, Cyclones turned in some of the most notable performances. A memorable highlight was Cale Yarborough's win in the '68 Daytona 500 at an average speed of 143.25 mph.


Full-Size Mercury Cars of the 1960s

Breezeway styling, with its reverse-slant rear windows, was available on an array of Mercury models starting in 1963.

For all its activity in compacts and intermediates, big cars remained Mercury's bread-and-butter in the '60s. Annual production averaged around 100,000, though there were back-to-back records for 1965-66 -- over 165,000 each year.

Of all the big-Merc model names, only Monterey lasted the entire decade. The upper-echelon Montclair and Park Lane returned for 1964-68, then vanished again, replaced by a full-range Marquis line.


With Meteor an intermediate, the 1962 full-size fleet was reorganized around Monterey, Monterey Custom, and Station Wagon. The lone convertible shifted to the Custom series. Joining Mercury's bucket-seat brigade at midyear were the S-55 hardtop coupe and convertible. Styling was busier on all the big '62s, with tunneled taillights and a complex convex grille. All V-8s returned, as did the faithful "big six" as standard power for base Montereys and Commuter wagons.

A similar array on the same 120-inch wheelbase returned for 1963, when a heavy reskin introduced "Breezeway Styling" for nonwagon closed models: reverse-slant rear windows that dropped down for ventilation as on the old Turnpike Cruiser (and 1958-60 Continental Marks). Wagons were pared to a pair of Colony Parks. Joining the S-55 subseries at midyear was a handsome "slantback" two-door like Ford's Galaxie Sports Hardtop. Engines remained strictly V-8s: 390s with 250-330 bhp, a new 406-cid enlargement packing 385/405 bhp, and, as a late-season option, a high-performance 427 with 410 bhp.

Tradition returned for Silver Anniversary year 1964 in a revived four-series line of Monterey, Montclair, Park Lane, and Commuter/Colony Park wagons. The first three listed Breeze­way two- and four-door hardtops and four-door sedans (Monterey still included a pillared two-door), plus slantback "Marauder" hardtop coupes and sedans. A toothy convex grille replaced the concave '63 unit.

The previous 390 V-8s continued, but the 406s didn't, giving way to 427s with 410/425 ­optional bhp for all models save wagons. Big-inch Marauders were awesome performers.

The record 1965 model year brought a larger full-size body with crisp, rectilinear lines "in the Lincoln Continental tradition," as well as a new "torque box" frame (tuned for each body to minimize noise, vibration, and harshness). Wagons now rode the 119-inch Ford wheelbase; other models were up to 123.

Breezeways thinned to a trio of four-door sedans, all hardtops were now slantbacks, and the Marauder name was de-emphasized amid calls for greater automotive safety. V-8s now comprised a quartet of 390s with 250-330 bhp, plus a single 425-bhp 427. The basic '65 look carried into 1966 with a new diecast "electric-shaver" grille and, for hardtop coupes, a "sweep-style roof" with a concave backlight.

More-rounded bodysides mixed well with sharp-edged fenders for '67. Sedans adopted conventional rooflines but still offered an optional drop-down backlight. Hardtop coupes received "faster" roof profiles. Three new limited-production line-toppers arrived: Marquis, a two-door hardtop with broad C-pillars and standard vinyl-roof covering, a similar Park Lane Brougham hardtop sedan, and a Park Lane Brougham Breeze­way four-door sedan. Intermediates were waging Mercury's sporty-car wars, so the bucket-seat S-55 ragtop and hardtop were in their final year -- and just a Monterey option package now. Respec­tive production was minuscule: just 145 and 570.

After a minor '68 facelift, the big Mercs were fully revised for 1969. Wheelbases grew to 121 inches on wagons and 124 on other models (except Marauder), sizes that would persist until their first downsizing for 1979. Series regrouped around base Monterey, revived Monterey Custom, and a full Marquis line comprising Colony Park wagon, convertible, and base and Brougham sedans, hardtop coupes, and hardtop sedans.

Riding the shorter 121-inch wheelbase was a new Marauder, a high-performance "tunnelback" hardtop that garnered 14,666 sales. Offered in standard and spiffier X-100 trim, it shared Marquis' hidden-headlamp front and the ventless side glass used by most other models. V-8s comprised the usual 390s and a new 429-cid big-block with 360 bhp, the latter being standard for Marauder X-100, optional elsewhere.

The 1970s were basically reruns save minor trim and equipment revisions. Sporty big cars had mostly disappeared by now, and so would the Marauder after just 6043 sales that model year.


Mercury Cougar Origins

The Mercury Cougar debuted in 1967 as an upscale version of the Ford Mustang.

One of the most interesting and desirable '60s Mercurys was the Cougar. An upscale rendition of Ford's wildly successful Mustang ponycar concept, it premiered for 1967 as a two-door hardtop in three basic permutations. Convertibles were added for 1969.

Sriding a three-inch-longer wheelbase than Mustang -- 111 in all -- Cougar offered more luxury and standard power for about $200 extra (prices started at $2851). Where Mustang's base engine was a six, Cougar had a lively 200-bhp 289-cid V-8. The big 335-bhp, 428-cid CJ became an extra-cost option for 1969-70.


The 1967-68 Cougars arguably looked best with their crisply tailored lines, hidden headlamps in an "electric-shaver" grille, and a matching back panel with sequential turn signals, a gimmick borrowed from Ford Thunderbirds. Length and width increased on the '69s, which sported Buick-like sweepspear bodyside contours, ventless side glass, less-distinctive "faces," and full-width taillights. The '70s adopted a divided vertical-bar grille with a slightly bulged nose.

