Market Spotlight

More than just a facelifted Mustang: the early Cougar market isn't easily defined

by Sajeev Mehta
12 October 2023 5 min read
Images: Ford

“During the past few years, thousands of motorists have asked for a larger car than the Ford, with all the fundamental virtues and advantages of the Ford V8, and priced according to Ford standards of value.”

While the quote above was taken from a 1939 Mercury sales brochure, it encapsulates Mercury’s mission to spin off a version of Ford’s wildly-successful pony car for themselves. Much like the Mercury’s prior successes, the 1965 Mustang’s blueprint easily translated into a premium pony car: more wheelbase with unique sheetmetal, a standard V-8 engine, memorable fascias front and rear, and an option package providing an interior akin to a luxurious Jaguar. It even received an appropriately feline name to boot: Cougar.

The Cougar slotted well into Mercury’s mission, as the aforementioned Jaguar-themed grand tourer was priced between the Mustang and the prestigious Thunderbird, and provided Lincoln-Mercury dealerships with another high volume vehicle. It was a delicate balancing act, one that kept dealers on both sides of the Ford spectrum happy. It didn’t hurt that the Cougar was able to do everything a Mustang could, but with more space and grace.

More to the point, a top-spec Cougar XR-7 GT in 1967 came with Ford’s 390-cid FE motor, a handling-oriented suspension, and that ritzy leather/faux wood interior. It was priced disturbingly close to that of a base Thunderbird, but that only made the Cougar’s mystique even more romantic. Consider the first photo below, as Ford had the nerve to project the 1967 Cougar logo onto the GM building, sort of a public relations coup for their premium coupe. That’s certainly a moment in time we will never see again.

Then consider the Cougar’s competitive pedigree —with no less than Dan Gurney behind the wheel, it came within spitting distance of beating the Mustang in SCCA’s 1967 A-Sedan manufacturer’s championship. Off the track, adding the XR-7’s leather and burl wood(ish) trimmings gave the Cougar a fighting chance in its battles aloof GT cars from Europe. A comparison test with an Aston Martin DB6 isn’t necessarily a trivial exercise: while the aforementioned Cougar XR-7 GT is longer and has a far more monstrous engine, the weights are similar and performance was shockingly comparable. That’s provided you neglect the Aston’s prestigious refinement and consider the Cougar’s more modest asking price. But again, this is another circumstance we will never see again.

Cougar 1973 sr7 hardtop
1973 Mercury Cougar XR-7

That’s because time pauses for no one. By 1973, the now-second generation Cougar suffered from the same bloat and reduced performance as its Mustang brother, losing its famous electric shaver covered headlights in the process. The Malaise Era forever changed the pony car, so it’s no surprise that future Cougars went all-in on their luxurious heritage. The jump to the Ford Torino platform in 1974 signaled the end, even if the act created the best selling Cougars of all time. Subsequent Cougars moved to the Ford Fairmont, Thunderbird and even the Mondeo platform, and many examples were true to the performance/luxury value proposition of the original. Too bad that two-portaled ship had sailed, never to return.

1968 mercury cougar xr7 gt
1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7 GT-E

With Mercury’s empty slip in the boatyard of automotive history came misinformation to fill its space. And one particular myth about the original Cougar endures: it is just a Mustang with different bumpers and lights. There are variations of that theme, but the lights/bumpers comment was something I overheard while waiting in line for the airport ticket counter. Of course I couldn’t leave well enough alone, as the slow burn of waiting for a plane ticket (pre-paperless days, mind you) got to me.

So I gently, courteously, reminded my fellow passengers that the first Cougar “shared almost nothing with the Mustang aside from the windshield.” That’s factual, but also difficult to argue in a public setting. The subsequent conversation about wheelbase, engine differences, and the Cougar’s standard equipment turned a few heads out of curiosity, but imagine if those folks had said that a Mustang was just a Falcon? That would likely have triggered an intervention from the TSA!

Cougar ad
The hardware speaks for itself?

So what actually made the Cougar so special might be lost to time, but perhaps some data will right the ship. The Cougar may live behind the Mustang’s long shadow, but more younger folks are taking interest in the old cat. Millennials and Gen-X make up 19% and 35% of interest (insurance quotes, respectively) these days, and we expect Gen-X to be the largest portion of first generation Cougar owners in the near future. Boomers are currently at 36%, while Gen-Z and Pre-Boomers are at 5 and 3%, respectively. Cougars like the 1970 Eliminator (above) are no slouch in terms of market valuation, as those spoilers really speak to the market.

The days of pulling a big-block 1970 Cougar out of a barn for a few hundred clams is long gone, and the cosmetic tweaks offered by the Eliminator provide period-correct style for roughly 85% more than an XR-7 with the same Cobra Jet motor. The same applies to the base model when Cobra Jet equipped, as its about half the price of the XR-7 above it. Last year was a good time to own a 1970 Cougar, as prices shot up across the board and most have plateaued ever since. Muscle and pony cars from the heyday of Detroit performance set a high watermark for many iconic automotive brands, and high tide lifted all boats, even those made by the Lincoln-Mercury division. Provided they are the ones with spoilers, racing stripes, and names that evoke the performance expected from the era, of course.

