Ask the average person what the single most iconic car in history is, and chances are many will immediately suggest the first-generation Ford Mustang. With its unforgettable long hood and short-deck styling, along with the sea-change effect it had on the car industry, the Mustang would certainly rank high in my book too.
But ask even some of the most knowledgeable car enthusiasts if they knew the Mustang had a near-mechanically identical sibling, and you might receive a blank stare with the sound of crickets chirping.
Such has been the life and history of the Mercury Cougar, a car that is now largely relegated to the roadside of automotive history, while its bigger brother basked in all the glory. But, to those in the know, the Cougar was a superlative car, even superior to the Mustang in many respects. In 1968, it was even bequeathed a performance package that rivaled the then-current Shelby Mustang GT500.
In this month’s iteration of “Rare Rides,” were going to take a look at this extremely low production cat: The 1968 Mercury Cougar GT-E 428 Cobra Jet.
Since its inception in the 1930s, the Mercury brand occupied an important strategic position within the Ford Motor Company. Historically, its purpose was to span the considerable price gap between the top offerings in the Ford lineup, and the lowest-end cars of the premium Lincoln brand. The idea was that Mercury would attract middle-class buyers who might otherwise look to other manufacturers for their vehicle purchase.
The raison d’etre changed subtly several times throughout the 1950s. By the 1960s, the brand was still nonetheless the middle child in the FoMoCo family, and its overall sales were lagging. Its main seller was the compact Mercury Comet, which was essentially just an extended-wheelbase Ford Falcon.
In 1963, in the hands of Lee Iacocca, Ford was busy preparing the Mustang. It occurred to the legendary executive that a deluxe, upscale version of the Mustang might be just what Mercury needed to boost its image and bottom line. Mercury designers began a styling study, code-named project T-7.
Initially, Lincoln-Mercury General Manager, Ben Mills, wanted the T-7 to be released simultaneously with the Mustang. But, Iacocca was somewhat hesitant, as the yet-to-be-released Mustang was a market segment gamble and had yet to prove its success.
And so it was, the T-7 didn’t make the jump from styling study to production project until after the release of the 1964 1/2 Mustang proved it to be a sales phenomenon. Then, and only then, was the Mercury Cougar (a name initially to be used for the Mustang) a go.
The most economical and practical way forward for the Cougar would have been to base it on the Mustang and simply design a new front and rear clip, as well as a bespoke interior for the car. But, the desire of Mercury executives was to have a vehicle that stood on its own merits, so it was decided the Cougar would ride on a longer chassis than the Mustang, and have its own unique styling from stem to stern.
The Cougar’s unibody structure was quite similar to the Mustang, but had a 3-inch-longer wheelbase and was a substantial 6.7-inches longer than its Ford kin. The majority of the extra length was placed ahead of the Cougar’s cowl, giving the car a longer front end. At the same time, this made the installation of longer, big-block engines an easier proposition.
The base Cougar powertrain was the 289-cubic-inch V8 yielding 200 horsepower. This was an optional upgrade for the Mustang, which came in base form with only six-cylinders on board. Optional engines for the Cougar were a four-barrel version of the 289 yielding 225 ponies and a 320 horsepower, four-barrel, 390-cubic-inch V8.
Transmission choices consisted of three- or four-speed synchronized manual gearboxes or a three-speed “Merc-O-Matic” auto with manual-shift capability.
The suspension and drum brakes of Mercury’s car were similar to the Mustang but had six-inch-longer rear leaf springs and soft suspension bushings, giving the car a noticeably smoother ride than the ‘stang.
Two main option packages were established for the Cougar, the luxury-aimed XR-7 (available only with the two 289 motors), and a performance-oriented GT package that could only be had with the 390 lump.
The XR-7 package added a wood-rimmed wheel, an expanded instrument cluster, simulated walnut dash trim, an overhead console, a T-handle shifter and combination leather and vinyl seating.
