Top Cat

When the Mustang came on the scene in 1964, Ford’s Mercury division wanted a cut of the action. Because, however, of parent Ford’s uncertainty with the Mustang until after its launch, Mercury’s Cougar didn’t make its debut until 1967. What emerged was a luxurious coupe that had the same underpinnings as the Mustang but with more size, more luxury, more comfort and a tad less sportiness. The Cougar was initially marketed as the car for the “man on his way to a Thunderbird”, the Thunderbird being the most luxurious non-Lincoln two-door Ford was making at the time. As a Mercury, it was at the top of the heap. As part of the Ford product family, it was more than a little lost, like the rest of the Mercury brand eventually turned out to be.

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What we have here is a second-generation Cougar from 1973, the last year this body style was made, and the last Cougar to share its platform with the Mustang. Ford management finally admitted that the Mustang had gotten too big, so they moved the 1974 Mustang to the Pinto platform. That, of course, would not have been acceptable for the Cougar, for one because it was Mercury’s halo car, and for another because a downsized Cougar could cannibalise sales of the Capri, a European Ford product that was being sold through Mercury dealers. So it happened that while the Mustang kept down its sporty path, the 1974 Cougar became even bigger than the 1971-73 body style on its way to becoming a junior Thunderbird.

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Like a carving encased in glass. Perfect.

If the Cougar was the halo in Mercury’s line-up, then the XR-7 was the bright light that came from it. Introduced a few months after the Cougar debuted, the XR-7 – despite the racy name – added even more luxury: full instrumentation, woodgrain dash trim and plush leather or vinyl upholstery, at a premium of course. But then again the “ordinary” Cougar had enough luxury to justify its price and its position in the Ford hierarchy. While some of these touches may seem strange to modern eyes, the Cougar is a product of a different time, and so is its luxury.

Such an imposing face.

Such an imposing face.

The first generation Cougars hid their headlights behind a retractable grille, but the mechanism was slow and malfunctioned frequently, so for the 1971 Cougar the head lamps were left exposed. The second generation departs from the sporty aggression of the earlier cars, and trades it for a heavier, more Lincoln sort of aggression, aided by the extended fender tips and steel girders posing as bumpers.

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Make no mistake, the bumpers on this Cougar are simply massive, adding a good three inches or so to the length of the front overhang. The extended fenders also add a considerable amount of length, and make me wonder just how much difficulty this adds to driving in tight spaces.

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The bumper even adds width to the car, with a rubber strip offering a smidge of protection for the chrome.

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“ry” MIA.

The Cougar’s long, low and wide styling deceives the eye into thinking that the car is much wider and longer than it actually is; it’s not much wider that the black HiAce you can see parked behind it in the first picture. Add in the centre grille piece and the quad lights, and there’s not a lot of space for an emblem on the grille. So this elegant script is found on the end of the hood, above the driver’s side lamps.

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Moving along the side, you find the “Cougar” emblem quite low on the front fender, just behind the wheel arch.

Wreaths = instant class.

Wreaths = instant class.

Along the C-pillars (which are just ridiculously vast), you find these exquisite emblems denoting the car’s top-line trim level. The detail on the emblem is just amazing with its four layers: the red base at the bottom, followed by the black “7”, then the “XR”, and finally a clear layer to keep it all from the elements. For a car with such expansive body panels, there’s a surprising scarcity of emblems and badges, but the quality of each more than makes up for it.

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At the back there is only the blue Ford oval to tell you what this car is. Those wide tail lamps feature sequential turn signals, which would light up quadrants of the lamp in sequence, from the centre to the edges. Marlon, the car’s current owner, revived the signals during the last restoration, and today the controller sits dormant in the boot.

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Before we move on, let’s talk about where the Cougar – and Mercury – fit in Ford’s product family.

America’s “Big Three” manufacturers – GM, Ford and Chrysler – all own several divisions (brands), with each division originally representing a different market segment. In Ford’s case, the base brand was Ford, Mercury was entry-level luxury, and Lincoln was the luxury brand. The original idea was that the working man would start in a Ford, then as his income went up he would trade in his Ford for a Mercury. Then, if he was lucky enough to get to the top, he would drive to his Mercury to the local dealer, and then leave with a Lincoln.

