A Cruise Down Memory Lane in My 'Mercury Mistake'

Mercury Mystique
Mercury Mystique

The passing of Mercury is bittersweet for me. The news revived a trove of experiences, some traumatic and long-repressed -- so I'm hoping this will be a cathartic trip down automotive memory lane.

My first car was a Mercury Tracer, the company's version of the Ford Escort. I'd lived most of my life up to that point in big cities, used public transportation and rented cars only when I had no other option. But a business transfer to Atlanta, whose car culture a colleague once described to me as "L.A. with a drawl," made a commitment to wheels a necessity.

The Tracer was, to quote The Cars, just what I needed: efficient, reliable, air-conditioned (especially important in the South) and got me from A to B with minimal fuss. It had that funky, passive seat belt array that automatically strapped you in when you turned on the engine, but my wife and I got used to it.

A Litany of Woes

That unpretentious little silver four-door made me much less of a car snob. It got us up unpaved mountain roads, down to the coast and safely brought our newborn son home. The only glitch we ever had with it was a bad battery -- which, of course, died during an extended summer road trip. After repeatedly using booster cables, we were able to keep the battery alive by never coming to a complete stop or turning on the a/c -- which made for an entertaining 250-mile ride home in August. But it was strictly a battery issue, so no hard feelings.

Our error came in trading in the Tracer for a Mercury Mystique (another sibling to a Ford (F) model, the Contour) during the Mystique's debut year in 1995 (model pictured). We did our homework, checked out Consumer Reports and other publications -- which all gave it favorable reviews. The Mystique was roomy, at least compared to the Tracer, had good mileage and very nimble steering. But within a year of ownership, we started to call it our Mercury Mistake.

I just spent some time digging through a dusty filing cabinet filled with old automotive receipts -- yes, I'm a pack rat -- and they confirm the memories I had regarding the Mystique. The first thing to go was its interior. The air conditioner slats on both sides of the dash quickly came loose and ended up looking like broken teeth. The mirror mounted on the windshield came off with a loud pop one morning during rush hour traffic, and the glue holding the driver-side rear-view mirror failed soon after.

Worse, though, the car would overheat at the slightest provocation. It was bad enough seeing your radiator gauge rise dangerously when gridlocked on a city avenue and praying you'd be able to pull over and turn off the engine for a while, but the overheating caused the engine to call it quits at least once in traffic, stranding my wife and then-infant son on the side of a very busy Atlanta highway with no shoulder, waiting for a tow truck. After that, my wife lived in a state of near-constant anxiety when it came to driving that car.

"Get Rid of It"

That Mystique spent a great portion of its life with us in various garages, where its radiator, hoses and electrical systems were repeatedly checked but never fully repaired. All these mishaps took place, of course, after our warranty expired -- and I don't remember our Mercury dealer being at all sympathetic. To top it all off, the paint on the Mystique's hood began crazing due to the overheated engine. A series of small cracks may look distinguished on Renaissance artwork, but they definitely hurt the resale value of your car.

The final straw came when I took the Mystique to a one-man, one-garage mechanic I knew and trusted. After once again replacing fluids and giving the vehicle a physical, he came out looking grim. "My advice? Get rid of it," he said.

I vividly remember my last ride in the Mystique. I was taking it to a fixed-priced, no-haggle used-car place up in the North Georgia mountains. Once again, the engine began to heat up, to the point where steam was hissing out from under the hood. I made it to the dealer's lot, parked it in a remote spot, waited for the steam to dissipate and went into the office -- where they offered me $300 dollars for what should have been a much more valuable car. But I grabbed their deal, gratefully.

Best and Worst

Mercury discontinued the Mystique in 2000, and Car And Driver apologized for including the Mystique/Contour on its 1995 10 Best Cars list.

I believe cars, especially for Americans, can become part of our psyches. For me, my experience with the Mercury brand stands at both ends of my memories -- representing a time when I was young and not at all savvy about cars. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.