Serious Coolness for a Bargain Price—“At the Sign of the Cat”

With “Skyfall” now out, a number of cable channels have been airing old James Bond movies. I stumbled on one I haven’t seen in years, 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” tuning in about 30 seconds after it started. Bond was cruising along the picturesque Portugal coast in his Aston Martin DBS when he comes across Tracy di Vicenzo (played by Diana Rigg) walking on a beach towards the ocean, apparently to commit suicide. A good lookin’ woman was in trouble, so in the finest Bond tradition it was James to the rescue!

What I completely forgot about that opening sequence (and the rest of the movie) was Diana Rigg drove one seriously cool Mercury Cougar convertible. Crisp edges, well-proportioned design that looks great with the top up or down, those fabulous electric razor-looking “hide-a-way” headlamps, and a monster hood scoop that screamed big block power. In no time at all I found myself thinking, “Who cares about a 6-cylinder Aston? What’s up with that Cougar?”

Over at the Internet Movie Cars Database, I learned that Diana’s XR-7 packed a 428 Cobra Jet engine and C-6 automatic transmission, and was supposedly just one of 96 Cougars optioned that way. In every scene it looked quite bold and aggressive, especially compared to Bond’s wimpier DBS, so a refresher course on this muscular Mercury was clearly in order. For this type of in-depth research I prefer material with editors and fact checkers, so on amazon.com I ordered three long, out-of print books that dealt with the model’s early years.

Which brought up this long-forgotten nugget of automotive history: In 1967, the Cougar’s initial model year, it was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year by unanimous decision. “The winner,” the editors noted somewhat awkwardly on their voting criterion, “must have that multiplex combination of engineering, styling and market timing that when perfectly enjoined do together create progress sufficient to set an industry trend.” Or, as Car & Driver’s 1967 road test more clearly sums up, the Cougar “…combines the dash of a sports sedan with the luxury of a personal car and comes out miles ahead.”

Over the next three years there were a number of models: XR-7, XR-7G (that’ “G” is for racer Dan Gurney), GT, GT-E, Eliminator (super cool model based on the Trans Am cars) and probably one or two I have overlooked. Engine options were several 289 variants, standard 302, Boss 302, 351, 390, 427 and 428CJ with, 3- or 4-speed manual and 3-speed automatics, the last tranny being called “Merc-O-Matic” by Mercury (how perfectly “period” is that?). Plus there were those uber-cool sequential taillights and optional equipment such as the heavy duty suspension, limited slip, disc brakes, leather interior, different dashboards and steering wheels—oh, and did I mention that type of superb, unadorned styling that made the ’64 Pontiac GTO and ’61-65 Lincoln Continentals such visual treats?

Throw in that starring “OHMSS” appearance, a low14-/high 13-second quarter with the right engine, tranny and rear end ratio, and the Cougar had some serious mojo going on until model year 1971. That’s when a new, more bloated and very ordinary body design came out and from then on, it was pretty much downhill for enthusiasts and seekers of style.

Very rarely do you see early Cougars—let alone any Cougars—in auction results or covered in the collector car magazines, so this got me wondering about prices. A quick visit to carsonline.com (a site I jokingly call “internet porn” because of the amount of time one can easily spend there) had my checkbook ready to jump out of my pocket. It’s been years since I’ve seen a car with this much coolness for under $10,000, let alone double that, where you can literally shop multiple examples. For instance, how about a cherry-looking two-owner ‘68 with 13,000 original miles for $9,500, a ’70 convertible with the same owner for 35+ years for $3,500, or the  ’68 convertible in decent shape with 42,000 miles for under $12k? There were a bunch of others I could list—both modified and not—but you get the idea.

In their February 1967 road test, Car Life magazine concluded that “If the buyer exercises as much finesse in making his purchase of a Cougar as its builders have done in its production and marketing, he’ll own a car that, like a well-tailored suit, fits perfectly.” Looks like the same is true today, except this great “bang for your cool” buck is now an even more alluring proposition than when it was new.

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