A Critical Analysis of the Mercury Cougar's Styling
Page Revised: 10 July 2019
From the time we are born we are taught to recognize shapes, as this is a fundamental part of our perception of the world. By the time we get into our teens this perception is well defined, and our brains can comprehend complex shapes. Now it's no secret that the shape of a vehicle has a major role in how it is sold and marketed. So at one point or another, the shape of the Cougar is what helped to influence your decision to purchase it. It is a rather complex shape, much more sophisticated and elegant than most any other cars of its era. Yet it's simple at the same time, a hearkening to the roots of the Cougar line. The aero Cougar means so many things to so many people, but perhaps the most common thing heard about it is, "I just like the way it looks." Yet have you ever stopped to wonder why it looks that way? This section will systematically deconstruct the styling components used in the creation of the aero Cougar, and explain why the car ended up being styled the way it was.The aerodynamically-styled 1983-88 Fox Cougar made just about everything else look square.
Keep in mind the original goals of the car: maximum differentiation from the mechanically-similar Thunderbird, unique aerodynamic properties, and a blending in of familiar styling cues. Any car's styling is a blend of different elements, much like a batch of chocolate chip cookies. The eggs, flour, chips, sugar, oil, and butter all have their own unique textures and tastes, but blended together in just the right way and in just the right amounts, you have a cookie that delights the senses. So, too, should a good car design be, and we certainly had one of the best of the decade. The aerodynamically-styled Cougar made just about everything else look square, which it pretty much was at that time. The Cougar's main competition, GM's G-bodies (Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Olds Cutlass Supreme, Buick Regal), had nary a rounded line. Even the softening of the Mustang's fascia in 1987 did little to remove the inherent squareness of its body lines. This gave the Cat a unique (and enviable) position and contributed to its success in its rear-drive midsize coupe market segment. To this day, the 1983-88 Cougar's unique shape and relatively low drag coefficient make it a clear standout amongst a sea of boxy cars. A lot of people like to refer to these cars as the "jellybean" designs, but that really belongs to the 1986 Taurus/Sable. These cars were based more on a rounded wedge shape than anything else; the mixture of formal and modern cues made for an instant classic. Read on and discover the magic in the styling of the 1983-88 Mercury Cougar.
1979 Buick Riviera
1979 Oldsmobile Toronado
Did Ford find some inspiration for the 1983 Cougar in GM's 1979 Buick Riviera and Olds Toronado? A few elements are definitely similar between those cars and the Cougar, such as the laid-back roofline, near-vertical rear window, formal sides and trunklid slope. Still, the Riviera and Toronado, while nice late-1970's designs, come off a bit too square to be modern. The Cougar seemed to take the best of those cars and clean up their shortcomings in the process.
The Cougar got a fresh start in the styling department for the 1983 model year. By incorporating a few elements used in previous Cougars, an instant link to the past was created, giving the new Cougar a familiar air from the start. This was an important step to keep from alienating loyal customers, or invoking a little nostalgia, or perhaps a bit of both. But there was also a huge European influence on the car's shape, particularly from Jaguar. One element that the Cougar has retained from its beginning is the sporty "long hood, short deck" styling. This gives the car a presence that is akin to a real cougar: long, lean, and ready to spring into action.
Ford's designers for the Cougar had a big styling roadblock from the start: major components were to be shared with its sister car, the Ford Thunderbird, namely the windshield, hood, fenders, doors, front bumper covers, and rear bumper covers. This automatically limited a lot of creativity on their part...but their inspiration for the Cougar literally started at the top.
ABOVE: You can see how the 1980-82 Cougar XR-7's front end was "melted" to become the face of the 1983-86 Cougar. In fact, everything was softened and refined between 1982 and 1983. It's hard to believe these two cars were just one model year apart.
1 The roundness of the roof is apparent at first glance. From every angle there is a gentle curve which is mostly for aerodynamic purposes, but also is softer to the eye and helps visually blend the windshield into the roof. The highest point of the roof is just above the driver's head. This gave the 1983-86 Cougar a drag coefficient of .40, respectable for its time. Cut-outs in the roof panel were needed to accommodate the new aircraft-style doors.