Lincoln mostly got its own platforms, or were at least given the resources to extensively modify them, while Mercury was stuck with rebodying and retweaking existing Ford platforms. As the middle brand, Mercury had to settle with being a plusher, more expensive Ford, and an identity was difficult to come by.

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Vinyl tops. Because power retracting hardtops were 30 years from mass production.

This was what the Cougar came into, and the situation it inherited. Some success was made with the Cougar in motorsport, but this was frowned upon by Ford management. Firstly, Cougars in motorsport competed with Mustangs, and Ford was footing the bill for both teams. Secondly, racing the Cougar served no marketing purpose for Mercury; racing obviously muddled the Cougar’s luxury marketing, and did nothing to increase Mercury’s market share, with Cougar sales only cannibalising sales of Mercury’s own Cyclone. By the time this generation of Cougar came along, sales had dropped and the car was having a severe identity crisis, just coming off its luxury-ponycar image and transitioning to a personal luxury coupe position.

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Most recently restored in 2001, this particular Cougar has been sitting in this area since 2009, which explains the relatively fresh look of the paint. Even with the wear and tear of having been parked uncovered on the street for coming on five years, the car still carries all its personal luxury trappings with pride, including the so-70’s vinyl top.

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Of course this car is an import; as far as I know Ford didn’t bother to sell the Cougar outside of the home market. But here’s the twist: this Cougar was shipped to the Philippines new, way back in 1973. This is why, if you go a few pictures up, you’ll see the car wearing old Philippine plates. This also explains the sticker; as is common today, the car was imported through Subic, only back then it was much easier with the American presence, and the cars were more rigorously inspected.

Such a small mirror for such a large car.

Such a small mirror for such a large car.

According to Marlon, this was common practice for men of more generous means back in the day. Marlon inherited the car from his father-in-law, a man named Ricardo Gonzales. The late Mr. Gonzales was an avid fan of American cars, and left this Cougar in the care of Marlon. Now that’s the kind of legacy I like.

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Open the big, heavy hood and you find the original 351C V8 sitting under there.

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A little dusty, but it still runs.

The “C” in 351C stands for Cleveland, which is where this engine was made. “351” stands for the engine’s displacement in cubic inches. For the rest of the world, engine displacement has always been measured in cc (cubic centimetres), while American cars up to the 80’s used ci (cubic inches). Converted, 351ci comes out to 5,751cc, or 5.75 litres. Like its Mustang cousin, the performance of the Cougar varied wildly according to engine choice. For the second generation Cougar, there were three engine choices, down from the six of the previous generation. You could have a 351W (Windsor), a 351C (Cleveland), or a wild 429 Super Cobra Jet, which was basically a race engine tamed and – slightly – detuned for road use. In case you’re wondering, 429ci converts to 7.03 litres of displacement, but that was not the biggest engine Ford had on offer: a 460ci (7.53 litres) engine was on offer for police duty, and racers could order 514ci (8.42 litres) of V8 fury in a crate.

Plastic engine covers? BAH!

This Cougar, though, is equipped with the 351C-2V. The 2V was the low-compression version of the 351C, equipped with a two-barrel caburettor. The 351C was introduced in 1971 as Ford’s new performance engine, and in 2V guise was the middle choice for the Cougar. These engines have gained a dedicated following, and the aftermarket makes it easy to produce ludicrous amounts of power from them.

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Like the 404 from a while back, the Cougar’s hood hinges are immense, complex-looking things, only this time even more so. Aside from having to hold up the weight of that ridiculously long hood, the hinges are also articulated in a way that the hood also comes forward as you swing it up, and both movements happen at the same time. I’m sure Mr. Gonzales, a mechanical engineer by education, knew exactly how this mechanism worked.

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The 351C, large as it is, leaves a lot more room in the engine bay. Remember, the Cougar shared its underpinnings with the Mustang, which by then had proven track performance, and had grown into a genuine muscle car, with a large engine bay to fit large engines (like the 429CJ) easily.

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The hood release latch sits just above the driver’s side head lamps, perhaps necessitated by the long hood. The mechanism is still quite complex though, manipulated by an array of levers, rods and springs to move the latch.

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As for the front overhang, a lot of it is actually empty space. The rationale behind this escapes me, but if I had to guess I would say that this is because the basic platform – and its hard points – was shared, so there has to be room (literally and figuratively) for Ford’s divisions to style the car around said hard points without affecting the crash worthiness of the platform.