Early Cougars came in several forms. The most luxurious was the XR-7, boasting a rich interior with leather accents and full instrumentation in a simulated walnut dashboard. A GT option delivered a firmer suspension for more-capable roadholding and a standard 320-bhp 390 V-8 for extra go.

For 1968 came a GTE package with several unique appearance features and a 390-bhp 427. The hottest '69 Cougar was the Eliminator hardtop, with 428 power and a standard rear-deck spoiler. Convert­ibles saw very low sales: fewer than 10,000 total for 1969 and less than 4300 for 1970.

Cougar never approached Mustang in popularity, though it was more solid and elegant, and just as roadable. Production was still more than respectable: 150,000 in the first year, about 114,000 in '68, close to 100,000 in '69, then about 72,000 in '70. All are now collector's items.

Cougar was the crowning touch to a decade that saw Mercury move into luxury cars rivaling Lincoln even as it recaptured the performance aura it established in the late '40s and early '50s. But the good times of the '60s couldn't last.

As the '70s rolled along, Mercurys became more like equivalent Fords, while govern­ment mandates and the vagaries of petroleum power-politics conspired to sacrifice performance on the twin altars of safety and fuel economy.

By 1980, Mercury had once again resumed its original role as a plusher, costlier, and sometimes larger Ford. The only differences were that the parallel model lines encompassed five or six different size classes instead of one or two, and that Mercury styling often related more to Lincoln's than to Ford's.


Mercury Ponycars of the 1970s

The 1979 Mercury Capri, unlike earlier models with the same name, was a twin of the Ford Mustang.

The ponycar field was one area where Ford and L-M divisions parted company in the '70s. The Mercury Cougar began diverging from the sibling Ford Mustang as early as 1971, when both models were redesigned. The Mercury swelled by two inches in wheelbase instead of one (to 113 inches) and looked considerably bulkier. Standard and XR-7 convertibles remained through the end of this generation in 1973, and have become minor collector's items, primarily by dint of low annual production: fewer than 2000 of each type, except for the 3165 XR-7s in '73.

Of course, this only reflected the abrupt drop in demand for all ponycars after 1970, and it prompted Mercury to chart a new course for Cougar. While Mustang became a smaller, lighter, Pinto-based sporty car for 1974, Cougar grew into a kind of alternative Thunderbird, adopting the 114-inch-wheelbase two-door platform of Mercury's midsize Montego models.


Oddly, the L-M studio created the design chosen for the production Mustang II. But rather than field a badge-engineered clone of that car, the division opted to continue with the German-built Ford Capri it had been selling successfully since 1970 -- a "mini ponycar" like Mustang II, but better-built and more roadable.

The Thunderbirdesque Cougar continued through 1976 as Mercury's marker in the midsize personal-luxury segment dominated by the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix. The name was diluted for 1977, when it replaced Montego as the sole intermediate line (including a wagon), with the XR-7 label reserved for a single top-shelf coupe.

Things were temporarily sorted out again for 1980, when Cougar really was a Thunderbird, a twin to that year's new downsized model on a special 108.4-inch version of the "Fox" corporate platform.

In between, Ford again redesigned the Mustang, and this time Mercury wanted in. The result was a new American-made Capri for 1979. The direct descendent of the genuine Cougar ponycar, it was virtually identical with that year's new-generation Mustang save somewhat busier styling on the Ford's three-door hatch coupe body style, the only one available.

Capri offered the same four engines as Mustang in base and luxury Ghia ­models (the latter honoring the famed Italian coachbuilder that Ford had purchased in 1970). More enthusiastic types could order a sporty RS package roughly comparable to the Mustang Cobra option (Mercury never called it "Rally Sport," likely for fear of objections from Chevrolet).

One of the last cars of this era with a distinctly Mercury character was the Cyclone, which bowed out after 1971. Offered that year with standard 351 and optional 429-cid V-8s, this muscular midsize was impressively fast.

Swoopier sheetmetal set it clearly apart from run-of-the-mill Montego linemates and Ford's corresponding Torino GT and Cobra, particularly the protruding nose and "gunsight" grille that appeared with the midsize line's 1970-71 facelift. Reflecting the muscle-car market's sad state of affairs at the time, Cyclone sold poorly in its farewell season, especially the desirable low-production Spoiler hardtop (just 353 of the '71s were built).


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.

Mercury Small Cars of the 1980s

The 1981 Mercury Lynx was Mercury's answer to the call for small cars.

Lynx was Mercury's entry in the increasingly tough small-car market of the early 1980s, and it sold respectably, racking up over 100,000 units in its first two seasons and about 85,000 a year thereafter. Like its sibling the Ford Escort, it started life with a three-door hatchback sedan and a neat five-door wagon in trim levels from plain to fancy. These were bolstered for 1982 by five-door sedans, a sporty three-door RS, and a posh five-door LTS (for Luxury Touring Sedan).

Through mid-'85, Lynx was powered by the Escort's 1.6-liter "CVH" four, also offered in H.O. and turbocharged guises. In mid-'85, both of the latter were dropped and a normal-tune 1.9-liter enlargement took over. A 2.0-liter diesel four supplied by Mazda in Japan was also offered beginning with the '84s, though it attracted few buyers as gas prices fell in an improving national economy. Appearance was cleaned up for "19851/2" with a smoother nose and flush headlamps in line with Dear­born's strong turn to aerodynamic styling. An even ­sportier three-door, called XR3, bowed the following year.

But here, too, Ford planners would conclude that one clone was one too many, though a falling dollar and lower offshore production costs also figured in the decision to drop Lynx during 1987. Taking over was the Mexican-built Tracer, a badge-engineered version of Mazda's similarly sized 323. Yet despite generating less than half of Escort's volume in most years, the Lynx can be judged a success, as it rung up crucial business for L-M ­dealers during some very difficult times.

