Ford Motor Company was in a serious financial problem during the early 1980s. Not only did the oil crisis, the economy and recession, and emissions laws of the late 1970s severely crimp any forward progress of the automotive industry, the styling of that era seemed to be in a bit of a rut. The only modern-looking car that Ford produced was the new Mustang (and arguably the Fairmont Futura). Granted, with Chrysler near bankruptcy and GM losing market share, it wasn't exactly the most glamorous time to be in the auto industry. Still, Ford believed they could pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat sooner or later.
In 1980, the Cougar was abruptly downsized from its former two-ton heft and put on the Fox chassis, shared by many other Ford vehicles at the time. Mechanically this was a great move, as it future-proofed the car. The styling, though, was boxy and generic, a simple massaging of the former body which ended up looking a little sterile. In 1981, in an effort to bolster the Mercury model line, Ford resorted to slapping the Cougar name on a series of 4-door cars whose origin was the Fairmont/Zephyr line. And in 1982 the unthinkable: the Cougar name adorned a station wagon. Sales continue to plummet with no hope in sight, and badge engineering wouldn't save Ford this time.
Meanwhile, Ford designers were at a crossroads: the 1980-82 cars weren't selling, performance was nonexistent, and any remaining semblance of Cougar heritage was being quickly lost. But the goal for an all-new Cougar and Thunderbird was still slated for 1983. The designers presented Ford chief designer Jack Telnack with their preliminary drawings; he was underwhelmed to say the least. He now infamously asked them, "Would you be proud to have this car in your own driveway?" When the answers were a resounding "no", he encouraged them to reach deeper and start again. The results were the 1983 Cougar and Thunderbird that we know today, truly modern aerodynamic masterpieces both then and now.
Still in the preliminary phase of the designs, the designers were told to maximize the differences between the Cougar and its mechanical cousin, the Thunderbird. A key prerequisite was a noticeable aerodynamic look, which not only made the shapes of the vehicles more fluid but also helped with fuel economy. Also of note was extensive use of computer-aided design (CAD), something that was once the stuff of fantasy, now a reality with the Cougar and Thunderbird. One of the first new sketches was a lean, swoopy "luxury sport coupe" which Telnack decided to use later on another vehicle, the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII. Giving a similar fastback roofline to the Thunderbird meant that there was only one way to differentiate the Cougar: by going vertical. A near-upright back window treatment was chosen, which gave it the advantage vs. the Thunderbird in rear seat headroom, but conceded a lower drag coefficient (Cougar's .40 versus .36 for the Thunderbird). The cars would share front and rear bumpers, hoods, fenders, doors and half of the glass. The rest of the body panels would be unique to each model. This parts sharing helped to keep tooling costs down, building in a bit more profit too.
The cars debuted on February 26, 1983 as virtual mid-year models. Some initial problems—ramping up V8 production and getting the special uplevel model Thunderbird, the Turbo Coupe, into the mix—helped delay the launch by two full months. Ironically it didn't even matter: both cars were instant hits and sales shot rapidly upwards. The buying public was split evenly between the Thunderbird and the Cougar; they loved one and hated the other, mainly because of the roofline treatments. And that actually was the plan for Ford's marketing. The swoopy Thunderbird had a longer heritage and was the darling of NASCAR racers; the formal Cougar appealed to more luxury-oriented, sophisticated buyers. Even critics were divided, but all agreed that these cars marked the beginning of something new at Ford, and quality was always mentioned as an important improvement.
The pervasive description of the 1983 Mercury Cougar is that it blended formal and aerodynamic ("organic") shapes. However, the word "sculpted" might be a much more accurate description. As slippery as it looked, the shapes created by the new body certainly could have been chiseled from steel instead of stamped. Most striking is the reverse "C" around the side quarter windows, creating a unique but rather obtrusive C-pillar. A few heritage features from previous Cougar models were included, especially the 3-tier taillights and trunklid raised center section ("hump") derived from the late 1970s Cougars, the best-selling Cougar models in its history.
