One car, three names
The confusion of the smog era clouded executives’ thinking
It might have taken Ford a while to begin downsizing during the 1970s, but when they did, they came up with a pretty respectable compact (by US standards), and borrowed a name from their Australian division. The 1978 Fairmont was born, with a neat wagon to rival the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volaré. For Mercury, Ford went into the archives and brought out the Zephyr name for basically the same car.
Fast forward a few years and I have to wonder what they were thinking inside the Glass House. Detroit thinks it got away with moving full-size badges on to intermediates and pretended they had downsized (e.g. 1977 Dodge Monaco, the Ford LTD II), but no one was really fooled. And now they had other ideas. You can almost imagine a meeting inside Lincoln–Mercury like this.
‘We have that compact Zephyr wagon, but we need to earn more dollars per unit.’
‘Say, we’ve moved nameplates around before. Remember when we put Thunderbird badges on the Torino?’
‘Great, let’s do it again! Let’s call it the Cougar and charge more!’
So for 1982, the compact Zephyr had a regrilled twin, called the Cougar—once one of Mercury’s hallowed nameplates, now being abused for marketing’s sake.
It lasted all of one model year. Cue the imaginary meeting room again.
‘That didn’t go as well as we thought.’
‘No, people didn’t appreciate being taken for fools, and they knew it was a jazzed-up Fairmont. Let’s not do that again.’
‘Are you kidding? We need to do it again. The only thing we got wrong was the nameplate!’
‘What the heck are you talking about?’
‘Let’s give the Fairmont the fanciest, most upmarket nameplate we have in this division!’
‘Marquis? You can’t put a full-size nameplate on to a compact!’
‘Just watch me.’
From 1983 to 1986, the Mercury Marquis wagon was a Zephyr with another grille.
Yes, I am exaggerating for the sake of humour. I know the Cougar and Marquis had more upmarket engine options, and the latter was even quite well appointed. It had been a reasonably comprehensive facelift, and the 1970s’ definition of compact no longer applied in the 1980s. But looking back, it makes for an interesting examination of what car makers believed would pass for sufficient novelty—and how they saved a few bucks by revamping what they already had.