The Contessa’s Cougar: A very different sort of ‘barn-find’...
THAT Silver Birch Aston Martin DB5 might be the car most readily linked with the cinematic James Bond, but the 26 films released so far (plus the pending No Time To Die) have created a vast firmament of lesser–known automotive stars ranging from a seemingly indestructible Citroën 2CV to a T-55 battle tank and from a submersible Lotus Esprit to an AMC Matador that transforms into an aircraft.
But of the 15-plus different car marques, dozens of different models and hundreds of individual vehicles that have played a part in helping or thwarting Bond in his quest to save the world, only a small percentage of verified examples have survived – one being this action-ready Mercury Cougar XR-7, which many 007 fans will recognise from 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Notable for being the only Bond film in which Australian actor George Lazenby played the starring role, 'OHMSS' centred around a plot hatched by cat-stroking SPECTRE boss Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) to brainwash patients at his Swiss allergy-research institute in order to send them around the world on germ warfare missions.
The film opens with Bond saving Contessa Teresa Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) from committing suicide by walking into a choppy sea off Portugal – and ends with the couple being briefly married before she is murdered by Blofeld and his 'henchwoman' Irma Bunt.
Along the way, there's a slippery car chase through the snow-covered Swiss village of Lauterbrunnen, in which the pair gate-crash an ice race in the Contessa's Cougar before being forced to take shelter from a blizzard by driving into a remote barn – where Bond makes his uncharacteristic marriage proposal, with the parked Cougar being the only witness.
The barn scene was shot at Pinewood Studios in the UK, but what happened to the car immediately after the film wrapped in the spring of 1969 is unknown – other than the fact that it went through several different owners, each of whom perpetuated the rumour of its link with 007.
Not until the Cougar came into the possession of a Bristol-based Ford Mustang enthusiast in 1990, however, was its glamorous history fully corroborated.
"I originally bought it as a scrap car for £2,500, purely because I wanted the rare, high-performance Cobra Jet engine to use in my Mustang," says the owner, who asked not to be named.
"But, once I got it running, I became interested in it and managed to track down its original invoice and build sheets through a former employee of Ford's legal department called Lois Eminger."
Ms Eminger became famous in the American car world for saving thousands of copy invoices for Ford-group cars built during and after the 1960s, following the company's decision to routinely destroy the documents after 10 years.
The paperwork she turned up confirmed that the Cougar was ordered on January 30, 1969 for 'Bond movie,' cost $4,792.90, left the factory on 6 February – six days ahead of schedule – and was registered in the UK on 13 February.
"The speed with which it went from the production line in Dearborn, Michigan to being registered in the UK means it must have been flown in for the film," explains the owner, who subsequently set about a meticulous, 30-year restoration of the car which has returned it to the exact condition in which it arrived at the Pinewood movie set.
During the restoration, he discovered the remains of two of its original build sheets beneath the carpets, revealing it to be an ultra-rare car in its own right – of the 100,085 Cougars built in 1969, it was one of just 127 convertible examples to be fitted with the 428ci (seven-litre, a $336.80 option) Cobra Jet engine, one of 16 to have been painted Candy Apple red, one of eight trimmed in dark red leather, one of just three with an electric roof – and the only one in such specification to also leave the factory with ‘hood pins’.
During his three decades of ownership, he stripped the car back to its bare bones and had the body and chassis sand-blasted and acid-dipped to remove any corrosion before carefully re-assembling everything, using as many original parts as possible – and travelling to America on no fewer than seven occasions in search of other, elusive Cougar components.
As a final touch, he even recreated the correct red 'French visitor' licence plates and added a period ski rack and some of the very same vintage Kneissl White Star skis that are seen on the Cougar (and another clone) throughout the chase scenes and inside the barn.
And now it’s ready for a new mission – assuming, of course, that its new owner chooses to accept it...
An extended version of this article appears in the winter issue of Bonhams magazine.
Photos by Bonhams