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Car of the Week: 1968 Mercury Cougar

Louis Franck waited more than 32 years to relive a bit of his youth behind the wheel of a 1968 Mercury Cougar. He may have waited even longer if it hadn’t been for his wife Roslyn.
Car of the Week 2020
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By Brian Earnest

Louis Franck waited more than 32 years to relive a bit of his youth behind the wheel of a 1968 Mercury Cougar. He may have waited even longer if it hadn’t been for his wife Roslyn.

“I was actually looking for my old Cougar. I had the VIN number and everything. I kept looking and couldn’t find it,” says Franck, a resident of Baltimore. “Finally my wife says, ‘If you can’t find your car, find a replacement.’ I just about fell out of my chair!”

A while later, after Louis had found a car and was wavering over whether he should finally pull the trigger and buy it, his wife stepped in again. “I had been on the phone with the guy who owned it up in Long Island,” Louis recalls. “I was sitting around now knowing if I was going to buy it, and my wife says, ‘If you don’t get back on the phone and buy that car right now, you’re going to regret it, just like you did with your first car!’ So basically I give my wife full credit for buying this car. It was all because of her.”

Franck’s affection for the handsome Mercury pony cars began back in 1967 when he was in the market for new transportation and wound up getting a 1968 Cougar that he drove until about 1976. “I loved the heck out of that car. It was a base 302 model, Diamond Blue … But I got married, got a mortgage, had kids, had bills … The car had some serious miles on it and needed some serious repairs, so needless to say the car had to go,” Franck recalls. “I always thought about getting another one, and then in about ’07 I told my wife that I wanted my old Cougar back. I looked all around and posted on the internet that I was looking for it, but I never found it.

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“I found this car up in Long Island on Craigslist. I’m basically the fifth owner, but it was never sold outside of the family until I got it. It was garage kept all its life and stayed with one family. The reason the guy put it up for sale was he said, ‘My wife’s bugging me to get rid of the car, so I’ve got to sell it.’”

The Cougar was in solid original shape, especially for a northern car, but it still needed some work to get it back to the showroom shape Franck was hoping for. With a year and a half, Franck had pulled the motor, had the valve seats hardened, cleaned up and painted the engine bay, had the car repainted with a rich coat of Black Cherry, replaced the seat upholstery and carpeting, replaced the gas tank and fuel lines, installed a new vinyl top and added dual exhausts.

“My neighbor next door runs a high-end body shop, and he told me a couple of his old guys would love to work on the car. So basically I was just paying for the labor, which saved me some money that way,” Frank said. “They did a frame-on restoration. When they got it up on the lift, you could see how clean it was. It had some typical Ford rust issues around the back window and stuff, but it was in great shape overall.

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“It’s got the small-block 289, two-barrel. It’s all stock, which is rare. It’s got the C4 automatic. It needed a lot of work… A big thing was we put on new air shocks and new subframe connectors, because it was a really rough ride. Now it rides great. It also has the single exhaust on it, which was terrible. It’s got duals on it now [which were optional for 1968], and it looks really good and sounds really good now. The Whole goal was to keep it as ‘assembly line’ as possible. There’s no jewelry in the engine bay. It’s all stock looking, and that’s what makes it so cool.”

Perhaps the biggest decision Franck has faced so far is picking out a paint color. He wasn’t in love with the car’s original green exterior, but was having trouble making a choice on a new color until his body shop-owning neighbor intervened. “He brought me two complete fenders painted two [different shades] of the Black Cherry,” he says. “Who does that? That was great. I picked one and then we mixed up the paint to match exactly what we wanted and we painted the whole car that way. It turned out great.”

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The Mustang gets a cousin

The Cougar, said Car Life, was best described as a “Mustang with class.” The Cougar came along three-and-one-half model years later than the Mustang and was designed to be a slightly more sophisticated, refined machine than its Blue Oval relative. It had a shapely, graceful appearance and jewel-like trimmings. Only the two-door hardtop was available at first. A convertible would come along later. While based on the Mustang platform, the Cougar received some upgrades to its suspension componentry. They included a hook-and-eye joint in the lower front A-frames to dampen ride harshness, 6-inch-longer rear leaf springs and better-rated rear spring and axle attachments.

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If you liked the 1967 Cougar, you also liked the 1968 version. The biggest change was the addition of side marker lights. Standard equipment included: dual hydraulic brake system with warning light; front and rear seat belts; outside rearview mirror; padded dash; padded sun visors; two-speed windshield wipers and washers; four-way emergency flasher; and back-up lights. The fancy XR-7 version included such goodies as a simulated wood-grained dash, black-faced competition instruments and toggle switches, leather and vinyl upholstery and overhead console.

The 1968 Cougars sported the new federally mandated side marker lights and shoulder belts. The base engine was the 210-horse 302 V-8, but a 302-cid/230-hp V-8 (four-barrel); 390-cid/280-hp V-8 (two-barrel); 390-cid/325-hp V-8 (four-barrel); and a 428-cid/335-hp V-8 (four-barrel) were optional. Other options included: Air conditioning ($360.90); power disc brakes ($64.65); Sports console ($57); adjustable front seat head rests ($42.75); two-tone paint ($31.10). AM radio with antenna ($60.90); AM/FM stereo ($21.25); Oxford roof ($41.60); speed control ($71.30); power steering ($95). Tilt-away steering wheel ($66.05); Stereo-sonic tape system ($195.15); three-speed manual transmission ($79); and four-speed manual transmission ($164.02).

The sporty GT came more firmly sprung with solid rear bushings, stiffer springs all around, bigger 1.1875-inch shocks and a fatter .84-inch anti-roll bar. Power front disc brakes, 8.95 x 14 wide oval tires and a 390-cid 335-hp V-8 were included, as well as a low-restriction exhaust system and special identification features.

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While the Cougar couldn’t match the Mustang when it came to sales figures, production rose to more than 81,000 cars for 1968, making the sweet Mercury an unqualified success by its sophomore year. With a base price of $2,933 for the hardtop coupe — the only body style offered — the Cougar was about $300 more than the base Mustang.

Round 2 with a Cougar

Franck’s second Cougar is living a much different life than his first car. His original Cougar was daily transportation, but his newest baby is a show car all the way. It gets driven regularly, but mostly for shows around the Baltimore area and beyond. “We go anywhere within a reasonable driving distance,” he says. “The past couple years we have been going out of state. We’ve been going to Virgina, New Jersey … we’re just been having a great time with this car, just showing it off. We’ve been to six judged shows and I think we’ve won 5 trophies. It’s been really fun. The downside is it’s a 289 and it gets terrible gas mileage! [laughs] If I go any distance out of state, I make sure I fill up before I come home.

“Everybody that had one or used to have one, they are all over this car, saying it brings back memories, and it does bring back memories. I’ve just had so much fun with this car. I had one back in the early days and just fell in love with it. The lines on the car were all geared toward European luxury. The guy who designed it, Lee Iacocca, he wasn’t after the Mustang market, he was after the European luxury market … And it’s exactly what Lee Iacocca wanted — a luxury sports car.”

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