The same holds for Mercury's compacts and intermediates of this decade. For 1981-82 these comprised the familiar (and largely unchanged) Zephyr line and a new upmarket Cougar sedan series, both built on the proven rear-drive vintage-'78 "Fox" platform. Weighing some 350-400 pounds less than the Monarchs they replaced, these Cougars were twins to Ford's redesigned '81 Granadas. Styling was similarly squared up and more formal than Zephyr's, appropriate for the higher prices. Though the origins of these models were obvious, there was evidently some magic left in the Cougar name. Between them, Cougar and Zephyr netted well over 80,000 annual sales for 1981-82, not bad considering the sorry state of the market.

Mercury did somewhat better by replacing the Fox-platform Cougars with a midsize Marquis for 1983. This was yet ­another Fairmont/Zephyr variation, but its cleaner styling was a big improvement, even if it looked rather too much like the downsized 1983 LTD that took over for Granada at Ford. Still, the name link with a full-size Merc didn't hurt, and Marquis sales by 1984 totaled some 108,000, half again as much as the previous Cougar series.

To avoid confusion, the biggest Mercurys were renamed Grand Marquis after 1982, one of their few important changes during the entire decade. Not that many changes were needed. Roomy, quiet, and comfortable, they remained traditional V-8 American family cruisers whose sales rebounded strongly once the economy began to recover and an oil glut pushed gas prices down to more-reasonable levels. Chrysler Corporation and the Buick, Olds, and Pontiac divisions of GM lent a helping hand by canceling most of their old rear-drive biggies by '85, leaving the Grand Marquis all but alone in the medium-price full-size field.

Grand Marquis thus journeyed through the '80s with only the barest of updates. Two-door coupes were dropped after 1985, the mainstay four-door sedan and wagon gained smoother noses and tails for 1988, and fuel injection replaced carburetors on the 302-cid V-8, but that was about it.

Once their original '79 tooling was amortized, the big Mercurys (and Fords) became the darlings of corporate accountants and dealers alike, earning more profit per unit than any other model in the line. Con­su­mers kept on buying despite the lack of change. Grand Marquis sales totaled nearly 96,000 for '83, over 148,000 for '84, then 110,000-160,000 each year all the way through 1989. Obviously, the "Big M" still offered what a lot of folks wanted.

The Mercury Cougar in the 1980s

The redesign for the 1983 Mercury Cougars brought buyers back to the nameplate, even though it was now a Ford Thunderbird under the skin.

Cougar was Mercury's most-dramatic success of the 1980s -- not the 1970s-era sedan series but L-M's version of the Ford Thunderbird. Blocky and ornate, the downsized XR-7 of the 1970s was little changed through 1982, and laid a gigantic sales egg, dropping below 20,000 units.

But then came 1983's handsome aerodynamic redesign, and volume more than tripled, reaching nearly 76,000 units. Sales rose by another 55,000 for 1984, then held above 100,000 through 1988.

This Cougar had almost everything the latest T-Bird did -- which was plenty. Aiming for a more-conservative clientele, Mercury gave it a near-vertical rear roofline and offered a standard 232-cid V-6 or optional 302 V-8.

The essential Fox chassis of 1980-82 was retained, but more finely tuned for a better ride/handling balance, and interiors could be downright luxurious with just a modicum of options. No XR-7 model was offered at first, but it returned for 1984 as a counterpart to the Thunder­bird Turbo Coupe, with the same hyperaspirated 145-cid four, appropriately beefed-up suspension, and standard five-speed manual transmission. The last was an item that ­hadn't been seen on Cougars since the 1960s.

In all, it was a most pleasing package, made even more so by an interim facelift for 1987, Cougar's 20th anniversary. This involved larger-appearing windows and a shapelier nose bearing flush headlamps and a more-rakish grille.

At the same time, the XR-7 swapped its turbo four-cylinder for a newly fuel-injected 302 V-8 with 155 horses. For '88 came a hotter XR-7 with monochrome exterior and dual exhausts for the V-8, plus 20 more horsepower for the base V-6 (now at 140 total).

But all this was merely a warm-up for the spectacular 1989 Cougar. Based on another all-new T-Bird, it emerged lower and wider but no longer despite a 113-inch wheelbase (previously 104.2). Styling was even more smoothly aero­dynamic, but a vertical backlight and upright grille again lent visual distinction.

The new Cougar followed the 1989 Thunderbird in forsaking both a V-8 and the old turbo-four for a pair of fuel-injected 232 V-6s: a normally aspirated 140-bhp unit for the base LS model and a 210-bhp supercharged version with intercooler for the high-­performance XR-7 -- America's first supercharged six since the 1954-55 Kaiser Manhattan.

It was mounted in a sophisticated new chassis with all-independent suspension, variable-rate shock absorbers, and other technical features that made the new Cougar a road car worthy of comparison with premium European coupes.

No doubt about it: Cougar had been fully transformed in a satis­fying way. Sales remained satisfying too, though volume was down somewhat: to about 97,000 for 1989, then to a more-worrisome 81,500. Higher prices were undoubtedly a factor: nearly $16,000 for the 1990 LS, a bit over $20,000 for the XR-7. Still, those price tags looked reasonable against the far loftier stickers of imported sports-luxury coupes.

The Mercury Topaz and Mercury Sable

The 1986 Mercury Sable, with just enough distinction from its cousin Ford Taurus, helped resuscitate Mercury sales.

Mercury was well represented in the hard-fought compact and midsize battles of the '80s, its respective warriors being the Topaz and Sable.

