It was no secret that the Mercury Cougar had been based on the wildly successful 1965 Ford Mustang, but it was much more than a badge-engineered version of the original ponycar. It was sporty, yet it was also luxurious. It had not only style but also grace. In short, the Cougar was the very definition of what Mercury promoted as “America’s most complete luxury sports car.” Then again, the 1967-’68 Cougar was arguably America’s only small luxury sports car of the era.
Coming home to the 1960s with lots of style: whitewall tires, bucket seats, and wood trim for the steering wheel and dash.
The first-generation Cougar has a look all its own, which is highlighted by a grille that has much in common designwise with the business end of an electric shaver. Complete with vacuum-operated hideaway headlights, this expansive, bipartite nose clip is the car’s signature styling element. At the tail end of this cool kitty are taillights with three sequentially operated elements secreted behind vertical chrome strips. From nose to tail, the car is 6.7 inches longer than a 1967-’68 Mustang.
Conceptually, the Mercury Cougar lies between a sporty car like the Ford Mustang and a personal luxury car like the era’s Ford Thunderbird. The Cougar rides better than the former thanks to a wheelbase that’s 3.2 inches longer, along with longer rear leaf springs. And the Cougar is a bit less opulent than the latter, which had evolved into a large, luxurious coupe during the 1960s. The Cougar was offered only as a two-door pillarless hardtop in either base or upscale XR-7 trim. The XR-7 includes a wood-grain dash, toggle switches, and an overhead binnacle of warning lights, all meant to present what the marketing guys called “the look of hand-tooled elegance.” The Cougar XR-7 was meant to conjure up the image of a European-style grand touring car.
It’s been suggested that “XR-7” is a cipher for “experimental racing,” and there was, in fact, a team of Cougars prepared by NASCAR specialist Bud Moore for drivers Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones to compete in the 1967 Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans-Am road-racing championship. Yet despite the ponycar persona, the Cougar was essentially a boulevardier, serenely quiet compared to a Mustang thanks in part to 123 pounds of additional acoustic insulation.
When the Mercury Cougar debuted at the end of 1966, it really caught the collective imagination of the car-buying public. It was the centerpiece of another marketing effort by Mercury to establish an identity as an upscale, GM-style brand, something the division had done at least once each decade since it was established in 1938 and would continue to attempt until it finally gave up and disappeared at the end of 2011.
Ron Duby, the owner of this nearly perfect 1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7, was predisposed from birth to be attracted to the new, hot Mercury. The first new car owned by his parents had been a 1950 Mercury Club Coupe, known as the choice of hot-rod customizers, especially after the James Dean film “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). His parents brought Duby home from the hospital in the big Merc’s successor, the
In October 1968, young Ron picked out a leftover ’68 Cougar in Nordic Blue for his mom and dad from the inventory at McCormack Motors in Mount Kisco, New York. Before his 17th birthday, Duby’s parents gave the car to him, but its tenure was short-lived. It was soon stolen, stripped, and finally dumped, minus even its wheels. In 1975 Duby bought a 5-year-old Cougar XR-7, but it too was stolen.
Ron Duby never got over his Cougar obsession, and after a six-year search he came to own the beautiful 1968 Cougar XR-7 seen here. It’s a California car (note the black plate) finished in Black Cherry with an “Oxford roof” (Mercury-speak for a vinyl-covered top), and it has leather upholstery and air-conditioning. The odometer shows a few more than 110,000 miles, but only 700 of those have been added since Duby acquired the car in 2011.
He bought it just three months after the family of its original owner parted with it, when he saw it parked beside the road with a “For Sale” sign. It had been re-sprayed about 15 years earlier, and though the paint was still lustrous, the original pinstripes had been lost in the process. Ron found an artisan who replicated the original double-stripe pattern freehand, restoring the factory-fresh look. After acquiring a correct set of 1968 XR-7 wheel covers, a mix of meticulous cleaning and maintenance accomplished the rest.
This 1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7 is powered by a 4.9-liter J-code V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor. After driving this car, we can tell you that the total effect is one of powerful assurance coupled with an exceptionally smooth ride, nothing like the crass Ford Mustang of the same era. The Select-Shift Merc-O-Matic changes gears unobtrusively yet can be operated manually if you are so inclined. The Cougar corners fairly well, and there’s not a whole lot of body roll. But driving this car hard is not the point; the Cougar is a car to savor both outside and in. There’s a sense of serenity in the cabin and, yes, “hand-tooled luxury.”
- Number Sold 264,634
- Original Price $3,232 (NADA)
- Value Today $11,000â$28,000 (Hagerty)
More than you could ever want in a Ford Mustang, for less. Though the first-generation Mustang is more highly valued as a collectible, the Mercury Cougar is less often seen on the street and in collectible car shows, and it drives like a far more refined car. Even better, the Cougar costs significantly less than a Mustang. The Cougar is a qualitatively more distinctive collectible than the Mustang, and it can even serve as an everyday driver thanks to an abundance of available drivetrain parts. Here is sport and luxury in one unique, sophisticated, and reasonably priced package. Plus hideaway headlights and sequential taillights—so snazzy,