The earlier first generation Cougars aren’t fairing quite as well, possibly because more units were sold (150,893 units in 1967, versus 72,343 in 1970), there was a smaller big block, and the emphasis was on touring luxuries instead of overt, racy trim packages. But the big block 1967 Cougars still do well, spiking in 2022 just like the 1970 models. The small blocks have been more volatile over time, and a 390 big block Cougar is worth 25% more than than a small block XR-7, and a whopping 44% more than a base small block Cougar.

cougar with cobra jet engine
The 1968 Cougar might be halfway between 1967 and 1969-70, with the original’s touring style but with a Cobra Jet engine underhood

It’s ironic that the original Cougar had strong sales when new, but its focus as a high-value alternative to Jaguar hasn’t reaped the muscular, big blocked transaction prices generated for the revised 1969-70 model in 2023. On the plus side, this makes the 1967 models more approachable for the younger generations that are clearly finding good reason to visit The Sign of The Cat. While a tragic amount of the Cougar’s mystique has been lost to the sands of time, the diverse entry points and significant interest from Gen X and younger buyers may well bring in more soon-to-be loyalists. Those new, true believers will understand what made the first generation Mercury Cougar special over its Mustang counterpart.


  • paul s murray says:

    The top dog engine option on the first generation Cougar was actually a hydraulic cam version of the 427. Rated at 390 h.p. and , unfortunately, only produced coupled to the automatic. With only about 350 + being produced I would think these GTE’s would be one of the most collectable. It’s a shame that the powers that be decided to make the Dan Gurney Specials into more of just an appearance package . The original intention was to make them more performance oriented .

  • Jim Graham says:

    I drove a ’67 base model and had the greatest fun with this car and its little 289. The swing-away steering wheel was a fun trick that could be released with your foot while going down the road. The tall center horn button was another gag that I would remove hand to a passenger in the back. I would instruct them to press the center and when they did I would honk the horn itself. It always surprised the girls.

    • Edward C. Greenberg says:

      My 67 w/ a 289 had a 4bbl carb and easily beat stock Mustangs, Camaros and Javelins of comparable engine sizes. Required premium fuel. the 68 did not

  • Mark B says:

    I was ten years old at the time, but after my father and his brother had purchased ’64 and ’65 Mustangs, my grandfather decided to go the Cougar route in 1968. It was a small block, automatic, tan or gold exterior with a tan interior as I recall. A cool car for sure at the time, with the sequential tail lights and folding headlight covers. Guess he wanted to upstage his boys!

  • Roger W. Sunderland says:

    I have a ’68 Cougar with the X-code 2V 390 and C6 auto. It also came from the factory with 10:1 compression ratio and dual exhaust even though it only had a 2 barrel carb. Over the years a previous owner swapped the 2V intake for a factory S-code intake and Holley 600 cfm 4V carb.

  • JoeD. says:

    Owned a !968 XR-7,in 1971, 302,4bbl.,C4 auto, w/dual factory exhaust, green w/tan vinyl interior, even had a tilt-a-way steering wheel, beautiful exterior and interior, w/ the toggle switches and woodgrain dash. Mechanically, total junk, you needed two, just to keep one running at any given time. One of my high school friends had a ’67 regular Cougar, same thing mechanically. Mercury division, of F(fix)O(or)R(repair)D(daily), is how the pet name for the Ford Motor Company came about. HA!HA! Don’t miss that Cougar. Talk about BAD memories.

  • Bill S. says:

    I bought a new 1969 Cougar after getting out of the Army. My Father was a Mercury Man! So I had to. It was a base model with the 390, posi rear, competition handling suspension. No power steering and no power brakes. As I recall it ran a 14.8 in the 1/4. I put radial tires on it and the handling was pretty darn good for pony car.
    When you compared it to base Mustang. Forgetting the competition parts. It was much, much nicer on the inside.

  • Dale W says:

    Not sure which is a better buy today but I have to say that back in the day my then wife’s (at the time) 5 year old 67 Cougar with a 390 was a much better car than my Dad’s new 66 and 67 Mustangs. More comfortable, quieter, great highway cruiser. Only issue was keeping the sequential turn signals working.

  • paul s murray says:

    If you ever owned a Cougar..the vacuum operated headlight covers (or one) had stopped stopped working a long time ago fortunately in the open position. The sequential taillights still worked ( with that whine of the motor in the trunk ) , the leather seat bottoms had cracked beyond repair, the flip open interior door handles were really cool as were the the door open marker lights below them, the center mounted roof / windsheild warning lights ( XR-7) were a nice touch too as was the rally clock , if still, or not ,or sometimes working . Probably had a bit of cancer around the rear quarters and was more than likely green. And you loved it.

