Welcome to Holy Grails, a new series here on the Autopian! If you’ve been reading our bylines for a while, chances are you’ve caught David talk about some obscure Jeep, me talking about a Smart or Volkswagen, or Jason doing a deep dive on a car you’ve never heard of from a country you’re not even sure ever existed. We’ve often called these cars ‘holy grails’ and it seems that you dear readers love it. Our inboxes have been getting filled up with you sending us your holy grails, and honestly, these cars are pretty awesome. So in this new series, we’re going to be highlighting the cars that you think are holy grails. To start, we have the Mercury Tracer LTS, a performance sedan that I bet you’ve seen before without even noticing.
Back in the 1930s, Ford engineers began work on a vehicle to fill a hole. This vehicle would have more features and styling than any existing Ford product, but not quite on the level of a Lincoln. Created in 1938 by Edsel Ford, Mercury’s existence was that of a middle child, filling Ford’s gap for a mid-range premium vehicle.
Mercury was a hit right out of the gate. The first Mercury was the 1939 Mercury 8. It sported a 239 cubic-inch V8 making 95 horsepower under the hood and sold for $916 ($19,419 today). More than 65,000 Mercury 8s were built the first year, cementing Mercury as a popular brand.
Despite being the middle child, Mercury did manage to produce some desirable cars like the Eight, which eventually became a popular canvas for lead sleds. And don’t forget the outrageously aggressive Cyclone that Jason recently wrote about. I mean, how many cars look like they have a huge gun hiding behind its nose? And then there’s the Cougar, Marauder, and oh, the attempt to sell captive European imports as Merkurs.
Less famous than all of these cars is one of the automaker’s efforts to build an upscale, sporty sedan with the Tracer LTS.
The Tracer was first marketed for the 1987 model year. A compact, the first-generation Tracer replaced the Lynx, a rebadged Ford Escort. Behind the Tracer’s badge were the bones of the Ford Laser, a compact sold in markets outside of the United States. And the Ford itself was a BF platform Mazda 323 underneath. But we aren’t here for the first-generation. Instead, we want to take a peek at the second-generation.
Launched in 1991, the second-generation Tracer gained a counterpart. The Mazda BG platform found itself underpinning the Ford Laser, Ford Escort, Mazda 323 (Protegé), and the Mercury Tracer. In America, the standard Tracer and its Escort counterpart got a Ford 1.9-liter four making 88 horsepower. Given that it’s moving a 2,468-pound car, we’re talking about gradual acceleration, here.
That’s where the Tracer LTS, or Luxury Touring Sedan comes in, featuring a 1.8-liter Mazda four punching out 127 HP. And, reader Chip says, this is the one to get; the holy grail of these forgotten cars:
Sold between 1991 and 1996, the second generation of the Ford Escort (and sister Mercury Tracer) were based on the BG platform, shared with the Mazda 323 and Protege. This was a very stout chassis, and was well received by the rally community and the SCCA. The biggest letdown of the Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer was the engine, which put out a measly 88 horsepower. This was enough for most, but for those with a thirst for more, there was a “GT” version of the Ford Escort that had a 1.8 liter DOHC engine that put out 127 horsepower. Now we’re talking! That engine was only available in the 3 door hatchback version of the Ford Escort…. Or was it?
Ford made a couple 4 door versions with the 1.8 liter engine. One was the Ford Escort LX-E and the other was the Mercury Tracer LTS. Both of these cars had all the running gear from the GT (including 4 wheel disc brakes) but in a 4 door chassis. Now dad could take the kids along while out enjoying the twisty roads. These cars didn’t sell well unfortunately, because they were a bit of a premium over the normal cost of the regular Escort and Tracer.
Indeed, our reader is correct when they say that opting for the performance-oriented GT means losing out on doors and space. If you wanted your Mazda-based sedan with the mightier engine, you had three choices. Mazda itself gave you the engine with the Protegé LX, you could also pick up the Ford Escort LX-E, or you could get the Mercury Tracer LTS.
The former two brands might have been more popular, but the Tracer was and still is worth a look. Check out the lovely cabin of the Merc in this retro MotorWeek review:
For those of you counting, Hagerty says that the performance specs of the Tracer LTS actually made it slightly faster than the 1992 Honda Civic EX, a sedan with similar weight and power numbers. Buying a Civic EX in 1992 set you back $13,775 ($29,605 today), but the Mercury? It was cheaper at $12,023 ($25,840 today).
The Tracer didn’t just impress the friendly John Davis of MotorWeek, but it also blew Car and Driver away. Its testers summed it up as:
This Tracer appears as other models, and in a quite similar form as the Mazda Protegé, but the Tracer LTS gave us more of what we like in a small sedan. There’s excellent fit and finish, enough room, a reasonable price, and a twin-cam four-cylinder engine that takes Tracer driving out of the humdrum and into the high-grin world.
Built at Ford’s plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, the Tracer joins the Honda Civic in providing strong evidence that workers on this continent have no difficulty building high-quality small cars, even if large companies have difficulty making profits on such items.
Tracer drivers will profit nicely, however, from the pleasures delivered by this quick, crisp sports sedan.
During 1991, the showrooms at Lincoln-Mercury dealers will be among the rare places where you’ll find two Ten Best winners on sale.
And yep, this car made the magazine’s 9th Annual 10Best award. By all accounts, it seems like the Mercury LTS is the best of the siblings of these cars based on the same Mazda platform. While I could not find production numbers drilled down to specific trim levels, I was able to find total model production. The Tracer didn’t have horrible sales, but the Protegé beat it by a decent margin, and the Ford Escort sold more than twice as many Tracers and Protegés combined.
At any rate, the Tracer never made it to the new millennium, getting axed in 1999 at the end of its third-generation, just a few years sooner than the Escort itself did. And Mercury itself didn’t survive 2011. In an obituary of sorts, Hagerty notes that the Tracer LTS could have been a Civic fighter, but given the competition from its own siblings and the fact that Mercury wasn’t really known as a performance brand back then, it never really stood a chance.
As I sometimes do when I write a car history piece, I tried to find a Tracer LTS for sale. I was sort of surprised to see zero running examples for sale. And the only one that I found on Bring A Trailer sold two years ago. Zero of them have been sold on Cars & Bids. If you find one, I reckon it’ll be cheap. Hold onto it, because who knows how many of these are left out there.
Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’ A lot of you have already sent us emails, and you bet that we’re looking them over!
In 1991 I was living on my own for the first time, and my neighbor was a very sweet woman about my age (early-mid 20s). I didn’t know her that well, but she drove a real beater. I can’t remember the make or model, but its condition actually made me fear for her safety out on the road. Well one day that car was gone, and a new Mercury Tracer was in its place. Knowing of its Mazda heritage and strong reviews (even for the base model), I made sure to tell her she made a good choice the next time I saw her.
As for my Holy Grail, it would probably be the Subaru SVX, the one and only time that Subaru tried to make a truly high-end GT car. I was pretty well obsessed with that thing for the few years it was available. It was so… *different*.
(I also have a soft spot for “performance” versions of GM’s 80s FWD sedans, notably the Pontiac 6000 STE and the Cavalier RS and Z24.)
Two good buddies had 91 Escort GT. 5 speed jobbers with a decently stiff suspension meant you could hoon them pretty good. I had 1987 buick somerset regal which was a 5 speed also, we’d whip around neighborhoods a bit too fast and when your tires inevitably got bald you might end up in somebody’s front yard and a slippery fall day.
The stiffness of the suspension combined with relatively little body roll, a center parking brake stick and suburban culdesac psuedo curbs meant you could get pretty decent at ace ventura parking maneuvers without breaking any wheels or axles.
you might look for trim or engine shots in the ads you see. many of the people with tracers for sale likely have no idea if it is an lts or not. or the model designation is not available to check off.
My holy grail vehicle that I actually own is a 2008 Hummer H3 Alpha. It come with the adventure package so a 4 to 1 locking transfer case and electronic locking rear differential. you have to look for the button on the dash in pictures because nobody really seems to understand the setup. It also has an all aluminum LS 5.3 without AFM/DOD. you could get this in 2009 with the same motor. but in 2010 they added the AFM and gave a front dif E-Lock. I can add an E-locker if need be for a bit less than tearing into and LS to remove the dreaded AFM/DOD system. probably the only more unicorn example might be an H3T Alpha. the little gladiator inspiring truck bed with an aluminum LS is pretty rare indeed.
I had no idea Hummers could be spec’d with such transfer cases and diffs. That would make a good offroad vehicle for sure!
Right, let’s see the LN7 with the 5speed next.
Mercury Tracers were one of the de-facto High School kid cars when I grew up in Michigan in the early/mid 90s. They must have been really cheap for Ford employees to lease, because they were everywhere (those and the regular cab Ford Ranger Splash).
But… It’s not monday?
Sticking with the LTS submodel, my holy grail is a 1985 Mercury Marquis LTS. The LTS was the Canada-only Mercury counterpart to the Ford LTD LX, which was Ford’s attempt at a “European Touring Sedan,” but unlike most other “Eurosport” cars like then it wasn’t just lipstick on a pig. The LTD LX was the only midsize LTD that came with a V8 (unless you were a police department) and came with substantial suspension and drivetrain upgrades compared to standard LTDs.
The LTD LX is rare, with only 5,287 built in ’84 and ’85, but only 134 Marquis LTS were built. Combine that with the fact that it was only sold in the Great White North and the result is I’ve only seen 3 of these still on the road (either through internet car groups or for sale ads) in the last 20+ years.
LTD LX was as close as Ford ever came to a 4-door Mustang. Had no idea of the Marquis LTS, very cool.
At the time I thought that the LTD LX was the ultimate sleeper. It was essentially a [then] modern-day Bluesmobile — it looked like a boring salesman’s car, but it had “a cop engine, cop shocks, cop suspension…” You could really surprise someone at a stoplight…and all the way down the highway.
Alas, I was only a teenager, and I couldn’t convince any of my relatives to look into that car for themselves.
Oh no, automatic shoulder belts. Insert strangulation sounds here.
Back in the day I got a used LX-E from the old Ford “B-lot” where they sold management leases and production test vehicles. Dad worked for Ford and knew what the good engines were for sure. Mom got a new LTS after she drove the LX-E. Incredibly fun car to drive.
Mazda really tried to teach Ford how to build small (and all) cars. Ford didn’t want to hear it…
Ironically my Mazda 3 has tons of FoMoCo logos all over it
The first and third generation US Focus were both great. Shame about the automatic on the third gen, but still.
1st gen had rusting brake lines the likes of which would have made the Vega proud.
Ford of Europe already knew as much as Mazda when it came to small cars, it’s just the US part of the company who never seemed to grasp it.
I had a 2006 Ford Fusion that was basically a Mazda6 and I loved that thing. Got it used, five speed manual, and drove the piss out of it. Weirdly, it didn’t have anti-lock brakes, which is what led to me no longer driving it.
One of my neighbors has a beautiful late-model first generation Tacoma, dark green over tan interior, SR5 trim, V6 engine, access cab (the kind with tiny back seats accessed by suicide doors), long bed, with a lumber rack, and a manual transmission and transfer case. That’s my holy grail of pickup trucks, right there. It’s just *chef’s kiss* perfect. If he ever sells it, I hope I get a chance to buy it. Really tempted to put a note on the windshield, if not knock on his door.
I have a 2001 first gen tacoma. Double cab, black on tan. with topper, roof rack, front light bar, and 2019 black trd pro wheels. 380k on the clock, been in my family for 20 years. Best car I have ever driven, I hope you can get your dark green model. You won’t regret it. Make sure to take care of it and it’ll take care of you.
It’s an SR5 v6 too, but with an auto. So the manual should be even more reliable, as I’ve replaced the transmission once in mine already.
In the late 80s a small car had to have a Japanese name on it or people would turn their noses up. I was a sales rep then. I sold more Sentras than any human should have sold. We had a sister dealership next door selling Mercury. I couldn’t even get customers to take a test drive.
I should have said, I couldn’t even get customers to test drive a Tracer.
Fun fact. The turbo engine from the Mazda 323 is almost a bolt in swap. And in the immortal words of Dave Coleman.
What is a Mercury Tracer with a 323 swap and the T removed from the badge. That’s right. A Mercury racer.
I look forward to the mystique. I owned a 98 v6 manual for about 250,000 miles.
You’ll certainly get a kick out of this ticket I got 21 years ago.
Apparently you’ll need to open this link in a new tab to work.
I love this new series, super interesting and celebratory of cars otherwise considered unworthy of our attention. To keep on the early-90s Mercury theme, I eagerly await the inevitable writeup on the Topaz XR5 and Capri XR2 Turbo.
I had a 93 Escort LX-E and it was one of the best cars I ever had. For that time, it was really fast. On more than one occasion I would be next to a Camaro or Mustang and be able to keep up with them, much to the driver’s surprise.