Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mercury End Game

We here in Canada have not seen a new Mercury sold here in three years. The brand itself packed up and left us back in 1999, leaving only a few models to be sold at Ford dealerships. However, down in Dearborn, parent company Ford have extinguished the long flickering flame that is Mercury for good. It comes as no surprise that Ford chose to end the 70-year old company, as Mercury was only a shell of its former self.

In a day in age when corporate profits are king, Mercury was one of several victims of modern cost cutting tactics – badge engineering. This is the laziest of cost-saving tactics used to build a larger range of vehicles. The act of taking a cheaply built car, adding nice headlights, grille, and a bit of fake brushed aluminum trim, then charging a premium for it, has been Mercury's business model since 2002. Back then, the little FWD Cougar was the only model unique to Mercury. Since that time, every Mercury has been a glitzed up Ford, with very little in the way of distinction. As of late, Ford have been upping their game, offering vehicles with trim levels on par with Mercury, for a more competitive price.

This was not what Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, had in mind when he started Mercury back in 1939.

Back in the 30's, Edsel and the old man didn't see eye to eye on several aspects of the car building industry. Henry cared little about the aesthetics of his automobiles, only that they were built in great numbers. Edsel, however, saw the worth of a beautifully designed car, and developed a styling studio to create cars that were pleasing to the eye. In 1939, he founded the Mercury Division that would emphasize European design elements and luxury comforts.

The first car offered was the 8, a car that stood apart from its Ford brothers. With a 95 hp V-8 (10 hp more then the standard Ford V-8) and a sleek new look, Mercury sold nearly 66,000 units in that first year, selling for $916. After the war, the 8 returned with a fresh new look that distanced itself even further from the parent company. 1949 was a particularly good year as Mercury broke all-time sales records with the 8. It was also this year that a young Sam Barris built the first chopped and stretched lead sled. From this point on, the 49 Merc, as it was affectionately called, would go on to become one of the most popular vehicles for hot rodding.

But its was in 1945 that Edsel succumbed to cancer. Mercury's founder was no longer at the helm, and the company’s direction started to stray. It wasn't long before badge engineering found its way to Mercury. The M-100 was a pickup truck produced just for the Canadian market, which started production in 1946. Like Mercury's of today, the M-100 was little more than an F-100, identical in every way except for the use of a Mercury-specific grille, trim and nameplates.

However, there were many great cars that came from the brand in the years to come, even if they all suffered from an identity crisis. The Comet started it's life as a compact in 1960, turning into a mid-size sedan in the early 70's before going back to a compact when the car was discontinued in 1977. Likewise the Cougar had a similar misdirection, as it started it's life as a plush pony car in 1967, based on the Mustang, then later became a large tourer in 74 based on the Ford Elite and Torino. In 1980, the Cougar became much more sedated, in the body of the Ford Zephyr before taking on it's popular form of the 1983 Thunderbird. Then in 2000, Mercury saw the Cougar as a sports compact, where it was the last of the Mercury branded cars to have it's own platform, and finally it's own identity, if somewhat misinterpreted along the way.

The first generation Capri, a European Ford Capri built in Germany, would become the second highest sold import in North America, bested only by the Beetle. It's European design made the little sports coupe stand out from the domestic crowd during its reign from 1970 to 1977. However, in '79, the Capri also fell to badge engineering, as it used a thinly disguised Ford Mustang platform until it was finally killed off in 1986.

The Marauder nameplate began to surface in Mercury vehicles in 1963, being V-8 powered, fastback versions of the Monterey, Montclair and Park Lanes. The Marauder name would come back in '69, as it's own designated model, a large cruiser that was the epitome of that age. The base Marauder had a 390 cu-in engine, while the Marauder X-100 normally came with a larger 360 hp 429 cu-in engine. Then in 2003, the Marauder surfaced once again, providing power hungry enthusiasts with a mean example of the Grand Marquis. With a 4.6L 302 hp V8 making use of several parts from the Mach 1 Mustang. It also made use of several Police Interceptor parts, in particular the 3.55 limited slip rear end.

The last twelve months have been particularly hard on the American automakers, with four different brands getting the axe. And while the execution of Mercury was a foregone conclusion, it is a brand that will leave us with a several endurable models that will hold a special place in automotive history.


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