Mercury makeover: Design duo will play key role in redefining the sagging division's
By RICHARD TRUETT
Bill Ford has ordered Mercury into the corporate garage for an overhaul. And Ford Motor Co.'s CEO is serious about making design a big part of the fix.
For most of Mercury's 64 years, the division has had no chief designer. This year, it has been given two: Darrell Behmer, an 18-year Ford design veteran, and Phil Simmons, freshly imported from Ford's Land Rover unit.
Their task is a tall one: Fix Mercury, on a slender budget. And their marching orders remain a bit murky: They face the daunting task of shaping future products while the division's image masters still are trying to decide what the brand aspires to be.
Outsiders say Mercury needs to tap past design themes to go forward, but Mercury's design history is short of prestigious icons that are instantly recognizable in the public mind. They say Mercury needs to be distinct and consistent, but Mercury will continue to share vehicles with other Ford Motor divisions.
And there's always the temptation to go the opposite way: Forget the past and start over. But Oldsmobile tried that - and look where it ended up.
No wonder the road ahead looks full of curves and potholes.
"Mercury is in a most difficult position,'' said Steve Saxty, executive director of the automotive practice at FutureBrand, a brand marketing consulting firm in New York. "Doing what they used to do - taking brand A and rebadging it into brand B - doesn't work anymore. The world has moved on. Brands are about differentiation."
MERCURY'S GREATEST HITS
As Mercury works to establish a design identity, it likely will review its design heritage. Michael Lamm, co-author and publisher of A Century of Automotive Style, chose seven designs he considers Mercury’s most significant. Here’s what he had to say.
The first Mercury — the 1939 model — was extremely well wrought. It shared a strong family resemblance with the 1939 Ford but looked more substantial and luxurious. Its barrel-shaped taillamps lent interest to the rear. The rainbow-shaped speedometer inspired similar treatments a decade later at Cadillac and Chrysler. The 1939-40 Mercury coupe was especially handsome, with its shallow roof and chrome window surrounds like the 1938 Cadillac 60-Special.
1949 ‘Lead sled’
The 1949 Mercury was intended to become the 1949 Ford. But as a Ford, it turned out to be too heavy and expensive, so the design ended up as the 1949 Mercury. As such, it shared the small Lincoln’s body shell. Bathtub Mercurys soon became the car world’s iconic “lead sleds,” thanks to customizers such as Sam and George Barris, who chopped, channeled and dechromed them to great effect.
When the 1952 Mercury first came out, its front-end styling shocked a lot of people. It had a combined grille and bumper. Nothing like this had ever been done before. The designer behind the idea was Gene Bordinat, who followed George Walker as Ford Motor Co.’s design director. The 1952 Mercury shared that year’s Ford body but, thanks to Bordinat and Walker, looked different.
1957 Turnpike Cruiser
No one can accuse the 1957 Turnpike Cruiser of representing good design. But it’s a significant car nonetheless because, along with the 1958 Buick, ’58 Oldsmobile and ’59 Cadillac, it epitomized the more-is-better school of ornamentation. As the late Strother MacMinn — a legendary instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. — used to say (but in another context), “You could walk around the car and be entertained the whole trip.”
Mercury designers had a hard act to follow with the 1967 Cougar. It shared just about everything with the hugely successful Mustang, yet Mercury’s stylists had to create a unique, upmarket look. The designers deserve a lot of credit for making this Cougar a standout.
No one could mistake the 1970 Mercury Cyclone, with its bold grille. The protruding “gun sight” grille was the brainchild of Larry Shinoda, a designer on the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette who, in 1968, came to Ford from General Motors with Bunkie Knudsen (former head of Pontiac and Chevrolet divisions). Insurance companies hated this grille. The “Knudsen nose” — named for the new Ford president — looked great. But it fell victim to even the slightest ding. At Ford, the Knudsen nose outlasted Bunkie by only a year and helped convince the federal government to mandate 5-mph bumpers.
