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For over 70 years, the Mercury brand churned out vehicles that were amongst the finest on the road. However, a marque that once stood for innovation and speed eventually became the “me too” division of the Ford Motor Company. Its lack of differentiation resulted in a muddy brand identity, declining sales, and its ultimate demise. While no longer in production, the Mercury name continues on in the many Mercury vehicles still on the road today.
Mercury was an automobile brand of the Ford Motor Company started in 1937 and launched in 1938 by Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford. Mercury vehicles were sold for over 70 years, with the majority of them being based on Ford platforms with some unique styling details and special features that were meant to try and differentiate them and enhance their desirability relative to their Ford counterparts. The marque was phased out in 2011 as a result of lackluster sales and the Ford Motor Company deciding to refocus its efforts on its more profitable and appealing core Ford and upscale Lincoln brands.
In 1937, Edsel Ford came up with the idea of marketing and selling cars that were a level or two higher than mainstream Ford branded models in terms of luxury, but a step below the upscale Lincoln models. The price gap between the highest trimmed Ford and the base Lincoln model was quite substantial and Edsel hoped to fill that gap with a new entry-level luxury car aimed at this subsection of reliability, luxury, and affordability. This strategy of establishing a ladder of consumption for their vehicle brands had already been done by market leader General Motors, and Chrysler was also following suit. Therefore, striving to keep pace with GM, Ford aimed to institute the same sort of hierarchy.
Initially, there was much debate within the Ford Motor Company regarding whether this new intermediate vehicle should be a new Ford model, or if it should be spun off into a brand of its own. Eventually, they decided that creating a new marque was the answer and they selected “Mercury” as its name; it was launched in 1938. The logo of the Mercury brand when it started was of its namesake, the Roman god Mercury. It would change numerous times over the course of its history, including to that of a cougar, with the last one before the brand was discontinued being that of three horizontal lines that curve and trail off, forming an abstract “M'” shape, with the name “Mercury” written above it.
The first vehicle from the new brand was the Mercury Eight. Production of the model began in 1938 and was released to the public in 1939. It was a completely new car, different from any Ford or Lincoln at the time. It would go on to become a classic automobile, becoming popular with customizers and even making appearances in TV shows and movies, including the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, who drove the car in the movie.
During the early years of the brand's existence, Mercury was its own division within the Ford Motor Company and became known for performance. Sales of its Mercury Eight models were strong during this time until World War II interrupted production. In 1945, two years after the death of Edsel Ford due to cancer, Henry Ford decided to merge the Lincoln and Mercury brands with the hope of marketing Mercury vehicles as “almost” luxury automobiles, or as a “junior Lincoln” as it became known, rather than as upscale Fords. The Lincoln-Mercury division was in place throughout the rest of the brand’s lifetime. For a short time, beginning in the late 1950’s, the Lincoln-Mercury division and the short-lived Edsel brand were joined into the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln (MEL) division. Edsel models were aimed at the gaps between Fords and Mercurys. As a result, the market was unable to figure out how to regard Mercury; was it an upscale Ford or was it an entry level Lincoln? This type of confusion surrounding the brand’s identity would follow it throughout the course of its life. The Edsel was a disaster in every sense of the word and it was discontinued following the 1959 year. The division name was then returned to Lincoln-Mercury.
By 1949, sales were again prospering as the country was a few years removed from the end of the war and postwar Mercury Eight models were reaching showroom floors. The Mercury Eight was the only model offered by the brand – albeit in different body styles - until it was discontinued following the 1951 year, coinciding with the release of the full-size Mercury Monterey car in 1952. The Monterey actually was introduced in 1950 as part of the Mercury Eight series, but became its own model in 1952; it was discontinued following the 1974 year but the name was revived once again for a short time in the 2000s as a minivan, until being discontinued for good following 2007. The Mercury Montclair was released shortly thereafter in 1955; it was discontinued following the 1959 year, but had a second chance at life as well in the mid 1960s until being discontinued for good late that same decade.
