In early November 1966, C Gayle Warnock was confident that the car he had worked hard to promote to the press for the previous six months would be a success. Understandably, he was a little apprehensive--the last introduction he had been involved with was the ill-fated Edsel in the fall of 1957.
Lukewarm interest beyond specialty models
When the Cougar was first revealed, many thought it would be a gussied up Ford Mustang wearing Mercury badges. While the two cars were related, the press corps soon found out that Cougar was really a vehicle unto itself, and a strong entry in the upscale end of the sport-compact market. As far as cosmetic appearances, virtually nothing interchanged between the two. But it was far more than just looks that separated the two.
Cougar was based on a 111" wheelbase and measured out at 190" in length. Up-front, the modern styling featured hide-away headlights concealed behind vacuum operated doors. The profile presented the classic long hood, short decklid theme. Prominent sculpting of the sides came off well, and the distinctive taillights, with sequential turn signals, ran nearly the entire width of the car.
Inside, the Cougar was plush with smart appointments on the dash, seat upholstery and door panels. Extra sound absorbing insulation was installed which made for a more quiet, comfortable ride than its Ford cousin.
One of the few components shared with the Mustang were the drivetrains, at least those of V8 configuration. For the 1967 model year, Cougar's base price included the two-barrel, 200hp version of the small-block 289 cid V8. No 6-cylinder version was offered. Backing up the base engine was a 3-speed manual transmission, a 3-speed automatic, or a four-speed manual. Those looking for a little more pep could opt for the A-code 225 hp four-barrel version of the 289 V8.
Of course there was even more performance available with the S-code 390 cid/330 horse big-block V8, which was available only with the automatic transmission or four-speed manual. For those who knew the right strings to pull, there were a few (believed to be less that 25) Cougars equipped with the legendary R-code 427 V8. Although this option was not officially listed, several genuine examples do exist. And some not so genuine, too.
Offered in base form, the Cougar's starting price was listed at $2,851, or about $300 over a Mustang similarly equipped. Only one body style, a two-door coupe, was available. A complete listing of options was available from an interior decor group, to vinyl roof, exterior trim, and several levels of wheels and wheel covers, as well as factory installed air conditioning.
For those looking for a little higher scale version of this new "cat", there was the XR-7, which featured simulated wood-grain interior appointments, roof-mounted overhead control panel, and styled-steel Cougar wheels, all for around $230.
In its first season, Cougar was a sales success, with 123,672 base coupes, and 27,221 of the XR-7s produduced. This is fairly remarkable considering that in 1967 there was some new and very strong competition in the sport-compact market from General Motors. Mustang had to contend with the Camaro from Chevrolet, while Cougar took on the Firebird from Pontiac. Despite the latter's lower prices, two body choices, a wider range of engines including an economical six, Cougar sales were a strong 82% above the Firebird!
For Cougar's second model year only a few detail changes and updates were immediately visible. The front grill divided with a horizontal trim bar, and upgraded sequential taillights were incorporated. Of course, the federally mandated addition of body-side marker lights in the front fenders and rear quarter panels were there, too. Interiors were given a freshening and a restyled horizontal-bar steering wheel replaced the safety "flower-pot" center pad.
In base form, the Cougar was now powered by the enlarged 302 cid small-block V8, rated at 210hp with the two-barrel intake. (While not officially listed, a number of base 1968 Cougars have been found with the 200 hp, 289 cid V8s installed). Prices were increased to $2,933 in base form, with plenty of other amenities available at extra cost to take the average delivered price for the 1968 Cougar to the $3,400 range. Other optional engines included a 230hp version of the 302 V8, plus two versions of the big-block 390 cid V8 in either two-barrel 280 hp form, or with four-barrels and 325 hp. For those looking for the ultimate horsepower in a small package, a 428 cid V8 was now available sporting a whopping, and probably underrated, 335 horses.
Returning as a popular option was the XR-7 package. As in 1967, a few extras were included such as rocker-panel moldings, leather trimmed vinyl seats, a full gauge package including tachometer and the usual badges and ornamentation showing the world you spent a little more for your "Cat".
