The cars we loved.
During the 1980’s, the quest to build the perfect sports sedan was littered with failures and only a few successes. Ford was better than GM or Chrysler at selling the concept of “European Performance” in America. It had its bases pretty well covered with the great Ford Taurus SHO, the gentleman’s hot rod Lincoln Continental Mark VII LSC and somewhere in-between a short lived experiment with true German authenticity: the Merkur Scorpio.
The Scorpio evolved from the rear wheel drive Sierra range of cars from Ford of Europe. The range included 5 variants with two of them becoming the basis of the Merkur brand in America. A sporty coupe, the Sierra XR4i (caller Merkur XR4Ti) became the first Merkur in 1985. It was later joined by a sedan called the Scorpio in 1987.
The Real Thing
The Merkur brand was Ford’s captive European export label and represented the highest performing car range the Blue Oval offered to Americans. The experiment was bold considering that the talk of European-like handling was a buzzword in the 80’s that was usually limited to stripe and blackout trim. Ford went a step further with real German made cars that had no real counterpart in the US.
Only the top versions of the Scorpio sedan were sent to America. The shape was vaguely familiar thanks to the Taurus, but its five door hatchback form factor was still a new ideal in America, one that most buyers had not warmed to. A competitor, the Rover Sterling 827, another 5-door hatch had a similar greenhouse and “c” pillar design.
Old and New
One ideal that was old (literally) was the Scorpio’s trusty 2.9-liter V6. It had been used in various Capris and Mustangs for years. In fact it could trace its history back to the 1964. At 144 hp, today it seems like a tiny amount of muscle for a car that cost $26k (that’s about $45k in today’s dollars)!
All Scorpio were loaded with plenty of features, many of them unavailable on other US Fords. Anti-lock disc brakes and a fully independent suspension rounded out the biggest technical highlights. Unique 15 inch alloy wheels on low profile 60 series tires offered the right blend of control and comfort. While a 5 speed manual similar to the one in the XR4Ti coupe was available, the vast majority used a four-speed automatic.
The interior was familiar looking to owners of the Taurus and Thunderbird. The controls were logically placed in a manner similar to many Saab wit wood grain softening the otherwise black/grey surfaces. Leather sports seats offered good lateral support and were comfortable on long trips, like a proper sport sedan should be. Despite the nice interior, it looked somewhat dated and busy next to the Acura Legend.
Middle of the Pack
Where performance numbers were concerned, the Scorpio was in the middle of the pack. 0 to 60 in the low 9 second rang and a top speed of 114 mph doesn’t really sound exciting, but the Scorpio’s road holding abilities are what make it a sports sedan. The Scorpio offered a ride that was composed and compliant without making a fuss.
The rough around the edges nature of the SHO was missing as was the neck snapping thrust of the Lincoln LSC. But this was a real performance sedan in the classic European way, juggling control and comfort like no other Ford of the period could. Ford felt so the sure it its Scorpio that it promised higher percentage of resale value after four years than a Mercedes 190E (if trading for another Ford).
While the Scorpio was a huge seller in Europe, where it outsold BMW’s 5 Series in Germany, it hardly made waves in America. Accolades like European car of the Year and other awards did not translate to big sales numbers. Fords aim of 15,000 cars a year fell well short with over 9,000 selling in the peak year of 1988. By the end of 1990 only 7,316 were sold as Ford was still unloading cars after the brand shut down in 1989.
A Hard Sell
Not all Ford dealers had Merkur showrooms, so finding them became difficult in some smaller markets. On top of that, buyers had to contend with higher parts and repair costs. While not particularly troublesome, buyer’s patience could be tested due to early applications of security technologies like the “Tibbe” key system that often had to come from Germany for replacements.
The Merkur brand would fall apart gradually in a drawn out dissolution. The coupe lost its passport first in 1988, then the Scorpio in 1989. With no more new product, the Merkur experiment ended. Although not a completely failed experiment, the Merkur line re-enforced Ford’s comment to performance and eventually helped spearhead a overall quality improvement.