An alluring woman wearing far too much makeup swings open the driver’s door of the new-for-1967 Mercury Cougar and whisper-shouts a challenge to men across America: “Cougar! If you’re man enough!”
Her seductive invitation puts the exclamation point on a 30-second TV spot’s catchy jingle, which calls Cougar “the meanest, most masculine road animal yet.” TV viewers in the 1960s were accustomed to such hype, but perhaps this spot was meant to preempt any perception that the Cougar might be too soft in a market brimming with testosterone-infused muscle cars. It would not be the last time that Mercury muddled the Cougar’s image.
Although sharing its basic unibody structure and powertrains with the Mustang, the first-generation Cougar was indeed a different, if not meaner, animal than its Ford cousin. Almost seven inches longer than Mustang, the roomier, plusher Cougar offered a full V-8 engine lineup and more standard features at a higher base price ($2,851 vs. $2,461 for a 1967 Mustang). Fun fact: The name Cougar had originally been considered for the Mustang.
Thankfully, most advertising for the early Cougar dispensed with the phony machismo and described Cougar as a “luxury sports car” with “the European look.” The Euro connection was a bit too close for Jaguar, which successfully sued Ford to alter the Cougar’s logo—adding the “Cougar” name below the mountain lion symbol—lest anyone confuse the two cars.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a ’60s European car that resembled Cougar, and that’s a compliment. Cougar’s uniquely American design shared Mustang’s long-hood and short-deck proportions, but it was curvier and more elegant than the Ford. A full-width split grille, described by some as resembling an electric shaver, concealed Cougar’s headlights behind vacuum-operated doors. Wide taillights mimicked the grille’s theme and used sequential turn signals, like Ford’s Thunderbird.
Not just a bigger Mustang
Cougar’s richer, roomier feel was no marketing illusion. Its 111-inch wheelbase was three inches longer than the Mustang’s—two of those inches going to rear-seat legroom. Suspension tweaks and about 120 pounds more sound insulation gave Cougar a smoother, quieter ride than Ford’s pony.
In early 1967, Mercury polished Cougar’s European persona with the XR-7 model, which added a gauge package, leather-trimmed seats, fake but attractive burled-walnut cabin trim, a row of toggle switches in the center dash, and an overhead console with warning and map lights.
Motor Trend named Cougar its “Car of The Year” for 1967. Nearly 151,000 were built, putting Cougar third in pony car sales for the year, behind the Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro.
The cat’s fangs
Ford’s 289-cu-in small-block V-8 with two-barrel carburetor was standard for the 1967 Cougar, with the 225-horsepower, four-barrel version optional. The 390-cu-in four-barrel big-block with 320 hp (325 in 1968) was available as a standalone option or included in the 1967–68 GT Performance package that also added suspension and tire upgrades. The 390-powered cars wore “6.5 Litre” fender badges, using the European spelling, and the XR-7 could be optioned with the GT package for a particularly desirable car. Most Cougars had the optional automatic transmission.
Keeping it manly, Mercury supported and promoted Cougar racing efforts, competing successfully in the SCCA Trans-Am series, with Dan Gurney as a driver and team captain. (Mustang beat Cougar for the 1967 manufacturer’s championship by just two points.) In drag racing, “Dyno” Don Nicholson campaigned a Cougar funny car called the Eliminator.
Cougar’s motorsports activities translated oddly to the showroom, however. Mercury offered the Cougar Dan Gurney Special in 1967 and ’68, but this option was simply a chrome engine dress-up package (1967 only) plus F70-14 whitewall tires, “turbine” wheel covers, and a “Dan Gurney Special” window decal. Just under 31,700 were sold.
