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In 2011, Mercury ceased to be and for the most part, there weren't many tears shed. The last two decades of the brand had pretty much seen every Mercury product as a slightly different stylized version of a Ford car, something that has doomed other, better-known manufacturers like Oldsmobile and Plymouth. That's not to say that Mercury was simply a Ford copy program. Cars like the Mercury Eight, which became a hot-rod icon, the brash Turnpike Cruiser of the later 1950s, and the radical Cyclone Spoiler that was every bit as wicked as the more well-known examples of the Musclecar Era held their own. But, if there is one model name that truly showcased what Mercury could and should be, it is Cougar. At least, the first generation or two, anyways.
Originally a project known internally at Ford Motor Company as "T-7", the car that would become the Cougar was intended to bridge the gap between the compact (then, Falcon) and the Thunderbird, a nice intermediate car with style and performance. Until the Mustang's wild success upon introduction in 1964, the T-7 languished in design hell. But once the Mustang caught on, the T-7 project suddenly had a reason to get fully fleshed out and put into metal, with the end car meant to bridge the gap between the Mustang's sportiness and the Thunderbird's luxury. The "Cougar" nameplate, a runner-up from the Mustang program, was utilized. Referencing the large cat that ranges from the Yukon through South America, the name was meant to evoke images of both the cat's handsome, attractive look and at the same time reference the power and ferocity that the "Mountain Screamer" is infamous for. In fact, Lincoln-Mercury used live cats for dealership appearances and trade-show junkets through the 1980s, with one cat in particular, "Chauncey", being the face of the car from introduction until the cat's passing in 1975.
As far as the car itself, the lithe and powerful yet luxurious form would only really exist in the first generation (1967-70), since the car was basically a Ford Mustang, with a wheelbase stretch, some body length, and the options book thrown at it. The second generation (1971-73) grew like the Mustang did and focus started to turn away from performance and towards comfort and luxury. The third (1974-76) and fourth generations (1977-79) were basically a worked-over Ford Torino and LTD II that saw the arrival of a sedan and station wagon into the family. The fifth generation (1980-82) joined the Fox platform, bringing the Cougar closer to its Mustang connection, but the box styling was not well-received. The sixth generation (1983-88) ditched the four-door and wagon and saw the Cougar pair off with the Thunderbird fully, with a full-body restyle that was close to the Thunderbird's "Aero Bird" shape. The seventh generation (1989-97) sat on the MN-12 program and the eighth generation (1999-2002) was a Ford Probe replacement that sat on the Ford Contour's CDW27 platform as the company's attempt to enter the sport compact market.
We wanted to see what it would take to bring the spirit of the original Cougar, the luxury pony car, back to the market, so we asked automotive artist Rotislav Prokop to lend us his talents in bringing this idea to life. It was a tall order...how do you create a car from a brand that's been dead nearly a decade, with ideas that are over fifty years old, while using a modern platform?
The front of the Cougar greets you with the full-width grille look. Whether hidden headlights can be used or headlight lens blackouts are needed to create the effect, a C-shaped LED bar will keep safety-minded types happy. The Cougar's center crest and nameplate script are throwbacks to the original.
Even in the first generation, a keen eye could find the Mustang styling cues if they knew where to look. Mercury managed to make the Cougar distinctive by some slick styling tricks and a bit of a stretch, on both the wheelbase and the length of the car. For a modern-day Cougar, the only answer for a platform would be the S550 chassis that underpins the Ford Mustang. It's the only platform that Ford currently builds that is rear-drive, capable of housing a V8, and capable of handling the demands of today's driver. Style-wise, there are two ways to go. We decided to stick with the two-door formula...while a four-door version of the Mustang with styling treatments certainly would be different enough from the Mustang, there are quite a few who would be turned off by the extra doors.
Now, how do you go about turning that Mustang into a Cougar? Start at each end. The Cougar's iconic hidden-headlamp look might be difficult to pull off in today's world, but dark-tinted lenses would help create the full-width grille effect that Mercury was known for, and a C-channel LED driving light would calm some safety pundits down. And for those who know their older Cougars, there will not be the "head striker" shape to the hood. The tail panel is even easier: nearly full-width taillights broken up only by the Prowling Cat logo in-between and thin LED reverse lights in a more formal-shaped rear end would certainly stand out compared to the Mustang, and would naturally be fitted with a sequential turn signal system. Less noticeable would be the slight lengthening of the body. Unlike the Cougar of years past, the stretch of the coupe is for the front passengers, not the rear, because this cat is meant to be driven for miles in comfort. The interior would be more in-line with a Lincoln product, with true dials for the gauges, a central screen for navigation and information in the binnacle, and front seats that feature the 24-position "Perfect Position" equipment found in the Lincoln Corsair, with heating and cooling, and just to make sure you're not too confused, the audio system would support acoustic tuning that would dampen excess noise with the right selection.
Yes, it's based off of the Mustang. It's the only Ford product that would be appropriate for a Cougar return. The new Mach 1 package offers up all of the driver-oriented suspension and brake bits that would fit perfectly for the Cougar's gran turismo driving focus.
We wanted to focus on the high points of the first generation of the Cougar and what it represented: a performer that was classed up. Just because it had some goodies that made you feel like a million bucks every time you climbed into the cabin shouldn't have to take away from the fact that this cat would have no trouble whatsoever tearing any pretender to shreds. Back in the day, the Cougar very nearly snatched the Trans Am championship from the Ford Mustang, which caused Ford to put a cease-and-desist order on the Cougar's Trans Am racing program. On the street, big-block Cougars and Cougar Eliminators were nothing to trifle with. Using a modern base, there is really only one option left without building a brand-new car from scratch, the S550-chassis Ford Mustang, which is a great platform to start with. We would base our modern-day Cougar off of the 2021 Mustang Mach 1, which fits six-piston Brembo front brakes and larger rotors up front, extra bracing, a thicker sway bar, heavier springs up front, tighter chassis tuning, a larger radiator, and additional bracing throughout the car. MagneRide damping is standard, a sound system with all the goodies and the ability to shake the fillings from your teeth is standard as is active performance exhaust..
While many would foam at the mouth at the idea of using the Shelby GT500's 5.2L V8 howler and it's 760 horsepower (us included), the Mach 1's 5.0L V8 is nothing to ignore. 480 horsepower can be found at 7,000 RPM, 420 ft-lb of torque comes in at 4,600 RPM, and you can still get a legitimate Tremec six-speed manual transmission, three pedals and all...it even comes with rev matching capability. Of course, if you aren't inclined to row your own gears, the 10-speed automatic can back up to this engine as well. So what if it doesn't have the Shelby's engine? You want more power? The Coyote can be built to within an inch of its life and can handle four-digit horsepower and the transmission only needs mild beefing to handle that kind of grunt. But be very realistic about this: a 480 horsepower Cougar could get you into plenty of trouble without help.
Sure, it looks sporting. Yes, it'll lay rubber in first, second and probably third gear and yes, it sounds the business. But imagine those days where you aren't a hooligan, where you come out of work dragging tired, and as you climb into your 480-horsepower coupe, you can make the decision between letting the world know that you're done with a cloud of tire smoke, or you can tune the world out, sink into that seat, and let the finest sporting coupe this side of a six-figure luxury barge remind you of the better things in life. If the Mustang is the bare-bones fighter who's just dying for a scrap, think of the Cougar as the well-dressed ex-Special Forces type who hasn't lost an ounce of their skill...they just dress to impress nowadays.