Roughly two years after the first Mustangs landed in Ford showrooms, the Mercury Cougar made its debut.
Founded in 1938, the Mercury brand was initially conceived as a way of bridging the divide between FoMoCo’s standard Ford models and the premium offerings they produced under the Lincoln badge. As such, Mercury vehicles typically placed more of an emphasis on luxury content than their Ford counterparts did, and generally attracted more mature buyers who preferred measured restraint over bravado and comfort over outright performance.
When the muscle car craze began to heat up in the mid-1960s as baby boomers came of age, however, the market demand for performance quickly became impossible for domestic automakers of any ilk to ignore. So when Ford sold over a million examples of its new Mustang in the first year and a half it was on sale, those numbers did not go unnoticed by the Mercury brass. Roughly two years after the first Mustangs landed in Ford showrooms, the Mercury Cougar made its debut.
Though Mercury was used to courting buyers looking for an order of luxury higher than was available with Ford models but without the associated price tag of Lincoln’s vehicles, the unprecedented demand for Ford’s new Mustang was a market shift that nobody could ignore. Mercury’s answer came two years after the Mustang in the form of the Cougar, which road on a 3-inch-longer wheelbase than Ford’s pony car but utilized the vast majority of its hardware. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)
Sharing the majority of its mechanical hardware with the 1967 Mustang, the Cougar sported a 3-inch-longer wheelbase along with European-influenced styling and luxury appointments that helped differentiate the model from its Ford counterpart; a formula that would prove effective enough for Motor Trend to name the Mercury Cougar its Car of the Year for 1967.
While the Cougar recipe had proven effective, muscle car mania continued to build momentum toward the end of the decade, and with it, the demand for more extroverted models that wore their high-performance credentials on their sleeves grew. To go up against attention-grabbing models like the Chevrolet Camaro SS396, Pontiac Firebird Ram Air 400, and Ford’s own Mustang Mach I, Mercury debuted the Cougar Eliminator for 1969, a model which abandoned any sense of subtlety in a bid for the hearts and wallets of horsepower-hungry performance enthusiasts.
Cougar Goes High Impact
It should be noted that the Eliminator wasn’t Mercury’s first attempt to bring potent high performance to the Cougar. Offered at the Cougar’s debut, the GT package shoehorned a 390-cube big-block V8 into the ’67 model along with a number of other performance upgrades, while 1968 saw the addition of the 335-horsepower, 428ci Cobra Jet, as well as the 390-horsepower, 427ci V8 to the options sheet. Both were available as part of the GT-E options package, which included uprated suspension, brakes, cooling, and other go-fast components, as well as a handful of aesthetic tweaks.
Despite the capability on tap with the GT-E, the fact that only a few hundred buyers had opted for package had Mercury concerned that the Cougar was getting lost in the crowd amongst a field of attention-grabbing offerings from other marques.
With the Eliminator package, any effort on Mercury's part to hide the Cougar's performance potential under a veneer of luxury pretense was toss out the door in favor of an aggressive body kit, bold colors, and potent performance hardware. Most notable on that list of gear was the 428-cube big-block V8 installed between the frame rails of this particular example, which was fed fresh air through an optional ram-air system attached to the hood scoop. (Photo Credit: Russo and Steele)
The Eliminator package served as their response in 1969, and its intentions were made clear from a glance. Available in head-turning paint hues like Competition Orange and Bright Blue and outfitted with a large hood scoop, front and rear spoilers and a model-specific graphics package, the Eliminator put its cards on the table for all to see.
Fortunately it had the hardware to back up its performance look. The standard engine with the Eliminator package was a 351 Windsor small-block V8 rated at 290 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque, while the 390-cube four-barrel V8, the 428 Cobra Jet, and the high-winding Boss 302 V8 were optional, offering a notoriously underrated 320, 335, and 290 horsepower, respectively. These mills were hooked to a three-speed manual gearbox as standard, while a C6 automatic and a four-speed manual transmission were also optional.