Although the 1986 Mercury Sable arrived alongside the revolutionary Ford Taurus, it had several unique touches. The most visible was the headlight bar, which defined the Sable in front view for two generations. Another was a roofline borrowed from the German Merkur and Scorpio. The Scorpio, in fact, helped encourage Ford’s entire aero look of the mid-1980s. It took great corporate fortitude to leave the boxy body format of the previous 15 years.
Since its 1938 inception, Mercury almost always has shared bodies and styling features with Ford and Lincoln. Mercury's popular Cougar started in 1967 as an offshoot of the Ford Mustang, then migrated to the Thunderbird body. The Grand Marquis of the mid-1970s was based on a Lincoln.
But Mercury had a clear role within Ford: In the 1940s and 1950s, its mission was to keep buyers of medium-priced cars in the Ford family.
Mercury's competition came mostly from General Motors' Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac divisions and from Chrysler's Dodge and DeSoto brands.
The game changed dramatically in the early 1970s with the arrival of medium-priced imported cars that stole sales from Mercury.
Mercury sales peaked in 1978, at 579,498. Last year's U.S. volume was just over half that, at 311,787.
Many agree that the first thing Mercury needs is a strong and consistent design theme. It also will need time. Elena Ford, granddaughter of Henry Ford II, was appointed Mercury brand manager in November. In March, she said Mercury would not abandon its older buyers as it redefines itself - a lesson it learned from Oldsmobile's decline. The average age of Mercury's customer is 62.
Behmer and Simmons hold the title of chief designer for the Mercury brand. Both report to Lincoln Mercury design director Gerry McGovern.
Lincoln Mercury spokesman Jim Cain said their responsibilities are divided among vehicle lines. Behmer is responsible for trucks and for changes made to vehicles now in production. Simmons, who worked with McGovern at Land Rover, is working on cars. Both are working on developing Mercury's design "DNA."
To underscore the importance Bill Ford placed on getting Mercury back on its wheels, Behmer in February became the first person since E.T. Gregorie in the early 1940s to hold the title of chief designer for Mercury. Simmons, 36, who attends classic cars shows and rides mountain bikes in his spare time, joined the division in April.
Ford Motor officials would not discuss the future of Mercury design and would not make Behmer or Simmons available for interviews.
Before taking the Mercury position, Behmer, 40, was chief designer in Ford's Large and Luxury Center, where he worked on Ford's upcoming car-truck crossover vehicles.
Behmer has helped shape the 1986 Ford Mondeo, 1990 Lincoln Town Car, 1992 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, 1994 Ford Mustang, the edgy 1999 Mercury Cougar and the 2003 Town Car.
Simmons, who spent a decade at Land Rover, had a hand in shaping the 1995-2002 Range Rover. He worked on the interior of the BMW Mini and did early design work on the Land Rover Freelander.
Simmons also had a hand in the exterior styling of the 2003 Range Rover, which has been drawing rave reviews.
Though Ford officials refused to discuss Mercury's future, several designers outside the division say the Mercury design team should look at classic Mercurys for inspiration. Mercury rarely has been noted for head-turning styling. But there are some historical design cues that could be used to develop a Mercury design language.
"Mercury had a terrific image back in the '40s, '50s and especially the '60s with a number of design cues that they can draw upon," said Jack Telnack, Ford's former global design chief. "They can look at the successful Mercurys and bring back some of those grilles."
Those classic grilles include those on the 1949-51 Mercurys - called the "James Dean" Mercurys because of their prominent role in the Dean film Rebel Without a Cause. There also was the "Breezeway" rear window that retracted into the body on some Mercurys of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The concealed headlights and sequential tail signals on the 1967 Cougar XR-7 are two other signature features that classic Mercury enthusiasts say help define the marque.
Tom Matano, general manager of advanced design for Mazda, said two things can separate Mercury from the Ford brand: higher style and technical innovation.
"In the 1950s, Mercury had more stylish hardtops than Ford. Maybe that's the nature of the brand," said Matano, whose company is partially owned by Ford. "Instead of capturing the superficial elements, (Mercury's design team) could go for the spirit of the brand and add some innovation. It needs those two elements."
