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Merkur: Ford's European Performance Brand that Could Have Been

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author photo by Chris O'Neill June 2017

The luxury car scene during the latter part of the 20th century was a bit of a mess. Modern American tastes for premium features and European performance were just starting to develop, and automakers were scrambling to get a piece of the pie. Staple brands like Lincoln, Buick and Cadillac were out -- and hot new Germans like Audi and BMW were in. Wanting to capitalize on this phenomenon, and with a respectable portfolio of European-market vehicles of its own, Ford founded the Merkur brand in 1985 as a way to offer its European-flavored vehicles here in the United States.

Ford's plan was to adapt these vehicles to U.S. regulations in order to reap the same sales benefits in its home country as it was abroad. Only things never quite got that far. The brand's only two product offerings, the XR4Ti and the Scorpio, both arrived as de-tuned, watered down versions of what they were abroad, thus facing an uphill battle from the start.

Sold as the Ford Sierra in Europe, the XR4Ti arrived in the U.S. for the 1985 model year with a 175-horsepower 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, available 5-speed manual and wind-tunnel-sculpted two-tiered rear spoiler, all packed into a sporty three-door hatchback shape. While an enticing proposition and with sales ultimately exceeding 40,000 units in total, XR4Ti popularity fell steeply after its first few years on the market, and it was ultimately discontinued after the 1989 model year as a result of "changing regulations" (aka, low demand).

I've seen two XR4Tis in recent memory, one of which is pictured above. It's a 1989 model, from the car's the final year of production.

Merkur's other offering, the Scorpio, was a mid-sized, 5-door hatchback featuring a 144-horsepower 2.9-liter V6 -- and it had even less of a chance. Hindered by a high base price and inferior power and performance compared to rivals like the Saab 9000 S, the Scorpio only lasted for two model years -- 1988 and 1989. Its discontinuation came shortly after that of the XR4Ti, marking the end of the brand. Surprisingly enough, Ford did manage to move over 20,000 Scorpios during the short time that the model was on sale.

If you look at Ford's brand portfolio right now, there's room for a few vehicles in the spirit of the Merkur line. The Ford marque has a good grasp on churning out competitive, mainstream, production cars and trucks in large volumes. Mercury is gone, probably for the better, and the Lincoln lineup is largely a more modernized version of what it has always been -- big comfortable cars for people who want a little style, but not too much. One has to wonder, with a stronger marketing push, more enticing product offerings, and less hindrance by federal regulations, could Ford's European-flavored brand have survived? I have to think so, and I'd even go so far as to bet that it would be stealing some sales from Audi and Mercedes, were it still around today.

 Chris O'Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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