It’s official: another U.S. car brand has been killed, going the way of Saturn, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab (so far). This time it’s Mercury, part of the Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford Motor Co.
Late last month, with Ford flying high and dealers relatively happy with their products, Alan Mulally and other top Ford execs figured it was a good time to kill the Mercury division and pay off their dealers. Most all Mercury stores are also Lincoln dealers, so no one will be missing any meals.
Someone tell me what a Mercury is, what are its values, its reputation? In other words, what does the name Mercury mean to the car-buying public?
I contend it’s been an eternity since Mercury had its own solid, well-defined image. But was it an upscale Ford or a downscale Lincoln? No one seemed to know since Mercury was founded in 1935 by Edsel Ford and came to market in 1939. After WWII, when sales of all cars were booming, Mercury was incorporated into a single division with Lincoln, and then the customer confusion really began.
Bad-boy Mercury’s were all the rage throughout the 1940s and ‘50s with their customized gangster look and appeal and an overall sinister-appearing exterior. Mercury gained its own acceptance into the world of custom cars through the work of customizers and body-builders throughout the country who saw special potential in the cars. A “lead sled” Mercury owned by Bob Hirohata (the Hirohata Mercury) is one of the best-known and still-extant custom cars of any kind.
Though some of the facts about the Hirohata Merc may have been lost to history (as often happens with custom cars), the Mercury was built by Sam Barris, brother of the well-known George Barris, who to this day calls himself, “The King of the Kustomizers.”
So Mercury had a shot to differentiate itself from boring Fords and expensive Lincolns, but the division never capitalized on the vast numbers of young people, potential future customers, who liked the Mercs they saw at car shows and in movies and TV shows. But the window closed in the mid-‘50s and since that time no one really knew what a Mercury was.
Mercury’s been foundering for the past 20 years or so, offering nothing more exciting than gussied-up versions of existing Ford products; Mercury has no one model specific to their division alone.
Just a few years ago, actually for what seemed like five minutes, Ford scion Bill Ford Jr. ascended to the top level of corporate management and put a large emphasis on ecologically friendly cars and trucks. It didn’t take long for someone at Ford to remember that until EVs are here and common on roadways, the company still needed to build cars, the kind people had been buying since Ford was created in 1903.
Then, recently, Elena Ford, a great-great granddaughter of Henry the first, and the only female Ford to ever work directly for the company, was put in charge of global marketing for the company as a whole, and she was also supposed to work some special magic with Mercury.
Well, she didn’t work the kind of magic the board of directors had in mind, because not long after she took over the Mercury responsibility the rumors were flying about the end of the division.
After Henry Ford’s son Edsel started Mercury so many decades ago, perhaps the height of irony was that after the failure to thrive of the car called the Edsel, which happened in just three years in the mid-‘50s, it was folded into Lincoln-Mercury and the division was known for a short time as the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division. A very short time.
The trouble for Mercury all started because in the early ‘50s, the Ford family decided the company could use a cash infusion to help them develop and build more new models and be more similar to G.M. So company stock, which had been owned exclusively by the Ford family until that time, was offered to the public and you can imagine the excitement about the chance to buy part of a great American industrial corporation.
Yet rather than taking that new money and making Edsel a winner (the company definitely undelivered on what they’d promised Edsel would be) and create a strong image for Mercury, Edsel bombed and Mercury was as lost as ever. And that single missed opportunity branded Mercury as the “What the hell is it?” division for all time.
It’s a lesson other car-makers have learned the hard way too: buyers want a car that makes a definite statement, which knows its place in the market. A perpetual question mark like Mercury has absolutely no chance of survival in a marketplace that’s smaller and more focused than ever before.
Mercury, we hardly knew ya’.
Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winner who has covered the world’s auto industry and motor racing for over 35 years. Contact Steve through his website www.thecarnut.typepad.com.