Analyst Jeff Schuster agrees.
"Strong styling and more horsepower would be going in the right direction. I think if you have some unique styling, had unique features or options you can only get on a Mercury product, then you do start to cut out a unique niche for the brand," said Schuster, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.
On another front, Ford executives have been trying to determine what Mercury stands for, who its customers are and what they want. That task has been made tougher because the business model under which Mercury was created has changed. It no longer exists to plug a hole between the most deluxe Ford and the least expensive Lincoln.
The 1967 Cougar XR-7 may have come close. But nothing the division has created has been considered a breakthrough car. There has been no landmark vehicle, such as BMW's 2002, that established a direction and led to lasting success.
According to Strategic Vision, a San Diego research and consulting firm, Mercury's brand recognition among consumers is not strong.
"It's been a me-too brand for a long time," said Dan Gorrell, vice president of the company.
It will take not only eye-catching designs for Mercury to improve its rank with buyers but also vehicles that "fill unmet needs, excite the market and are innovative," Gorrell said.
Ford has been trying to get to the essence of what is a Mercury by conducting focus groups at meetings of the International Mercury Owners Association.
Jerry Robbin, the association's president, said the focus groups have shown that Mercury owners want:
1. Unique styling
2. More horsepower than comparable Ford vehicles
3. Better trim than Ford vehicles
4. Higher quality than Fords
5. A consistent and powerful marketing plan that emphasizes the vehicles, not the deal.
"There isn't a unique difference between driving a Ford and Mercury," Robbin said. "In 1969, I bought my first Grand Marquis. It was a baby Lincoln. It was an inexpensive way to say, 'I can almost afford a Lincoln.' " Robbin said Mercury's recent styling efforts - such as the Villager, Tracer and Sable - are "creating identity crisis after identity crisis."
Ford's financial troubles appear likely to keep Mercury boxed into a tight corner for the foreseeable future. That means few, if any, unique vehicles.
For instance, Mercury will get a new sedan, a rebadged version of the Escape sport-utility in the 2004 model year and a minivan based on the Ford Windstar that will replace the outgoing Villager in 2003.
But even within the narrow confines of selling spiffed-up Fords, some industry observers think Mercury still can be successful. But there are caveats: Designs must be noteworthy, and there needs to be consistency between vehicles so Mercury can begin to build a stronger brand identity.
"As a retailer, I think that the right approach is to strive for design consistency, but not just for consistency's sake," said Chris Lemley, president of Sentry Auto Group, a Medford, Mass., Mercury dealer."It's more important for the design to be exciting and appealing and evoke a passionate response from the customer - the 'I-gotta-have-it' feeling - than it is for it to be consistent.''
Mercury has never had a sustained period of looking comfortable in its own skin.
Over the years, the brand has offered performance cars, sports cars, muscle cars and faux luxury cars. In the past two decades, it has been linked to German-built Merkurs, Australian-built Capris and warmed over Fords.
Cain said the design team has identified the 1949 Mercury, early 1960s Marauders and the 1967 Cougar as Mercurys with "iconic" styling. Another aspect of Mercury's future DNA will be performance. That is not tire-shredding, muscle-car performance, but more of quiet, controlled and refined acceleration with sporty handling.
Indicative of the confusion, Mercury officials can't even decide which logo to use: the classic Roman "god's head" version from the 1940s or the modern "road" logo used on most of its current vehicles. The new Marauder performance sedan uses both.
But there is one vehicle that, from a styling standpoint, has been successful and influential for Mercury: The Mountaineer sport-utility. With its sharp lines and the vertical slats of its prominent chrome grille, the Mountaineer has sold well. One source says Mercury's next minivan will have design cues influenced by the Mountaineer.
Beyond that, next January's Detroit auto show should offer clues about Mercury's styling direction. A Mercury concept car - the first since the MC4 in 1997 - is scheduled to be unveiled.
Top: 1952 Mercury Middle: 1967 Cougar Bottom: The 2003 Marauder includes both Mercury logos.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....