2 Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the car was its upright backlite. Some have said that the roof just looks "chopped off" too abruptly. Others love the way it boldly defined the silhouette of the car. In any case, the roof achieved its goal of separating Cougar buyers from its Thunderbird twin. It also allowed more interior headroom—albeit at the sacrifice of some aerodynamic properties—and at least the perception of more trunkroom (even though it was the same inside dimensionally as the Thunderbird). Car buyers paid more for a Mercury than a Ford, and so they wanted something more substantial and different for their money. They certainly got it with the Cougar, thanks to the formal roofline.
An interesting note about the roof: this was Ford's first foray into what would eventually be called a "safety cage" construction. The unibody Fox chassis, upon which these cars were built, was fairly strong for its era. But the design of this particular unibody meant that the Cougar and T-Bird relied heavily upon its roof panel for overall body strength. The roof panel was separate, not welded and seamed with body filler on the C-pillar as with most cars of that time period. A small rail area above the C-pillar allowed the panel to join the body, with a small 3/4" filler panel to cover any seams. Not only did this make for a much cleaner look, but it was also easier to access either the roof panel or the rear quarter panels if a repair or replacement panel was needed. It also allowed Ford designers to change roof panels for a sunroof configuration if ordered. From 1983-86 a factory sunroof was available, with a very rare power moonroof option available in late 1986.
Also apparent is the all-new front end, rounded at all corners and highly integrated into the rest of the car. Compared to the Thunderbird, the Cat's front end is much more formal and upright. On 1983 models a traditional stand-up hood ornament was placed atop the header panel; for 1984-86 it was flattened out, again emphasizing a break from the old ways and keeping with the aero look. Integrated next to the headlamps were the large amber side markers. For this time period, the idea of moving the side markers next to the headlamps was not utilized much, but Ford sought to clean up an otherwise visually obtrusive element this way. A quad headlamp layout, stepped in to match the angles of the front end, allowed good nighttime vision and also hearkened back a bit to the last generation XR-7 model. The headlamp buckets were painted a flat silver for high reflectivity, while the outside was trimmed in chrome for visual appeal. Tucked between the headlamp buckets was the small rectangular grille. The charcoal molding is integrated fully into the car from front to rear; this was also one of the first Ford vehicles to sport this unifying look. A small, thin chrome piece topped the molding as well. Multiple inlets and an integrated air dam in the front bumper cover, well underneath the front end and almost hidden from view, aided in delivering cool air to the radiator.
3 The turn signals were deeply set into the front bumper cover, similar to the Mercury Capri. By placing them separately from the headlamps, it becomes easier for one to see them in use from a distance.
4 The front bumper cover was all urethane, as with previous XR-7 models, but the small "bumperettes" on either side of the license plate, from the previous Cougar, were eliminated for a much smoother look. On the 1983-84 models, the chromed waterfall grille is a Mercury tradition brought back for its reintroduction.
5 For 1985-86 a butcher-block style chrome grille appeared on the Cougar...an obvious copy of a Mercedes grille (below). Was Ford aiming higher in their aspirations for the Cougar? Hardly, although the goal was to have Euro styling at an American price, and this grille emulation certainly got that point across loud and clear.
6 The 1985-86 XR-7 models received the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe's bumper replete with fog lamps. The bumper cover itself was a bit more aggressive looking, although tastefully so. The subtle lower chin helped with air delivery to the radiator.
7 The European-derived Marchal fog lamps, which were superior to any other from its day, were aligned visually underneath the innermost high-beam headlamps. Since fog lamps are most effective the more outboard they are, this was an excellent place for them. However, due to the unusual angles of the front end it was rather difficult to keep the fog lamps aligned, especially after a front-end collision.
HOOD & WINDSHIELD
8 One of the requirements for this new Cougar was a then-radical 60-degree windshield rake—in the U.S., only exotic cars, the Corvette, and the F-bodies had sharper rakes in 1983. This was mainly for aerodynamics but also helped minimize wind noise. Today, a 60-degree rake is almost too "upright"!