The 1968 XR-7 G was a true limited “Gurney” edition, dressed out with a fiberglass hood scoop, front valance with fog lights, rear valance with dual exhaust cutouts, bullet-style Talbot racing mirrors from England, styled steel wheels, and unique interior trim. Engine options were the same as for other Cougars. The XR-7 G conversion was handled by A.O. Smith, in Livonia, Michigan, which for 1968 had also begun building the Shelby Mustangs. An optional electric sunroof, a rare luxury 50 years ago, was installed by American Sunroof Corporation. Of the 619 XR-7 Gs made, 188 were ordered by Hertz for its rental fleet, all equipped with 390 four-barrel engine, automatic transmission, and sunroof.
In the 1968 Cougar, the 302 replaced the 289, and a 280-horse 390 two-barrel was added to the options. The fiercest 1968 Cougar was the rare GT-E, offered as a $1,311 option package that included Ford’s 390-hp 427 big-block V-8, teamed with the automatic, and special trim. The Mustang didn’t offer the 427, not even the Shelby. The engine went into 357 Cougar GT-E versions, and late in the model year, 37 got the somewhat-tamer 428 Cobra Jet, which was also available for other Cougars, with or without Ram Air. The year’s production declined to 113,741.
More Cougar to love
For 1969, Cougar was restyled with added length, a sweeping bodyline, and new taillights, and it was finally offered as a convertible. Behind the new full-width grille, Ford’s 351 Windsor two-barrel V-8 became standard, with the 290-hp four-barrel version an inexpensive upgrade. A red 428 CJ-powered XR-7 convertible starred in that year’s James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, driven by Diana Rigg’s character, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, who was—spoiler alert!—the only woman Bond ever married.
Cougar production slipped to just over 100,000. Lack of buyer interest in muscled-up Cougars didn’t stop Mercury from going all in for 1969, however. Borrowing the name from Nicholson’s funny car, the Cougar Eliminator arrived late in the model year. Trimmed in bright colors, blacked-out grille, hood scoop, stripes, decals, and spoilers, the Eliminator seemed at odds with Cougar’s cultured image.
Although not technically a separate model, Eliminator was a combination of two packages that added appearance, interior, and performance features. The Eliminator options, available for the base hardtop, could be ordered with the 351 four-barrel, 390 four-barrel (1969 only), 428 CJ, and high-revving Boss 302.
Cougar buyers, Mercury learned, weren’t nearly as interested in flashy muscle cars as Mustang customers were. Mercury built 2,250 Eliminators for 1969 and another 2,268 in 1970, while Ford issued 113,434 Mustang Mach 1s for 1969–70. Today, Eliminators are among the most valuable Cougars.
The 1970 Cougar, which gained a three-part grille and new 351 Cleveland engine, sold less than half the 1967 model’s volume at 72,365, but it was still well ahead of the AMC Javelin and Plymouth Barracuda. Mercury built two drag-racing Boss 429-powered Cougars for Nicholson and “Fast Eddie” Schartman, but made none for the road.
The Cougar grew larger for 1971 and moved to the even bigger Gran Torino/Montego chassis for ’74. The name would go on to adorn a wide array of Mercury models, even including sedans and station wagons, until ending as a 1999–2002 front-drive sport coupe.
For many enthusiasts, the 1967–70 model remains the essential Cougar. That fact was much in evidence at the Cougar Club of America (CCOA) 50th anniversary celebration in June 2017. Of the 203 Cougars displayed in the event’s main car show at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, 143 were 1967–70 models, according to Scott Zeller, Club Services Director for the CATS Classic Cougar Club, a Midwest regional chapter of the CCOA.
“It was the largest Cougar gathering ever,” says Zeller, who drives a black 1969 XR-7. “One owner drove 2,800 miles to be there. We had the first production Cougar, too.”
Zeller says interest is rising for the early Cougars, including in Canada, Germany, and Australia.
“Many cars have been shipped abroad,” he says. “And we’re seeing more Cougars at Mecum and Barrett-Jackson auctions. Some are getting phenomenal money.”
Big money could also describe the surprising cost of restoring a Cougar, which we’ll explore in part 2 of this story.
Editor’s note: All production statistics copyrighted and courtesy of Marti Auto Works.