The Ode: Mercury (1939–2010)

It was made to be a 'rich man's Ford,' but despite a few beloved models and a memorable place in pop culture, it never found a niche to call its own.

Mercury was created in 1939 by the Ford Motor Co., part of a rapid expansion of the automobile industry as the United States began to pull itself out of the Great Depression.

Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, named the division after the messenger of the Gods from Roman mythology, and conceived of it as a “rich man’s Ford.” Mercurys were to be built on standard designs but enhanced with more refined trim and powerful engines to attract a wealthier clientele. The strategy was a direct response to General Motors and its proliferating roster of brands, like Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick, each aimed at different consumer segments.

Mercury allowed Ford to take a first tentative step into the luxury market during the war years, but the brand only began to come into its own in 1949 with the release of the Mercury Eight. A beautifully styled car with curved lines and a powerful V8 engine, the ’49 Merc was a hit with a new generation of enthusiasts who were customizing their cars, making it one of the original hot rods of the early 1950s.

It was also in 1949 when blues singer K. C. Douglas wrote “Mercury Boogie,” extolling the brand’s virtues. “If I had money / I tell you what I’d do. / I’d go downtown / buy a Mercury or two. / I’m crazy ’bout a Mercury.… /Gonna buy me a Mercury / and cruise it up and down the road.” The song was later renamed “Mercury Blues” and would be re-recorded by the likes of Steve Miller and Meatloaf.

James Dean drove a ’49 Mercury in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, forever linking the model with the restless youth of the postwar years. But by the time the movie was released in 1955, Ford was moving the division further away from its namesake brand, pairing it instead with its Lincoln luxury line. The idea was that Mercury would be more popular if it were seen as a “junior Lincoln” rather than a “fancy Ford.” And so, a string of upscale cruisers like the Park Lane and the Monterey came to reflect the brand identity.

Still, it was never quite clear what market Mercury really served. It was too expensive to be a mass-market Ford or Chevy, and not quite exclusive enough to rival Lincoln and Cadillac. There were a handful of hits, like the ’67 Mercury Cougar — built on the same drivetrain as the Ford Mustang, but lower and longer, with a distinctive front grill and smooth lines that made it the more elegant of the two. But through the 1970s and 1980s, Mercury became increasingly indistinguishable from Ford.

The Grand Marquis, a full-size luxury sedan manufactured at the St. Thomas plant in Ontario, became a bestseller but at a glance was easily confused with the Ford Crown Victoria.

In 1992, country music star Alan Jackson scored a No. 1 hit with his version of “Mercury Blues,” briefly thrusting the brand back into the cultural spotlight. But by the mid-1990s, sales had entered into a sharp decline. A brand that sold over 528,000 cars in 1985 slipped below 300,000 in 2002. Last year, just 92,299 Mercurys were sold in the United States prompting persistent rumours that the brand was doomed.

The final chapter of Mercury’s existence began in 2006, when Alan Mulally took over as Ford CEO and promised to phase out less popular divisions. The company has since sold Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo.

In October of last year, Ford announced plans to shut down the St. Thomas, Ont., plant at the end of 2011. Last week, Ford confirmed its plans to discontinue the Mercury line at the end of this year. Leaks from inside the company suggest that the shutdown had long been opposed by William Ford Jr. and other members of the founding family, but faltering sales and a need to focus resources on Ford and Lincoln ultimately changed their minds.