Home » The Mercury Bobcat Was A Lesson In The Barest Definition Of Luxury: Mercury Monday (On Friday!)

The Mercury Bobcat Was A Lesson In The Barest Definition Of Luxury: Mercury Monday (On Friday!)

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Do I suck? That’s a question I end up asking myself far, far too often. Sometimes I’m able to dismiss it with a breezy, no, no of course not, baby! You’re the Torch! And then other times I’ll find myself confronted with some undeniable record of failure, and I’ll have to concede, okay, maybe I do suck, at least a bit. One of those records is how poorly I’ve managed to keep up with Mercury Monday, which is why I decided to do two things this afternoon: first, admit that, yeah, I do kinda suck, and second, provide you with a Mercury Monday on this lovely Friday.

In keeping with the general theme of sucking, I think I’d like to pick a Mercury that many, many people would likely say sucks: the Mercury Bobcat. They’d likely say this because the Bobcat was a re-badged Ford Pinto, a car that’s best known for having a design flaw so egregious and dangerous, and the handling of it so callous and bungled that the whole thing is now tort law legend.

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And, sure, nobody is that crazy about fiery death, sure, but at the same time, the Pinto’s 2.2 liter inline four was a pretty great engine that went on to power all sorts of interesting cars, including the legendary Merkur XR4ti. And it wasn’t a bad design, really, I mean, other than the fuel tank situation.

The Bobcat was Mercury’s first subcompact car, and I think what I find so interesting about the Bobcat is that it’s a sort of object lesson for the concept of what defined “premium” for a car in the 1970s. Mercury wasn’t Ford’s premium-premium brand, that was Lincoln, but it was a definite step up from Ford, and as a result, the car needed to convey this concept.

Even better, the Bobcat is a lesson in what the minimum was that an automaker could get away with changing on a car to kick that particular car up a rung or two on the social ladder of automobiles. As a result, one could compare the Pinto and the Bobcat and learn a bit about the visual and other signifiers of automotive status in the 1970s, a subject that’s worthy of innumerable doctoral theses and long, long documentaries.

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So, let’s do just that:

Bob Pinto

Now we’re finally getting into the essence of what’s sorta-fancy is. The two cars share almost exactly the same body sheet metal, with one notable exception: the hood. The Mercury has a “domed” hood, and that’s not because it has to accommodate a larger engine – it doesn’t – but because the hood has to provide room for the most important single signifier of “class” in the American automotive lexicon: a tall, chromed grille.

The Bobcat’s hood allowed for that taller grille with the fine vertical slats, a striking contrast from the Pinto’s low, wide grille. It’s a more archaic sort of look, really, but in this context, archaic means traditional, and tradition means class and money. Chrome also is a signifier of swank, so the headlight bezels are now chrome instead of body-colored, and the turn indicators have transformed from a quartet of rectangular windows on the Pinto into a pair of chrome-rimmed, almost lantern-like units, with lenses protected by a chrome cross for an almost nautical feel.

Bumper guards are chrome instead of all rubber, the M E R C U R Y name is elegantly spelled out on the hood, and wedding-invitation-scripr badges that read Bobcat are placed on the front quarter panel, above a bit of extra chrome-and-rubber trim to both protect the doors from dings and provide another little visual reminder that you had a bit more cash to throw around than your average Pinto-punter.

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Around the rear, your status was primarily conveyed via the wider taillights of the Bobcat, which were seemingly made by chopping off the red section of the basic Pinto/Maverick taillights, flipping them left to right, and tacking them on at the other side of the reverse lamp. The result was much bigger taillights, which is another one of the American Lexicon Of Class’ visual signifiers.

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On the inside, the primary way American carmakers in the 1970s telegraphed the idea that you, the car’s owner, were worth a damn was by surrounding you with fake wood, the automaker equivalent of giving you one of those quick upward nods of acknowledgement and respect. You’re better than plastic, they were telling you, or, more accurately, you’re better than plastic that just looks like plastic. You’re not quite worth real wood, of course (who among us is?), but you’re worth taking the time to be deluded into thinking that you are, at least just a bit.

For the wagons, there was another interesting discriminator of status when it came to wood paneling, and this was something that went across the Ford and Mercury wood-paneled wagon lineup. On Fords, the fake wood was bordered with more, paler fake wood, while on the Mercurys, the fake wood was bordered with chrome trim:

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Wagons

I’ve always found this to be a bit odd, as to my eyes, the light wood border just looks better, perhaps even a bit less fake. Still, I guess they had to do something, so thin chrome trim it was.

