By Brian Earnest
When it comes to long automotive shadows, the Ford Mustang’s was about as big and dark as it gets.
Being born as a Mustang sibling in the 1960s would have been akin to being Marilyn Monroe’s sister (she did have one), or Elvis Presley’s little brother (he didn’t).
So consider the hand that was dealt to the Mercury Cougar when it was unveiled as a 1967 model in late ’66. The new Mercury pony car was supposed to be, in many ways, even better than the Mustang, which already had a raging love affair going with the car buying public. Sure, it was a couple hundred bucks more than the look-alike Mustang, but it was supposed to be a more refined, nicer-riding, nicer-looking machine. A Mustang with nail polish and better table manners. You like the Mustang? Hey, you’ll like the cool new Cougar even more.
Of course, improving on something that was great to begin with is always tough, and catching lightning in a bottle twice in a row is even tougher. Predictably, the Cougar never approached the heights of the iconic Mustang, but FordMoCo. still cranked out more than 150,000 first-year Cougar and Cougar XR-7 models for 1967. It was even named Motor Trend’s car of the year for ’67!
In hindsight, the new Cougar probably didn’t get its due at the time. It wasn’t quite a Mustang, and it wasn’t quite a Thunderbird. And considering how many other pony and muscle cars were vying for attention at the time — Chevelle, Camaro, Firebird, GTO, 4-4-2, Barracuda and Charger among them — it was easy to get a little lost in the shuffle.
David Pyle of Houston, Texas, owned a couple of early Mustangs years ago. When he decided to look for a new toy to drive last year, he wasn’t considering a third Mustang, but the Cougar was just different enough to interest him. He wound up finding an impressive and very original first-year example in San Diego, and he’s been tickled with his purchase ever since.
“For me, the cars I like are generally cars where I think the design is interesting to me,” says Pyle, a retired aviator who was born and raised in South Bend, Ind., and grew up a fan of Studebakers, which were built in town. “I had an Avanti, and some people don’t like the design of the Avanti, but I think it’s wonderful…The Cougar to me was a more interesting and better looking car than the Mustang. I don’t think I’d ever driven a cougar until I had this one. I was actually looking for a Mercury Cougar when this one came up, but I had only been looking for a short time.”
Pyle purchased the Mercury from a friend who had bought it from an estate sale for a deceased California couple that had owned the Cougar since new. Pyle isn’t sure if the car ever left California in its previous life, but he knew it was in fantastic unrestored condition and showed only 55,000 miles on the odometer. He made the deal and had it sent via transporter to Houston, and felt like he hit the jackpot when it arrived.
“I was more than pleased, yes,” he says. “It was like a time capsule. At 55,000 miles it looked like it had just come from the dealer. The paint was in excellent condition, and the interior looked positively untouched.
“I gave it to somebody who is really a Mustang expert — and the engines in the Mustang are the same for his car — and he tuned the engine up for me and has done some minor stuff and made it more reliable. And now I wont say it’s my daily driver, but every day that it’s nice I’m out in that car doing errands and stuff. I drive it like it’s a daily driver, but I do protect a little more than that.”
In profile it wasn’t easy to tell the early Mustangs and Cougars apart, but there were plenty of differences in front and back. The 1967 Cougar was offered only as a two-door hardtop and featured disappearing headlights, wraparound front and rear fenders and triple tail lights with sequential turn signals. Inside were all-vinyl bucket seats, three-spoke sport-style steering wheel, deep-loop carpeting, deluxe seat belts and floor-mounted three-speed manual transmission.
Under the hood, the base engine for the debut Cougars was the 289-cid V-8 listed at 200 hp. The optional four-barrel 289 bumped the output to 225 hp. Mercury did not offer the Mustang’s base 200-cid six. A 390-cid V-8 with 335 hp was also optional and was found in the GT package, which also included a performance and handling package, wide-oval white-wall tires, low back pressure exhaust and power disc brakes.
Car Life described the 1967 Mercury as a “Mustang with class.” It had a shapely, graceful appearance and jewel-like trimmings.
