Historiography: Ford’s Brougham Division

1951 Mercury
All Photos by Randy Stern

Social media can yield either great things or a bunch of crap.

You can look beyond the trolls, the wannabe friends, the haters and the noise from these channels. When you do, you will discover

In my quest for social media harmony to fit my interests, I found a group called the “Brougham Society.” These are proud owners and enthusiasts of bygone luxury cars from our North American pasts. They were huge, in-your-face, exuding and oozing luxury from every inch and pore. They had substantial interiors, full of either plush cloth or leather. You were entertained by the latest and greatest features – now commonplace on today’s automobiles. Yet, we were fascinated with its presence and majesty. This group was designed to celebrate those automobiles and what they mean to today’s owners, preservationists and enthusiasts.

In my past writing on this site, I have covered a lot of “broughams” from my youth and further in the past. That might tell you something. Once you had a “brougham,” that feeling never leaves you. In my case, it was that 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan.

With inspiration driving my thought process, I began scouring the V&R site to see which “broughams” I had not talked about. I covered a lot of ground – Packard, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Imperial, the downsized GM B/C Bodies…there is still a lot more to cover.

But, where to begin?

In the late 1920s, automobiles were starting to find their customers. In turn, they became owners of their automobiles and their chosen models reflected their personality. Defined classes were being formed and certain brands spoke to a particular budget and price point. Budget brands were popular because it appeared that anyone who can afford a new car can get one. The upward in price a car was sold for, the more emphasis on a brand’s attraction to the customer was further defined.

Victoria Car Show 7.22.15

The mid-priced automobile took root during the time. These brands were sought after for upward mobility and vocational level. Doctors drove Buicks – it was a well-known fact. Both general Motors and the Chrysler Corporation played with brand-to-price point positioning through their catalog of nameplates. General Motors took this a step further by introducing a “lower priced” (sub) brand to accompany their mainstream lineup – for example: La Salle to Cadillac.

Ford was late to the game – but for good reason. Henry Ford refused to get into a niche sales-type business because he stood by his lineup: The Model A Ford and the Lincoln luxury car lineup. The basic Ford car sustained the company and its founder through the Great Depression and unionization battles of the 1930s. There was no way Ford would do anything else.

Henry’s son, Edsel viewed the company otherwise. He saw how GM and Chrysler exploited their brands in every price niche it competed in. It was a wide gap that Ford did not compete in. Their Flathead V8-powered Fords were doing well, even in a depressed economy. The Lincoln lineup was about to get a shot in the arm thanks to the V-12 powered Zephyr series that will form the basis of some of its greatest automobiles ever.

To fill the gap, Edsel came up with a strategy for a mid-priced brand. It was to compete directly with Oldsmobile, Buick and De Soto (Chrysler’s mid-priced brand). To do so, they would have to make distinctions between the products of this new brand and the upper end of Ford’s own lineup.

But, what to call this new division? How about Mercury? Perfect!

Ford went to work on the first Mercury models. They made sure to distinguish themselves from the current Ford lineup by making the Mercury wider and longer. The wheelbase went out to 116 inches, four more than the biggest Ford. However, to offset costs, Ford’s Flathead V8 was dropped in the first Mercury models.

The new car made its first appearance in 1938. That first model year, Ford sold over 65,000 1939 Mercurys with a starting price of $918. If you translate that into 2017 dollars, they would be about the same price as a new Ford Fiesta SE hatchback with some accessories.

The formula stuck into the first few years of the 1940s, before World War II shut down regular automobile production. It was not before it presented its first innovation – a semi-automatic transmission. This was the first such transmission for a Ford product.

While the war was wrapping, Ford made a few changes to the company’s structure. First off, the main brand dropped the DeLuxe models, as they were seen as competing directly with the Mercury Eight. On the Lincoln side, the Zephyr was merged into the brand, making every model a Continental going forward. Then, came the big move – a realignment of brand strategies. In 1945, Ford merged Lincoln and Mercury into a single brand. Both brands were able to engineer their own models, but they were to be sold in combined showrooms. This would be true for the entire run of Mercury’s lifespan.

