Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 4: “The Return of the Car Guy”

After starting my automotive life in a shiny new Audi as a high school senior, and ending as a broke college student on the bus, I’d like to think I had been nicely humbled. Two years of taking public transporation can definitely give a young man some perspective. Thankfully my (as mentioned infinitely patient) girlfriend stuck around and eventually my long cultivated, but never really taken fully seriously, aptitude for technology paid off. Dropping out of college and completing a technical diploma program at Control Data (remember them? no? that’s ok! 😀 ), I landed my first job at a horrible dungeon of a place that I won’t mention and, after just a couple of weeks, landed my second job at a Wall St. investment bank as a mini-computer operator on the overnight shift. This was a real job that paid actual real money and within a few months my passion for the industry, “hackerish” background, and absolute commitment to learning and, honestly, kicking ass, were starting to form into the beginnings of a shockingly (to me) legitimate career. So of course the devil on my shoulder started whispering that, once again, it was car time!

With pay stubs, ID and parental co-sign in hand, I headed off to the dealerships to find my new baby and enter into my first binding automotive financial commitment. Assuming debt for a depreciating asset, and dumping too much disposable income into a material object, I was becoming a real American! And man did it feel great! After lots of impatient shopping, for reasons no longer clear to me, I settled on what the 1992 version of myself thought was an incredibly cool ride: the 1989 Mercury Cougar LS. I’ll let that sink in. I know, right? I don’t get it either and I lived it! For those who can’t, don’t or choose not to remember the era:

Picture this, but black… Which does make it a bit sharper actually

The shot above is just for reference.  My version was a black LS with grey cloth interior and yes, that is an actual ragtop and yes, it had one.  The “faux convertible” look is definitely an odd footnote in automotive history. I spent $8000 for her in 92 and ultimately sold her off 4 years later to Car Cash for $4500 when, following in the old mans footsteps, I too set off for the promised land of Manhattan. Considering buying at retail from a Mercury dealer and selling to a wholesaler 35,000 miles on, that’s actually quite decent depreciation and was a pleasant surprise at the time.

Build quality, Design and Ergonomics
The 89 Cougar was my first modern American car and it was honestly surprisingly decent. The interior admittedly had that parts bin look and feel that has unfortunately plagued US auto manufacturers for decades, but the fit and finish was decent and overall the cabin was a pretty nice place to spend time. Design wise the interior didnt fare as well. The quasi luxury touches like pleated door panels clashed with the contrasting attempt at sportiness represented in other areas such as the center console mounted gear shift. The dash was a bulky, imbalanced affair too visually biased towards the driver side given a very uneven impression. The gauges were clearly visible and well laid out though, and the switch gear was straightforward and worked as expected, so it wasn’t a total disaster. The interior fabrics, similar to the Buick, were a super plush velour that were a bit too soft and prone to wear. A leather interior on these cars would be a far better choice. Outside was a more solid overall win for Ford. This generation of Cougar was an attempt to return to some of the marques sporting character of old. I think with the design of this generation they largely succeeded. The long tapering hood, swept back roof line, and body molded bumpers had a modern feel. The clean lines were conservative will being just a bit sporty and split the line between the likes of a Cadillac Seville 2 door and a proper sport coupe like the Buick LeSabre T Type. The rag top was well made and weathered well, but in hindsight was an unfortunate selection for this car and detracted from the overall design philosophy. It’s further evidence really, of that kind of split personality from which this model suffered. Am I sport, or am I luxe? One real low point on the exterior was the paint quality. In a word it was lousy and prone to rapid wear of the clear coat. With religious maintenance it could be kept looking decent, but this was definitely a weak point for an otherwise well put together car.

Driving Impressions
That same identity crisis played out in the driving dynamics. The 3.8L V6, mated to a 4 speed automatic and making only 140HP, really struggled to move the cars 3800lb bulk. The V8 in the upmarket XR7 was a far better power plant for the 7th gen cougar. The ride was pliant, erring on the soft side, and the steering was Detroit light, but reasonably precise and not overboosted. Measured against the Audi it felt like a boat, but not quite as much of a boat as might be expected. To me this generation of American cars were a sign that Detroit was slowly starting to figure things out and find a way to appeal to the emerging new wave of buyers with whom they had dangerously little mindshare. This was critical as their core demographic was starting to age out of the market and the competition from Japan was at its height. By the late 80s even Korea had entered the US with Hyundai launching some surprisingly decent models for the money. Overall though I would have to say that Ford reached for a blend of luxury and sportiness and ultimately failed at both (at least with the LS model). The Cougar was solid, reliable, transportation but she was ultimately forgettable. Sorry old girl wherever you are!
One area where the Cougar did excel was in reliability (at least for me). In 4 years of driving I saw only oil changes, a tire change, and front brake pad replacement. Nothing failed and she remained a solid driver that could be counted on for both a cold start in the dead of winter and a long summer drive to the Jersey Shore in the sweltering heat. Even the electronics held up including the mechanical systems like the window lifters, seat motors, and mirrors. The climate control stayed efficient and the defogger worked year round. Sounds crazy, but for an American car in the 80s this was not stuff you took for granted!

Overall I’ll just reiterate what’s already been said. Solid, reliable but ultimately uninspired and forgettable transportation. Selling her marked another period of downtime for me as owning a car in Manhattan tends to be a real luxury that is honestly better to avoid. Not to mention it takes some ridiculous money. Ultimately it would be about two years before I was back in the game (and, not coincidentally, back in the outer Boroughs!)


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