9 Designers were also told to hide the windshield wipers to visually clean up this area of the car and add an air of premium quality (which showed how serious Ford was with creating the aero-car look for its entire line). The only problem was that this required a rather high cowl, about 2-3" higher than a Mustang. Therefore, the view from inside the car is one of a massive, bulbous hood. Shorter drivers initially complained but the popular driver's power seat option easily solved that problem. Fortunately, the engine bay room was very generous height-wise, so a sharper rake of the hood from back to front could be employed.
10 From a front-on view, the hood is visually very strong and aggressive, due to the hood creases that taper from the outer edges of the windshield down to the grille. Basically any vehicle with tapered hood creases will look sportier, but few had the presence of the Cougar before this time. These lines created a subtle bulge in the middle section of the hood, hinting at the engine underneath.
11 The most apparent visual aspect of the Cougar's fenders are the rounded tops. While this element helped slice a cleaner hole into the air, it also created a much softer look for the front of the car.
12 The wheel wells were also treated to a rounded, soft shape with a pronounced swept-back arch. A prominent soft bulge over the wheel wells gave a subtle, muscular presence without the sharp-cut edges of its Capri cousin or the chiseled look of the Mustang. Again, this was to emphasize the roundness of the car.
13 A sharp body line starts at the frontmost edge of the fender and eventually rounds out at the C-pillar window. This crease emphasizes the horizontal sides, breaks up all the roundness with a familiar shape that holds the eye, and actually adds a bit of strength to the fenders.
14 Above the molding is a 3/4" recessed body line that surrounds the entire car. Some feel that this line was unnecessary but it did give a bit more character to the car.
15 Also of curious note is the body molding: the piece on the front of the fender is about 3/4" higher than that on the rear of the fender. The only reason for this is so that the front end would be within U.S. government specifications for bumper and headlamp heights at the time of manufacture (remember, in 1983 these regulations were much more rigid). Around the rest of the car the molding is at the same level. The fender molding, therefore, is a visual trick to help one overlook this height difference—a daring styling device that actually worked.
The aircraft-style doors used on the Cougar and Thunderbird (and eventually the similar Lincoln Mark VII) were the first used by a U.S. automaker on a mass-produced vehicle in quite some time. This type of door completely surrounds the door glass with metal, creating a much stronger frame for the window (but consequently a noticeably heavier door). It also helps with aerodynamics and keeping out wind noise, and it also hides the otherwise visually obtrusive drip rails from sight. A heavy steel beam is welded horizontally inside the door, creating a very strong safety barrier. And multiple weatherstripping seals helped keep water away from the occupants upon entry and exit. In short, these doors were created to solve a lot of problems and they do many things at once.
16 Visually, the door glass is surrounded by chrome (aka "bright") aluminum trim on base (GS) and LS models, while 1984-86 XR-7 models received blacked-out window trim. Straight trim lines provide a classic shape.
17 The rounded mirror housing is fully nested inside the aluminum trim, also cleaning up this area significantly.
18 The greenhouse (glass) area provided excellent side visibility. A slick option on 1983-86 models was the pivoting vent window, which allowed more fresh air to enter the cabin. This was popular on cars that did not have air conditioning, although one could have both.
19 The "B" pillar was split between the door and the rear quarter and was mostly de-emphasized, save for the bright trim strip on LS models.
20 Protective vinyl molding was standard on all Cougars. Base (GS) and LS models had a skinny molding between the wheel wells; only the XR-7's and regional RS models received the wider molding that matched the width found on the bumper covers.
21 Viewed from the side, this area of the door was rounded quite a bit and really emphasized the roundness of the car.
22 The smooth metal door handle is at a convenient height. Interestingly, Ford designers did not place the door lock next to the handle, as they did on the previous 1980-82 Fox Cougar, but instead chose to drop it down a bit.
ABOVE: The 1963 Corvette coupe was one of the first mass-produced American vehicles to use aircraft-style doors. The Cougar renewed this concept for 1983.
REAR QUARTER PANELS & REAR GLASS
This is the part of the Cougar that gets very interesting, as all the major styling elements of the car seem to converge here.
