Cougar-smitten? Here’s how to avoid getting bitten

If there were an endangered list for collector cars, the 1967–70 Mercury Cougar would be on it. This slinky cat, once relatively populous throughout North America, is today a rare site even at car shows. There is, however, strong interest in preserving Cougars, in North America and internationally, and numerous resources are available for Cougar owners.

Although based on the Ford Mustang, the first-generation Cougar shared little with its corporate cousin beyond the basic unibody structure and most V-8 powertrains. The Cougar rides on a longer wheelbase than the Mustang, and other dimensions vary, while body and interior parts are not shared between the two.

Ford built 437,084 1967–70 Mercury Cougars, not a small number, but much fewer than the 1.28 million Mustangs made during the same period. Not only were there fewer Cougars made, but they also suffered the same rust issues as Mustangs. Critically, Cougars have lagged behind the Mustang in collector interest, and as a result, many were scrapped. Others were picked clean of usable parts rather than restored.

A small population for any car generally translates into a lack of reproduction parts availability, and that is indeed the case with the Cougar. This, combined with shrinking supplies of good original parts, makes restoring an early Cougar more difficult and more expensive than the Mustang, which enjoys a huge well of aftermarket support. There are new signs of hope for Cougar buffs, however. Collector interest is on the rise and, crucially, new reproduction parts are coming out soon.

Craig Keith's XR7 G
Craig Keith's XR7 G CATS Classic Cougar Club / CCoA

Growing interest, growing demand

Kevin Marti, whose famous Marti Reports use licensed Ford production data to verify a car’s identity and indicate its rarity, confirms stable interest in the early Cougars.

“I thought there would be an erosion in sales over the 20 years we’ve been offering the Cougar reports,” Marti says. “Instead, there seems to be a steady stream of buyers finding Cougars lurking out there.”

What those buyers are finding is that good Cougars and parts are uncommon.

“Everybody wants perfect parts, and the stuff is 50 years old and hard to find,” says John Baumann, who founded John’s Classic Cougars in Holland, Michigan, in 1982 when he began looking for parts for his own Cougars. As a teen, Baumann fell in love with the Cougar when he saw the first models roll into his father’s Mercury dealership. Today, he and his wife, Dee, have reduced their personal collection from seven to two, a 1967 and a 1970 convertible.

In addition to a body that was distinct from Mustang, the 1967–70 Cougars had some unique parts, including vacuum-operated hidden headlights and sequential taillights.

“People are rebuilding parts for the vacuum-operated headlights,” Baumann says, adding that some owners are switching to more reliable electric motor-operated lights, as well as electronic taillights. “The new, computerized tail signals work better than the mechanical setup Ford used, for people who don’t mind not keeping it original.”

New parts in the pipeline

Don Rush at work
Don Rush Andrew Chenovick

Dynacorn International, which makes body parts and entire body shells for the Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, and others, has confirmed that it will begin making more parts for the early Cougar beyond the trunk floors and rear shelves it already offers. Quarter panels, roof panels, and inner wheelhouses are coming, promises Dynacorn sales manager James Liapis. The company had assistance from Don Rush, whose West Coast Classic Cougars business in Salem, Oregon, sent Dynacorn an entire Cougar body shell and some separate parts to be duplicated.

Until reproduction body parts hit the market, though, Cougar owners must hunt for used pieces. Like Baumann, Rush also finds himself counseling customers on the parts situation. He buys two “raggedy” parts cars each month.

“Most that we buy are just cores with parts that we can restore,” Rush says. “We’ve parted out more than 1500 cars over the past 27 years. I wish I could go back and do the first 500 differently. I think about how many cars could have been rebuilt. If the quarters were smashed, we parted it out. And we didn’t save roofs in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Since many Cougars had the optional vinyl roof, rust there is a major problem.

“These cars were made to last maybe 10 years,” Rush says. “So after 50 years, of course, you have moisture damage underneath the vinyl, and the roof skin rots out.”

Some new interior parts for early Cougars are available, including dash pads, headliners, carpeting, and seat covers, but not reproduction door panels.

“Customers, especially those who’ve restored a Mustang, call me asking for a new interior package for a Cougar, but those don’t exist,” Rush says.

West Coast Classic Cougars offers new fiberboard backing panels to repair good existing door panels, but when it comes to new, upholstered pieces, Rush suggests having a set custom-made by SMS Auto Upholstery in Canby, Oregon. SMS owner Doug Pollock confirms that demand for the Cougar panels is up. His sets for front doors and rear quarters cost about $800, and the wait time now is at least a few months.

Mark Kulwik's 1968 XR7 G
Mark Kulwik's 1968 XR7 G CATS Classic Cougar Club / CCoA

Rising values, rising temptation

First-gen Cougars can bring eye-popping prices at auctions, especially the very rare variants, such as GT-E and Cobra Jet models. The convertibles are relatively scarce, with just over 14,000 built for 1969 and 1970 and, of course, many long since scrapped. (Many Cougar buffs count the larger 1971–73 model as a second-gen design.)

Rush says he was surprised when, in 2009–10, Cougars started to increase in value when many muscle cars took a big hit. In 2010, he sold a 1969 XR-7 428 Cobra Jet Ram Air convertible at Barrett-Jackson, a #3-condition (good) survivor with one repaint, for $72,000.

“The niche continued to strengthen,” Rush says. “Prices are coming up, and more people want them, but there are not enough cars. We’re seeing record numbers at auctions.”

Still, Rush curbs dreams of flipping a Cougars for quick profit.

“With Cougars, even if you can get six figures on a restored car, you could still be upside down on your costs,” he warns. “You have to start with something really good.”

Illustrating the stark contrast between Cougar and Mustang parts costs, he says, “You can buy repro 1969 Mustang grilles cheaply. (Some sell for about $500, complete.) But a 1969 Cougar grille, buying a core, getting it fully restored and re-chromed, you could be at six grand. Wheel lip moldings for Mustang are $99 a set. For Cougar, they’re $499 restored, if you have good cores. Collectors realize this and that’s why they’re paying more for quality cars if they find them.”

To educate prospective Cougar buyers, Rush created a series of videos that explore and explain body, interior, and mechanical aspects of the first-gen Cougars.

Offering a final bit of advice on buying a Cougar that needs restoration, Rush says, “Go in eyes wide open, because it can get expensive.”

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