Topaz, arriving for 1984 as the front-drive replacement for Zephyr, was a predictable kissin' cousin of Ford's new Tempo and thus evolved in parallel with it. Included in developments through decade's end were an available high-output 2.3-liter four, sporty two-doors, 1987's new all-wheel-drive option, a stem-to-stern makeover for 1988 sedans, and an optional driver-side airbag starting in 1986 (one of the earliest domestic cars to offer that feature).

Dearborn designers tried to make Topaz look somewhat different from Tempo at each end and by deleting the Tempo sedan's rearmost side windows -- not huge distinctions, but another small sign that Mercurys were becoming individual once more.

A pleasant and capable compact, though not state-of-the-art, Topaz followed Lynx in generating lower volume than its Ford counterpart: 80,000-128,000 a year, about half of Tempo's sales. But again, that volume was helpful to L-M dealers.

Sable, replacing the midsize Marquis, was far more helpful. Arriving with base prices in the $11,000-$13,000 range, it immediately commanded almost 96,000 sales for debut '86, then shot up to over 121,000 for '87 and a resounding 130,000-plus for 1989.

Sable was Mercury's version of the acclaimed front-drive Ford Taurus, and thus shared most of its widely praised basic design. There were exceptions, though. Where Taurus had three trim levels, Sable offered two: GS and upmarket LS. Mercury also decided it didn't need Ford's small 2.5-liter four after '86 -- wise, as most Taurus buyers decided they didn't need it either.

This left 3.0-liter and, from 1988, 3.8-liter "Vulcan" V-6s. Both produced 140 bhp, but the 3.8 was the engine of choice for all-around driving due to its larger displacement and commensurately greater torque (215 pound-feet vs. 160). Sable also had more simulated wood on the dash and door ­panels.

But the real distinction was outside. Where the four-door Taurus sedan wore a "six-light" roof treatment, the Sable version had a rear window wrapped fully around to the rear-door trailing edges for a sleek hidden-pillar effect. Also, Sable's rear wheel arches were flat-topped, versus rounded on Taurus.

Even more dramatic was Sable's unique front "light bar," a set of running lights behind a wide central white lens that illuminated with the headlamps to make both the sedans and five-door wagons unmistakable at night. The net effect of these simple but clever differences was to give Sable an identity quite apart from that of Taurus. Seldom in recent times had a Mercury been more its "own car" -- or more handsome.

Sable didn't get anything like the high-performance '89 Taurus SHO, but this was a reasonable marketing decision given Mercury's more luxury-oriented clientele. Those folks no doubt appreciated useful 1990 upgrades such as optional antilock brakes for sedans, a standard driver-side airbag for all Sables, a dash reworked to be more ergonomic, and new features like an optional compact-disc player and standard tilt steering wheel.

With a stunning new Cougar to carry the performance banner, plus the updated Topaz, evergreen Grand Marquis, and strong-selling Sable, Mercury could take justifiable pride during Golden Anniversary 1989, when total domestic volume (excluding "outsourced" products like Tracer) approached a smashing 500,000.

Despite occasional mistakes and some rough periods in its first 50 years. Mercury had produced some of America's best-liked automobiles. Now, on the eve of its second half-century, it was doing so again.

But calendar-year domestic sales plunged to around 309,000 in 1991, reflecting the onset of a deep new national recession that would last a good three years.

The Mercury Villager and Mercury Capri

Despite falling sales, Mercury was able to claim sixth from Dodge in 1993, then held the spot on steadily rising volume that reached nearly 387,000 units in 1994. It was a quite credible performance considering that Mercury had only two products in this period not shared with Ford -- and that only one was a real success. These two products were the Mercury Villager and Mercury Capri.

The product in question was the Villager, arriving for 1993 as Mercury's first minivan. At first glance, it seemed just a belated copy of the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager that had been around for a decade and still dominated minivan sales by a wide margin. Indeed, Villager followed their lead by being a front-wheel-drive design sized about halfway between their standard and extended Grand models, riding a 112.2-inch wheelbase and stretching 189.9 inches overall.

But Villager had its attractions, starting with neat, trim styling that was arguably more-fashionable than Chrysler's, plus standard (instead of optional) four-wheel antilock brakes. Mercury also avoided the sham of price-leader models with four-cylinder power and manual transmission, opting for GS and luxury LS editions with a 3.0-liter 150-bhp single-overhead-cam V-6 and four-speed overdrive automatic.

Villager's chassis was more sophisticated, too, its modern all-coil suspension making for even more carlike ride and handling than Chrysler had. It even had a clever novelty in a sliding three-place third-row bench seat that could be moved up on built-in floor tracks to substitute for the removable two-place middle bench; it could also be slid halfway up to open up extra cargo space behind.

Trouble was, Villager was all but identical with Nissan's new Quest, built to the same design that borrowed liberally from the Japanese firm's Maxima sedan. The Mercury differed only in having an illuminated front "light bar" a la Sable, plus minor trim and equipment distinctions.

At least these twins were built in the U.S., produced under Ford auspices in Ohio. It was another joint venture of the sort increasingly common in the industry, but Ford's influence here was confined to minor areas like switchgear and interior materials.

Fortunately for L-M, buyers weren't at all bothered by Villager's Asian origins, especially with high-value base prices of $16,500-$22,000. In fact, thanks to a deliberate production bias in Mercury's favor, Villager outsold Quest by more than 2-to-1 for debut '93 at nearly 109,000.

While that was only about a quarter of combined Caravan/Voyager sales, it was hardly bad for such a Johnny-come-lately. And, of course, it was all "plus" business for L-M dealers.

For 1994, Villager added a top-line Nautica model with standard leather interior, front and middle "captain's chair" bucket seats, and a blue/cream color scheme inspired by Nautica sports­wear. Nissan was accorded more Quests that season, which partly explains why Villager volume dropped to just under 62,000 for the model year.

