Everyone who truly loves cars can likely name that special moment when his Car Guy Eye opens. We always noticed some cars more than others. Some looked kind of strange, others set hearts aflutter. This writer’s moment came on a rainy winter day in early 1967. From the front seat of my dad’s car – this was in the days before kids had to be strapped backwards into car seats - it was those sequential indicator lights that drew my attention. “What’s that?” I asked my dad, voice full of wonder and pointing at the silver car ahead. He replied, “A Mercury Cougar. They’re new.” A Mercury Cougar… I watched that impossibly pretty car slowly turn and disappear down a side street. A few days later I made my dad stop in front of the local Lincoln-Mercury dealership where he indulged me a few minutes so that I might give the new Cougar a proper looking over. I was a little kid then and couldn’t articulate the car’s artful blending of line and proportion; that thrusting power stance of the 1965 Mustang, elegantly merged with the graceful restraint of the equally iconic 1961 Continental. All this six-year old boy knew was that this was the best looking car he’d ever seen. I had awoken to Mercury. As a car guy, you could say that I was born under the Sign of the Cat.
Mercury was a brand that was never quite sure of what it wanted to be. From its origins in 1937, it was conceived as a bigger more powerful Ford. Mercury indeed found initial success in the marketplace as a kind of super-Ford. In the late 1950s, the marque was pushed uptown to make room for the ill-fated Edsel, reshaping it into a cheaper alternative to Lincoln. That didn’t work out so well. In the 1960s it reverted back to being a stylish step up from the mainstream Ford brand and rose to new heights. Mercury lost its way again during the malaise of the 1970s. It soon became just a collection of rebadged Fords with not much to offer but a different showroom. And so it was for the Ford Motor Company’s middle child. There were moments when the brand’s star shown bright: The ’49 Merc is an automotive icon, and the ‘67 Cougar is one of the most beautiful cars ever made. Diehard Merc-o-philes would likely name a dozen more favorites (make mine a ’68 Park Lane, please). To the casual observer, however, most of its offerings are long forgotten. Until the end, Mercury never stopped searching for its place within the Ford "family of fine cars," looking for its role in the nebulous space that its siblings did not occupy. Mercury was an entity forever in search of an identity.
Mercury’s path to production was long and arduous and fraught with obstacles. Not the least of which the man whose opinion throughout the first half of the 20th Century meant everything at the Ford Motor Company. The great Henry Ford was a brilliant entrepreneur with an obstinate soul. His legendary Model-T was the first automobile to be all at once simple, sturdy and cheap. Because of Henry and the Model-T, virtually anyone who wanted a car could now have one. It forever altered the way the world viewed personal mobility. Lovingly referred to by its owners as the Tin Lizzie, the T made a Michigan farm boy who was good with a wrench into one of history's greatest industrialists.
Henry Ford loved his Lizzie and was fiercely protective of her. Henry steadfastly refused to replace the T with a more modern car, keeping it in production more than a decade after it had become obsolete. She had become an obsession, one that nearly brought down his company.
Edsel Bryant Ford was Henry's only son, and second in command of the Ford Motor Company. The two could not have been less alike. Henry was tinkerer who loved the down and dirty of the manufacturing process. Edsel was an astute businessman and possessed a fine esthetic and sense of design. Where Henry was crude and confrontational, Edsel was refined and mild-mannered. Henry looked fondly on glory days past of the Model T. Edsel's view was forward, to a market that was evolving while his company was not. Their disagreements were many. Few had the son prevailing over his domineering father.
By the early 1920s, General Motors, was enjoying tremendous success and profit with its popular mid-priced car lines, Buick, Oldsmobile and later Pontiac. The American public, who once salivated after the simple Model T, had now advanced in both status and income. More and more of them sought an upgrade in comfort, style and power. They wanted more than old Lizzy could give them. Edsel knew his company was missing the boat in this lucrative mid-priced arena. His father, transfixed and obsessed with past success, flatly refused to acknowledge market realities. At the Ford Motor Company, the way Henry Ford saw things was the way they would be.