Other features continued the modern theme with an eye toward heritage. Aircraft-style doors improved sealing and reduced wind noise. A traditional Mercury waterfall grille, stand-up hood ornament, deeply recessed quad headlights and integrated side markers completed the slightly canted front end. There was still chrome on the car, but it was much more understated and refined, accenting key parts of the car like the headlight buckets, B-pillars, greenhouse area and the horizontal wraparound beltline molding. The Fox chassis' relatively low cowl allowed for nice touches like concealed wipers under the edge of the hood. Fit and finish for that era were surprisingly good, and the car felt exceptionally tight thanks to extensive use of adhesives and modern manufacturing techniques. Even the paint was high-tech: a new, state-of-the-art laser guided paint system was installed at Ford's Lorain, OH, USA assembly plant specifically for these cars. As a result the paint finishes were markedly improved over past years' offerings.
Only two Cougar models were available for 1983: the base model (technically called the GS but never labeled as such), and the luxury/sport-oriented LS. Both designations had been used in the previous version of the Cougar. This was one of the few model years in Cougar history where no XR7 model was offered. That model would have to wait one more year.
The options list was exceptionally long, unusual for a first-year car. But that was simply a testament to Ford's marketing department, which had a knack for listening to customers very closely and therefore translating their wishes to the options list. Popular options, such as power windows, air conditioning and speed control, could be bundled in a PEP (preferred equipment package), saving customers hundreds or even thousands of dollars over ordering them separately. And that was important because, even though the economy had started to improve by 1983, it was still sometimes difficult for North Americans to purchase a new car. And the Cougar was not cheap: its base price of over $8000 US was noticeably above its competition, and a fully loaded car easily broke the 5-figure mark. Ford touted the Cougar's superior build quality and shape to overcome the price differences, and fortunately that strategy worked.
Still, dealers had so much demand for the Cougar that they even sold a good number of "value leader" cars, which was a fancy way of saying "stripped down model". Ford had required all Lincoln-Mercury dealerships to carry at least one of these cars. No power windows or locks, no a/c, no passenger side mirror, no creature comforts, even a radio delete for credit—this is virtually unheard of today, but in the early 1980s a lot of cars were sold like this. It was a clever way for a customer with little money or perhaps not-so-good credit to still get into the Cougar's sumptuous shape. Today, a value leader car is considered a pretty rare sighting, as most of the cars sold were equipped with popular options.
Mechanically, the wheelbase was now 104", down from the 112" of the 1980-82 era, but still larger than a Mustang's 100" wheelbase, sliding the Cougar squarely into midsize range. Rear seat room was still good for its time (although it's relatively cramped by recent standards). A modified MacPherson strut/A-arm suspension, a Fox-chassis feature, delivered a decent ride with deft handling. The rear axle was a traditional 4-point configuration with outboard shocks and springs. Braking was handled by rather smallish 10" discs in front and 9" drums in back. A decent-sized front sway bar was standard, with V8 models receiving a thin rear sway bar. Wheels were a standard 14" with several hubcap styles, and a metric TRX alloy rim with performance tires was optional.
Engine choices for the truncated 1983 model year consisted of a carbureted 2-bbl 112hp 3.8L (232 cid) V6 as the standard engine, and the optional EEC-III controlled fuel injected 5.0L (302 cid) V8 putting out 130hp. The V8 was considered a running addition, although the delay in the car's launch probably allowed for full V8 production from the start. There was no higher performance engine for 1983 because there was no XR7 model. Canadian models had carburetion for both engines; they would gain fuel injection in subsequent model years.
