How the 1967 Mercury Cougar and Pontiac Firebird joined the pony car fray

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Mercury Cougar and Pontiac Firebird Mecum

Ford’s affordable sporty compact Mustang created a whole new class of “pony” car in April 1964, and Chevy’s competing Camaro joined the party two and a half years later, as did their corporate cousins, Mercury Cougar and Pontiac Firebird.

More than a year before Lee Iacocca‘s Mustang hit the streets, the company’s upscale Lincoln-Mercury Division was pondering a small sporty car of its own. Design sketches showing the beginnings of that project date as far back as February 1963.

Meanwhile, over at GM’s Pontiac Division, 38-year-old chief engineer John DeLorean badly wanted to build a sports car. He had watched the growing popularity of imported sports cars in America, only partly addressed by Chevrolet’s Corvette, with great interest and concern. Like Iacocca, DeLorean knew that millions of post-war “baby boomers” would soon be graduating from school and becoming income earners and first-time car buyers. And his boss, Pontiac general manager Elliot M. “Pete” Estes, strongly agreed. “I’d been pushing for a two-seater for years,” Estes told us.

Pontiac Firebird Design
GM Media Archive
Pontiac Firebird Design
GM Media Archive

So in spring 1963, they kicked off concept work on a slick little two-seater known as XP-833. It was low and sleek, with softly rounded fenders and flanks, twin air intakes under slim, wraparound bumperettes in front, and flush, full-width taillamps that curved down to matching bumperettes in back—near perfect, exactly what they had in mind.

A year later, Ford’s game-changing Mustang galloped out of its corral.

Birth of a Cougar

Mercury Cougar design
This development car shows a very different grille design than on Aikin’s competition-winning model. The convertible style never reached production. Ford Archives
Mercury Cougar design
This development car shows a very different grille design than on Aikin’s competition-winning model. The convertible style never reached production. Ford Archives

With the Mustang well on its way to major stardom, L-M Advanced Styling Studio manager John Aikin was assigned the challenge of creating a Mustang-based Mercury version wearing a completely new “luxury” sport coupe body between low-buck Mustang and prestigious Thunderbird in size, image, and price. Aikin’s studio won a design competition, and his model—with headlamps hidden behind vertical-blade grilles split by a body color nose, bumpers curved upward at their ends, subtly rounded sides, and peaked front fenders flowing into a rear-quarter kick-up—was approved in February 1965. Several variations, including a flying-buttress fastback and a four-door with T-Bird-type Landau roof bars, were evaluated on paper, and a convertible was sculpted in clay, but only the coupe would reach production.

Aikin related that he and his team were considerably influenced by European sedans of the time, especially the Jaguar Mark X.

Mercury Cougar design
Ford Archives
Mercury Cougar design
Ford Archives

“We wanted a car that, like the Jaguar, was curvaceous and feline in shape and form with a highly sculpted look,” Aikin told us.

The interior, also Jaguar-influenced, got a nice set of round gauges, and later (in the mid-year XR-7 model), toggle-type switches and simulated burled walnut trim.

Here comes Firebird

Even while Chevrolet Division general manager Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen was lobbying GM management to approve a new sporty compact to battle Ford’s hot-selling Mustang, Estes and DeLorean wanted a “real“ sports car, a two-seater powered (like a Mercedes or Jaguar) by a zippy six-cylinder engine. And Pontiac just happened to have a European-style overhead-cam six under development for its 1966 Tempest compact.

So in August 1964, when Chevrolet finally received the corporate go-ahead to develop and build the Mustang-rival “F-Car” that would become the Camaro, Estes and DeLorean wanted nothing to do with it. Still convinced that Pontiac should go its own way with a two-seater, they believed it could be ready for a fall 1967 introduction priced well below Corvette.

“We are proposing that Pontiac offer a two-place sports car that will have a base price of approximately $2500,” said the pitch. “Our car would be in an entirely different class in terms of price and performance than the Corvette and would extend GM’s total market coverage.” But GM managers, unable to see enough market for a two-seater to justify the cost of tooling and producing it, wasn’t buying it no matter how often and hard Estes and DeLorean tried to sell it.

Then when Estes was promoted to Chevrolet general manager, DeLorean moved up to succeed him as Pontiac general manager and a GM vice president—at just 40, the youngest in GM history. That put him in a much stronger position to lobby for his two-seat sports car, but his relentless pursuit of it annoyed GM leaders. Finally, he told us, executive VP (later president) Ed Cole told him, “You can take the Camaro and make a car out of that.”

“John was so frustrated,” assistant chief engineer Ron Hill later later told us, “and so were we. We’d lost the two-place car that we’d worked on for two years and had to take this F-Car and do something with it.”

Pontiac Firebird Design
Note the ‘Banshee’ badge on this F-car development car. GM Media Archive
Pontiac Firebird Design
GM Media Archive

So Pontiac would get its own F-Car to go against the Mercury Cougar that everyone knew was being spun off the Mustang for a 1967 introduction. Jack Humbert’s Pontiac studio had started work on a Pontiac version just in case the decision went that way, but at that point Chevy’s Camaro was nearly finalized for summer 1966 production and a fall introduction. It was too late to change it much for Pontiac, and even minor changes would take almost a year to implement. “We brought a Camaro into the studio,” Hill said, “and asked ourselves, ‘What can we change?’ Front end, front bumper, and rear-end panel. That was about it.”