Included in the GT Package’s $323 price tag was a firmer suspension with stiffer springs, bigger shocks, solid rear bushings, a thicker anti-roll bar, power front disc brakes, a low-restriction exhaust system, and various and sundry trim changes.
As far as exterior aesthetics were concerned, the Cougar shared no sheetmetal whatsoever with its Ford brother. Up front, there was a distinctive “electric shaver” grille featuring vertical slats and vacuum-operated covered headlamps. Crisp, sharp lines flowed along the sides of the car leading to a rear that echoed the front’s treatment with vertical styling elements. Sequential taillights were an idea borrowed from the Thunderbird.
Inside, even a base Cougar without the XR-7 package sported a much more luxurious interior than the Mustang and was outfitted with substantially more sound insulation to isolate the driver from road noise. Niceties such as a “Tilt-Away” steering wheel, which facilitated ingress and egress, represented things with which no Mustang could be equipped.
When released, the Cougar had a starting price of $2,851, some $300 more than a V8 Mustang. But, it was felt within Mercury ranks that it offered more than enough in terms of refinement to justify the increase and make it a reasonable value. The car-buying public thought so too, as 150,893 Cougars rolled off the assembly line in its first model year. What’s more, the Cougar took home Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award.
With the sales success of the Cougar, Mercury got an itch to prove its performance abilities and started a racing program in Group Two Sedan Racing, otherwise known as the Trans-Am series. Illustrious drivers such as Peter Revson, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Ed Leslie, and Dave Pearson were recruited for the program, and several race wins resulted.
Inspired by this racing foray, Mercury executives focused on giving road-going Cougars a performance boost as well.
The entire Cougar engine lineup was revamped for 1968, with the 210-hp, two-barrel, 302ci V8 becoming the base engine. The venerable four-barrel version with 230 ponies slotted in above it, while the 280 and 325 horsepower two- and four-barrel 390 topped those. Meanwhile, the stump-pulling 427ci V8 was the new top dog. Halfway through the ’68 model year, the 427 was supplanted by the 428 Cobra Jet — an engine seriously underrated at 335 horsepower.
What’s more, Mercury also created a new super-performance-oriented trim line, the GT-E.
When ordered for a not-inconsiderable sum of $1,311 over the Cougar’s base price, a buyer received the big-block engine and either the Merc-O-Matic three-speed slushbox or Top Loader four-speed manual transmission. A Super Competition Handling Package gave the owner a Traction-Lok diff with 3.91 gearing, power front disc brakes, power steering, power booster engine fan, quad chrome exhaust tips, and styled steel wheels shod in FR70 X 14 wide-tread WSW or red band tires. The GT-E also came with a unique blacked-out front grille, a power dome hood, a two-tone paint scheme with Argent silver lower treatment, an optional chrome engine dress-up kit and 7.0 Litre GT-E badges on the front fenders.
GT-E upper body colors included Onyx Black, Cardinal Red, Wellington Blue, Glacier Blue, Madras Blue, Caribbean Blue, Nordic Blue, Black Cherry, Augusta Green, Lime Forest Green, and Grecian Gold.
Stand-alone options for the car included an AM, AM/FM, or AM/FM stereo tape player, Oxford vinyl roof, door edge guards, bumper guards, Decor Group Interior, Sports Console, bench seat, adjustable headrests, remote mirror, tinted glass, Courtesy Light Group, rear window defogger, electric clock, tilt steering and deluxe shoulder belts. Interestingly, air-conditioning was not available.
The 427 version of the GT-E saw only 357 cars roll off the factory floor, making it a scarce car in and of itself. But, the 428 Cobra Jet GT-E saw a paltry 37 examples produced, of which only three came equipped with the manual transmission.
Demand for the 1968 Mercury Cougar GT-E 428 Cobra Jet is strong today, with a four-speed example fetching $208,000 at auction in 2015. While a high price by anyone’s standards, it’s nonetheless appropriate for this rarest-of-rare rides from the House of Mercury.