Through the changes came the reintroduced 1946 Mercury Eight. Though they did not change the body style from the 1942 model, they went to work on a brand identity through grillwork and chrome trimmings.

MN C&C May 2014

In the fall of 1948, Mercury had its first massive hit. With a postwar economy poised for massive and abundant growth, the mid-priced market welcomed a Mercury that came out of left field. It was sleeker, longer and downright sexy. The 1949 Mercury took on a lot of its richer sibling’s design work – a Lincoln on a budget, as some would rebuke the new car.

While Lincoln overshot their postwar design, the Mercury became an icon. It would also be the basis of many street rods of the era, even chopping the sleek and sexy roof even lower for a faster look. The Flathead V8 was already given more power in the Mercury, though hot rodders found the engine easy to modify even further. Such modded Mercurys became film stars in their own right, furthering the legend deeper.

By 1952, a new Mercury arrived with a more aligned design with Lincoln. They became pawns in another game – the price war with GM. To prove the brand’s worth and increase traffic into Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, Ford challenged Buick and Oldsmobile at every turn – even with a smaller lineup. This heated up in the wake of the 1955 model year, where Mercury began to take a sleeker more modern look. Mercury began to create their own engine lineup through the decade, leading to the Super Marauder V8. This 430 cubic inch monster was essentially a shared engine with Lincoln, but with a special tune for performance purposes.

Mercury had their own struggles in finding customers in the late 1950s. It did not help that Ford began to add another brand to its product mix – the Edsel. The idea was to position Edsel in a two-pronged strategy against Buick, Oldsmobile, De Soto, Dodge and Chrysler. When the Edsel was introduced for 1958, an economic downturn came into play. The entire automobile market was affected and mid-priced brands bore the brunt of the loss in sales. We saw the end of Packard in 1958. By 1961, De Soto and Edsel would be gone.

Luckily, Mercury survived. Ford was still perplexed as to what they needed to do to keep the brand in business. Lincoln received a huge boost with the introduction of the ground-breaking 1961 Continental. On the Mercury side, they began to explore with new segments. In late 1960, the Mercury Comet joined the ranks of a new class of compact cars. It was to compete against new rivals, such as the Oldsmobile F-85, Buick Special and Dodge Lancer. Though built on the Falcon’s platform, the wheelbase was stretched to 114 inches and showed off a bolder, more flamboyant look. It did help increase traffic into Lincoln-Mercury dealers in offsetting the losses of the absence of Edsel.

Mercury also entered into the new mid-sized class with its Meteor. The name began life as a Canadian brand that sold retrimmed Fords at Mercury dealerships. The name was applied to a lower priced full-sized offering in 1960 and 1961. For 1962, the Meteor gained the mid-sized frame of the Fairlane with its own Mercury design and trimmings. Though it was not as successful as everyone hoped, it would began a legacy of mid-sized Mercurys that would be the focal point of the brand for decades to come.

By 1966, the Comet grew into the former space of the USA Meteor. However, the brand’s biggest impact would take place the following year. No one ever thought that the Mustang could spawn a more luxurious coupe. Ford thought that Mercury could use a product that was unique in the marketplace – a ponycar with personal luxury coupe aspirations. Mercury stretched out the Mustang and created a body was that curious and alluring at the same time. It offered some firepower seen in the Comet and Marauder, which added muscle care cred to this new luxury coupe.

Yellow Ribbon Car Show Eagan

The 1967 Mercury Cougar was exactly what the brand needed.

On the opposite end of the lineup, there would be even more change to continue as the “step below Lincoln.” Lincoln sales was about to receive another boost with the introduction of the Mark III personal luxury coupe. Yet, there seemed to be a gap between the Continental and Park Lane, Mercury’s top of the line. For 1967, they added a new luxurious full-sized coupe called the Marquis as a distinctive model alongside the Park Lane Brougham. By 1969, the name Park Lane was dropped in favor of Marquis as the full-sized lineup gained in sales and popularity within the mid-priced ranks.

Another big move happened in 1968. The Comet served as Mercury’s “small” car since the dawn of the decade. However, the new mid-sized Torino brought opportunity to the brand, as it spawned the Montego. The Montego would become a highlight of the Mercury lineup, mainly as it served as the car to house the high performance Cyclone within its lineup. The Comet name would return by 1971 as a rebadged Ford Maverick.