    • Edward C. Greenberg says:

      My headlight doors on my two Cougars never failed. The leather never cracked on the 67 and the 68 has vinyl seats and dash which are original, pliable, have no cracks, interior color is pure black and the car is a Florida car. Carpeting is original and perfect as is dash and all gauges.

      if you don’t want leather seats to crack, clean them and then wax them with Kiwi military shoe polish. Takes about 1/2 hour every 7 – 9 months

  • paul s murray says:

    (ps) Bill -contact cleaner

  • Col Steve says:

    I have owned three Cougars, a regular model 67, that was sold after I was drafted at 19. In October of 2003, I bought a triple black XR7 from a NASA engineer in Huntsville, Alabama. The third, I first saw in 1971 after I had got out of the Army. It belonged to a friend of my then wife. I told the owner if you ever sell it, I want it. After her dad passed in 2009, I inquired again but was told it was in dad’s garage since 1983.
    A few months later, she called me to help her get it out of the garage. I took it to a shop where with some prodding it fired up. I bought it for $6,500. A friend and I restored it over some six months. It was a Dan Gurney, factory prepped car, all options except power disc brakes, which I added. It was a beautiful yellow with a perfect vinyl top. thanks to the storage. I sold it to a man in Marco Island, Florida and he was very happy to get it. He was impressed at the quality of the work I had done compared to others he had bought. I think he has since sold it.
    As I have owned Camaros, Chevelles, Oldsmobile’s, Buicks and Caliente’s, the first generation of Cougars far surpass the quality and innate beauty of the entire generation of Pony Cars. The 68 Cougar, 20th anniversary this month is a stunning triple black beauty with the original engine beefed to a roller rocker, cam and lifters with electronic ignition geared 3:00 with a Ford AOD. You see and hear this car cruising down the road using a rack and pinion steering to replace the one Ford weakness of their Pony cars, handling. If you have a Cat, keep it and don’t be one of the crowds, that has to have what everyone else has. Be an individual with the pride of the best of what Mercury had over the Ford lineup of the era.

  • Kenn Colclasure says:

    Dad bought a 1967 RX7 new for mom. Beautiful car with leather and all. Many years later after mom passed away, I asked dad what he wanted for it (transmission problem and carb. issues) in the early 90s. I figured he probably give it to me, but no, he wanted a couple of thousand or so. I passed on it because i didn’t think it was worth it. Besides, he was in Illinois and I was in California – the drive would worry me. Foolish me.

  • hyperv6 says:

    The Cougars big problem has been it was too much a Ford and not enough Merc.

    Look at the Camaro and Trans Am. While the Camaro and Trans Am were similar they did offer different suspensions and the hear of the the engines were different.

    Later on the Trans Am became just a different styled Camaro and that is what always hurt the Cougar. Later on it was just a different styled T bird.

    The same is true on Lincoln today as it has too much Fird not enough Lincoln.

    • Mike B. says:

      Suspensions on the Cougars were not the same as the Mustang. Different spring rates, and a longer rear leaf spring on the Cougars.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    Those ’68 XR-7 look great. The second gen ’73’s don’t interest me at all. Too big and loses all the charm to me.

  • Edward C. Greenberg says:

    I owned a 67 XR7 as a teenager and for 20 years I have driven the very attention getting 68 Cougar XR7 several times per week as my primary car. In 20 years and over 75k of my driving (133k total) I have put a total of under 3k into the car – carb, A/C compressor (both original and lasted 53 years), fuel pump and leaf springs. That’s it. Driven regularly in Fl the original vinyl seats and dash are soft and subtle. The headlight covers work flawlessly. I intend to die with the car so its not for sale BUT my car is 100% stock making it valuable. I have had countless offers to buy the car for way more than 30k (see above chart) even though it only has a 302 not a 390. Sorry but a 100% stock 67 or 68 in pristine condition sells for much more than 30 k w/o a 390+ engine. A broker offered me 62,500$ as an opening bid and others have offered more. Not for sale. Great car, attention getter and very rare. I have never been to, or shown my car anywhere where there was a pristine stock 67 or 68 Cougar anywhere in sight other than mine. They simply can’t be found – for many reasons. Take note if you should see one, stock….anywhere on the road. Note that the 69-70 are technically not XR7 even though they have the badge. There are no overhead, interior consuls which was an essential part of the XR7 package.

  • paul s murray says:

    Ed G, at that point in time these were old cars that that had gone through how many different owners. And it gets cold here in the northeast. All the Kiwi in the world wouldn’t save those seats so best to save it for your Florsheim Imperials.

  • Mark Bouchard says:

    you can find a lot of mustangs..but a nice cougar is going to be a lot harder to find . it is the rareity.that makes the real difference..between mustangs and coubars

  • Angela bagsby says:

    I have a 67 cougar XR7. It was my Dad’s I loved going g places with him in it.. it became mine in 1999. & I still have it . It runs but I would like a new motor. I was thinking about selling it

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