While based on the Mustang platform, the Cougar received some upgrades to its suspension components, including 6-inch-longer leaf springs and a better-rated rear spring and axle attachment. The Thunderbird-style hidden headlights were unique for the time among pony cars and are found only on the first-generation (1967-’70) models. The were powered by a vacuum canister that kept the headlight doors closed. If the vacuum was lost due to a problem, the doors would pop open as a safety measure.
The options list on the Cougar was substantial and buyers could load their cars up if their pockets were deep enough. Pyle’s car came with power steering and brakes, and also air conditioning, which was a $355.95 extra. Other add-ons included: heavy-duty battery ($7.44); rear bumper guards ($12.95); electric clock ($15.76).; courtesy light group ($16.85); door edge guards ($4.40); Tinted glass ($30.25); Tinted windshield ($21.09); deck lid luggage carrier ($32.45); two-tone paint ($27.06); power brakes ($42.29); power disc brakes ($64.25); power steering ($95); AM radio ($60.05); AM/FM radio ($133.65). AM radio with Stereo-sonic tape system ($188.50); front bench seat with center armrest ($24.42); shoulder belts ($27.06); speed control ($71.30); sports console ($57); tilting steering wheel ($60.05); comfort-weave vinyl interior ($33.05); deluxe wheel covers ($16.79); wire wheel covers ($69.51); visual check panel ($39.50) and styled steel wheels ($115.15).
At mid-year, Mercury added the upscale XR-7 to the lineup. It was a slightly fancier Cougar with a woodgrain dash, interior upgrades and a special medallion on the roof pillar. At $3,081, the XR-7 was $230 more than the base Cougar. With 27,221 assemblies, XR-7 sales weren’t bad for a mid-year model. Together, the Cougar and XR-7 accounted for more than one-third of all Mercurys sold for the 1967 model year.
The following year, Mercury continued to add to the Cougar’s performance with a standard 302-cid V-8 and an optional Cobra Jet 428 that made 335 hp. For 1969, the base engine changed again, this time to a 351-cid V-8. A convertible was also added to the menu.
“One thing that’s different about mine is it was produced in Detroit as a California car,” Pyle noted. “It’s one of the unusual ones in that it has the California emissions control. It was built into the car because it was going to be delivered [from Dearborn, Mich.] to California.
“The sense I get — and I have some of the records from the first owners — is it must have been a second car for them. There is just no question that this was a car that they either tried to take good care of, or they were just those kind of people that weren’t going to abuse a car. It just doesn’t show any wear anyplace.”
Pyle believes the Jamaican Yellow paint on his Cougar is original. Ditto with the black vinyl roof. As far as he knows, the two-barrel 289 and C-4 automatic transmission have never been apart. “I’m just amazed at the engine. It just runs great,” he noted. “I thought about having the engine worked on, but people have told me that if the engine is running as good as it seems, just go with it.”
One of the Cougar’s only blemishes is a missing radio antenna. It got knocked off on the trailer ride from California to Texas. The clock isn’t working, either. “Somebody who is really interested in having it all original could fix those,” Pyle said. “I never listen to the radio in a car, anyway.”
Pyle says he didn’t see many Cougars in his corner of the world before he owned one, but he’s come to realize how truly scarce they are since his ’67 arrived. He’s tried to network with other Cougar owners in the Houston metro area, and found very few fellow caretakers. “Yes, there definitely aren’t very many,” he notes. “There is a national organization [The Cougar Club of America], and there are only 10 members around here. I’ve tried to set up a club in Houston. We have 4 million people here … but the Cougar is just not a popular Texas collector car.”
Pyle also has a yellow 1965 Chevrolet Corvair convertible. He says he hasn’t lost any of his affinity for the Corvair, but he has become even more smitten with the Cougar. If he had to part with one, he says the Corvair would be the first to go.
He surmises that most car buffs would still rather have a muscle or performance car, or a modified machine, than a stock first-generation Cougar with a tame 289 V-8. Every time he gets in the handsome Mercury to take a spin, however, he knows he made the right decision for himself.
“If you have a recollection of how a late-1960s car drove, this is a cruiser,” he says. “It’s really a very comfortable car around town. It’s easy to get around in, stops and stars very quickly. I haven’t really taken a trip in the car, but when I have taken it out on interstate and juiced it up to 80, it runs smoothly and comfortably.
“It just been a wonderful car to drive. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
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