Ford saw further potential for Lincoln-Mercury showrooms. In 1970, the imported Cortina ran its course over at Ford dealers. They wanted to continue selling “captive imports” from Ford’s European unit, as well as Ford-related companies. This opened the door for the popular German-built Capri coupe. The Capri became a huge hit in Europe, which served as their Mustang for that side of the pond. The Capri took some adjustments to meet USA standards. Once they hit the showrooms with “the sign of the cat” (a play on the success of the Cougar), they repeated their success on this side of the Atlantic.

Joining the Capri and a full lineup of Lincolns and Mercurys was the De Tomaso Pantera. There was a lot of Ford in this sports car – designed by Ghia and powered by a 351 cubic-inch V8. No one knew how to register this car, because it was made by independent automaker De Tomaso, yet it was never marketed as a Lincoln or a Mercury. Rather, it was sold by Lincoln-Mercury…with a few units sold during its time under “the sign of the cat.”

Mercury stretched it lineup further throughout the 1970s. It included a badge-engineered Ford Pinto called the Bobcat. Then, came the twin to the Ford Granada, the Monarch. They were positioned as upmarket cars wedged in-between the Comet and the Montego. The trend in badge engineering of Ford products into Mercury models continued with the introduction of the Fox Body – Ford’s modern platform for the 1980s. The Ford Fairmont was sold as the Mercury Zephyr, along with its coupe variants. The Ford Mustang spawned the domestic Mercury Capri. The new decade saw the reduction of the mighty Cougar onto the Fox platform. The sedan version would eventually take the Marquis name by 1982.

Brian O'Connor Memorial Car Show Fundraiser

If one car would become the backbone of Mercury’s brand, it would be the Panther platform. The Grand Marquis was a car that would sustain Mercury until its demise. It offered everything one would ask for in a mercury – an upmarket style, luxury interiors and a ride that would be smooth and quiet. The 1979 downsized model lead the way for generations of Grand Marquis, including the aero-designed final models. They even brought back the Marauder for a couple of years to re-engage with a generation fed on muscle cars. It would be the through line as the brand went through waves of success and downturn.

As the Grand Marquis stood on top of Mercury’s mountain, a revolving door of smaller cars would take their place in the showroom. Cars, such as the Lynx, Tracer, Topaz, Mystique, LN7 and the Australian-built Capri roadster tried to find customers with limited success. Though the Topaz would continue to sell into the 1990s, it would always run in the shadows of its Ford brother – the Tempo. All of this was happening while Lincoln was enjoying its best years since the 1960s, become the top selling luxury brand in the USA in the 1980s.

Then came another brilliant idea. Looking at the success of the original Capri on Lincoln-Mercury showrooms, Ford of Europe wanted to sell their best models on our shores again. Instead of being ambiguous on their branding, Lincoln-Mercury created a new one: Merkur. Translated, it is Mercury in German. Though a charming idea, it did bring the Euro-market Sierra XR4 over with Ford’s turbocharged four-cylinder under its hood. The Scorpio came afterwards, as a five-door premium hatchback. The experiment lasted a few years until 1989, when its high prices, changes in Federal passenger protection regulations and lack of sales halted their presence inside Lincoln-Mercury dealerships.

If one car would help the Mercury cause, it was the Sable. The day after Christmas in 1985 saw the arrival of the highly advanced Ford Taurus and its highly distinctive partner. The design was way advanced for a lot of people’s tastes. However, it did provoke onlookers and, eventually, sales. In essence, the Mercury Sable elevated the new front-drive, mid-sized marketplace causing a ripple effect on Buick, Oldsmobile and Chrysler. Even imports from Japan saw high end customers taking Sables over Nissan Maximas and Toyota Cressidas.

The Sable became the go-to Mercury in the lineup for retail and commercial customers. Compared to a similarly-equipped Taurus, a Sable felt special. You can spot the distinctions all around – from the light bar front end to a specific dashboard and trim inside. You drove the Sable like you would a Buick or a Chrysler, as it exhibited a higher ride quality befitting of its mid-priced aspirations. Yet, it had an image of being an older person’s Taurus. One would think with its futuristic looks that it would attract younger buyers than the Grand Marquis. Even Panther platform customers went to the Sable. This would be true throughout its lifespan into the 2000s.