An Identity Crisis
From the very beginning, Mercury was a marque that seemed to have a brand identity that was constantly in flux, always looking for its place in the automotive market. During the 1940s and early to mid-1950s, the brand continued to be presented as a performance division, moved between being marketed as a “higher-end” Ford and as a “junior Lincoln,” and even to having its own body designs. While this era proved to be very successful for the company in terms of sales, the strategy of marketing Mercury as a “junior Lincoln” never took hold and the brand became seen more as a "lower medium priced" vehicle, just slightly above Ford in quality.
In the mid 1950s, it was decided that in order for Ford to compete with GM, the company had to go after each sales segment with unique vehicles. As part of the plan, a completely new platform and body design – Mercury’s first since World War II – was called for, in order to distance the brand from Ford models and move Mercury up the ladder of consumption. The Edsel brand was then supposed to take over Mercury's previous role in the ladder. Several different looking and innovative models were released during the late 1950s and the very early 1960s, including the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser and the Mercury Park Lane. The brand also released a number of station wagons, including the Mercury Colony Park, Mercury Commuter, and Mercury Voyager.
Unfortunately, the plan did not work out as Ford had hoped as a result of numerous factors, including the fact that the bottom was beginning to drop out of the middle price car market. Bottom line, the Edsel brand was a complete flop and sales of Mercury products including its new models failed to reach expected levels as well. Ford was forced to make some cost-cutting decisions as a result.
It was at this point in time that the company determined it wasn't worth the money to substantially differentiate Mercury from Ford. They decided that, beginning in 1961, Ford and Mercury would use the same basic Ford body shells and rely upon slightly altered exterior and interior trim elements to differentiate the brands from one another. Mercury models like the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, Mercury Park Lane (brought back to life in the mid-1960s until being discontinued for good late that same decade) and Voyager were discontinued, and others like the Mercury Colony Park, whose chassis had been used solely by the Mercury division prior to this point in time, would now share a body and chassis with Ford models until it was discontinued in 1991. Edsel, on the other hand, was effectively discontinued in 1960. From this point forward, the Mercury brand was joined at the hip with Ford once again and its brand image suffered for it. It essentially became a marque that, over the years, produced slightly different versions of the cars sold by the Ford division, but with a higher price tag.
Mercury Vehicles of the 1960s - 1990s
Mercury vehicles of the 1960s included the first generation versions of the Mercury Comet, which was based on the Ford Falcon but featured a slightly longer wheelbase, and the iconic Mercury Cougar, which was Mercury’s muscle car variation of the Ford Mustang but was three inches longer and featured a defining front grille that some called the "electric shaver." Upon release of the Cougar, two models were available, the base and the luxurious XR-7. The car was a big success and was extremely important to the brand’s image for many years. The Cougar eventually grew into a personal luxury car and was then redesigned again in the late 1990s as a sport compact based on the Ford Contour, before being cancelled for good after the 2002 year.
Other vehicles released in the 1960s included the full-size Mercury S-55 and the Mercury Marauder, both of which shared the same body styles and mechanics as the Ford Galaxie 500/XL sports models, and the Mercury Cyclone, which started out as a performance model of the Mercury Comet and then later incorporated styling changes that were based on the body of the Ford Fairlane. The Mercury Marquis, whose direct equivalent was the Ford LTD, was launched in 1967, first as a full-size car. For the 1983 year, the Marquis became a mid-size car until being discontinued following 1986. The name of the highest trim level of the Marquis, which was first used in 1975, was the Grand Marquis. The Mercury Grand Marquis became its own model in 1983, after the Marquis became a mid-size car, and was essentially a twin of the Ford Crown Victoria until that car was discontinued following 2007. The popular car continued to be produced as a full-size car until the discontinuation of the brand in 2011. In fact, the last Mercury vehicle to roll off of the assembly line was a Grand Marquis in January of 2011. The Mercury Montego was also introduced during this period; it was an upscale version of the Mercury Comet, which it eventually replaced after 1969, and was essentially a twin of the Ford Torino. It was discontinued in 1976 but, as was the case with many other Mercury nameplates, the name was resuscitated for a short time during the mid-2000s for a full-size car until being discontinued for good in 2008.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mercury shifted away from performance cars like the Cougar while continuing to produce modestly restyled Ford’s. This was also the era of automobile downsizing, as Mercury began making smaller cars as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the new fuel economy standards that arose.
