Edsel Ford founded the Mercury division of the Ford Motor Company in 1938. The idea was to create an entry-level luxury range of cars to compete with Buick, Oldsmobile and Chrysler. One of the penchants of Edsel Ford, particularly in comparison to Henry Ford, was Edsel’s affinity for distinctive styling in an automobile.
Edsel was Henry and Clara Ford’s only child. Born in November of 1893, Edsel was groomed pretty much from birth by Henry to eventually run Ford Motor Company. Edsel went to a Connecticut boarding school called Hotchkiss, and the Detroit University School, now known as The Liggett School—Michigan’s oldest independent coeducational school.
A true automotive enthusiast, Edsel Ford bought the first Morris Garages (MG) sports car brought to the United States. He had custom speedsters designed for his personal use. One of his cars was a lightweight aluminum boattailed speedster powered by a V8 engine. Many automotive historians refer back to this car when discussing the origins of the hot rod. As president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel was responsible for the development of the Ford Model A to replace the Ford Model T.
Edsel specified the Model A should have four-wheel mechanical brakes and a sliding gear transmission. He was also responsible for the styling of the automobiles. Further, in addition to starting Mercury, Edsel was the progenitor of the Lincoln Continental and the Lincoln Zephyr.
The Mercury brand name was derived from the messenger of the gods of Roman mythology. However, in addition to being the messenger of the gods, Mercury was said to be the patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves. He was also said to be the guide of souls to the underworld. The Mercury name won out over some 100 other considerations for the new brand.
The first Mercury model was equipped with a 95-horsepower flathead V8 engine. An all-new model, the 1939 Mercury Eight was an entirely distinct model from anything else in the Ford family of cars. With the Mercury Eight, Ford Motor Company found itself with a hit on its hands. By the time World War II started, more than 155,000 Mercury Eights had been sold.
All of Ford’s consumer production was suspended during the war to produce planes, trucks, and other materiel to support the U.S. war effort. Afterwards, Mercury returned as an arbiter of style, performance, and modern (for the time) tech.
Interestingly, and while it became more acute toward the end of the brand’s existence, one situation Mercury faced throughout its lifetime was the fact there was no single identifying attribute around which the marque was positioned. Even though Edsel Ford had originally intended the brand to be entry-level luxury, there were performance overtones to certain Mercury automobiles as well. Further, the values of the products vacillated between really nice Fords and slightly less luxurious Lincolns. Consequently, consumers had a tough time deciding what Mercury stood for.
In an attempt to position Mercury in consumer’s minds as more than a nice Ford, after World War II, the parent corporation twinned Lincoln and Mercury dealers. The idea was if they shared showroom space, Mercury would be seen as an affordable alternative to Lincoln, rather than a more expensive Ford. By all accounts this worked for a while, with the postwar period through the early1970s being something of a golden era for Mercury.
The early part of the 1960’s saw a shift more toward the performance end of the spectrum again with cars like the 1962 Mercury S-55 and the 1963 Mercury Marauder. As enticing as these models were however, they were very closely aligned with the Ford Galaxie 500 upon which they were based—signaling Mercury’s shift toward being really nice Fords again.
Perhaps the Mercury model with the most notoriety was the Mercury Cougar. Introduced in 1967—based on the Ford Mustang—the Cougar offered graceful good looks, performance, and luxury, all in one package. All of this was best embodied in the Cougar XR-7 models. In fact Mercury’s image was totally wrapped up in the Cougar by the time the 1970s rolled around. In commercials and print ads the marketing team was advising customers to visit “The Sign Of The Cat”, regardless of the Lincoln or Mercury model being advertised.
In fact, the Cougar was such an integral part of Mercury’s brand identity, the product planning team starting naming other Mercury models after cats to remind people they were Mercurys. Thus was born the Mercury Lynx and the Mercury Bobcat automobiles in response to the need to downsize after the 1973 energy crisis.
Neither of which really worked.
Also by 1974, the Cougar was in the process of evolving from a luxurious pony car alternative into a personal luxury coupe—along the lines of the Ford Thunderbird. The final straw, the one that told the world Mercury had really lost its way, was the introduction of the 1974 Mercury Cougar station wagon. In the long list of bad ideas for the brand, that one ranks very highly on the de-evolutionary scale of Mercury automobiles.
There were a few bright spots in 70s, but unfortunately they were poorly placed. The 1971 Mercury Capri was the German version of the Mustang. It featured European styling; terrific ride and handling compared to American cars of the era, and was offered at a pretty reasonable price too. It sold pretty well for a while—before interest waned. Also during this period, Ford struck a deal with DeTomaso to market the mid-engined, Ford-powered exotic sports car called the Pantera.
After the 70s though it was pretty much downhill for Mercury, with the brand’s last real energetic gasp being the 1999 Mercury Cougar. This time configured with a front-drive platform, the nicely equipped car featured sleek styling, a good price, entertaining road maners, and a good degree of sales success. Unfortunately though, the car it was based upon didn’t do so well and Ford killed it. The minivan and SUV boom were good to Mercury as the 1990s turned into the 2000s, but when the luster faded from those segments of the market, Ford was left with little choice but to kill Mercury.