Both versions added a standard ­driver-side airbag, but still lacked a passenger-side restraint like Chrysler's minivans. Production sank a bit further for 1995, reflecting stiffer price and product competition in this fast-moving market.

Mercury wasn't at all successful with its other unique product of this period, which was American only in the market it targeted. This was an Australian-built two-seat convertible that appeared in mid-1990 as yet another Capri.

Like Tracer, it was based on the small 323 platform from Japanese affiliate Mazda, with the same proven front-drive mechanicals plus four-wheel-disc brakes, independent rear suspension, driver-side airbag, and an optional liftoff hardtop. A 1.6-liter four delivered 100 bhp in the base model or 132 turbocharged ponies in the uplevel XR2.

Yet despite open-air allure and affordable pricing in the $13,000-$15,000 range, this Capri just didn't sell. Dumpy styling hurt as much as indifferent workmanship, and Mazda's own Miata offered a prettier, "more authentic" sports car with superior Japanese build quality for not many more dollars.

With all this, Capri sales peaked at about 21,200 for calendar '91, then plummeted to nowhere. Mercury gave up after 1994, when it instituted a mild facelift and standard passenger-side airbag. Perhaps the Capri name had been cursed.

1991, 1992, 1993 Mercurys

In the 1990s Mercury sought to distinguish itself from Ford; this 1992 Tracer, for example, was offered only as a sedan, unlike its Escort counterpart.

As ever, Mercurys of the early 1990s generally evolved like counterpart Fords. Thus, the subcompact Tracer aped Escort with a full redesign for 1991, while 1992 brought a Grand Marquis revamped like Crown Victoria and a Sable reworked a la Taurus.

But Mercury didn't follow Ford in every way. The '91 Tracer, for example, offered no hatchback sedans, just a five-door wagon and a four-door notchback.

The latter was a full year ahead of Escort's, though, and was the basis for a sporting model called LTS. Though it had twincam Mazda power like the Escort GT hatchback, the LTS stood apart by wearing the front "light bar" motif now used as a Mercury hallmark, though it ­didn't light up on this lower-cost car. Base models got this and other LTS appearance cues for 1993, when Tracer followed Escort to "one-price" marketing: base models with air conditioning and automatic transmission selling at $11,665.

Also like Escort, Tracer added a driver-side airbag for '94 and optional ABS for the LTS. The following year brought a standard passenger airbag, plus a low-cost "Trio" trim package that added a rear spoiler and alloy wheels to the base sedan. One thing Mercury couldn't seem to change was relative sales, and Tracer volume remained only a fraction of Escort's. Then again, with so many small cars to choose from, some buyers likely forgot that L-M dealers even had one.

Sable sales held generally steady, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of Taurus', but Mercury's midsize was quicker than Ford's to offer a passenger-side airbag: first as an option with the '92 redesign, then standard.

Though Sable still had no counterpart to the high-power Taurus SHO, Mercury did offer front buckets and console as new '93 extras for the ­uplevel LS sedan. These became standard for the '94 version, which was joined late in the season by a sportier LTS edition with leather inside and a "more Euro" look outside. Overall Sable production remained strong in this period, running 116,000-137,000 in all years save recessionary '91, when sales dipped to just above 96,000.

The 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis showed off a redesign that brought strong sales.

The full-size Grand Marquis showed surprising sales strength with its '92 redesign, accounting for much of Mercury's increased overall volume through mid-decade. In fact, the newly aerodynamic "Big M" outpolled its Ford sister in '92 model-year production by some 10,000 units with a relatively amazing 163,000-plus. It then settled down to around 100,000 yearly sales except for 1993 (a bit over 90,000).

Grand Marquis still eschewed any pretense of sport, but its '92 makeover was the same considered update accorded Crown Victoria. Highlights included Dearborn's new 4.6-liter "modular" V-8, standard all-disc brakes, available ABS, a thoroughly reworked rear-drive chassis, and a firm-ride Handling and Performance option with dual exhausts adding 20 bhp to the regular 190.

Like Ford, Mercury now bailed out of big wagons, but the GS and uplevel LS sedans were nicely tailored to stand more clearly apart from Crown Vics. Differences included a modest grille, a conventional "four-light" roofline, and Sable-inspired taillight treatment. Considering the conservative character of both the car and its clientele, the rejuven­ated Grand Marquis showed a lot of sales life in the early '90s.

1994, 1995 Mercurys

While some Mercury models were gaining steam in the 1990s, the same could not be said for Cougar, which lost interest value after 1990 -- and a lot of customers.

In a way, this was probably inevitable. Like Thunderbird buyers, Cougar prospects were now mainly those who cared less about sporty performance than getting the most luxury per buck.

Since there was no point in giving people something they didn't want, Mercury swapped engines for the uplevel '91 XR7, yanking out the supercharged V-6 (and its five-speed manual transmission) for a good old 5.0-liter/302 V-8 with 200 bhp (and mandatory automatic). At the same time, the V-8 became a first-time option for the base LS, replacing its unblown (and unchanged) 3.8 V-6. Both Cougars also wore a minor facelift involving the hood, headlamps, grille, and back panel.

Cougar changed little for 1992, a disappointing way for the model to observe its 25th anniversary. So was the midseason birthday special based not on the XR7 but the everyday LS, with distinctions limited to just a monochrome exterior and fancy BBS-brand alloy wheels.

Model-year sales plunged by more than 13,000 to just over 49,000, which was only about half of what Cougar had tallied with its 1989 redesign. Then again, Mercury wasn't pushing the car too hard, and there were other, more-tempting coupes available in Cougar's $16,000-$22,000 price bracket. All the more surprising, then, that sales leaped to nearly 81,500 for 1993 despite only a single, little-changed XR7 without so much as a driver-side airbag.