|Left: The standard 3.8L V6 engine.|
|Left: The optional 5.0L V8 engine.|
|Left: The interior was largely a carryover design from the theme found in 1980-82 XR7 models. This is a Cougar LS interior, as denoted by the woodgrain dash panels. Also shown is the optional full electronic instrument cluster. Leather seating was an option.|
|Left: The base (GS) model's interior featured brushed aluminum-look dash panels and matching analog instrument cluster. The base instrumentation was minimal at best, since Ford could not afford to create an all new interior—that would have to wait until the 1985 model year.|
|Left: Rear quarter view. Note the 3-tier taillamps that harken back to the 1977-78 models.|
|Left: Twin bucket seats with a full-length console were standard on all Cougar models. The base door panels featured a one-year-only Cougar emblem. Vinyl seats were optional; a very rare Opal vinyl seat with contrasting color accents was offered.|
|Left: There were actually two different types of map pockets on the doors of 1983 Cougars. Early cars had this mesh-style map pocket and shortened armrest, while later door panels had the full one-piece armrest with integrated map pocket.|
|Left: Among the rarest of the Fox Cougar-era interiors is the Opalescent option, which featured pearl white-colored panels and seats along with colored carpeting and dash. It was available in combination with Medium Red, Academy Blue (shown here), Charcoal, and Desert Tan. This was a one-year only option. It's taken us well over a decade to find photos of this interior, even though it's been well documented since the cars were new. This leads us to believe that they were very low in production.|
|Left: The door panel in Opalescent. Note the lack of carpeting in the lower section and the lower armrest/map pocket area.|
|Left: A look at the Opalescent rear seat. Fox Mustangs of this era had similar interior options so it seems that Ford carried over a similar package to the Cougar.|
|Left: This poor Cat was found in a salvage yard, but the Opalescent and Charcoal interior looked pretty clean to us.|
|Left: A popular option was vent windows, which sometimes substituted for air conditioning and let a nice cross breeze into the vehicle. It was a rather unexpected feature but a nice touch indeed, and a hint that the Cougar was leaning more toward luxury (and Lincoln) territory with its offerings.|
|Left: A cutaway view of the all-new 1983 Mercury Cougar.|
It turns out that Ford's gamble with aerodynamic cars was the correct one. It not only paid off with the Cougar and Thunderbird but it paved the way for equally important future cars such as the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII, the 1984 Tempo/Topaz, and the 1986 Taurus/Sable. Sales were noticeably improved over previous years and the Cougar now had one thing that it hadn't had in a very long time: clout. It instantly became the benchmark for midsize rear-drive luxury coupes and left its domestic and foreign competition scrambling for a response. Still, Ford wasn't resting on its laurels. The subsequent model years would see the return of a performance-oriented XR7 model and refined styling. The interior, while not horrible, needed freshening almost from day one, and even Ford officials have admitted that it wasn't their best, but it was adequate enough for launch. Thanks to increased profits from the sales of the Cougar and Thunderbird, Ford was able to attend to these issues in relatively short time. For now, there was an all-new Cat on the prowl in the streets of North America, Lincoln-Mercury dealers had a hit product, and things were looking bright for the first time in a long while.
|ENGINES||Standard: 112 hp 3.8L (232 cid) V6
Optional: 130 hp CFI 5.0L (302 cid) V8
|TRANSMISSIONS||3-speed automatic (C5) - standard on V6
4-speed overdrive automatic (AOD) - optional on V6, standard on V8
|BRAKES||Front: 10.0" vented disc
Rear: 9.0" drum
Overall Length: 197.6"
Overall Width: 71.1"
Overall Height: 53.4"
Cargo Capacity: 14.6 cubic feet w/mini spare; 13.2 cubic feet with full spare
Fuel Capacity: 21.0 gallons
Passenger Rating: 4
|CURB WEIGHT||3099 lbs. (V6 GS)|
|HOW TO SPOT ONE||The stand up hood ornament; chrome strips on the B-pillars (all models); 3-tier taillights; clear front turn signals. 1983 LS models had a fender badge behind the front wheel. All 1983's had a square-centered steering wheel.|
|RECALLS||V6-232 3.8L Emissions Recalls
1. 88E74 FEB 89 Recall 88E74 Emission Control System Modification
V6-232 3.8L General Recalls
V8-302 5.0L General Recalls