24 Of first importance is the "C"-shaped side window, surrounded by a thicker aluminum trim. This shape not only countered the sharply-cut rear backlite, but also counterbalanced the shape of the rear wheel well. Notice how the space between the side window and rear backlite tapers toward the top; this emphasizes an upward movement, perhaps a reinforcement of the controversial roofline.
25 The previously-mentioned crease that started at the front fender edge gradually flows around the window and fades out toward the roof—a very elegant, subtle touch.
26 A fixed emblem also adorned this panel: the open snarling cat emblem for most models; a unique XR-7 badge for that model; and an optional electroluminescent coach lamp on all LS and optioned GS models. While some may see it as "just an emblem", its job was to visually break up what would otherwise be a sea of solid body panel in the C-pillar area. Without the emblem this area loses its sense of balance.
27 The rear window (backlite) was obviously a very unique property of this car. Virtually no other cars previously, and very few since, have dared to have such a bold styling element because it has to be done just right: one false move and the car's sales prospects are severely hindered. Luckily, Ford did an outstanding job with incorporating the vertical backlite into the rest of the car. It is not flat but rounded when viewed from the side and top. Overall its height is about 1 foot, very tiny by that day's standards. Some said that the car felt claustrophobic inside because of the small back window. But the small size allowed the trunk to sit higher on the car, creating a muscular "shoulder" on the rear quarter panel.
28 Near the vertical backlite, the tapered trunkline bulges softly into the body, again taking what would normally be ignored into an almost sculpted triangular "shoulder". The bulge over the wheel well is larger than the front, allowing a rather wide rim to be easily fit under the car.
29 There wasn't a whole of of visual space between the top of the wheel arch and the area where the "C"-pillar ends. The long trunklid added extra depth as well. This gave the car a long, low feel and a hunkered-down look—exactly what Ford designers had intended.
30 Of contrast to the rather upright front end is the angled rear end—partially a heritage element, partially a nod to the competition, and partially the dictation of the Thunderbird's aero styling. In any case, the angular detail gave the illusion of motion even at a standstill. A cutout allowed the taillights to wrap around into the rear quarters, and subsequently housed the rear reflectors that otherwise would have been stuck to the quarter panel itself. All in neatness and efficiency.
The "C"-shaped side windows were not unique to the Fox Cougar. Several older cars had similar window shapes, including the 1963 Studebaker Avanti, the 1965 Plymouth Barracuda, and even the 1971 AMC Gremlin.
We ran across this amusing but unfortunately accurate comic in Car and Driver many years ago, reflecting both the design and its shortcomings:
TRUNK & REAR
While the trunk is rather large and spacious, the long trunklid can look a bit incongruous with the rest of the car when viewed from certain angles. It's the only place on the whole vehicle where the proportions are just a bit out of kilter. A shorter lid might have solved that problem, but that would have sacrificed trunk room and given the designers a headache with trying to conform to the Thunderbird's prerequisite panels. Fortunately this area looks fine from most lines of sight.
31 Interesting to note is the infamous trunklid "hump", whose roots go back to the 1977 Cougar. Again melding the past with the present, Ford brought back the hump for nostalgia and to help "soften the blow" of the new Cougar's styling. One thing is for certain: without the hump, this car would have a rather uninspiring back end. The trunk lock breaks up the space is nicely chiseled into the lid; who even thinks of doing that these days?
32 A deep cavity between the taillamps leads back to the license plate. This helps in protecting the plate from road debris, allows easier illumination at night, and provides a convenient place from which to lift the trunklid.
33 Wide taillamps were a callback to the full-width 1967-70 Cougar models. The 1983-84 model's wide three-tiered taillamps, a nod to 1977 styling, create a waterfall effect. For 1985-86, the Cougar received a smooth taillamp with unique smoked lenses.
34 The same integrated molding finds its way into the smooth rear bumper. Viewed from the side, both the bumper and the trunklid have ever-so-slight curves, much less pronounced than the curve of the rear window. It is in this formality that the Cougar helped preserve familiar shapes and win sales.