A substantial '94 freshening made the XR7 look a bit different at each end without really improving it. But there were genuine improvements elsewhere: standard dual airbags within a reworked dashboard, newly optional traction control (with ABS required), and a switch in V-8 options from pushrod 5.0-liter to new single-cam 4.6 "mod."

Even with all this, the base price was held to just $16,260 -- which must have angered all those folks who'd bought '93s. But fewer folks bought '94s, model-year output easing to around 76,000. Fewer still opted for the little­-changed '95s, which were pared down to just the XR7.

By that point, Cougar again looked like just another stray cat in the personal-luxury jungle, with nothing of substance to stand out in the competitive herd. It was certainly a long way from the exciting luxury ponycar of the '60s.

Excitement was never a trait of Mercury's compact Topaz, and still wasn't when the line ended after 1994. The high point, such as it was, came with '92, when all Topazes got a Sable-type "light bar" face and the sporty LTS sedan and XR5 coupe got the Sable's 3.0-liter 135-bhp V-6 as standard (optional elsewhere).

But the V-6 didn't do that much for performance, and a lack of buyer interest finally killed off the useful all-wheel-drive option that year. Topaz was further diluted for '93, down to just a two-door and four-door GS with "value" pricing but little standard equipment. Even a driver-side airbag cost extra, and then only with the base four and optional automatic transmission (the V-6 remained available).

Like Ford's related Tempo, this Mercury had come to have more appeal for rental fleets than retail buyers, which might well explain why sales for 1990-93 were relatively strong at 80,000-100,000 a year. Like vanilla ice cream, the Topaz was far from memorable, but offered enough to satisfy many people.

The Mercury Mystique and Mercury Tracer

Mercury started the 1990s selling the Topaz as its compact car, but a much tastier compact Mercury arrived for 1995. Called Mystique, it was essentially that year's new Ford Contour with a slightly more-conservative look and somewhat higher prices.

The price stemmed from the inclusion of several features that were optional on the Ford. Thus, the $13,855 Mystique GS cost $545 more than the counterpart Contour GL, but gave buyers a full console, tachometer and power mirrors without asking. The uplevel LS boasted still nicer trim, a few more goodies and a starting price of $15,230.

To its credit, L-M Division didn't monkey with the basic design originated for Ford's European Mondeo, so this front-drive Merc had a genuine "sports sedan" mystique. That was particularly true for handling and roadholding, which set new standards for small domestic four-doors. Workmanship was also in a higher league: tight, solid and thorough.

Performance was rather tame with the base 2.0-liter 125-bhp four-cylinder, but bordered on exhilarating with the optional, new 170-bhp 2.5-liter "Duratec" twincam V-6. The back seat was cramped enough for grown-ups to feel like sardines, but that was about the only serious complaint. Overall, Mystique was vast improvement over the tepid Topaz.

Yet despite mostly positive early reviews, buyers just didn't take to Mystique. Contour sold better, but also wasn't attracting as many buyers as its predecessor. Dearborn did what it could, reshaping the front seatbacks and rear seat cushions to gain a precious inch of aft legroom, touching up the exterior appearance, and reworking the front suspension to more closely match that of the European Mondeo.

But nothing seemed to help, and Contour/Mystique bowed out after model-year 2000. Hindsight suggests Mystique suffered more from its nameplate than from any inherent flaws, a factor that would increasingly bedevil Mercury in years to come.

The compact Tracer was reskinned for 1997 to emerge as a handsome, efficient little car, ­nicely equipped and sensibly priced. Like sibling Ford Escorts, these four-door sedans and wagons appealed for competent road manners, a higher standard of finish than many rivals, and a 110-bhp single-cam inline-four that delivered decent performance, even with the optional four-speed automatic transmission.

But when Escort began phasing out for 2000 to make way for Focus, Tracer stepped aside to be replaced by…nothing. Mercury sales had mostly been trending down of late, and Dearborn product wizards decided the entry-level Merc wouldn't be missed.

Mercury ''Cub'' Cougar

Sales peaked early and then tailed off for the smaller but surprisingly peppy Mercury Cougar, shown here in its initial model year of 1999.

The vintage-1989 Cougar was cancelled after 1997 sales of just over 35,000, less than half the volume of four years before. There was no surprise in this. Buyers had been turning away from big coupes, and the basic Thunderbird-based package looked quite dated after nine model years.

Though the old 5.0-liter V-8 option was replaced for '94 by the modern 4.6-liter "mod" unit, it was a decidedly mixed blessing that netted only 10 more horses and perceptibly less low-end torque. And whatever buyers still expected of the XR7 name, they were surely disappointed in the base version with its coarse pushrod V-6 dating from the 1980s.

But while Ford went to working up a new T-Bird, Mercury had a new Cougar at the ready, a model with no Blue Oval counterpart. It arrived for 1999 as a front-wheel-drive hatchback coupe based on the Contour/Mystique platform.

Wearing the most adventuresome Mercury styling in many years, this "cub" Cougar, the smallest ever, opened to mixed reviews, but benefitted from fortuitous timing, as demand for compact performance coupes was on the rise. A relatively long wheelbase gave it a decent ride, and adept suspension calibrations gave it fine handling.

Though Mystique's 125-bhp 2.0-liter twincam-four engine was standard, the optional 170-bhp Duratec V-6 proved far more popular, delivering excellent performance for only $500 extra. So equipped, the new small cat was a budget-pleasing match for most Japanese competitors. Not everyone was thrilled. Consumer Guide®, for one, found plenty to criticize, though others reacted more favorably.