Well known for his autocratic rule and his paranoia, Henry employed spies all over the company to report unauthorized activities. In the early 1920s, Edsel took advantage of a European trip by the elder Ford to engage in one such endeavor. He ordered trusted men in the design department to craft a modern, low-slung body onto a Model T frame. Edsel reasoned that if he could show his father a complete and functioning prototype, the older Ford would see the wisdom in replacing the T with a more modern car. Through his spies, however, the old man got wind of what was going on. Unannounced, he returned a day early. As the legend goes, Henry Ford walked into the studio before Edsel could get there. Upon seeing the modern looking sports tourer parked on the floor he asked, “Is this a Ford automobile?” After answering in the affirmative, the designers could do nothing but watch in horror as the slight but athletic Mr. Ford took up a hammer and crowbar and proceeded to literally tear the sleek red car apart.
Perhaps the one trait father and son shared was doggedness. For a dozen years more Edsel fought to get his obstinate father to see the light and modernize Ford's product range. For a dozen years old Henry repaid his son's reason with wraith, to the detriment to Edsel's health. He was developing stomach ulcers. But the son’s perseverance did eventually win the day, albeit incrementally. Some years later, the vivid memory of the red roadster’s fate remained as Edsel spearheaded work on a new, smaller Lincoln called the Zephyr. Everyone involved with the project knew that if Henry Ford found out about the Zephyr while it was still in development he would have aborted it in its tracks. They had to use an outside firm to carry out the design work. The resulting car was so stunning, that even Henry when he saw it could not find fault. For the first time Blue Oval customers had a car to bridge the gap between Ford and Lincoln.
The 1936 Zephyr, however, was far closer to a Lincoln than it was to a Ford. More steps would be needed to complete Ford Motor Company’s product range. Edsel’s next victory came in the form of the Ford Deluxe. For some time, Ford models had been available with an upgraded trim level. With the 1938 restyle, the Deluxe became its own model range, sporting a nicer interior and distinctive heart-shaped grill. The Deluxe sold well and at a higher profit that standard Fords. That went a long way toward pleasing Henry. Still, there was a nearly $500 price gap between the most expensive Ford Deluxe at $825, and the cheapest Lincoln Zephyr at $1295. It sounds like a pittance today, but in 1938 it was in that very $500 range that nearly every Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick was priced. It was in that range that The Ford Motor Company still had nothing to offer.
That would change the following year. Edsel finally got Henry to sign off on a new mid-priced brand positioned in between the most expensive Ford and the cheapest Lincoln. With guidance from Edsel, Ford's legendary chief designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie created a car that, even though its Ford lineage was apparent, still managed to convey a completely different image, a unique identity that made it a worthy competitor to Oldsmobile and Buick.
The name Mercury was chosen to evoke the attributes of the Greek God that embodied speed, dependability, eloquence and skill. These were fine qualities and used well in creating the marque’s first car. It used a Ford chassis with the wheelbase stretched by 4 inches. Power came from the company’s well-regarded flat-head V8 engine, Mercury’s version bored out from 221 to 237 cubic inches. Horsepower increased from 85 to 95. This doesn’t sound like much, but a 12% boost made a big difference in the performance and character of the new car. The engine would become a favorite swap-in for hot-rodders of the 1940s and 50s.
The new Mercury 8 was introduced to the public on October 6, 1938. In its first year, 54,000 were built, and 80,000 in the second. 82,000 more Mercurys were produced in 1941 and early ’42 before world war shut down civilian production. The sad irony was that after struggling so mightily to make Mercury a reality, Edsel Ford never saw another one built after that. The years of battle with his intransigent father were likely the cause of the ulcers and eventual stomach cancer that took his life in the spring of 1943.
The Lead Sled
Like all manufacturers, Mercury resumed peace-time production in 1946 with warmed over pre-war models. These satisfied a frenzied market for 3 more years. The first all-new post-war Mercury was the 1949 Series 9CM, a rather forgettable name for what would become Mercury’s most memorable car.
The ’49 Mercury was also the last Ford Motor Company product inspired by Edsel Ford and his chief good friend Bob Gregorie. But the car hadn’t originally been conceived as a Mercury. In the early years of the war, before Edsel became incapacitated by cancer, he and Gregorie had hatched a plan for a complete revamping of Fords product range. The 9CM was originally planned as the new standard sized Ford. Below it in the lineup would be a smaller compact Ford, and above it a larger Mercury, and then a still larger Lincoln. After Edsel’s death, a new leadership team reviewed the plans and deemed the big Ford too big and the small one too small. Gregorie was forced out of the company and a single medium sized Ford was created by outside designer, George Walker. Gregorie’s big Ford was turned into the new Mercury. His previously planned Mercury became a Zephyr-like smaller Lincoln model called the Cosmopolitan.