In terms of sales, the brand achieved mix results throughout this era. Some of the models released by Mercury during this time period included the Mercury Capri, which was originally built in Europe and was sold in the United States as three distinctly different cars over three decades, and the Mercury Sable, which was Mercury’s version of the Ford Taurus sedan. The Sable was discontinued in 2005, but was revived again in 2008 until finally ending production for good the following year.
Other models released during the 1970s and 1980s included the Mercury Monarch, which was essentially identical to the Ford Granada save for a few cosmetic differences; the Mercury Topaz, which was a slightly upscale variant of the Ford Tempo; and the Mercury Zephyr which was related to the Ford Fairmont. The Mercury Tracer, which was released first as a rebadged version of the Ford Laser in 1987 and then later in 1991 the Ford Escort (as was the Mercury Lynx which was released in 1981 and dropped after 1987), and the Mercury Bobcat, which was a rebadged variant of the Ford Pinto and was just as unsuccessful, were other Mercury vehicles released during this time period.
During the 1980s, the image of the Mercury division was blurred even further. While some models were noticeably differentiated from its Ford clones, many of Mercury’s models were not and there was very little difference between them and their Ford cousins. However, despite the lack of differentiation, sales rebounded for the brand in the 1990s and reached levels that had not been seen since the late 1970s. Vehicles introduced during this decade included the Mercury Mystique, which was based on the globally marketed Ford Mondeo and whose cousin was the Ford Contour, and the Mercury Villager, which was a minivan that was a rebadged variant of the Nissan Quest. The Villager came about as a result of a joint venture between the Ford Motor Company and Nissan. The Mercury Mountaineer luxury SUV was also introduced in the late 1990’s, and its twin was the Ford Explorer. The brand, like Lincoln, was also part of the Premier Automotive Group (PAG), an organizational division within the Ford Motor Company which was formed by Ford to oversee the business operations of its high-end automobile marques in the late 1990s. However, Mercury’s inclusion in the PAG was short lived and in 2002, it was pulled out and returned to Ford’s direct control due to Ford's new marketing strategy of separating its import brands from its domestic marques (the PAG was eventually dismantled in 2010).
The Final Countdown and Extinction
In the mid-2000s, Ford tried to revive the stagnant Mercury brand and make it relevant to new buyers. The company released the Mercury Milan, which was based on the Ford Fusion, as well as the Mercury Mariner, an SUV which was a clone of the Ford Escape. Unfortunately, this did not help sales and they continued to fall. Mercury’s vehicle lineup was greatly reduced and contained only four models when the plug was finally pulled.
On June 2, 2010, amid the continuing decline of sales, which at this point were already a miniscule piece of Ford’s overall revenue, the Ford Motor Company announced that the Mercury brand would be ending production at the end of the year so that it could focus solely on continuing to grow its core Ford brand as well to accelerate growth of its high-end Lincoln brand at the same time. The Mercury Mountaineer was discontinued first, with the remaining Mercury vehicles at the time – the Milan, Grand Marquis, and Mariner - following suit after an abbreviated 2011 model year. The fact that no stand-alone Mercury dealerships existed made shutting the brand down a bit easier, and after the brand was discontinued for good in 2011, all Lincoln-Mercury dealers simply became Lincoln dealers.
Ultimately, it was Ford’s decision to invest very little into Mercury's marketing or product development over its lifetime that sealed the brand’s fate. While the strategy yielded sales for Ford over the decades of varying levels, it was not conducive to building a strong brand and maintaining it. The lack of a unique identity showed in Mercury cars and many people simply bought Ford models rather than the similarly designed yet more expensive Mercury versions over time, leading to its eventual demise.