A Cougar S with a 195-bhp V-6 was in the works for 2000, but never appeared. There was no point. As often happens with trendy cars, Cougar sales peaked early -- at nearly 57,000 for calendar '99 -- then tailed off. The model was thus abolished after 2002 with no interim changes of note save a minor '01 facelift.

Offered throughout the run was a desirable V-6 Sport, a package option through 2001, and a separate model for '02. The V-6 Sport delivered such worthwhile upgrades as wider tires on 16-inch wheels (versus 15s), four-wheel disc brakes (made standard for all '02s), foglights, grippier seats, and a rear spoiler. Antilock brakes, traction control and front side airbags were available, but only with V-6. So, too, a few late-game cosmetic packages: C2 and Zn for 2001, XR and 35th Anniversary for '02.

The last pair was interesting. The $950 XR option comprised 17-inch wheels, high-speed tires, special interior trim, and body add-ons attributed to veteran Ford racing specialist Jack Roush. The $1195 35th Anniversary package also featured a specific rear spoiler and dummy hood scoop, plus chrome wheels and firmer sport suspension. It wasn't much of a birthday present, but at least Cougar hung on long enough to mark the occasion.

Mercury seemed to lose interest in the small Cougar soon after the press introduction (for which it secured the services of late-night TV host and genial car guy Jay Leno). That was perhaps understandable given the early sales slide and strong new competition, especially the Honda-built Acura RSX.

But the main reason this Cougar died early was cancellation of the parent Contour/Mystique after 2000, which rendered it a platform orphan with insufficient sales to cover manufacturing costs.

Mercury in the 2000s

Mercury sales dropped off in the 2000s despite additions like the Milan sedan.

The Mercury Villager minivan was a goner soon after a redesign for 1999, its first major change since its '93 debut.

The makeover was extensive, adding fresh looks, 4.5 inches to overall length, 140 pounds, and a needed left-side rear sliding door as standard. A new 170-bhp V-6 helped offset the weight gain, but the revamped Villager was actually heavier than the newer, somewhat longer Ford Windstar and the top-selling Chrysler minivans.

And while buyers were flocking to new features like power sliding doors and front-seat side airbags, Villager didn't have them and never would. The result was an also-ran that was easy to lose when Ford and Nissan decided to dissolve their minivan joint venture in late 2001.

By that point, Mercury itself seemed to be dissolving. Though the make's combined car and truck sales were a robust 438,000 in calendar '99, the 2000 tally fell some 60,000 units, and the '01 figure was under 311,000. Shocking world events and a boom economy gone bust were partly to blame, but many analysts felt that Mercury had seriously lost focus and would soon land in the celestial junkyard next to Plymouth (canned after 2001) and Oldsmobile (phased out after '04).

Dearborn hotly denied such talk and made several moves to demonstrate its commitment to Mercury. First, Lincoln-Mercury sales and marketing staff were moved to Southern California to soak up that area's celebrated creative sunshine.

Soon afterward, Mercury and Lincoln were rolled into the recently formed Premier Automotive Group, joining the illustrious ranks of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Volvo, and Land Rover, all recent Dearborn acquisitions. In 2002, Mercury got its own design chief for one of the few times in its history. And he reported to one Elena Ford, cousin of chairman and CEO William C. Ford, Jr., newly installed as Mercury group manager.

Besides their PR value, these and other efforts aimed to define a strong new image for Mercury and develop winning products to go with it. But the mission was soon derailed by a variety of problems that increasingly threatened Ford Motor Company's very existence.

Thus, by 2003, Mercury was again "co-located" with Ford Division in Michigan -- and back to selling just retrimmed Fords developed on very lean budgets. Mercury was on the same perilous path that led Plymouth to its demise, gradually losing unique products to become just a "feeder" line for a more-profitable, higher-status brand in the same showroom.

And even shared products were sometimes granted with a curious reluctance. Mercury's first sport-utility vehicle was a case in point. Called Mountaineer, it made an early 1997 debut as a gussied-up four-door Ford Explorer whose basic design was then eight years old. Given the booming demand for Explorer and most other midsize SUVs, it's amazing Dearborn didn't do the Mercury sooner.

Appropriate for its higher prices, Mountaineer had nicer furnishings and more standard equipment, including a 215-bhp 5.0-liter/302 V-8 with four-speed automatic transmission, both options for Explorer. Two years later, the siblings adopted a new base powerteam comprising a 205-bhp 4.0-liter V-6 and a first-in-class five-speed automatic transmission.

A 2002 redesign improved both versions with standard antilock brakes, class-first independent rear suspension, and new options including curtain side airbags and a 240-bhp 4.6-liter overhead-cam V-8 with five-speed automatic. Mountaineer finally got real visual distinction (mostly up front), plus standard three-row seating for seven (optional on the Ford) and available all-wheel drive instead of dual-range four-wheel drive. Offered a bit later was an antiskid system with rollover sensors, shared with Explorer.

But Mountaineer's differences weren't that compelling, and sales oozed along at between 40,000 and 50,000 a year. While this was welcome "plus" business for L-M dealers, it was only a tenth of Explorer's volume and unimpressive in a market crazy for SUVs.

Mercury endured shorter waits for two other hoped-for sales-boosters. A replacement minivan with the nostalgic Monterey name bowed for 2004 as a close copy of that year's new Ford Freestar, which was largely the old Windstar updated.

Sailing in the following year was Mariner, an upscale take on Ford's four-year-old Escape compact SUV. L-M dealers also cheered these additions, however belated, but Mariner sales were modest and Monterey didn't break four figures in its first 12 months. Mean­while, total Mercury sales kept shriveling, reduced to fewer than 194,000 units by calendar '05.

2000s Mercury Sable and Mercury Grand Marquis

Sales of the 1994 Mercury Sable hit a low point for the nameplate at 43,000.

