5.28.2010

Mercury, Dead At 71?


Bloomberg and Automotive News are reporting that Ford is getting ready to wind down the Mercury brand.

Sources say the plan will be presented to directors in July. The stats make a compelling case for euthanasia...the brand's peak sales year was 32 years ago, sales have dropped 74 percent in the last 10 years, ad spending by 88 percent in the last four, and with the 2011 demise of the Grand Marquis and Mountaineer, the brand would have only two models, the Milan and Mariner, clones of the Ford Fusion and Escape respectively.

The truth, of course, is that those were self-inflicted wounds. While Mercurys have had an on and off history of being based on supposedly lesser Fords, there was a time when FoMoCo worked to make them different, establish the argument for spending more for a Merc, and in the process, came up with some compelling and iconic vehicles (helped a bit by Hollywood and the original Mad Men):





The movie "Rebel Without A Cause" starred James Dean, Natalie Wood and a customized '49 Mercury. It made such an impression that 55 years after the film, the cars are commonly called "James Dean Mercurys".






Flash forward 13 years and it was another Merc, also black...driven not by a teenage rebel but by a middle-aged cop. McGarrett's four-door hardtop defined cool.





At about the same time, some star power with four legs and a tail....a real-life cougar serving as the mascot for the new Mercury Cougar...a stretched, re-bodied Ford Mustang, but different enough to be percieved as a major step up.

But just as Mercury was finding its mojo, the party ended. First, Ford marketing lost the thread. Instead of a tire-smoking Steve McGarrett, they tried to sell the 1970 Mercury Monterey Coupe with a W.C. Fields impressionist (35 years after Fields' peak popularity)




And it got worse. The 70s hit and so did the fuel crisis. Practicality rarely makes for an exciting sell, even when one of the vehicles is a "sexy European":



As horsepower evaporated, so did the blue oval's willingness to do more than the minimum required to turn Fords into Mercurys.  By mid-decade, the Cougar was an LTD II with a different grille and the ad agency knew that it would take the sex appeal of a not-yet famous Farrah Fawcett to move them out of showrooms.



And that's been the path since. Jill Wagner makes young men's hearts beat faster...

 

But not enough to actually buy the product. The Mercury customer continues to be a Grand Marquis buyer with an average age of 70 (which means half of them are older). And given what Grand Marquis have been for the last 35 years, that's no surprise at all:



As someone with significant Mercurys in his personal history...a 1956 Montclair and 1970 Monterey Custom Coupe (my parents), a 1969 Cougar XR-7 Convertible (my uncle's) and a 1974 Capri 2800 V6 (mine), I'm sad.  But this, probably more than Plymouth, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, is inevitable. There's almost nothing left to resuscitate.

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