The Eliminator option package for 1969 included an upgrade from the standard Cougar’s two-barrel 351 Windsor engine to the 290-horsepower, four-barrel version of the 351W. If that wasn’t enough grunt, buyers could also choose between the high-revving 5.0-liter from Ford’s Boss 302 Mustang, a 390ci big-block, or the top-spec 428 Cobra Jet engine. (Photo Credit: Russo and Steele)
Though it was never made officially available, Mercury also managed to get the Mustang Boss 429’s big-block mill into a pair of Cougar Eliminators, which the company then sold to drag racers Dyno Don Nicholson and Fast Eddie Schartman for use on the drag racing circuit at a bargain rate of $1 apiece.
Drag Pak Options
Two particularly rare options for Cougar Eliminator models were aimed directly at the drag racing set of enthusiasts. Opting for the the Drag Pak option added the following:
• 3.91 gear ratio
• Traction Lok differential
• Engine oil cooler
The even rarer Super Drag Pak took things a step further, swapping in a Detroit Locker rearend with a 4.30 gear ratio to go along with the engine oil cooler.
Nineteen seventy would see some minor aesthetic tweaks for the Cougar, including a restyled front-end that incorporated a center hood extension over the front grille. The Eliminator package now came standard with high-back bucket seats, a black-grain instrument panel, a 6,000-rpm tachometer (8,000 rpm for Boss 302-equipped models) and a Hurst shifter with aluminum T-handle for manual-transmission cars.
The Eliminator color palette also expanded to six options from the four offered the previous year with the addition of Competition Green, Competition Gold, and Pastel Blue, while White was dropped from the options list, and a new set of graphics were also added.
Mercury would apply some visual tweaks to the Cougar for 1970, most notable in the reshaped hood that brought its center section down into the now-split grille. They also sought to up the drama of the Eliminator package by adding more available color options to the mix, as well as bolder graphics and more standard equipment. (Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions)
The standard engine was now either the 290hp 351 Windsor V8 or a 300hp 351 Cleveland V8 depending on build date and availability, with the latter being the more desirable of the two not only due to the higher horsepower rating, but because its canted valve positioning offered better cylinder head flow. While the 390ci V8 was dropped from the options sheet, both the Boss 302 and 428 Cobra Jet motors made a return essentially unchanged from the previous year.
Flying Under The Radar
Despite being armed with some of the most potent performance hardware Ford had on hand and looks to match, the Cougar Eliminator failed to make a significant impact on enthusiasts, with Mercury selling just 2,250 examples in 1969 and 2,267 in 1970 – a far cry from the 74,458 and 40,970 Mustang Mach 1 models that Ford had sold those same years.
Though the Cougar Eliminator’s powertrain options were every bit as potent as those found in its Mustang counterparts, its slightly more sedate styling along with the marginally reduced performance it offered due to its additional mass meant that the vast majority of enthusiast buyers looked to the Mustang when it came to Ford performance. As a result, the Eliminator package would bow out after just two years on the market. (Photo Credit: Russo and Steele)
While some of that could be attributed to Mercury’s established public perception that was more synonymous with comfort than quarter mile times, the Cougar’s longer wheelbase and additional heft versus the competition meant that – while undoubtedly quick in Eliminator guise, Mercury’s pony car was often outpaced by its competitive set both at the stop light and the drag strip – with Car Life magazine noting that “the Cougar has grown too big and plush to be able to roll up its sleeves and scrap with the new, young tough stuff.”
The 1969-70 Mercury Cougar Eliminators have become sought-after collectibles.
It would prove to be the last year the Eliminator package would be offered. When the second-generation Cougar debuted for the 1971 model year, Mercury decided to reposition its pony car as more of a personal luxury car alternative to the Thunderbird rather than a stoplight street fighter. By the following year the muscle car era was quickly drawing to a close, and like so many muscle cars of the era, the Cougar soon found itself in the throes of a decade typified by gas rationing and pollution controls rather than high performance.
Due to its brief production stint and the relatively low number of cars built, the 1969-70 Mercury Cougar Eliminators have become sought-after collectibles for Blue Oval fanatics, with the values of clean, highly optioned examples reaching well into six-figure territory in recent years.