Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Someone killed the messenger. So long, Mercury

2011 was a rough year for a number of iconic automotive brands. Some of them aren’t a huge loss from a historic standpoint, i.e., Saturn and Hummer, but a couple of them will truly be missed. Particularly, I’m talking about Pontiac, and the subject of this article, Mercury.

From luxury and performance cars, to auto racing, to legendary customs, the Mercury brand has been a significant part of the American automotive landscape.  In mythology, Mercury was the messenger of the gods.  Here, we take a look back at the history of Mercury, and the end of the once popular nameplate.

The first Mercury rolled off the assembly line for the 1939 model year. It was developed by Edsel Ford, son of iconic automotive pioneer Henry Ford, to bridge the gap between the economy-minded Ford brand, and the luxurious Lincoln line of automobiles.

From the beginning, Mercury vehicles were very similar to their Ford siblings. For example, if you didn’t see the closed-in rear wheel well on a ’39 model Merc, you might mistake it for a Ford at first glance. If you couldn’t see the fine, vertical grill teeth in a ’46 model Mercury, that car may look like a Ford. In this regard, today’s Mercury is not unlike the original concept.

What Mercury had that Ford couldn’t match was a close association with the Lincoln brand. In 1945, Mercury combined with Lincoln to form the Lincoln-Mercury Division, a combination that lasted right up until the end. Throughout the late 1940s, well into the ‘70s, Mercury cars looked and felt more like Lincolns than Fords. Mercury competed with Buick, Oldsmobile, and Chrysler more than they were cross-shopped with Chevrolet or Plymouth. Their reputation as an upscale alternative for the Ford faithful was well-established.

Pop culture welcomed Mercury with open arms. Their brand equity reached stratospheric levels after James Dean drove a ’49 coupe in the 1955 feature film Rebel Without a Cause. Another Mercury of that same era, a 1951 model, was customized at the shops of George Barris in 1952. Named as the “Hirtohata Mercury” after its owner, it went on to inspire generations of lowered, chopped, and highly modified interpretations of this now iconic style. They have been showing up at car shows, in movies, and even referenced in popular music ever since.

There have been several significant, milestone Mercury models throughout the years. In 1957 and 1958, the Turnpike Cruiser made a name for itself with bold, almost outlandish styling, with options like space-aged antennas poking out from above the windshield, and canted, “Breeze-way” rear window to let the fresh air flow through. A Turnpike Cruiser convertible was used to pace the 1957 Indianapolis 500.

The Cougar was another iconic Mercury product. Introduced in the 1967 model year, the Cougar was sort of a rich man’s Mustang. Not necessarily a muscle car, and not a cheap commuter, the Cougar took personal luxury to a new level. It went through several incarnations throughout its lifetime, but the early models are probably the best remembered and most highly-regarded.

The Marauder, introduced in 1963, was Mercury’s answer to Ford’s sporty XL line. Big engines, bucket seats, and fancy trim were the order of the day here, and the Marauder went on to have success in the upper levels of NASCAR. The Marauder nameplate last appeared in the 2003-2004 model years as a beefed-up Grand Marquis. It was the last time that a really special, unique Mercury ever showed up in dealer showrooms.

Today, people expect so many accoutrements and features in their cars, even for the entry-level vehicles from the Ford division, that it’s hard to distinguish an up-level version of those cars. That may have been have been part of Mercury’s problem. The cars were nice, but so are Fords. And unfortunately, Mercury had cultivated a perception in recent years that their cars are more suited to the geriatric crowd rather than a youthful, chic alternative.

So Mercury joined the ranks of Oldsmobile, Plymouth, and Pontiac as another storied American car brand to close in modern history. It is very sad to see our automotive icons drop out of the game like this. But the world has never been as competitive as it is right now. At least we have more than 70-years of history to look back on to remember this once great automotive brand.

Check out some historic promotional photos from throughout Mercury’s history. The slideshow below will take you through the first Mercury, significant race cars and customs, and right up through the final Mercury automobiles, including the 2003/2004 Marauder.


  1. nice write up. i think i miss pontiac the most tho'.

  2. Craig:
    Nevr thought that I'd wind up OWNING a future "classic" when it comes to deceased auto name brands.
    My 26 year-old Pontiac Firebird (black, of course) still runs great and looks good.
    Wish I was holding up as well...LOL!

    The first car I remember my Dad having was a 1948 Mercury 4-door in a lousy pea green color.
    Was a good car, until it dropped the trans in the driveway when we returned home from some trip.
    It was, if nothing else...BIG!

    Good post.