Welcome to Member Rides, our weekly feature where we showcase the interesting cars of Autopian Members and share their stories. Sounds like fun, you say? You can become a Member by signing up here. We have membership levels starting at just $10 per month, and your participation helps keep The Autopian going. We appreciate it!
This week, we turn our attention to Autopian member Tim Cougar and his quite lovely survivor-condition 1974 Mercury Cougar XR-7. While 1974 was kind of a bleak year for the automobile, it was also the first year for the third-gen Cougar, and Ford “civilized the big cat,” boosting its size and luxury-level on the way to showroom success. Here’s Tim to tell us about how he was captivated by the cat and captured a Cougar of his own…
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Tim!
I live in Northern Virginia, and I’ve been a car lover my whole life. My mom places the blame on my grandfather, a car lover himself. She says I would sit on his lap and we would look at pictures of cars together. He died when I was very young, but we inherited his 1990 Honda Accord coupe that I later learned to drive in.
My appreciation and enthusiasm lean more toward the aesthetics and the experience of driving. I can change the oil, mount a spare, swap out lightbulbs, and even adjust the window glass when it comes off the track, but for anything requiring greater mechanical aptitude I prefer to trust the experts.
I do have an uncanny ability to remember and recognize makes and models (names and faces, not so much), and spend a lot of time identifying cars on the Internet Movie Car Database where I go by CougarTim. I’d love to get my Cougar in the background of a production filming in Washington, D.C. someday to complete the circle.
How did you acquire your Cougar? Is it a model you’ve wanted for a long time?
It all started when I was in seventh grade, when my school hosted an auction. It did not go well; there were more volunteers working than there were bidders, and many lots went unsold, including two cars. One of those cars was a 1976 Mercury Cougar, dark red and somewhat shabby, but to my middle school eyes it was one of the coolest cars I’d ever seen. Long and low, big and not afraid to hide it, with baroque styling that I found inexplicably appealing. It had class. It sat in a back corner of the school parking lot for a few weeks and then disappeared, but it stuck in my mind.
Fast forward to spring 2007, my second year of college. I’d found an internet message board for 1974-1979 Cougars that I kept an eye on, just in case, when lo and behold a listing appeared for a 1974 Cougar for sale in my state! Somehow, I convinced my parents to drive me down to Martinsville to look at it. And then buy it, because I was in love.
Round is the correct shape and 4 is the correct number.
Kitty goes to the opera
What state was it in when you purchased it, and what have you done to restore/maintain it since?
My Cougar was originally a California car and spent her first 30 or so years there, so the condition was excellent, practically no rust at all.
She has some options that make her stand out among ’74 Cougars. Under the hood is the optional 400ci V8. A 351 was standard, and the 460 was available by special order. Inside are the optional leather bucket seats and an 8-track player—I raided flea markets to buy tapes to play in it. Despite having buckets and a center console, mine was built with a column shifter, which is unique. There’s also a rim-blow horn, front and rear cigarette lighters, and tactile controls that are more satisfying than any touchscreen.
I know what I got
I drove her through my third and fourth years of college, around Charlottesville and back and forth from my home in the D.C. area. After college, I sometimes used her to commute to work, or drive to jobsites around the area; I parked in the wrong part of D.C. once and she was broken into—they stole my toolkit but left the 8-tracks. I’ve also driven her once to the Outer Banks and once to Pittsburgh.
The heckblende hides the center fuel filler
Our relationship has had its rough patches. The 1974 Cougars and Montegos are somewhat prone to overheating. In fact, Ford redesigned the bumper in 1975 to improve cooling. Brakes and power steering have both failed and been repaired, the vinyl roof started to disintegrate and needed to be replaced, and mice are constantly trying to move in and so on. The worst was a persistent stalling problem that left me stranded a few times.
In 2018 she, failed safety inspection then died less than a block from the inspection station and came home on a tow truck. Because of my circumstances at the time, she spent almost two years parked. When I had enough savings built up, I brought her to a local classic car garage with excellent reviews to give her the treatment she deserved and that I could not give her myself.
3 more luxurious than an XR4Ti
Since her rebuild, things haven’t been entirely trouble-free, but they’re improving. I’m still paranoid and cautious because of all the trouble in the past. She spends most of the winter hibernating, but now that the weather’s been consistently nice I drive her more. I try to exercise her at least once a week. Sitting is not good for her; she likes to move.
