The panther. The stealthy, silent predator of the jungle, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. At least that’s the description that comes to mind for most people. But I, along with a small and cult-like following of enthusiasts, think of three very different beasts when the term “panther’ is uttered – the white walled, leathered Town Car, the vinyl roofed, AARP approved Grand Marquis, and that ubiquitous mobile drunk tank Crown Victoria. Oh yes, the term panther concocts a very different meaning for gearheads, thanks to the success and longevity of the full-size Ford platform it refers to. Today the platform has become omnipresent thanks to its success in both the private market as well as the livery and commercial market. While pictured here is a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis, it is also a catalyst to discussing the panther platform itself.
The mechanical panther’s life span was much akin to its flesh and bone brethren. First born young and green, it needed time to mature before morphing into one of the kings of the jungle – then becoming old and feeble before falling in defeat to younger predators. Debuting in fall 1978, the design was lauded as being right for the times, and a welcome change from the barges Ford had been peddling prior. However, the Blue Oval built the first panthers because they felt they had to, in much the same vein a boy cleans his room because his mother makes him. As such, Ford’s effort to clean their proverbial room was halfhearted at best. In comparison tests between the Ford and GM full sizers (which were downsized for ’77), the GM cars almost always came out in front. It didn’t matter whether it was Cadillac vs Lincoln, Mercury vs Oldsmobile, or Chevy vs Ford – critics all decreed the General the winner. Sales of the new Panther did not reach expectations, and stayed low for the first few years thanks to a half-baked design, a recession and a second oil crisis. Things looked dire enough that Ford was ready to axe the platform and downsize all its cars to the smaller Fox platform.
The panther was in no doubt endangered of being euthanized by its disappointed owner. However, in the early 80s automakers panicked over the nightmare of permanently high gas prices. Chrysler and GM both began responding for this dystopian future by making decisions that ended up working in Ford’s favor. GM began cutting the quality out of its full size cars and downsizing engines. Chrysler ended its full size program in 1981 entirely. The new small Cadillac motor was a disaster, and led many to change allegiance to Lincoln. Gas prices also started dropping from their highs in 1979 and 1980, leading people to return to full-size cars. The real ace in the hole, however, was GM’s panicked downsize in 1985. Their bread and butter full size cars were shrunk to shockingly small sizes while also going FWD. While better cars from an objective standpoint, buyers weren’t ready for that extreme of a downsizing. They quickly flocked to Ford, where traditional size was still on the menu. This, along with better quality, quickly led to the panther becoming a money printer for Ford.
As the decade ended, it was high time to update the long in the tooth panthers, and Ford introduced the second generation first in 1990 (Lincoln) and then 1992 (Ford and Mercury). These newer cars offered an all-new 4.6 V8, as well as all new “aero” styling. The Crown Vic even eschewed a grill for its inaugural year, though complaints quickly saw one tacked on for 1993. This second generation saw high levels of quality, refinement, and performance across all three brands. The Mercury seen here was the most sensible choice. It offered many of the comforts of the Lincoln, and had a more formal style than the Crown Victoria that wouldn’t be confused with the local constable’s squad car.
For years, Mercury itself had been getting squeezed from below by high-spec Fords and from above by entry-level Lincolns. Unlike the five tier GM, Ford never seemed able to find for Mercury a successful style and image. The closest Mercury ever got to finding its own persona was the original Cougar back in 1967…. and the panther-based Marquis. Though Ford tried to market other newer and more modern Mercuries, the Marquis remained the perennial sales champ. And for good reason – the quietly handsome and competent Marquis was the perfect package of traditional full size practicality and comfort. It was the perfect car for places like corn country, the Bible belt and America’s breadbasket – where unpretentious people did unpretentious work and wanted an unpretentious car to get there.
As the 1990s turned into the 2000s, the Marquis remained within the lineup, becoming a throwback to the halcyon days of American motoring. The panther no longer was a predator of the jungle, but instead outdated and de-clawed. Sadly, that such an archaic car was the torchbearer for Mercury ultimately what led to the demise of the brand. Other than the Marquis, the rest of the lineup was little more than rebadged Ford fare. When the Great Recession hit, Mercury was first to be put on the chopping block. Fittingly, the last car built with a Mercury badge was a white Grand Marquis in January 2010. Only a year later, the final Panther would roll of the line.
With a thirty-two year run and millions of cars sold, the panther has become an indelible part of American society. Be it the squad car Vic, the stately Town Car, or the Middle America Marquis, the panther found success by offering inoffensive reliable transportation for the masses. The extinction of the steel-bodied panther was a true loss of a legend, and like most extinct species will be recalled in future years with a wistfulness and nostalgia that it should bring to mind today.