ABOVE: The 1979-81 Firebird Trans Am also featured smoked taillamps. While the Cougar was certainly not to the first to have such a style, it helped to start a trend of cars doing the same afterward, including the Chevrolet Beretta and even the next iteration of the Cougar's cousin, the 1987-88 Thunderbird.
Due to the stunning success of the Cougar from 1983-86 (almost 600,000 units sold), Ford was certainly making money off the new car's design. Not resting on its laurels, Ford ordered a "freshening" of the Cougar for the 1986 model year. But sales were so good that the Cougar got an additional year with the older body style. The revised Cougar was ready for the 1987 model year...and what an amazing transformation it was. Still unclear is whether this was a mild reskin or a complete makeover. Whatever the consensus, Ford designers addressed nearly every part of the car and made it inherently better. The only panels not touched from the previous model were the hood and windshield. In short, the car got a little rounder but lost none of its lithe, muscular presence.The revised 1987 Cougar addressed nearly every part of the previous car and made it inherently better.
With the aero Thunderbird being so successful in NASCAR and drag racing in the mid-1980's, Ford was learning very quickly about its stunning aerodynamic properties. Making a bold move, and adapting some principles from the newly-released Taurus/Sable twins, Ford designers added such amenities as flush-mounted window glass, aerodynamic headlamps and front end, a revised air dam, and a longer and more rounded roof. All of these factors helped to push the Cougar's drag coefficient down to .36, outstanding for a coupe at the time (although still behind the Thunderbird's .32). The added advantage was slightly improved fuel economy, although better engine management systems and components also played a role with that. This was now the quietest Cougar ever, too, with more insulation to help with cabin noise.
Since the XR-7 model now sported the 5.0 V8 in place of the previous turbo-4, the key to this body design was to be traditional and low-key. The fog lamps were gone on the XR-7, as well as the previous luxury upper-level door panels. Basically both models (LS and XR-7 alike) were very formal-looking and even slightly conservative; the aggressive sporty appearance of the previous XR-7's seemed to take a back seat. Still, the monochromatic 1988 XR-7 brought back a lot more sport. Also, features that were optional on the previous model were becoming standard or more popular, so this allowed Ford to package the cars more tightly than ever before.
ABOVE: The before and after comparison of the Cougar's side profile between 1986 and 1987 showed an overall slight lengthening, a more upright rear quarter area, and a longer roof with a more pronounced rear backlite.
1 A stretch of the roof panel rearward gave the Cougar a much more refined look. Still maintaining the same rounded shape, the roof panel now flowed much more smoothly into the new double-curved rear window.
The most major change on the Cougar was the adoption of the aero front end, which has become the car's signature "cat's eye" look. Ford's first aero front end, the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII, was highly successful and was quickly adopted by the 1986 Taurus/Sable and 1986 Tempo/Topaz. Across the board, most of the Ford and Mercury cars got the same treatment by 1987 so when it was the Cougar's turn, Ford designers knocked it out of the park. There was a much greater sense of balance this time around.
2 A wraparound side marker flowed into the rectangular composite headlamp and into the parking lamp, creating a tight yet clean look. Designers paid attention to little details here: the gap between the outer marker and headlamp aligns perfectly with the gap between the hood and fender, allowing the eye to subconsciously follow the line—very clever. There was no more space between the headlamps and the grille, tightening up the front header panel completely.
3 The chromed hood ornament was shaved from the top of the header panel and instead placed into the center of the new waterfall grille. The grille sported a chrome surround for a nice visual punch.
4 With the new headlight and marker configuration, this body detail became the perfect opportunity to emphasize the horizontal by now becoming a simple, straight line.
5 New integrated molding, again with a chrome inset, was set in tighter to the body. The molding was now the same width around the entire perimeter of the car. The MERCURY emblem moved from being offset in the grille, to being offset inside the molding.
6 The rounded bumper cover features a graceful chin cut on the top of the bumper that allowed the grille to be slightly deeper than the headlamps. The cover flowed under the car and into a new, deeper air dam and multiple air inlets tucked underneath. Viewed from the side, there is a more pronounced roundness and length to the front end, with just a hint of a point in the center of the bumper.
