Not long after Ford Motor Company applied its horsepower to winning the Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans races this year, two of its top executives were summarily transferred from the Ford Division to the smaller Lincoln-Mercury Division. This move raised 1) some eyebrows among those who thought it was a demotion, and 2) some fears among those who knew better. Last week, after much industry suspense, all became clear. Little Lincoln-Mercury is going racing, and in a decidedly big manner.
The division announced just how big in a California conference that had the overtones of a coronation. Not only is Mercury going to race, officials said, but it has signed two of the top drivers in the sport to lead the campaign. In quick order Mercury announced: Its new Cougar will enter the Trans-American Sedan Championship series (which Ford's Mustang won this year); Cougar also will go drag racing for the world title; the division will be involved in stock car racing and, officials concluded with flourish, will race on the world-championship circuits, including Le Mans and, quite possibly, the Indy 500.
While the industry was blinking at this sweeping program, Leo C. Beebe, Mercury's new marketing manager ( Ford's old marketing manager), uncorked the big one. "We advertise the new Cougar as 'The Man's Car,' " said Beebe. "And what is America's image of 'The Man'? Someone loyal, brave, strong, persevering? It's Dan Gurney. And who else? Parnelli Jones." Mercury has signed both to exclusive contracts, Beebe said, and Gurney, at a six-figure base salary full of mechanized fringe benefits, will be team captain.
The Gurney-Jones contract, which seals off these men from Ford and other manufacturers, is a racing coup. Gurney is America's No. 1 Grand Prix driver and an Indy veteran; Jones won Indy in 1963, the USAC stock car title in 1964. With Mercury's bankroll they will be able to produce powerful Indy and Le Mans efforts. And never mind that the engines will be basically the same as Ford's. As one Mercury executive said, "What do you mean, the Ford engine won those races? It's just as much Mercury as it is Ford, baby."
It had been rumored for weeks that something this big was in the works. When Mercury got Beebe, it also got Ford's Frank E. Zimmerman Jr., special vehicles manager, who organized the company's Indianapolis and Le Mans campaigns. Zimmerman's new title at Mercury is general sales manager, and his assignment with the highest priority is to sell Cougars. Both executives feel racing is the answer. "If you're not in racing," said Beebe, "you're not in the automobile business."
It is a bold premise. Still, Mercury's unabashed willingness to plunge into such competition as the Trans-American series shows just how much business they mean. In but one season of seven races, run from March to September, the Trans-American has become one of our most important and entertaining events. Unlike the monster cars of the Grand National stock car stripe, which are confined mostly to oval tracks, the sedans all run on road courses, where 180-mph dashes and 85-mph corners lest their versatility.
This season Ford's Mustang was thrown in with such newly hot cars as the Plymouth Barracuda (and won only by beating Barracuda in the last race), the Chevy Corvair, the Rambler Rebel and the Dodge Dart. Rules limit these cars to 116-inch wheelbases (the Cougar's measures 111) and 305 cu. in. of power plant. That's fine with Mercury, whose proposed 289-cu.-in. engine should come out of the factory rated at 340 horsepower and ultimately be capable of producing up to 400 horsepower.
Barracuda will be back with a new model, and if that is not challenge enough there are indications that Chevrolet's new Camaro will be put into the series.
Meanwhile, subsidiary developments will make news for months to come. Item: Mercury man Gurney likely will campaign independently on the Grand Prix circuit, yet may turn up at Indy with an American Eagle-Mercury-Gurney-Weslake car—his own chassis. Mercury's block and Weslake heads from his shop. Item: By racing a dragster—Mercury is building him a "stock" railcar with 289-cubic-inch engine—Gurney will become America's most compleat driver, having competed in practically everything on wheels. Item: Cougar in January will introduce a model-within-a-model, the XR7-S, with a special nameplate labeling it the Gurney Cougar.
Item: If European racing fans were overwhelmed by Ford's concentrated push at Le Mans this year (13 cars entered), wait until they see American intracompany rivalry in action next time. According to advance plans, FoMoCo again will be in force: The red-and-white cars will be Mercurys, the blue-and-white cars will be Fords. Either color, the parent company can't lose.