Ford’s captive import luxury brand of the ’80s was a swing and a miss, but putting the Merkur Scorpio head to head with the Mercedes-Benz 300E may not be as crazy as it sounds.
Imported cars, especially cars imported from Europe, have long enjoyed a certain cachet in the U.S. market that no domestic-brand car has quite been able to match. Note the word cachet – I’m talking about perceptions and assumptions here, not necessarily facts. To many American buyers, a European pedigree means old-world craftsmanship, meticulous engineering, and Continental sophistication, even if that pedigree is sitting on the rapidly rusting shoulders of an immobilized Fiat Brava.
This drives American automakers nuts.
The thing is, Ford and General Motors, and to a lesser extent Chrysler, have been international companies for a very long time; Ford began building Model Ts in England in 1909 and GM built Chevrolets in Denmark as early as 1923 and acquired English automaker Vauxhall in 1925 and Germany’s Opel in 1929. At several points, all three domestic giants have plucked cars from their European portfolios to inject some import mystique, and often to plug gaps in their domestic lineups. Opels were semi-successfully sold by Buick dealers and various English and German Fords were sold through U.S. Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers throughout the ’60s and ’70s. None of these, however, managed to really break through with America’s import car snobs.
In the ’80s, it seemed to Ford that captive imports might again be the answer to a glaring hole in its lineup, this time to counter the rapid growth of the luxury import market. It certainly seemed like a better strategy than slapping a leather interior into a Chevrolet Cavalier and calling it a Mercedes fighter.
Merkur launched in 1985 with a single model, the XR4Ti, a somewhat lumpy version of the German Ford Sierra with a weird bi-level spoiler and a turbocharged Pinto engine that nevertheless offered compelling enough performance to stand as a credible alternative to the BMW 3-series and Saab 900 Turbo. The XR was meant to spearhead a full line of European-designed and -built luxury-performance cars, and 800 Lincoln-Mercury dealers signed up for Merkur franchises. It took until 1988, however, for a second model, the five-door Scorpio, to materialize; the XR4Ti was discontinued at the end of the next model year and in October of 1989 Ford announced it was pulling the plug on the Scorpio – and with it the Merkur brand – as well.
The culprits were much the same as always. Lincoln-Mercury dealers were an uncomfortable fit for the performance-oriented XR4Ti, and the Scorpio, at $26,000 with an automatic transmission and the Touring package, cost more than a Lincoln Town Car despite being smaller than – and styled somewhat similarly to – a Mercury Sable that cost nearly half as much. The Merkur name confused consumers; it was too similar to Mercury (a direct translation into German, in fact) but too difficult to pronounce. And even a scheme linking the Scorpio’s resale value to that of the Mercedes-Benz 190E couldn’t keep Merkurs from depreciating at an alarming rate. By 1989 the looming cost of redesigning the cars for airbags or passive restraint systems couldn’t be justified by their meager sales. Soon Merkur was remembered as a punchline, if it was remembered at all.
So the Merkur brand was a failure, but what of the cars?
I traveled to Chico, California to meet up with Alan Boring – who is anything but – and drive his 1989 Scorpio to find out. And, because I’m always happy to indulge delusions of grandeur, I also drove the Scorpio’s ultimate bogey, the W124-chassis Mercedes-Benz 300E, to see how the Merkur stacks up.
The first thing that struck me as Alan drove up to our meeting spot was that I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a Scorpio on the road. That rarity alone gives the Scorpio some presence; otherwise its styling still looks smooth and clean, if a little anonymous – sort of an insurance-ad mashup of a first-gen Ford Taurus and a Saab 9000, the only major competitor with which it shared its hatchback configuration. In fact, the Scorpio very much has a corporate Ford look and feel inside and out, which may have been a detriment at its price in 1989, but which has aged relatively well.
Cabin quirks in the Scorpio include squeeze bulbs to inflate the lumbar support in the front seats, electrically reclining rear seatbacks, and leather upholstery that is notorious for premature wear. The dash layout is simple and uncluttered, although the instrument panel-mounted climate controls are a little obscure and inaccessible to the front passenger. Space is ample and the front seats are very well bolstered and comfortable.