There were also more sporty versions, and those interiors had less wood and more black, because black was kinda sporty and kinda European, which could be made synonymous with sporty. In fact, on the Bobcats that had sporty appearance packages, we see an interesting conflict at play, because a lot of the signifiers of class are inherently at odds with the easy signifiers of sportiness. Here, look at this Bobcat with the Sports Package Option:

Bob Sporty1

The tall, chrome grille and the chrome bezels all kind of feel at odds with the stripes and blacked-out pillars of the Sports Package, don’t they? It’s like the car is trying to be two different things, and it’s confused. When the Bobcat and Pinto were re-designed in 1979, the Bobcat lost its distinctive tall hood and grille shape, but that did lend itself better to having its chrome blacked out and as a result, the car had much less of an identity crisis:

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Bob Sprt2

That’s very clearly more sporty-feeling, and a bit more modern, too. Unfortunately, this redesign also robbed the Bobcat of a lot of its visual distinctiveness compared to the Pinto. You can see up there the taillights are now redesigned, but no longer as bold and wide, and from the front the situation is just as bad:

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Aside from the name and vertical instead of horizontal chrome grille slats, what’s the difference here, really? Is verticality enough of a signifier of status to justify the Bobcat’s existence? I’m not so sure it is.

You don’t see too many Bobcats today even though a respectable 224,000 or so were made, and they’re not particularly in demand by collectors, even collectors who might want a Pinto. Still, I think a clean little Bobcat would be kind of a novel classic car to have today, even if it’s just a little rolling reminder of all those details that people once were told to consider “classy.”

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Denise Kuenzel
Denise Kuenzel
1 month ago

My first car was a 1978 Ford Mercury Bobcat in red (purchased in 1982 for $2500). Loved it. It never gave me any problems, except for the speeding tickets. ;p I sold it about three years later to an Air Force officer for his college-aged daughter.

Norman Freeman
Norman Freeman
3 months ago

The purpose of the Mercury Bobcat was to provide Canadian Mercury dealers a Pinto to sell at its price point in areas were there were no Ford dealers. This was the same stategy Ford used selling Mercury cars as Monarchs at Ford dealers while Mercury dealers sold Meteor branded Mercury cars. It’s also why there were Mercury branded trucks.

The Mercury Bobcat first appeared as a 1974 model in Canada offered in the same three body styles as the Pinto. The Bobcat originally wore a simple chrome eggcrate grille with chrome headlamp bezels which were recycled later for a minor styling update for the 1976 Ford Pinto.

The Bobcat began US production for the 1975 model year with some design updates that gave it a styling identity inline with senior Mercury models. The Canadian Bobcats adapted the same styling updates.

With the high demand for fuel efficient cars after the OPEC oil crisis, US Mercury dealers wanted the Bobcat to sell to draw customers into the showrooms for sales when the demand for larger uneconomical cars was slowing.

It was never the mission for Mercury to have an upscale Pinto to sell for the sake of having a more luxurious vehicle to peddle. Bobcats did initially have a higher level of standard equipment but later MPG base models were added stripped to the bone. Bobcats were always sold with the same interiors and levels of optional equipment as the Pinto with only variations of accent stripe graphics on optional exterior appearance packages.

Rob OConnor
Rob OConnor
1 year ago

Signed up just to comment here. I got my mom’s ’76 Bobcat in 1985 as my first car and it was an experience. The alignment was so bad I could never drive over 50 without the entire car shaking violently.

But what truly made it a character building machine was how it stalled out whenever I was sitting at an intersection waiting to make a left turn. It would idle just fine until I began my left-hand turn and then if I didn’t perfectly play the gas pedal off the brake pedal, it would rumble and shake and crap out just as I was in the middle of the intersection.

I got pretty good at throwing the car into N and restarting it before the oncoming cars slammed into me. But it was less than ideal.

The idea that my Bobcat was somehow ‘classier’ than the Pinto still boggles my mind. Was it the warm oil-scented gassy air that they called heat? Or perhaps the oddly-ridged plastic of the front bucket seats?

I know, it was the formidable hump between the two seats in the backseat bench!

Worried about your teens using the car for amorous adventures? Relax! Not even the most limber youth could comfortably mess about in this car! Unless you can get the backseat to fold back and create a true wagon experience in the hatchback! And chances are, you can’t! At least, not where everything is level!

My dad refused to put any money into it, so when I inherited it, it was a mess. It never needed oil changes because a quart of oil leaked out onto our garage floor every week. I never got a tank of gas without also getting a quart of oil for the engine! Bi-monthly clean-ups of the garage floor prevented fires.

Thankfully, I moved up to a 1982 Chevy Cavalier in late ’86. Yeah, the Cavalier with the faulty carburetor that led Chevy to move to fuel injection the next year. Good times, all around!

A special shout-out to my dad and his impeccable advisement in car matters. He died and I bought my first Honda and experienced a freedom from repair bills that I’d never known before.

