1970 marked the Mercury Cougar’s fourth and final year in the crowded pony car market. It began life in 1967 as a more luxurious and smoother-riding cousin of the Mustang, then in 1968 it was marketed as a performance car, competing in the highly popular 1968 Trans American Sedan Championship. Following a 25% drop in sales, the Cougar then tried to become a drag racer in ’69 and ’70 with the Eliminator performance package. Sales continued to drop, so beginning in 1971 the Cougar was once again transformed, this time into a mid-size luxury car.
Cougar carries on Mercury heritage
The Mercury brand was created by Edsel Ford in the late thirties to fill the gap between the top Ford brand models and the upscale Lincoln. The brand also aimed to take some sales away from the cars in the middle of General Motors’ lineup, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, and from Chrysler’s middle child, DeSoto. Originally a stand-alone division within Ford Motor Company, following World War II Mercury was merged with Lincoln to form the Lincoln-Mercury division.
For most of their lives, Mercury cars, even the subsidiary brands sold under the Mercury badge, wore the bodies of various Ford models, dressed up with different grilles, chrome trim, and upgraded interiors. In the early sixties when the Mustang was taking shape, Mercury wanted its own version based on the Mustang, but with its own styling, and more luxurious and more comfortable than the Mustang. They wanted a “man’s car that a Mustang owner could step up to.” Once again, Mercury was called on to fill a gap – this time, the gap between the Mustang and the Thunderbird.
Late development start delays Cougar debut
Ford Motor Company decided to see if the Mustang would be a success before committing the $40 million necessary to develop the Cougar. Mustang sales skyrocketed in ’64 and ’65, and the Cougar was given the green light. But due to the development delay, the Cougar wasn’t ready for the showroom until the 1967 model year and missed out on the explosive growth of the pony car market in 1965 and 1966. Instead, it entered a market segment crowded with pony cars from virtually every other manufacturer.
Mercury’s claims of luxury and a good ride were not enough to distinguish the Cougar from all the competition in 1967, and Mercury management decided to take the 1968 Cougar racing in the popular Trans-Am Championship. While the Cougars performed well, the season was dominated by Mark Donohue driving Roger Penske’s Camaro, and there were no big trophies or much recognition for the Cougars.
Ford Motor Company withdrew the Cougar from the Trans-Am at the end of 1968 to focus their future road racing activities on the Mustang.
Cougar redesigned for 1969-1970
The Cougar’s “freshening up” design changes for 1969 included a longer and wider body with new sculpted styling and curved glass side windows. For the hardtop, the Eliminator package heralded the car’s entry into drag racing with a rear decklid spoiler, a front spoiler, wider styled steel wheels, and appropriate body striping identifying the car as the “Eliminator.”
1970 saw a new front end design having a pronounced center hood extension, with a separate center grille that divided the previously full-width grille into two separate flanking sections. The body side stripes were moved up to the upper body line and ran the full length of the car, and the Eliminator came in bright, high-impact colors (blue, orange, and yellow).
Cougars at the drag strip
The top optional engines in the Cougar for 1969 were the 390 cu. in. V8 producing 320 horsepower, and the 428 Cobra Jet making 335 horsepower. The 428 Cobra Jet was carried over for 1970 and the Boss 302 producing 290 horsepower was added to supplement the Eliminator’s standard 351 cu. in. engine. The engines were certainly potent, but with the redesign, Cougar’s weight went up to 3200 – 3400 pounds, depending on the engine. Car Life magazine tested a 302 Eliminator and found the Cougar had grown too heavy, saying, “The Cougar has grown too big and plush to be able to roll up its sleeves and scrap with the new, young tough stuff.”
While looking tough, the Cougar Eliminator couldn’t match the performance of its competitors and never acquired the street cred of the Mustang, Camaro, Firebird and ‘Cuda. Two Cougars were specially built with Ford’s Boss 429 NASCAR engine and driven by pro drivers “Dyno” Don Nicholson and “Fast Eddie” Schartman in the NHRA Super Stock class. How’d they do? Don’t ask. As reported by Street Muscle Magazine, “The cars were illegal in Super Stock due to the use of unique fiberglass parts, but they were so slow no one bothered to protest them.”
The ignominious end to the 1970 Cougar’s foray into drag racing also marked its end as a pony car. For 1971, it would once again be longer, wider, and heavier, and it would be marketed to a completely different audience as a mid-size luxury car.
Ate Up with Motor http://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/mercury-cougar/
How Stuff Works http://auto.howstuffworks.com/1969-1970-mercury-cougar.htm
Muscle Car Club http://www.musclecarclub.com/mercury-cougar/
Mercury Cougar Registry http://eliminator.mercurycougarregistry.com/history/
Street Muscle Magazine http://www.streetmusclemag.com/news/muscle-cars-you-should-know-69-mercury-cougar-boss-429/