For the U.S. market, the Scorpio used a 2.9-liter V6 shared with the Ford Ranger and Bronco II trucks. It is a smooth and unobtrusive performer, but its truck provenance shows under acceleration when it gets a bit louder than is becoming of a luxury sedan. A five-speed manual was standard, but most Scorpios, including Alan’s, were delivered with the optional four-speed automatic, which is well suited to the car’s touring bent. The Scorpio’s most impressive trait is its roadholding; it always feels firmly planted and utterly stable. The controls feel similarly substantial, the wheel offering a good sense of connection to the road. The look may be Ford, but this Scorpio has by far the most buttoned-down feel of any older Ford I’ve ever driven.
I like the Scorpio. The interior materials haven’t held up quite as well as you’d hope they would in an expensive car, but it is comfortable and characterful and an engaging expressway companion – an excellent place to eat up many miles at a time. The Mercedes 300E, however, might illuminate why Merkur couldn’t make it as a player in the luxury market.
But first, a disclaimer: the 300E was a significantly more expensive car than the Scorpio. Heck, a W124 300E is a significantly more expensive car than today’s E-Class if you adjust the price for inflation (see sidebar; the Scorpio, meanwhile, was fairly comparable in price to the current E, which starts at $52,150). This was a seriously expensive automobile with seriously expensive engineering.
The lovely burgundy 300E I drove, kindly provided by Premier Motors in Hayward, California, is an obviously pampered 1992 model with just under 60,000 miles on the clock. The Mercedes inline six is barely larger than the Scorpio’s V6 but at 177 horsepower, puts out 33 more than the Merkur, and its 188 lb.-ft. of torque out-twist the Scorpio by 26. Curb weights are nearly identical between the two cars, and honestly, there’s no major seat-of-the-pants difference in their performance. Where the Merkur’s V6 growls, however, the Benz’s six purrs, shifting to a slightly impatient but still silken rumble at idle. The Merkur is no ruffian, but the Mercedes is so smooth, its power delivery so seamless and effortless – there is a perceptible difference in quality.
Surprisingly, although here, too, it is very smooth, the Mercedes can’t outshine the Merkur’s ride and handling balance, and nor is its steering quite as direct. The Scorpio is impressively refined on that score. It’s also a bit roomier than the Mercedes, with the added practicality of its hatchback bodystyle, although the Mercedes was also available as a seven-passenger station wagon.
Certainly for its price, the material quality of the Mercedes had better be unimpeachable, and this proves to be the case, although the Zebrano wood trim used liberally throughout the interior – while more convincingly real than the Scorpio’s strip of dashboard timber – may not mesh with current aesthetic sensibilities. That’s a delicate way of saying it’s a bit garish. And, the 300E’s dashboard controls, while more logically arrayed than the Scorpio’s, manage to be even more inscrutably labeled. Call ergonomics a draw. Seat comfort in the Mercedes is excellent, with more lateral support than the eye might suggest, although the airbag-equipped steering wheel is not adjustable for rake or reach and the height-adjustable seat does not go as far down as I wanted it to.
Given the wide price gulf between the Scorpio and the 300E, the Merkur comes in at a disadvantage that in some ways is borne out by its execution. Mercedes-Benzes of this era are famously overengineered – and 24 years on, it’s still evident in how well the 300E has aged – while the Scorpio started life as little more than a big, German Ford. All things considered, however, the Scorpio acquits itself well and comes out as the more engaging driver’s car with a more distinct personality.
Today, Ford’s European and American passenger car model lines have largely converged under the “One Ford” plan spearheaded under former Ford CEO Alan Mulally, to much critical acclaim even if most American consumers are unaware of the Continental connection. The captive import strategy might not have been the right one for the Scorpio, at least not as it was executed, but as a progenitor of the excellent Fords of today, it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Huge thanks to Alan Boring for sharing his 1989 Scorpio – a rare beast and a special delight – and to Premier Motors of Hayward, CA for the 1992 Mercedes-Benz 300E. It is for sale, and it is exquisite – check it out!