Merkur: What's In a Name

Note: This piece currently is a work-in-process

By the mid-80s, the country was recovering from its long malaise. Well-paying jobs were returning in numbers, and those jobs most often went to younger people. These newly affluent Yuppies, as they came to be called, spent a great deal of their newfound discretionary income on cars - nice cars, expensive cars. But they were not buying Lincolns or Mercurys. Not only were they not buying them, they weren’t even considering them. Things were no better at arch-rivals Cadillac or Oldsmobile. GM had its own problems in the 80s, with cracking diesel engine blocks and cylinder deactivation devices that ended up deactivating the whole car. A fit and hip yuppie wouldn’t be caught dead in one of Detroit’s overweight oafs. They were buying sports sedans. They were buying Mercedes, Saabs, Audis, and soon they would be buying Acuras, Lexuses and Infinitis. But mostly, they were buying BMWs.

Enter one, one Robert Lutz, a.k.a. “Maximum Bob”, CEO, Ford of Europe. Lutz had been responsible for bringing a new aerodynamically inspired European executive car to market called the Ford Sierra. Introduced not quite a year after the groundbreaking Audi 100 (called the 5000 here) The Sierra was roundly criticized for copying the Audi’s slippery shape. But the truth is, Ford had turned to aerodynamics long before anyone had heard of the Audi 100. With development started in the troubled late-70s, Ford didn’t have the money to tackle fuel economy improvements with lighter weight FWD that many of its competitors were employing. Lutz knew that a slippery shape could achieve the same fuel efficiencies and weight reduction for a fraction of the cost of switching multiple assembly lines to FWD.

1982 Audi 100

1982 Audi 100

1978 Ford Probe I Concept car

1978 Ford Probe I Concept car

Ford of Europe president, Robert (Maximum Bob) Lutz

Ford of Europe president, Robert (Maximum Bob) Lutz

1983 Ford Sierra

1983 Ford Sierra

A Franco-German design team of Patrick le Quement and Ewu Bahnsen gave the Ford Sierra a shape that was both radical and stunning. The Sierra’s combination of ultra-modern looks, authentic Euro car handling, complete with RWD and 4-wheel independent suspension, gave Lutz reason to believe he had a legitimate answer to BMW’s inroads in the US. He convinced Ford CEO, Donald Petersen, a former Ford of Europe CEO himself, to spend $50million to convert the Ford Sierra into a legitimate BMW-fighter in America.

Before this car could be sold in the US, several hurdles had to be leaped. Number one was a name. GMC was already using the Sierra name on its full-size trucks. GM also had an Oldsmobile sedan called the Ciera. No way Ford could use the moniker without a slew of copyright headaches. The high performance version in Europe was called the Sierra XR4i. BMW, Saab and Mercedes had Alphanumeric names, so why not just drop the Sierra and call it the XR4i?

1985 Ford Sierra XR4

1985 Ford Sierra XR4

The next task was meeting U.S. emission standards. At first it was thought that they could use the same tried and true 150hp “Cologne” V6 that powered European XR4s. But regulatory requirements would choke this 15-year old engine to the point of impotence. Instead, they swapped in the 2.3 OHC turbo 4 from the Thunderbird. The engine was actually more powerful than the V6. But while the XR4Ti was fast, very fast, unfortunately it was not very refined. The big four vibrated like a farm tractor at high RPMs. In addition to more horsepower, the turbo added a new letter to the car’s name: The XR4Ti.

To meet U.S. crash standards, side impact beans, stronger bumpers and the like were incorporated, adding 280lbs to the car’s mass. These measures also took up much of the development money and left nothing for crash avoidance features like 4-wheel disc brakes. In terms of performance and refinement, the resulting car was drifting further and further from its stated benchmark, the BMW 3-series.

Introducing Merkur

Introducing Merkur

As the XR4Ti got closer to market the compromises continued. To sell the cars in the States, Bob Lutz pushed hard for s separate dealer body, one that understood the European Fords and were trained sell them to savvy young Americans. Don Petersen, whose amiable pose and piercing stare earned him the nicknamed, “The Smiling Cobra,” nixed the idea. Too expensive. He wanted the cars sold through 800 select Lincoln-Mercury dealers. L-M personnel - who were versed in selling overstuffed Lincolns to the geriatric set - would now be asked to sell turbocharged sport coupes to yuppies. It seemed the wrong way to go, but who was going to argue with the “Smiling Cobra.”

1985 Merkur XR4Ti

1985 Merkur XR4Ti

Ford CEO Donald (the smiling cobra) Petersen

Ford CEO Donald (the smiling cobra) Petersen

Petersen is also said to have been responsible for the off-criticized Merkur name, which means “Mercury” in German. Americans had trouble getting their mouths around it. Many list this name at the top of the many reasons for the brand’s failure. Possibly so, but did anyone really know how to pronounce Audi until they found out what a good car it was? Petersen may have had something else in mind in choosing the Merkur name. I have never seen it reported anywhere, but its seems reasonable that the unsentimental and very smart Petersen would have seen by now the writing on the wall for Mercury. Why not ease in a fresh German-made Mercury that was more attuned to a changing market, as you ease out the American one that was past its time?   

1987 Merkur Scorpio

1987 Merkur Scorpio

Merkur actually beat Honda’s new upscale Acura to market by almost a year, and Lexus by 3 years. Ford might have used that year to better develop both the car and the concept.( For instance, could the magnificent DOHC 24-valve V6 engine that appeared in the 1988 Taurus SHO been used in the Merkurs?)  No, Merkur had been done on the cheap. It was hastily put together and then poorly executed. The market delivered its verdict. Internal projections had Merkur selling 15,000 cars per year, with that number rising as new models were added. Actual yearly results averaged half that. A second model appeared in 1987, a larger sedan called the Scorpio. The Scorpio sold even more poorly than the XR4Ti.  Ford pulled the plug on Merkur in 1989 after selling just 59,000 cars over 5 years.

It could have turned out so differently. At about the same time as Acura, Lexus, Infiniti….and Merkur, were in development, Mazda Motor Company was planning their own luxury brand called Amati. Mazda was controlled by Ford with a 34% ownership stake. The project was eventually cancelled in 1990 because Mazda didn’t have the resources to do it properly. One has to wonder what might have happened if, instead of slapping together their half-assed Merkur effort, Ford had invested those resources into a joint Amati/Merkur venture with their long-time Asian partner.  The graveyard of lost brands is littered with what ifs.