The designers and engineers had difficulty smoothly fitting a Pontiac bumper/grille around the Camaro front fenders, and many themes were tried before the studio came up with a final design that nicely set the Pontiac apart from its Chevrolet cousin. It also had its own specific hood, rear-end panel, and taillamps, plus twin rows of louvers on the rear quarters. One big improvement was adding larger wheels and tires and lowering the suspension for a more aggressive stance, and one controversial feature was the hood-mounted tachometer (borrowed from a performance-oriented Bonneville model). Inside the cabin were a specific Pontiac steering wheel, simulated woodgrain, and upgraded trim compared to the Camaro.

Pontiac Firebird Design
GM Media Archive

Name games

Interestingly, Ford’s pioneer pony car had come very close to being called the “Cougar.” The design contest-winning Joe Oros/Dave Ash clay model was labeled “Cougar” with a graceful cat emblem in the center of its grille, the program was called “Cougar” throughout its early development, various versions of cat design were prepared for grille, fender, and wheel-cover badges, and studio chief Oros lobbied for that name. And then, even after “Cougar” eventually lost out to “Mustang,” Oros sent the original model’s grille ornament to Iacocca with a hand-lettered card reading, “This is to help you remember what we should have called the car.”  

When Iacocca was promoted to executive vice president over all North American passenger cars, that Cougar emblem (with Oros’ note still attached) moved with him to his new desk, so that name should have been a no-brainer for the new Mercury Coupe. Yet, Mercury Marketing ran surveys and clinics to explore it, along with other ideas, including S-77, Apollo, Sceptre, and even Lido (Iacocca’s real first name). “Cougar” nevertheless kept rising to the top.

Mercury Cougar design
Ford Archives
Mercury Cougar design
Ford Archives

Mercury Cougar design
Ford Archives

“I think they named it ‘Cougar’ because they had all the cats already designed,” Iacocca later joked, in an interview for a 1987 Automobile Quarterly book. And once the decision was made, Oros’ stylized Cougar evolved into the snarling mountain lion that would later become the symbol of the entire Lincoln-Mercury Division.

Pontiac also struggled for a name. The two-seat XP-833 (and other Pontiac sports car concepts of the time) were all called “Banshee” after the Korean War jet fighter. That was DeLorean’s choice, almost everyone liked it, and they had already ordered tooling for the script logos… when someone decided to look it up. It turned out that a banshee, in Gaelic folklore, was a spirit whose wailing foretold a death. Uh oh.

“Fireball” and “Scorpion” were considered, then (ho-hum) “GM-X.” Finally, at the last possible second, they decided to name it “Firebird” after the series of aircraft-like experimental GM turbine cars of the 1950s and ‘60s, and a tamed-down version of the Indian-style bird emblem on those radical concepts was hurriedly sketched, modeled, and tooled for production.

Hitting the road

1967 Pontiac Firebird
1967 Pontiac Firebird Mecum
1967 Mercury Cougar
1967 Mercury Cougar Mecum

Introduced on Sept. 30, 1966, the ‘67 Cougar was basically a Mustang under its classy new body, except for its three-inch-longer, 111-inch wheelbase, more sound insulation, and a somewhat more compliant suspension for a softer ride. A 200-hp 289-cubic-inch V-8 was standard (no six-cylinder), while a 225-hp 289 and a 320-hp 390-cubic-inch V-8 were optional. Transmission choices were a standard three-speed manual, an optional four-speed manual, or a three-speed MercoMatic with a new Select Shift feature that would hold gears until manually upshifted.

“Changes in car-buying tastes have occurred so rapidly in the past few years that it literally may be called a revolution,” said L-M general manager Paul F. Lorenz in a speech at the car’s September 1966 introduction. “The sought-after qualities of today are grace, style, sophistication, quiet performance, luxury and understated elegance. The Cougar is the only American market entry that has been developed specifically as a luxury sports car at a popular price with features and appointments that previously had been available only in larger, more expensive American luxury/personal cars.”

Firebird was not ready for a fall debut, so there was no mention of it when Pontiac publicly introduced its 1967 models on Sept. 14th, 1966. Then, about a month later, selected “long-lead-time” magazine writers were invited to see and drive it at a special early preview at GM’s Milford, Michigan Proving Ground on the condition that their articles could not be published before January 26th, 1967. On Dec. 13th, Pontiac confirmed that it would introduce a “small sports car” named “Firebird”—after those GM experimental turbine cars—in late February with production beginning in early January at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant. It offered 165-hp and 215-hp 230-cubic-inch sixes, 250-hp and 285-hp 326-cubic-inch V-8s, and two versions of a 325-hp 400-cubic-inch V-8 driving through three-speed or four-speed manuals or automatic transmissions.

1967 Pontiac Firebird
1967 Pontiac Firebird Mecum
1967 Mercury Cougar
1967 Mercury Cougar Mecum

Not one to easily admit defeat, DeLorean enthusiastically promoted his four-seat Firebird through the next few years of hot sales (and racing) competition. 

“Chevy had the F-Car, and we were trying to get it,” he asserted in an interview with us years later. “But the corporation kept pushing us out of it. They wouldn’t let us have it. Then, finally, we had developed a proposal to do a little, cheap fiberglass two-seater. The corporation elected not to let us do that…. But that’s how you get things at GM. You ask for something, and they won’t give it to you, but so you don’t go home with your tail between your legs, they give you something else, which is probably what you wanted in the first place.”

And, as we know, these two new entries were hardly the only new pony cars in U.S. showrooms that year. Also new were Ford’s nicely facelifted ’67 Mustang, Chevy’s all-new rival Camaro, and Plymouth’s restyled Barracuda, which (like Mustang) offered coupe, convertible, and fastback models. America’s pony car battle was truly on and would soon be joined by Dodge’s late-coming (Barracuda-based) Challenger and AMC’s Javelin.

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