When Ford Motor Co. introduced a Mercury two-seater concept at the Detroit auto show in January 2003, it turned some heads. How did the sleek sports car fit with Mercury's sensible-shoes lineup of sedans, minivans and SUVs?
That reflects the lingering identity problem that has marked Mercury's 64-year history:
What does the brand stand for? Higher-priced Fords dressed up with different chrome and fancier trim? Or innovative designs such as the 1949 Mercury whose classic lines made it a favorite among hot rodders? Or the highly styled 1957 Turnpike Cruiser, which was knocked out by high prices and a brutal recession?
That question remains, despite assurances from Mercury's new crop of leaders that a process of brand definition is in full swing, and amid persistent rumors of Mercury's impending demise - rumors that always are denied vehemently by Ford Motor people.
The midpriced car
Mercury was born in the 1939 model year as part of Ford Motor's continuing effort to fit a car between Ford and Lincoln. The gorgeous V-12 Lincoln Zephyr filled that role to some extent, but the 1939 Zephyr started at $1,360, and a Ford sedan was $730. A medium-priced car was needed, and the Mercury debuted in the $1,000 range.
Ford had been out in the cold in the medium-priced market. General Motors owned that bracket with Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick, and Chrysler Corp. was ably represented by Dodge and DeSoto.
Mercury was a pet project of Edsel Ford, and one might wonder why it took so long to get it to dealer showrooms. The answer is simple: It was not easy to convince Edsel's father that his auto company needed something new.
It flowered and faded
Mercury sold well, although it never seriously challenged GM's three medium-classers. Mercury sales flowered and faded; they were in the 300,000-range through much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and moved above 400,000 in the 1980s and early 1990s. Its best year was 1978, with 579,498 sales.
Last year's total was an anemic 263,200, and 25 percent of them were light trucks.
In 1979, Mercury accounted for 15.2 percent of Ford Motor Co.' new-vehicle sales.
Last year, Mercury's share was just half of that, 7.7 percent.
Mercury had about 1,000 dealers at its birth. The total rose to 1,730 in 1953. It held at 2,600 to 2,800 from 1973 to 1993 and swooped down to 2,087 in 2002.
In Mercury's earliest days, Ford, Mercury and Lincoln all were members of the same family. Delineation came in 1945 with formation of Lincoln-Mercury Division. That's right; L-M Division pre-dated Ford Division, which wasn't formed until 1949. From 1955 to 1957, it was just plain Mercury Division, and in 1958-59, it was the longest leg of the best-forgotten Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division.
Talent pool for Ford
Some feel Mercury has suffered from poor direction. When it gets an effective general manager, that person is snatched up by Ford Division or another unit, suggests Mike Davis, retired Ford Motor communications staff member.
For example, the L-M roster of general managers includes Matt McLaughlin, Ben Bidwell, Bill Benton, Walter Walla, Robert Rewey, Tom Wagner, Ross Roberts and Jim O'Connor. All spent some time at L-M, then toddled off to head Ford Division.
Throughout its lifetime, Mercury has had to live with the putdown of being "just a big Ford" or "just a higher-priced Ford." It's certainly true today, but it wasn't always that way.
"To me the heyday of Mercury was between 1939 and the mid-1950s," Davis says.
He says centralizing design, engineering and manufacturing in the late 1950s helped Ford resolve the heavy overhead of separate divisions. But it also cost Mercury its identity. Separate platforms for Ford and Mercury would have been much too expensive. The result was Ford Falcon-Mercury Comet, Ford Pinto-Mercury Bobcat, Ford Tempo-Mercury Topaz, Ford Fairlane-Mercury Meteor, Ford Taurus-Mercury Sable, Ford Crown Victoria-Mercury Grand Marquis.
Some observers say that dropping car lines in recent years and doing away with models such as the Cougar to cut costs hurt Mercury dealers, who cannot make up lost sales by offering fewer nameplates.
Bob Stevens, editor of Cars & Parts magazine and a fan of 1949 Mercurys, says he finds the first 20 years of product the most interesting. "They were always a step ahead of or above Ford," he says. "They had more trim, more character."
By 1942, when production was halted because of World War II, annual Mercury sales had grown to more than 150,000 units.
The 1949 Mercury was the first new postwar offering from Lincoln-Mercury Division. The car later became a favorite of the hot rod generation.
A 1954 arrival was the Sun Valley hardtop. It had a tinted plexiglass roof insert, a forerunner of today's sunroof.
Adding some muscle
Mercurys elbowed their way into the muscle car fray in the 1960s and made a name in racing. The 1960s produced powerful Marauders, Meteors and Cyclones driven by racing legends such as Parnelli Jones, Cale Yarborough and Bill Stroppe.
The famous Cougar, Mercury's answer to the Mustang, bowed in 1967; the little Bobcat - Mercury's Pinto - in 1975.
"Bobcats were a disaster," says Jerry Robin, who heads the 12-year-old, 1,400-member International Mercury Owners Association. "I don't know of one in our club."
Robin says the Bobcat first showed up for sale in Canada at the end of 1973. Another Canadian twist: Ford trucks were sold under the Mercury name north of the border for a couple of decades following World War II.
Subsequent decades brought harsher times, when oil supplies, fuel economy and safety became pressing issues, and consumers began thinking about smaller, front-drive vehicles.
Today, the survival of Mercury is often discussed. Doomsayers point to the numbers - sales, production, dealers - and lack of new product. All the things that aren't going right.
Ford insists that Mercury is here for the long haul. The answer is in the hands of the consumer.