The car side of Mercury's business was faltering in the 2000s along with the rest of the company, especially after 2002, when only the Sable and Grand Marquis were left to carry the load. Significantly, Sable ceded its spot as Mercury's best-selling car just one year after its 1996 redesign.

All the underskin particulars were naturally the same as for that year's new lozenge-shaped, oval-bedecked Ford Taurus, including a more powerful base V-6 and a more refined optional V-6, the new 200-bhp twincam Duratec. Sable was again more conservatively styled than its Ford counterpart, but evidently not enough for Mercury buyers. Accordingly, the Y2K editions got an unscheduled early facelift to look more conventional, plus a more orthodox dashboard.

But after that, Sable followed Taurus in making only detail changes each year, thus falling further and further behind import-brand competitors that were freshened more often. Sales, which reliably topped 100,000 in the late 1990s, waned quickly after 2001, thudding to below 43,000 in calendar 2004. By that point, Mercury had a replacement ready, so Sable was unceremoniously dumped after an abbreviated 2005 run.

The Grand Marquis fell on hard times too, but entered the new century as the best selling Mercury, car or truck. It had become as indispensible to the make as sister Town Car had become to Lincoln. And that was the trouble. Like Ford's Crown Victoria, which shared the vintage-1979 "Panther" platform, the big L-M sedans were relics of a bygone era.

And though considered updating helped them keep pace with changing technology, they still appealed mainly to older folks whose numbers were dwindling. The only reasons the Panthers were able to become so gray were that they remained profitable -- basic tooling had been paid for ages ago -- and as full-size V-8 cars with rear-wheel drive they had no domestic competition between 1996 and 2005.

Nevertheless, Grand Marquis stymied Mercury in the same way Town Car befuddled Lincoln. Both were too vital to lose, yet the longer they stayed around, the more their "geezer" image inhibited each make from forging a more youthful identity as a way back to prosperity. Neither brand had resolved this dilemma by 2005, and there seemed little time left to do so.

The crisis was particularly dire at Mercury, where Grand Marquis accounted for an increasing percentage of car sales between 2001 and '05 even as its own calendar-year sales volume plunged from over 198,000 to less than 65,000 in that period.

The car itself evolved nicely. The '98 Grand Marquis received a few styling tweaks and 10 extra horses for each V-8, taking the base engine to 200 bhp, the optional dual-exhaust version to 215. A second tuneup added 20 horses apiece for 2001.

The 2003s got a surprisingly extensive underskin update involving a stiffer new-design frame, revised suspension geometry, and more-precise rack-and-pinion steering to replace the outmoded recirculating-ball setup.

Optional front side airbags arrived, joining the antilock brakes and traction control that had been standard for several years. And power went up again, with the base V-8 now at 224 bhp, the dual-exhaust version at 239. Otherwise, the Grand Marquis story through 2006 was one of yearly shuffles in trim, equipment, model names and pricing.

The Mercury Marauder

Although the Mercury Grand Marquis had evolved, by the 2000s, into a car aimed increasingly at an aging clientele, there was one exception: a hot-rod Grand Marquis resurrecting the Marauder name.

Created to liven up Mercury's dull image, it was displayed as a concept at the 2001 Chicago Auto Show, but hit the streets as a 2003 model to take advantage of that year's Grand Marquis chassis upgrades. Apart from its four-door format, the new Marauder followed the classic '60s ­muscle-car formula of more power, tight suspension, and a sporty buckets-and-console interior (recently pioneered with an LSE package option).

Horses numbered 302, courtesy of a 4.6 V-8 with a new four-valves-per-cylinder head, plus a specific intake manifold devised by tuner Jack Roush. Also specified were standard limited-slip differential, eye-catching three-inch-diameter twin exhaust tips, polished five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels (versus stock 16s), fat Z-rated tires (235/50 front, 245/55 rear), silver-faced gauges (including tachometer and console-mount oil-pressure and amps dials), and a leather-trimmed cabin with "dot-matrix" appliqués and metal-look accents instead of the usual Grand Marquis pseudo wood.

Paint was anything you liked so long as it was black, though dark blue and other colors were promised. Mercury charged just under $34,000 for the reborn Marauder, which looked a bargain.

America hadn't seen such a car since the last of Chevy's rear-drive SS Impalas, yet the Marauder proved a very tough sell. Mercury hoped to move 18,000 a year, but had to reset the goal to 12,000 after just 2910 sales in the first six months.

There were several problems. Only fifty-somethings still remembered Mercury's "hot car" days, and even they must have thought the Marauder akin to a grandpa dressed for a biker bar. Worse, performance didn't live up to the "bad boy" persona.

While almost every road test praised the car's dynamic balance and mechanical finesse, Car and Driver was disappointed by a 7.5-second 0-60 mph time and a so-what quarter-mile run of 15.5 seconds at 91 mph. "It is, in character, more 'disciplined sedan' than 'delinquent hot rod,'" C/D concluded.

Some industry watchers weren't so tactful. Consultant Jim Wangers of Pontiac GTO fame told trade weekly Automotive News that "While in concept it's a good idea, in execution the car is woefully short of anything they have any right to promote as a serious enthusiasts' car." Another analyst dismissed the Marauder as "just a half-hearted attempt at nostalgia. They would have been much better off doing it the right way."

Another embarrassment was the last thing Dearborn needed, so the Marauder struggled through model-year '04, then quietly vanished after estimated sales of under 8000 over some 24 months.

A better idea might have been to produce the two-door Marauder convertible presented as a concept in early 2002. It looked good, and no one else had anything like it. But as was becoming all too familiar for Mercury, the accountants just couldn't get the numbers to add up. Too bad. Many observers agreed that Mercury couldn't turn itself around without some kind of "difference to sell."