While luxury was the basis for the Cougar, performance was certainly there for the taking. Those seeking performance might have selected the new Cougar GT package which included beefed up suspension with heavy duty springs and a thicker stabilizer bar, the 390 cid, 325hp V8 with lower restriction exhaust, and a power-booster fan. As an added bonus, there was the GT-E package, which came standard with the mighty 427ci V8 with 390hp. Only the C6 automatic was available, though. Late in model year, the 428CJ V8 replaced the famed "7.0-Litre". Additional equipment included functional twin hood scoops, quad-trumpet exhaust, and styled steel wheels. The most reliable figures we've seen show 357 were built with the 427, 37 with the 428. These are the holy grails of Couger Kingdom.
During the 1967 and 1968 Trans-Am racing seasons, Dan Gurney, one of America's most famous drivers and a long-time fan of Mercury-based cars in competition, campaigned a Cougar and posted impressive results. In fact, none other than Parnelli Jones was Gurney's teammate and the pair finished 1-2 at several events. To commemorate these accomplishments, a special XR-7G edition was created that included all the features of the base XR-7, special badges, hood pins and scoop, plus an Oxford vinyl top with sunroof.
For 1968, Cougar posted 113,726 sales, which was to be expected after the first year's excitement. It should be pointed out that its strongest competition, Pontiac's Firebird, saw a marked increase in sales numbers for 1968, but it was still a few thousand units behind the Cougar.
Most important when looking at these cars is the original data plate with the VIN and other important information. By searching the Internet, you can find a couple of services that might help you with deciphering the information on this plate and better translating exactly what you are looking at. Be sure the VIN, or ID number on the data plate matches the official VIN. On 1967 models it's stamped on the top of the right fender apron within a cut-out of the fender, while the 1968 editions have a stamped metal tag visible through the windshield that is riveted to the right side of the dashboard.
On each Cougar, affixed to the rear face of the driver's door is the car's data or build plate. It contains the car's VIN, which also contains codes that determine if the car is the base model (with bench or bucket front seats) or the XR-7, as well as the original engine installed when the car was new. This plate can also reveal where the car was made. All 1967 production was at the Dearborn plant in Michigan, and to find out where the car was originally sold, the DSO or District Sales Office code can be read, which helps in discovering the car's heritage. For 1968, to help ease the production burden of Dearborn, as well as assist in deliveries on the west coast, the San Jose plant also started to produce Cougars. Both of these plants were active in Ford's pony car production, but the third Mustang plant in Metuchen, New Jersey, has no recorded Cougar builds.
By the late 1970s, early Mustangs were taking off in collector circles with the best ones snapped up and many predicting these cars made by the millions would soon be in the same price territory as the two-passenger Thunderbirds from 1955 to 1957. Specialty shops and reproduction parts were made available for Mustang like no other Ford product since the Model A. For Cougar fans however, they could only hope to search and scratch for that rare unique piece of NOS trim, or make do by adapting a Mustang or other Mercury part for their needs. But savvy collectors spotted the right cars to buy: XR-7's with big blocks, GT and GT-E's, and of course, the Dan Gurney edition.
As time moved on, the growing demand for Cougar parts caught the attention of a number of Mustang suppliers, and eventually exclusive items were being produced. This not only helped those owning original low production models produce prize winning restorations, it also meant that some "replicas" of these models could be produced. However, Cougar collectors, as well as many other Ford products, have an edge over some other "replica" rarities that often flood the market.
Today, the market for Cougar is strong, but still lags a bit behind the Mustang. Typical in car collecting, the car that was bit more expensive and luxurious when new often doesn't do as well in the market as the lower priced, often much more common model. In base form compared to an equally equipped Mustang, the Cougar fetches about 85-90% of the Ford branded pony car.
For 1967, the XR-7 option is a good 30-40% increase over the base model, even more if the big-block 390 is under the hood, and this would be about the most desirable model one could want for that year, unless of course you find one of the legendary R-code 427's. For 1968, the ultimate car depends on what you are looking for. If it's pure power, the GT-E is the car of choice, set-up for street performance and housing the might of the 428 as standard. Fewer than 300 of these cars were produced, and they are expensive today. If it was just plain rare or luxurious you were looking for, the XR-7G, Dan Gurney edition is an attractive option. While it was created to celebrate a racing legend, it was also created to be sold to buyers wanting some flash.
Cougar continued on for many years with Mercury, at one time defining the direction of styling for the entire marque. Even in this strong collector car market, we feel it is still undervalued. The educated Cougar buyer can find a lot of bang for their buck in the first generation Cougar.
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review
(C) Copyright 2005- VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide.