Mercury Monday: The Un-American Mercury Tracer, The Econobox With A Miata Engine

Mercurymontracer Top

I promise I’m as surprised as you are that I didn’t forget that we announced Mercury Mondays last week and here, somehow, I started writing this before 6:59 pm today. But, look, here we are, with another installment of Mercury Monday, the series nobody asked for highlighting a marque no one is talking about. Today I want to focus on a very unusual Mercury, and one that is just about completely extinct from our roads and almost completely forgotten from the collective unconscious. Or, really, conscious, even. It’s the Mercury Tracer.

Specifically, I mean the first-generation Mercury Tracer, because that’s the interesting one. Back in another life, when I had another recurring-on-Mondays series about kinda blah cars, I mentioned the Tracer, but even then I was mostly focused on the later generations, when the Tracer became simply a re-badged Ford Escort.

Tracer Brochure

But the first Tracer, built from 1987 to 1989 in Mexico (for the US market, at least) was one of the very few Mercurys of the era to not be some re-worked Ford. Well, that’s not entirely true– the Tracer was pretty much the same as a Ford Laser, but the key difference here is that the Laser was not sold in America, but the Tracer was, making it that very rare thing, a car unique to just Mercury.

It also wasn’t so much a re-badged Ford as it was a re-bodied Mazda. Remember, this was in the early, honeymoon years of the Ford-Mazda alliance, and this particular love-child was essentially a front-wheel-drive Mazda 323, complete with the same B-series B6 engine that would be found (well, with double the number of valves) in the legendary Miata.

The Mercury Tracer was the first Mercury sold in America to not be actually built in America, and while that seems like it might have been a big deal now, as someone who lived during the Tracer Era, I can tell you that this fact was hardly common knowledge, and if you were to search for someone in that time who actually seemed to give a shit about this fact, you’d be traveling a long, long, time. In fact, as you go from town to town, you may as well adopt a mountain lion and fight crime, or something.

This first Tracer was a strange car because it definitely wasn’t crap, and yet it somehow managed to repel real personality or distinctiveness like a powerful interest in painting lead miniatures of the Battle of Agincourt repels sexual activity. The not-Mazda 323 body was curious mix of attractive, clean design, to the point that the car’s fiercely acceptable look contributed it to having essentially no look, making it one of the most generic-looking cars of its time.

I mean, look at this – you can slap a badge from any number of carmakers of the era and any of them seems as plausible as any other:

Tracer Badges

See what I mean? The first Tracer looks like it could have been made by almost any company, save for, you know, Rolls-Royce or something like that.

Whoever was doing Mercury’s ads of this era seemed to realize this as well, and ended up trying to push all the standard features, which included such underpants-moisteners as a rear window defroster, three-speed wipers, and a tachometer. All good stuff to have, but not exactly groundbreaking.

Tracerad1

Mercury’s advertisers also created ads that seemed to be advertising as much the fundamental concept of having a car and the everyday joys of friendship more than anything else:

 

Tracerad2

I mean, it’s a relatable thing, certainly: doing things with your friends in a car? Who doesn’t have fond memories of that? Of course, you could stick a Civic or Diplomat or Hornet or Beetle or whatever in that ad and it would still work about the same. Still, friends and cars is hard to find fault with and other Tracer ads seemed to follow this idea further:

This one also adds the concept of weather, which will not bother you when you’re safely ensconced inside your Tracer, which features both doors and a roof, after you and your besties enjoy a night of professional wrestling. Here’s a print version that relies on the same concepts: sometimes it’s shitty out, but you love your friends and want to talk to them in your car:

Tracerad3

I mean, they’re not wrong.

Sometimes Mercury dazzled you by hiring some genuinely skilled drivers to whip these things around:

That ad also showed all three flavors of original Tracer: two door hatch, four door hatch, and a wagon! I think the four door hatch was the most commonly seen one. That ad also shows a manual Tracer, which I suspect actually may have been pretty engaging to drive, based on experiences in similar Mazda 323s of that era.

Here’s an interesting Tracer artifact, presumably a specific California-market commercial that features a mocking stereotype of an environmentalist, way back in 1988:

It’s funny to see how fringe Moonstone and her partner were presented, with their fretting about the use of whales in the making of the car, and yet now Ford and nearly ever other automaker has huge environmental initiatives and spends a great deal of money and R&D time to further such goals. Looks like Moonstone is the one laughing now.

Pressphoto

I think this rear-quarter view shows off the Tracer the best, and highlights its (kinda few) surprising kinks. The red-and-clear (as in no amber indicators) taillights anchored the car to an American-market look, as opposed to, oh, everything else about the car, while the use of the lower part of the rear glass to include the badging was novel and not seen often at all. Besides that? It’s you know, nice, and if you were committing a crime, it’d be an excellent getaway car choice, since about half the witnesses would say it was a Honda Accord hatch and the other half would say it was probably some Toyota and the third half would note that whoever was inside sure seemed to share a strong bond of friendship, and they bet there were so many incredible conversations in that car, especially in the rain.

The first Tracer always felt like a bit of an experiment, with Ford-Mercury testing the waters to see how a captive import might do under the Mercury badge. Sure, there was the European Ford Capri, but while that was sold at Lincoln-Mercury dealers, it was never actually badged as a Mercury, at least until the re-badged Fox Body Mustang came out as a Capri in 1979, but that was an American-made car. The earlier Capri was always just noted to be “imported for Lincoln-Mercury”:
Capriad

This first not-made-in-America Mercury I think was a sort of underrated car, because, really, it was a decent little car of the era. You could have done a hell of a lot worse than a Tracer.

Back in 1988, Car and Driver said some nice things about the well-equipped Tracer in a comparison test of cars that cost less than $10,000:

The Tracer’s beauty is that it offers the amenities many drivers take for granted, a technically sophisticated and roomy package, and a bargain price. This is one generic nameplate that none of the name brands can match.

Of course, it’s also rational to the point of being amnesia-inducing, and I think it also may be one of the least-thought-of Mercurys ever.

And, for a brand as little thought-about as Mercury is right now, that’s a significant achievement.

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38 Responses

  1. I often dig through Marketplace to find interesting ’80s/’90s cars for sale locally, and share them to my club FB group. Last year I shared a blue ’89 Tracer, and a club member went and bought it that day. It promptly won the prize for Best Patina at our next Rad car show.

    The transition from the 1st to 2nd generation is interesting. On the surface it seems like the Tracer went from being a rebodied 323 to being a rebadged Escort. In reality, it would be more accurate to say that both the Escort and the Tracer became rebodied 323’s. (Still not totally accurate, but close.)

  2. “[F]retting about the use of whales in the making of the car”
    Ah, yeah, whale oil used to be pretty much the primary ingredient in automatic transmission fluid; it only started being phased out in the early to mid 70s (one of the reasons so many automatic cars, especially the ones from Detroit, in the 70s & even 80s had problems with their transmissions was because manufacturers were struggling to find suitable replacements for whale oil & the early ATF formulations were problematic for the transmissions at the time.) It was still possible to obtain ATF made out of whale oil into the late 80s even though by the mid-70s most if not all manufacturers had already switched over to non-whale-oil ATF as factory fill. So Moonstone & her partner weren’t all that terribly fringe after all…

    1. Boy I thought I was getting duped for sure with an extremely plausible fiction, but NOPE! Sure as shit, whale oil used in ATF through the 70s. Jesus Christ, auto manufacturers, how is that even possible?

    2. IIRC GM stopped offering limited-slip differentials for some years in the ’70s because their original Positraction required whale oil for proper operation, and a full redesign was needed to work with petrochemical lubricants only.

  3. At least Mercury was trying (a bit) to differentiate themselves from Ford. This Tracer, then the (also Mazda-based) Capri, then the CDW27 Cougar, all unique offerings. Meanwhile, Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile were all offering gussied-up Chevys.

      1. And the center high mount stoplamp was mandated for all cars in 1986, the year before the Tracer came out. They were advertising a legally required item as though it were a feature. Might as well have highlighted that it had seatbelts

    1. In fairness, digital clocks were a totally desirable feature at this time.

      Everything else in the car was still analog, and those charming analog clocks that cars had in the ’60s and ’70s were for the most part long gone, so adding a cheap LCD (I don’t think cars ever had LED, as way too expensive) clock to the dash was the height of space-age cool.

  4. As newlyweds, we drove a Tracer while shopping for our first new car together. I liked it a lot, but under the strict tolerances of our budget at the time, it was just a little too dear. We ended up with a Cavalier, which was fine-ish, except for that time the ECU died in the left lane of the highway, a sensation similar to how I imagine driving into one of those gravel beds for runaway trucks. So yeah, wishing we had cracked the wallet a little wider…

  5. There I am slogging thru this article. Lots of M. Monday, Mercury, Mazda, Miata, mountain lion. Just as I’m about to get some Z’s from the M’s a Capri shows up. I loved Capris. I knew it was really German which seemed slightly subversive. A deeper dive into Capris please?

  6. I’m pretty sure these were styled by Clive Potter of Ford Australia, and of course were sold here as the Ford Laser.

    The styling is very consistent with the themes seen in the EA Falcon, launched in 1988.

    Mr Potter also built a very attractive mid-engined sports car for his own use, named after his wife (Mirella). Quite an advanced-looking thing for its time, although the drivetrain was a bit lacking – I think it was a British Leyland front-wheel drive engine and gearbox turned 180 degrees and mounted behind the driver.

    As for the convertible Ford Capri – sorry about that one, guys. Hit every branch on the ugly tree on its way down.

  7. Interestingly, for the Canadian market, these were built by Ford Lio Ho in Taiwan. I’m not sure if the Lio Ho cars were exported in large numbers anywhere else. This also means that, in the most pedantic sense, they were the first Chinese-made cars sold in North America, and the last in Canada until Honda started importing second-generation Fits made by GAC-Honda in Guangzhou, though briefly.

    1. The absence of Japanese import quotas for Canadia made for some interesting situations – Canada got Japanese-made GEO Trackers, while the Trackers that were turned out of the CAMI plant in Ontario were all shipped to the US.

      Hadn’t known about the GAC-made Fits, thank you.

  8. “The first Tracer always felt like a bit of an experiment, with Ford-Mercury testing the waters to see how a captive import might do under the Mercury badge.”

    Do the XR4Ti and Scorpio not count? Yes, the name on the badge is translated into German. But still…it was named after Mercury and sold by Mercury dealerships. Clearly Ford intended it to be associated with Mercury.

    Eh?

  9. That first add reminded me of a pair of rather interesting twins living near a store I moonlighted at. The one who always wore a gold lame boater-style hat drove an ‘86 Thunderbird, and was quite proud of having worked for Ford in the ‘80s. The tag read,
    JOB NO1. Having struggled with my mil’s from the same era with phantom voltage-drain, wonky electrical crap, and random unwillingness to start, I took that to read that quality was no one’s job at Ford.

  10. I’ve owned two of these over the years and I love them. I just got out of the Tracer game by selling my 55K mile two door that I owned for seven years. I miss it already. I always enjoyed driving it and thought it was an undiscovered gem. I got a lot of interest when I put it on craigslist and the guy who bought it also owned a 90s era Capri convertible. Great car, that first gen Tracer.

  11. The Mazda version of this continued to be produced for a number of emerging markets well into the 2000’s. What I find interesting is that the US Spec Mazda version had a bumper that was slimmer and had metal, color matched, bodywork under it, front and rear (it was easily damaged by road debris, my mom’s ’87 had to be replaced/repaired a couple of times). The Mercury started with the large, oversized plastic bumpers that ended up, in very similar forms, on the refreshed Mazda for the emerging markets after Mazda had moved onto the Protege for the US.
    Mercury also got the 5 door hatchback while Mazda got the 4 door sedan. I think they both got the hatchback and wagon. The wagon seems to have been rare as a Mazda in the US but more common as a Mercury.

    http://dailyturismo.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/4-25.jpg (US Spec Sedan)

    https://scalethumb.leparking.fr/unsafe/331×248/smart/https://cloud.leparking.fr/2021/08/01/00/21/mazda-323-bleu_8224498341.jpg (2003 Mazda 323 – Colombian Market)

    1. A related note is that the Aussie Ford Laser wagon continued in this form well into the ’90s despite there being a perfectly good wagon of the following generation Escort/Tracer that was a familiar sight here in America and lasted alongside the even later round-body sedan.

  12. Growing up in the Detroit area in the 80s there was “nice car but it was made in Mexico” caution kind of like the current Buick Envision (made in China). If you knew, you knew but most buyers don’t care.

  13. I agree with you about the ‘could have been any manufacturer’ thingy. But there was a reason for that. Due to the abject failure of American auto makers to appreciate the necessity of producing a quality small car product, and about a decade of trying, unsuccessfully, to mimic Japanese designs without actually changing the way they did things, it was ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that each major player have a USC, or ‘universal small car’ that ticked all the boxes consumers were looking for.

    It was an interesting time. And manufacturers did this in many ways. But the most common method, was partnering with a Japanese or european firm to create econoboxes in a known form factor. So people would size them up, and conclude they were worth buying.

    The result was a plethora of indistinctly differentiated designs, all of about the same features and size, with the same colors and option packages. And it worked. They eventually figured out how to do small.

    Historically, quite the time in automotive design.

    1. It’s a good point. The difference between this and say a ’70s Chevy Vega is big, for better or worse.

      No heroic attempts at cutting edge tech, inoffensive design, and a focus on pragmatic little things that buyers may not dream about but actually really want.

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