Mercury took a decidedly different approach with the Cougar. Early advertising touted its luxury car leanings with the tag line, "The Fine Car Touch inspired by the Continental." Also promoted was the Cougar's comfortable ride and equally plush bucket seats.
The new "Cat" was built using a Mustang chassis, but its wheelbase had been increased by three inches. The extra distance created a far more hospitable environment for rear-seat passengers and added to the car's passenger-friendly ride.
Visually, the Cougar was a pleasant piece to look at. Along with its must-have long-hood, short-deck styling, the car featured unique hidden headlights that remained cloistered behind the front grille until pressed into service. But the real knockout feature was the car's sequential rear signal lights that strobed in the appropriate direction whenever the stalk indicator was flicked.
Unlike the Mustang, the Cougar was available only with V-8 power. The base engine was a 200-horse 289-cubic-inch unit, while a 225-horsepower four-barrel-carb version was available as an option. If this wasn't enough, the optional GT package featured a more muscular 390 cubic-inch V8 stuffed between the Cougar's shock towers. Mid-way into the 1967 model year, Mercury introduced the Cougar XR-7, complete with full gauges, woodgrain interior trim, leather seats and other fancy bits.
First-year sales of more than 150,000 Cougars proved the public was hungry for a Ponycar with a little more flair and substance than the rest of the field.
For 1968, the Cougar received the new 302 cubic-inch V-8, as well as the horsepower-abundant 428 and racing-oriented 427 cubic-inch V-8 options that cranked out 335 and 390 horsepower, respectively.
That year also saw the creation of one of the rarest of Cougar models, the XR7-G. The "G" stood for racing legend Dan Gurney. This model included a special non-functioning fiberglass hood complete with scoop and racing-style locking pins, fog lamps, special alloy wheels and interior trim. Only 619 XR7-Gs were shipped from the factory and of those, slightly fewer than 200 went to Hertz to be used as rental units.
In 1969, the mildly restyled Cougar family grew to include both a base and XR-7 convertible. You could still order the big-block 428 motor, but the raunchier 427 was trimmed from the order sheet. A new 351 cubic-inch engine series became available that year, with output ranging from 250 to 300 horsepower. The hot setup that year became the Eliminator, with its wilder colors, look-at-me decals and striping plus a rear-deck spoiler. All of these items might have worked on any other pony car, but the Eliminator package only served to make the sleek, sophisticated Cougar look decidedly undignified.
The Cougar remain basically unchanged through 1970, although the 390 V-8 had finally disappeared from sight. Sales, however, dropped as pony-car buyers shifted to more high-performance offerings that were being heavily marketed by the competition.
This seemed to be the signal for Mercury's product planners to turn the Cougar into a true boulevard cruiser. Although the 1971 version continued to used the Mustang's platform, the car became significantly bigger, stouter and pricier, with more luxury touches included as part of its standard features.
But for four solid years, the Cougar represented a softer, more eloquent interpretation of the pony-car revolution and gave its proud owners a taste of how future "personal luxury" cars would evolve.
These days, the Cougar is rapidly gaining in popularity among collectors who consider its unique and tasteful styling and plenty of on-tap power to be a cut above the Mustangs, Challengers and Camaros of that era.
It's funny, but those are the exact same reasons the original Cougar became such a sales success in the first place.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.
Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications