Last year, when General Motors announced that it would be phasing out its once-proud Pontiac brand, we wrote a lengthy obituary and launched a two-week posting barrage paying tribute to the weird and wonderful cars nestled within the brand's corporate heritage. Now, with Ford announcing Mercury's demise, we have the opportunity to do the same thing for Mercury. But, strangely, we just don't really have that much to say on the subject.
Ford founded Mercury in 1939, and since that time Mercury has filled the hole between the value-level Ford brand and the luxury Lincoln brand. Unfortunately, that niche proved to be quite narrow; Mercury was upscale, but not that upscale, and Ford's insistence on keeping desirable luxury and performance cars within its own lineup left Mercury without a real foothold in the market.
As a result, while Mercury had some beautiful, fast, compelling cars, those cars were invariably very similar to beautiful, fast, compelling Fords. As a case in point, the Cougar, likely the most famous Mercury of the last 45 years, was based heavily on Ford Mustangs and Thunderbirds for most of its life. During the 1980s, the Cougar's primary distinguishing characteristic from the Thunderbird was its squared-off C-pillar. Likewise, the Car Lust Classics we're running this week--the Mercurys we cared enough to write about over the past few years--were almost entirely available in Ford trim as well.
I'm convinced that car cloning is an addictive drug for car manufacturers. The rush of cost savings and increased profits leads them to more and more excessive abuse, until they wind up hitting rock bottom with duplicative cars that offer no unique value and that undermine each brand's individual brand equity. Excessive platform sharing helped muddle GM's Chevrolet/Oldsmobile/Pontiac/Buick hierarchy to the extent that two of those brands are now dead. Mercury, which had less of its own independent heritage or powertrain reputation than any of those brands, was an even more extreme example of the perils of over-sharing.
The unique cars that did show up in Mercury dealerships--such as the Capri, the Capri II, the Merkur XR4Ti and Scorpio, and the roadster Capri--for the most part weren't sold under the Mercury name, and were almost completely misunderstood by the Lincoln-Mercury sales force. And really, what sporty-car buyer would think to shop at Lincoln-Mercury dealers?
Ultimately, it came down to this; customers ignored Mercury because it had little unique to offer that customers couldn't get from Ford or Lincoln instead. When smart used-car shoppers pick up used Mercurys instead of Fords because they devalue so quickly, that's a sign that the brand has some serious problems.
I have always wanted to like Mercurys; in practice, they were semi-quirky Fords with better standard equipment, and their comparative rarity made them seem more special. Mercurys have also had some really memorable names--Cyclone, Comet, Cougar, Capri, Marauder, Mariner, Mountaineer, Sable, Tracer ... in a car world dominated by unimaginative alphanumeric designations, those names were evocative and, matched to the right products, potentially powerful. Heck, even the Ford Pinto clone, the Bobcat, had a pretty cool appelation. Some Mercurys were cars worthy of their names, but most were not. Imagine a Bobcat sport hatchback. Or a Mariner luxury sedan. Or a Tracer sports car. It kills me that these names were wasted on rebadges of mediocre cars.
So ... Mercury. Losing a car brand is generally a sad thing, as it contributes to a further homogenization of our roads, but it's difficult to feel too outraged at this news. Pontiac had its long stretches of mediocrity, but those stretches were also punctuated by moments of its own unique genius. Mercury had some high points, which we'll try to highlight this week, but those high points were more derivative of Ford's high points than anything else. Overall, I'm more disappointed that Mercury wasn't more interested than I am that it's going away.