In short, this front end was a perfect fit for the Cougar. There is no bad viewing angle from any direction, and all elements work fantastically with each other. This is a classic example of how to upgrade the front styling of a car and make it even better that anyone thought it could be.
7 The same basic fenders were retained, save for the deletion of the recessed body line above the molding around the entire car. Now there was a gentle "kick" into the molding, which resulted in a much smoother transition than before. This also helped flow into the wheel well lip better as well.
Additional refinement was given to updating the doors. While the overall basic door shape remained the same, the changes helped to further modernize the look of the car.
8 The flush glass necessitated all new window trim and rubber seals. This helped to de-emphasize the B-pillar area especially, as it was now almost part of the glass area.
9 Ford finally gave all models the blackout treatment, although the LS still had a small inset of chrome inside. The dechroming of the window trim was probably the biggest element of the car's more modern look versus the previous version of the Cougar.
10 The same basic mirror was retained, but had a new wind splitter added to the frontmost edge, helping to keep wind noise down. All mirrors now had a drain hole underneath.
11 With the molding now the same general height around the perimeter of the car, the door in particular gained a better sense of mass and heft.
REAR QUARTER PANELS & REAR GLASS
Again the most visually interesting part of the car, the rear quarter panel areas were all new. It's not like this part of the car was bad before. But with this makeover, the rear quarters were much more refined and modern looking while still maintaining the aero-Cougar heritage.
12 The "C" shape of the side glass was pulled back into the panel even more, with the angle nearly matching that of the windshield. This gave a more laid-back look to the car.
13 The rear window was now even shorter in height. A new glassmaking process allowed Ford designers to accomplish what it originally intended for the previous version: a backlite with dual curves. Not only is it rounded from a side view, but it also bubbles into the roof very smoothly. This was an aid to the aerodynamics of the car, creating a much smaller wake in the air behind the roof now. The only real drawback was an optical distortion, a slightly elongated view through the rearview mirror. Still, it was one of the first vehicles to attempt such a tricky dual compound curved rear window and it handled the job very well.
14 A new, slightly smaller roof ornament also appeared with a small black surround. This reinforced the "chrome and black" look of the window trim on the LS.
15 The new trunklid design was made flatter, so the "shoulder" was moved upward on the side panels. This gave the Cougar an even more hunched-down look. The triangle was much smaller and smoother this time.
16 To emphasize the move toward the horizontal, the previous body line that started at the top of the front fender now continued straight through to the back of the car, and did not round out around the window. This made the back quarter of the car look a little more broad-sided and substantial.
17 The sharper angle of the previous Cougar was now more squared off and upright, a much more appropriate solution to the updated look.
18 An even deeper cut into the rear panels allowed for new wraparound rear markers.
TRUNK & REAR
If there was ever a doubt of awkwardness in the last Cougar's trunk area, all that doubt was erased with the all new 1987 redesign. The rear end gained quite a bit visually with this makeover, becoming much stronger-looking and smoother.
19 Now much more integrated into the car, the trunk lost the infamous "hump" and was totally smoothed out. The aforementioned body line wrapped around the back of the lid just above the trunk lock.
20 The deep recessed license plate area remained between the taillamps.
21 New, slimmer taillamps adorned the back, with the signature Mercury "shaver" look brought back with their internal reflectors. The Cougar logo returned over the inboard backup lamps, with a black line splitting the lenses horizontally, accentuating the wider look to the back end.
22 The same basic rear bumper shape remained, with the newer style molding intact.
It is hard for a lot of people (yours truly included) to prefer one body style of the 1980's Cougars over the other. Both cars have their own unique properties visually. I suppose one could argue that the 1987-88 cars just feel more modern. Then again, one could say that the 1983-86 cars look more aggressive and muscular. It all depends on your own individual tastes, but one thing seems to be clear: the 1983-88 Cougar designs are still classics to this day, and everyone that visits this site seems to like both styles almost equally. Now that you understand the elements of our cars' styling, you may have a greater appreciation for the work that went into them. And the feeling that you drive a thoroughly classic vehicle every time you sit behind the wheel.