XR-7: woodgrain trim, full instruments and plush seats.

XR-7: woodgrain trim, full instruments and plush seats.

The concept of a “personal luxury” car is something that is uniquely American. Cars labeled as such were all large two-door coupes with plush interior trim and suspension tuning, providing two comfortable front seats and a parcel shelf in the back pretending to be two more seats. These were cars meant for the reasonably affluent man who wanted a marginally sporty car that retained an upscale image, and this Cougar gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be that man.

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The vinyl on the front seats have been damaged by exposure, but the parts that aren’t ripped are surprisingly supple to the touch. The flat seats mark this car as a cruiser rather than a carver; take corners at speed and you’ll have to use the steering wheel to anchor yourself to your seat. No, these seats are best enjoyed with the windows down, an arm resting on the window sill, and the engine lazily pushing the car along a wide, brightly-lit avenue.

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Meanwhile, those unfortunate enough to have to sit in the back will find their marginalisation complete. Yes, the supple leather is still there and the seats are still overstuffed, but there’s about two inches of space for their legs, and the seat bottoms are insultingly short. As is the practice with “four seat” coupes, the back seats are best left for small children. As for that belt hanging by the window, I have no idea how that is supposed to be a seat belt.

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Up front is really where you want to be sitting in a car like this. The seats and passenger footwell are low, inviting you to stretch out and relax. The top of the centre console is richly padded, as is the top of the dash and the door panels, inviting you to squeeze and press them and revel in the softness.

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For the driver, there was a large-diameter, thin-rimmed wheel. I like steering wheels like this; the thin rim suggests you engage in calm, gentle motoring, instead of the aggressive maneuvers thicker steering wheels goad you to try.

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Being a personal luxury car, the Cougar has these wonderfully different touches all around its interior, giving us a good lesson in what vehicular luxury used to be. First of is this detailed Cougar relief on the seat backs; the wreath from the XR-7 emblem makes another appearance, and a representation of the sun (or a gear) surrounds it all. Those features are deep enough that you could imprint them on your skin if you sat in the car long enough. Even the rear passengers get this feature on their seats, easing the sting of being relegated back there somewhat.

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That’s real wood.

These door lock plungers are perfect. Aside from being things of beauty, they also keep the process of locking and unlocking the doors from the inside from being a temperature-sensitive affair. What a perfect nod to old-world luxury.

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The doors have not been left out. Fully padded and upholstered, Marlon says these panels have survived the best.

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The amount decoration on the door is perfectly judged; all concentrated at the front, and admirably retrained. This medallion on the door features the same pattern on the seats, and serves no function other than to be pretty.

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This little knob just above the medallion adjusts the angle of the side view mirror through what is the most mystifying linkage I’ve yet to encounter.

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Seriously, whatever linkage exists between the knob and the mirror still leaves enough space for the window to wind down, and moves the mirror through a surprisingly large range of movement. All this is done without any motors of any sort and all the power the system requires is that provided by the driver. Simple, reliable and brilliant.

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No power windows here, but the winders are still things of art. The stem doesn’t have to have that hole in it, but it does. The knob doesn’t have to have that level of detail, but it does, all in the name of luxury. The whole assembly is also screwed in, instead of the infuriating clips you find on cars from later decades.

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The latch release lives hidden under the padded armrest, residing with one of the only two pieces of plastic on the door. The placement of the handle coincides with the low seat, allowing the passengers to open the door comfortably.

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The dash is all curved edges, with a simple layout politely excluding the passenger from any of the controls.

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The radio has five presets, and two bands. For ventilation, you get three speeds, cooling and heating, plus a slider to direct the air. The A/C switch is integrated into the slider, with “MAX” and “FRESH” being the air recirculation controls, at least from what I can deduce. “OFF” probably turns off the compressor and directs all the air through the dash vents, “HI/LO VENT” opens the dash and floor vents, “FLOOR” opens just the floor vents and “DEFROST” turns on the heater. Lots of old A/C control panels from the era looked like this, and functioned mostly the same way.

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The driver has control of all interior lights though this small panel, along with the knob for the wipers and rear window defroster switch.