Chris D
Chris D
1 year ago

“…the Pinto’s 2.2 liter inline four was a pretty great engine…”

Actually, it was a 2.3 liter. If my memory serves me from my auto parts selling days, the Pinto/Bobcat had a 1.6, a 2.0 and the 2.3.
I always liked the Bobcat better because it had a frameless glass hatch. No one was fooled into thinking it wasn’t a Pinto.
I had a ’79 which I bought at auction to resell for a profit while in college… it was impossible to get rid of! I ended up driving it for a year and then sold it to a neighbor who paid it off little by little.

Thx1138
Thx1138
1 year ago

My grandfather had a Pinto in green. Not a bad car for the times, got good gas mileage and ran as well as his VW beetle. It did have A/C, which was a big deal in MD in the 1970’s. Mom liked the beetle when she was taking 4 kids, since she could put me (the youngest at the time) in the little package shelf area over the engine (late 1960’s to early 70’s model). Not safe, but sure was fun to be able to be warm in the winter time and look out the window!

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 year ago

I kind of scratch my head about the whole one brand being more upscale than another. I grew up in the 70s with American cars maybe starting to be on the wane but still king and ensconced in American culture.

I think most people thought Cadillac, Lincoln, and Chrysler as luxury cars. The others were pretty much interchangable. I know Mercury was supposed to be over Ford, but when you were looking at used cars if it has automatic and A/C it was equipped, manual and no air, stripped. Maybe in the thirties when the brands were created there was more differentiation in the public eye.

I don’t even know which is supposed to be better, Pontiac or Oldsmobile (both now dead). Buick was about the only brand that really had any cachet other than the top three American luxury brands already mentioned.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

Small Block Ford V8’s fit in these quite nicely, also the Fuel injected 2.3 Ford 4 cylinder should fit nicely as well.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

Yes, you can put a small block ford engine in a Pinto/Bobcat, if you want the center of gravity to be right around the front axle! While you can fit 302 or 5.0 in the engine bay, V8 swapped Pintos tend to overheat due to poor airflow around the engine and exhaust manifold. The ideal donor engine is a 2.3 turbocharged intercooled Lima engine from a Thunderbird Turbo Coupe – 190 horsepower and 240-lbs. ft. of torque before tuning and it bolts right in.

Car Guy - RHM
Car Guy - RHM
1 year ago

Then the next generation was the Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx. GM did the same with all of their sub-models just a small style change, the worst was the Cadillac Cimmaron, basically a fancy Chevy Cavalier.

Der Foo
Der Foo
1 year ago
Reply to  Car Guy - RHM

As a Cimmaron owning neighbor ‘informed’ me, the Cavalier is a down-trim Cimmaron.

Chris D
Chris D
1 year ago
Reply to  Der Foo

It would have been, if the Cimarron had come out first. Sales of both versions would have benefitted from that.

chewymilk99
chewymilk99
1 year ago

I had an uncle that bought a brand new Ford Pinto wagon. It was brown with brown and some extra brown throw in manual trans but with AC and this giant ass 8 track player. I loved that car.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 year ago
Reply to  chewymilk99

I swear half the Pintos built were brown. Popular 70s color.

Jeffrey Johnson
Jeffrey Johnson
1 year ago

Growing up, there was a yoot that had a modded Pinto wagon. Pretty funny to see it flying around with a loud exhaust and Cragar S/S’s.

Lardo
Lardo
1 year ago

Had a copper colored Pinto wagon, drove cross country several times. Motor would not die, had to have the tranny rebuilt. In Aspen. The mechanic did the rebuild on his garage floor… it was not a promising moment. But it never failed again.

kinzersauto
kinzersauto
1 year ago

The Pinto fire phenomenon was overblown (excuse the pun), basically a myth. Only 27 deaths out of 3 million Pintos sold statistically made it as safe as other small cars of the era, and actually safer than some, the VW Beetle being one. The fix was in on 75 and later cars, all earlier cars were recalled. Yes, Ford didn’t handle the pr very well.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  kinzersauto

As I recall, the Gremlin was the only subcompact that performed acceptably in IIHS crash tests in the era, the Pinto, Vega, and Cricket all had the structural integrity of damp noodles

Justin Short
Justin Short
1 year ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Thanks for the cricket lesson!
Never saw one , that I know of, even in 70’s Detroit

William Domer
William Domer
1 year ago

At first glance nostalgia welled up for a bygone era, then I remembered that both of these when rear ended became fireballs because an accountant somewhere in Dearborn wanted to save a nickel per car. IMNSHO the Pinto looks about 1000% better than the Bobcat which seems to be giving off Pacer vibes, but both of these are the reason Japan ate our lunch and later on our dinner

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