Bloomberg News broke the news Thursday night, and the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News confirmed yesterday, that Ford Motor Co. is poised to kill the Mercury brand. Ford itself is mum on the topic, engaged in studying the move. That's no surprise, since its cost GM about $1 billion to shut down the Oldsmobile brand. And Ford dealers carrying the Mercury brand likely will have to somehow compensated by Ford for the loss in revenue.
Not that there's much revenue to be lost, which obviously is why Mercury might soon be discontinued. The brand was launched, by Henry Ford's son Edsel, in 1939 as a "performance" brand a step up from the Ford brand, which was value-oriented, and a step down from Lincoln, Ford Motor's luxury brand. But the not terribly impressive history of Mercury - despite 71 years of operation - is that it has rarely been well defined for consumers. It was a quasi-luxury brand for a time, returning to its high-performance roots, but only briefly.
For most consumers of the past 20 years, Mercury has meant one thing - a slightly different styling of a companion Ford-brand vehicle. Plymouth played the same role at Chrysler Corp.; most of its vehicles were re-branded Dodges with minimal exterior and interior styling and features.
So you had the Ford Maverick, an early North American bestselling compact, and its almost indistinguishable Mercury Comet counterpart. This was done onlyto satisfy Mercury dealers, not the consume. The world didn't need a minimally modified Mustang with a Mercury badge. Both the Maverick and Comet were, in any case, hideous to look at, and were produced during the notorious "rusty Ford" days that contributed mightily to the decline of Ford Motor to the benefit of better-made Japanese imports.
Ford Motor, as you know, is in the midst of an impressive turnaround. It's the sole member of the Detroit Three that didn't require a government bailout. But it's also the most heavily indebted of the three, in large part because the Obama bailout of GM saw Washington take on GM's massive $50-billion-or-so debt load in exchange for shares in GM.
Ford's Lincoln division is flagging, and needs whatever attention Ford Motor can free up from the wise obsession it has with rejuvenating the core Ford brand. That leaves nothing much by way of resources to make Mercury relevant with a new line of distinctly engineered and styled cars vehicles.
So we likely will soon say goodbye to Mercury, which will join Studebaker, Hudson, Packard, Nash and other major brands that once gave us delight with certain of their models - superior styling, engineering and innovative features of just enough models over the years to give one the impression the brand was here to stay.
The fact is the lookalike brands Mercury, Plymouth and to a sad degree Buick/Olds and Chev/Pontiac were possible - and arguably imperative - in a vastly less competitive North American market than has existed since the imports began to really take hold in the 1980s. There now are about 22 major auto makers worldwide, and most compete in the U.S., still the largest and most lucrative market. By lucrative, I mean you charge far more for a vehicle in the U.S. than, say, Spain or Indonesia, where you can eke out a profit selling vehicles but because of a lower standard of living your price point, and thus profit margins, will be lower. That's why everyone from Mitsubishi to Volvo to Mazda and soon the Chinese and Indians, want a piece of the U.S. market. That's where the global industry's most affluent car buyers, willing to pay the highest prices for a vehicle, are located. And there's no longer room for the Detroit Three lookalike brands that helped Detroit satisfy demand in a market they once had to themselves.
A now a trip down memory lane with Mercury:
Mercury Frontenac 1960, made for the Canadian market, for one year only. Pontiac's Laurentian and Acadian were among the many Detroit Three vehicles rebadged for the Canadian market. Frontenac honors the French defender at Quebec City who, ordered to surrender by American marauders he easily defeated, responded: "I will answer from the mouth of my cannons."
Mercury Cougar, 1967. This is the first-generation Cougar, and unlike most stablemates its design was markedly different from its companion Ford Mustang. They used the same platform, as stablemates almost always do, to save on engineering a separate drive-train, but the exterior shell and design cues are such that no one would mistake a Cougar for a Mustang or vice-versa - one of the last times this effort would be made with a stablemate. Partly that was Lee Iacocca's determination to preserve the distinct look of the remarkably successful Mustang. And it was an successful bet that "pony cars" (Mustang, Firebird, Camaro, Charger, Challenger) were then a sufficiently large segment to accommodate the Cougar, whose styling was much more refined than that of the Mustang. The more genteel look of Cougar is signalled immediately not just by the hidden headlights but the elegant grille that makes the headlights an integral part of the front-end look.
Mercury Park Lane Brougham, 1968, one of the three "Hawaii Five-O Mercs," as they're known among eBay traders, used by Jack Lord's character, Steve McGarrett, in the long-running TV series (1968-80). The others were a 1967 Mercury Brougham used in the pilot, and a hulking 1974 Marquis Brougham from 1973 to 1980. The show was a marketers' dream: McGarrett was filmed driving his elegant black Mercury against a spectacular Hawaiian backdrop in practically every episode of the 12-year series.
Here's a headline Madison Avenue wouldn't get away with today, but commonplace in auto advertising from the 1950s into the the 1980s.
Mercury Capri, 1973, first of three generations of what started out as a "pony car." The European-built Capri was the most popular U.S. import after the VW Bug. Later versions were assembled by Ford Australia.
Photos: Wikipedia Commons, Ford Motor Co. handouts.