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Under the steering column is where you’ll find the tiny switch for the four-way blinkers. While this might seem stupid at first, do note that the big red button for the four-ways weren’t standard yet, and that this is a problem that familiarity will solve. I do like the wings on the ignition switch; I’m sure it makes starting even more fun.

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The speedometer reads in mph, and the odometer only reads to five digits. Currently it reads 79,067 miles travelled, and almost all of them have been on our roads.

Space in your trunk for all that junk.

Space in your trunk for all that junk.

Out back, the boot is huge but a bit shallow. Still, that’s enough for a man of above-average means and his lovely wife’s luggage for a weekend away, and they’ll have enough room for the souvenirs. Sir and his lady should, however, make sure that none of those items can puncture the floor of the boot, as the floor of the boot is also the roof of the gas tank.

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The trunk latch is impressively beefy, and the pipe under it feeds into the gas tank. The rear plate swings down to reveal the filler cap, which explains the clean flanks. This kind of arrangement can never happen in cars of today, because of safety regulations. You see, for this to work on a typical car with a rear overhang, the fuel tank must be mounted outside of the car’s wheelbase. This means that in a rear-end crash, the fuel tank will be one of the first objects to receive energy from the crash, which is not optimal for vehicle safety. Cars these days store their fuel tanks within the wheelbase, which means a plate-mounted filler neck will have to run an unacceptably long distance to the tank.

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Should any tire flatten unexpectedly on the road, this sticker is present to inform the driver on the proper jacking procedure.

After its 2001 restoration. Photo provided by owner.

After its 2001 restoration. Photo taken by owner.

Above is how the Cougar looked like after its first restoration in 2001. The paint was refreshed, but the colour is the same as it left the factory.

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After its 2001 restoration. Photo taken by owner.

The rake in the suspension is probably not a factory job, but it does give back some of the sportiness Mercury took away from the second-gen cars.

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After its 2001 restoration. Photo taken by owner.

The car’s restoration in 2001 came after a long period of the car sitting, partially disassembled with a diesel engine under the hood.

No, the diesel engine was not because of fuel prices, but rather because of the Marcos era. In 1981, the 351C-2V was yanked out and replaced with a diesel engine; apparently Marcos had decreed that privately-owned cars with V8s were to be banned from the streets. This was reportedly done in an attempt to cut down on vehicle-related crimes. So the Cougar had to make do with a clattery oil-burner under the hood for a while.

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Mr. Gonales (right), with Mang Pete (left) and the Cougar after the completion of the 2001 restoration. Photo taken by owner.

Above is the Cougar with its original owner, Mr. Gonzales, who is smiling at us in his checkered shirt on the right. Standing on the left is Mang Pete, who was in Mr. Gonzales’ care since the age of five. Mang Pete was the one who helped fix the car up in 2001, and today he operates his own machine shop. Mang Pete worked in Germany for a time, operating machinery for a certain carmaker based in Stuttgart before coming back to settle in the Philippines.

Marlon says that Mr. Gonzales was a kind man who valued the happiness of his family far above anything else. It shows too, in the way that Marlon tells us of Mr. Gonzales. It seems that after his family Mr. Gonzales’ next love were his cars, as evidenced by that wide smile in the picture above. In the other pictures that Marlon showed us, the same smile appears on Mr. Gonzales’ face, but this time with his grandkids. Clearly Mr. Gonzales knew what living was about.

She's only resting.

She’s only resting.

Marlon is planning to restore the car next year, and it’s certain that Mang Pete will be called upon to help bring the big cat back to her former glory. Marlon has no plans to sell the car, and rightly so; within those yellow panels are held the memories of a man who made his own fortune and built everything he had out of his own skill, all so he could give his family the life they deserved.

As for Mr. Gonzales, his story is one self-made prosperity, basically spanning the entirety of modern Philippine history. He lived to the ripe old age of 92, before departing February lest year. To those who survive him he leaves a rich legacy; not just his possessions, but also his wisdom and business acumen. To his country, Mr. Gonzales is a silent hero whose achievement touches the lives of every Filipino, although very few know it. That, however, is a story too long for today, so we’ll be revisiting that at a later point in time.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Gonzales is one of the top cats – as they used to call cool people in the 70’s – of the country, and part of his memory lives on in this 1973 Mercury Cougar XR-7, the biggest cat in Ford’s lineup.

-Words by Kristoff, pictures by Eugene, additional pictures by Marlon

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