Merkur Scorpio (1987-1990)Luxury Cheap SeatsRiding in the lap of luxury has never been cheap. Private jets, chauffeured cars and foie gras at the Ritz require the underlying support of a significant level of income. And while living large is going to cost you, living well is possible, even for the impecunious. I am talking about a European car that was designed to compete against BMW's 5 Series, Audi's 5000 and Mercedes-Benz's 300s, as well as a host of other cars from Saab, Alfa Romeo and Peugeot. I'm talking about a car that, in its day, was revolutionary in its aerodynamic styling, exceptional in its spacious comfort and acclaimed for its advanced safety technology. I'm talking about the Merkur Scorpio, built by Ford and imported into North America between 1987 and 1990.
What were they thinking?In 1984, Ford Motor Company was tired of losing sales to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, who were selling luxury performance cars to a group of rich and successful car buyers recently given the name "yuppies." The way to attract these affluent buyers, it was reasoned, was to fight fire with fire. Ford of Europe had just introduced the new Ford Sierra, a two-door sports coupe designated to go head to head with the BMW 3 Series. Why not bring the Sierra to North America, steal some of BMW's sales and prove that Ford could build a real performance car in the European mold? Except it wasn't enough to just bring in the cars. Ford decided to create a whole new division under the Lincoln-Mercury umbrella, called Merkur, to sell the German-built cars to North American yuppies. The Ford Sierra became the Merkur XR4Ti, powered by a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine it shared with the American-built, high-performance Mustang SVO. Initially, sales of the BMW fighter were brisk, but after a couple of years, sales dropped off and it was determined what the Merkur brand needed was a second larger model. Ford of Europe had another relatively new model, the Ford Granada Scorpio, also built in Germany. In 1987, this large five-door (four-door with hatchback) luxury sedan hit the U.S. market under the name Merkur Scorpio.
The car itselfThe Ford Granada Scorpio was named European Car of the Year in 1986, shortly after its launch. The Merkur Scorpio was built in a newly updated factory in Cologne, Germany. It was powered by a 2.9-liter 60-degree V6 engine, a heavy cast-iron design that had seen duty in the European-built Mercury Capri in the 1970s which could also be found in Ford's Ranger pickup trucks. The engine made 144 bhp at 5500 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm, making the Scorpio a powerful performer for its day. Zero to 60 mph times were in the low 9-second range, not bad for a 3,240-pound luxury car. A five-speed manual transmission was standard and a four-speed automatic optional. The suspension was independent all-around, with MacPherson struts in the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear. Four-wheel disc brakes were fitted with ABS at a time when many U.S.-built cars were still getting by with rear drums.
Although not a huge car at 186.4 inches long, the Merkur Scorpio rode on a 108.7-inch wheelbase. This made the interior wonderfully spacious, a feature further enhanced by four individually adjustable bucket seats. These seats were trimmed in Connolly leather, and even the rear seats were electrically adjustable. Rear seat legroom fell into the limousine class, and yet the car felt agile and maneuverable with a 34.1-foot turning radius and an ability to corner hard while soaking up bumps in the pavement. Compared to the standard Ford Grand Marquis of the same period, the Scorpio was light years ahead in terms of passenger space, comfort and performance.
What happened?No matter how you try to spin it, the whole Merkur division was a failure. In its five-year run the division sold only 42,464 XR4Ti models and only 22,010 Scorpios in the United States and Canada before Ford pulled the plug in late 1989. The breakdown for the Scorpio was 16,093 units in 1988 and 5,917 for model year 1989, a few of which were leftover cars sold in 1990. Although the weakening economy of the late 1980s can be blamed as a reason for slow sales, one has to wonder how smart it was to start a whole new brand with a name Americans had trouble pronouncing (say MARE-KOOR), selling distinctly European cars through dealerships that were used to selling cars to traditional Mercury and Lincoln buyers. As with previous off-beat Fords coming from Europe (the list is long, from the Cortina, through the Capri and on to the Fiesta), the commitment to sell, support and service the cars was never strong enough to overcome the resistance to taking a chance, especially when that chance in the case of the Scorpio was going to run to more than $24,000. Henry Ford may have said, "History is bunk," but in the case of selling European Fords to the American public, history repeated itself.
Why would you want one?Buying an automotive orphan is always a risky proposition: finding parts, finding someone who can work on it and finding solace when your charismatic transportation leaves you stranded. Nonetheless, when it's up and running, having something out of the ordinary can be a real kick. In the Scorpio's case, the exceptional interior space and comfort, combined with quick and agile handling, makes for a fairly attractive package. This is exactly the kind of car that people mean when they use the term "European touring sedan," which isn't true for most of the cars that try to claim that title. The Scorpio continued in Europe until 1995, when it was completely redesigned. European versions of the car could be had with all-wheel drive and high performance engines, and even had limited success in Group N rally competition in the early '90s.