Mercury Mountaineer

Mercury also tried to follow all of the trends in the marketplace. The Mercury Villager joined the minivan market, positioned against the Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chrysler Town & Country for luxury consumers. The hot selling Explorer SUV spawned a Mercury version, called the Mountaineer. Mercury would end up with two SUVs, with the Escape-based Mariner. A final minivan was introduced, the Montego succeeded the Nissan-based Villager. These non-car products helped to bolster the Mercury brand as customers were seeking minivans and SUVs as alternative to family cars.

The Cougar name continued through all of these machinations. By 1983, it became a formal-roofed, aero-designed personal luxury coupe built alongside the Thunderbird. This model would also spawn as turbocharged, high performance model giving plenty of attention to the coupe with the upright rear roofline. The 1990s saw the Cougar as a bloated personal luxury coupe on its way towards extinction. The name returned for a European-made premium sports coupe for 1999. As many cars that would find this groundbreaking name on its flanks, this last one would spell the end of the cat.

At the 2004 Chicago Auto Show, Mercury was primed to stay on everyone’s consciousness. The stage was set for Mayor Richard Daley, Ford Chairman Bill Ford and the announcement of more assembly line workers for the Torrence Avenue plant on the city’s Southeast side. I was there on the show floor as the 2005 Mercury Montego was unveiled. Though badge-engineered off of the Ford Five Hundred, the Montego exhibited a luxurious air above the new so-called “big” Ford. It did not capture everyone else’s imagination. In its first model year, the Grand Marquis outsold both the Montego and the Five Hundred.

There was one last ditch effort for the new big front-drive cars. As soon as we thought the Sable was done for good, Mercury resurrected the name onto the Montego. I did not welcome this change. Nor did I think it would help the big front-drive sedan’s cause. This car is still in production – as the Ford Taurus.

The final chapter, as I saw it, was the Mercury Milan. It would be Ford’s last badge-engineered Mercury – as twin to the hot selling Fusion. The Fusion was considered quite a good car. Yet, praise just stopped at the foot of the Lincoln-Mercury dealership. Was it too much for customers? Or, was it not enough to become distinctive? If one car would hinder the Milan’s success, it was the third wheel of the Fusion family – the Lincoln Zephyr/MKZ. Towards the end of the end’s existence, the MKZ began to outsell the Milan on the same showroom floor.

Mercury saw its final act played out in 2010. Sales at Ford Motor Company showed they had a 16 percent of the market, especially when it did not take Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to get through the aftermath of the global economic crisis. Mercury’s market share was just one percent.

2010 Mercury Milan 1

The trend against domestic mid-priced brands was part to blame for Mercury’s demise. Buick was suffering in North America, yet it found big success in China. Chrysler – now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, began to slot models within brands to create a showroom devoid of overlap. Chrysler was being repositioned as a mainstream brand to compete against Ford and Chevrolet, instead of being an upscale marque.

On June 2, 2010, Ford announced the end of Mercury. Its name would disappear from showrooms across North America at the end of that year.

The one that kept Mercury in the game was distinction. Through its era, there was no mistaking a Mercury – even if it was a rebadged Ford product. The Mercury character was about the chrome, the grille texture and a few brand marks – which have gone onto its own evolution.

The head of the Roman God Mercury – the Messenger was the driver for a brand securing an identity in the world of badge-engineering. That led to a live cougar sitting on top of a dealer sign, roaring to stake its claim in the marketplace. In turn, we saw light bar front ends and satin chrome finishes until the end of it all.

Its legacy is based on the concept of a brougham car. That term is usually reserved for the likes of Cadillacs, Lincoln and Imperials, but have been expanded down to mainstream brands for their most luxurious models. Mercury was a brand that exemplified the “brougham” concept. Even when it shared the same car as a Ford, a Mercury had all of the tenets of being a step up from the ordinary.

From 1939 to 2010, Mercury proved that Ford can play in the mid-priced field. It did so with elegance and grace – tenets that make it brougham-worthy.

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