There is always something that needs fixing. This week, an exhaust hanger strap broke. Approaching 50 years old, her paint is starting to show its age and a repaint might be in order soon; or maybe I’ll just keep her as original as possible. My goal is to be a responsible steward of a car of a kind they just simply don’t make any more.
No, the exhaust is not supposed to hang that low
What do you enjoy most about your Cougar?
She goes! I know 1974 was not a high point in Detroit history, but she feels strong and smooth. She’s not a performance machine, just a very nice cruiser. On clear roads I can just put the pedal down and she roars; it’s a great sound. And she’s still gorgeous.
I love driving something that stands out. I’ve loved cars my whole life, and I love seeing rare, old, and/or unusual cars out and about, and when I’m driving the Cougar, I get to be the most interesting car someone might see that day.
Note the rare shifter delete plate on the console.
How do people react to it?
Cougars sold well back in the ‘70s, but there aren’t many left. Nearly everyone of a certain age either had a Cougar or knows someone who had a Cougar. My favorite was a woman at a gas station: “My brother had one just like that. I thought it was the ugliest thing.” There are approving nods and thumbs up from other drivers, pedestrians, and school crossing guards; people are always asking about it or offering to buy it—though I’m not interested in selling.
Longcat is long
What are the most striking contrasts between owning/driving a ’74 Cougar versus a modern equivalent?
So, the day I bought my Cougar, I drove it from Martinsville to Charlottesville. The next day I went out to start it, turned the key… and nothing happened. I was distraught. Turns out, I needed to pump the gas pedal before turning the key. I had never driven anything made before 1990. There was a learning curve.
My current daily driver is a 2009 BMW 328i sedan, and they are two very different machines. The Bimmer is a great car; it is quick, nimble, easy to park, and has heated seats. The Cougar is none of those things. The Bimmer is also, in comparison, boring and commonplace, and doesn’t even have real leather.
Cars today need more jewelry
The Cougar needs time to warm up and time to cool down. I plan my routes to hit as few stoplights as possible, because while she likes to go, she does not like to stop. Even though the stalling issue is behind us, I still get paranoid about idling at long lights or making left turns.
In 1974, this car qualified as midsize, but it’s 18 feet long. I parked next to a smart car once; with our front bumpers lined up, its rear bumper was at my A-pillar. The long, flat hood is one giant blind spot in front. I avoid tight parking lots.
Now all I need is the lavish estate
They don’t make them like this anymore, and as much as I like ‘70s cars I believe that is overall a good thing. I don’t even try to calculate the gas mileage because it’d be too depressing. In a crash I’d be dead. Cars today are better in every objective way. But they can’t match the style or feeling of cruising in a personal luxury coupe.
That’s true! Thanks for sharing your Cougar with us and preserving it for car fans new and old to enjoy.
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I simply adore how much the head-on photo resembles the movie poster for The Car.
18 feet of luxo-barge, but not much of that is in the passenger compartment! The overhangs in these vehicles were truly extraordinary. Loooong hoods, short decklids, and lots of space ahead of the firewall. Let’s not talk about the excesses of the government-mandated park bench bumpers that stretched further into infinity. You practically needed the hood ornament to find the front of the car. But all of that together was part of their “charm” and style, for better or for worse. At least you could tell cars apart from one another in those days. Some of us who were around back then really liked the style.
Great car and I really appreciate your last paragraph. There is absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating the past while acknowledging that the present is probably a lot better.
My parents had the Ford version of this, the Gran Torino Elite III. (Narrator voice: it was not Elite.
Didn’t know quite how to drive stick yet so the drivers test in my VW Beetle wasn’t happening. Instead I had this thing, in late November with snow. I hated the car. Mom absolutely hated that car. Dad didn’t mind it. I wished we would have bought the black Pontiac Gran Prix from the dealership instead but Dad was a Ford guy. Until that car. Traded it off eventually for an Olds Cutlass Ciera which was red with red interior and red everything.
I still have PTSD from both of those cars.
That said, the Mercury is rare and a hell of a lot nicer than the Ford we had.
I do love a 70’s coupe. There’s nothing like them on the road today. Great car! Thanks for keeping this one around and using it. I loved the line about being able to be the most interesting car that people see that day!
Great car. I love a good ol’ luxobarge, my dad churned through a few of them in the 80s and I’ve got a soft spot for them.
People who hire the work done are the ones who name and gender their vehicle. However, that’s a great ride.