Still, Mercury leaves behind a history peppered with compelling and even innovative cars that at once conveyed a clear message: based on Fords, but better. Depending on the year and the car, better could have meant any combination of bigger, more stylish, more powerful or more luxurious. Pairing Mercury with the Lincoln franchise after World War II underscored the theme of what is today called entry-level luxury.

Ford’s name for its new division naturally conjured up allusions of the speedy messenger to the gods from ancient mythology, for many years depicted in the company’s logo with a winged helmet. It also represented business or financial success; for many, buying a Mercury flaunted upward mobility.

John Baumann of Holland, Mich., grew up with the brand. “My father sold Mercurys, so we always had them around,” said Mr. Baumann, who was a teenager when the first Mercury Cougar came out in 1967. Since then, he’s had eyes only for early Cougars, especially the 1969-70 convertibles. He owns five.

One of the most acclaimed Mercury designs, the first Cougar was based on Ford’s Mustang but offered a striking look of its own — a roomier, more luxurious interior and, its fans say, a smoother driving feel. But it was a success the company let go fallow.

“My sons drove Capris in the ’80s,” Mr. Baumann said. ”But there’s nothing there today for the next generation — my grandsons — sporty enough to drive in high school.”

Looking at the brand’s final models, it might be difficult to envision a time when a Mercury was cool enough for a high schooler. But Tom Austin remembers when it was. Four years ago, he bought a 1953 Mercury Monterey, a car that was still fairly hot in 1957 when, as a high school student, he co-wrote and recorded the hit song “Short Shorts” with the Royal Teens.

Now a real estate appraiser in Ramsey, N.J., Mr. Austin shares the old-car hobby with his two sons. Mr. Austin’s Mercury exemplified the brand’s blueprint for revving up a Ford model with flashier styling, a more powerful engine and a plusher interior. It was a formula that Ford used, in varying degrees, to create models for the step-up brand over its 71-year run.

The 1949-51 models, the brand’s first postwar redesign, were quickly successful — and their popularity proved durable. James Dean drove a ’49 coupe in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause,” scoring a lifetime of coolness points for Mercury.

In fact, those models were already an established canvas for customizers. The cars were called “lead sleds” for the copious amounts of lead used to fill seams and smooth body cuts.

The granddaddy of custom Mercs emerged from the shop of George and Sam Barris in 1952, built for a young Japanese-American, Bob Hirohata. The Barris brothers applied every trick in their book. They lowered the body and chopped its roof; they garnished it with parts from other cars, including taillights from a ’52 Lincoln and side chrome trim from a Buick.

Tasteful coupes and convertibles of the 1950s gave way to an overcooked brew of chrome, glitz and girth, typified by the Turnpike Cruiser of 1957. One of that model’s features, a power-retractable rear window, resurfaced on the unusual but popular 1963-66 Breezeway sedans.

From the mid-1960s, full-size Mercurys adopted Lincoln-influenced designs and ran with Ford’s top engines. On TV, the top cop of the original “Hawaii Five-O” series, Steve McGarrett, cracked crimes in a black ’68 Park Lane.

Even with its parent Ford deeply involved in racing, Mercury filled its own trophy case. In Nascar, Mercury had a strong presence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and A. J. Foyt racking up wins. In drag racing, specially built 1966 Comets were progenitors of the Funny Car class, while on American road courses, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and Ed Leslie made the Cougar competitive in the Trans-Am series.

In Mercury showrooms, the Cyclone and Cougar Eliminator muscle models stoked the performance image. As the Cougar began to grow into a model with luxury aspirations, Mercury turned to Ford’s German branch to lure younger buyers with the hot-selling Capri sports coupe in the 1970s (advertised as “the sexy European”).

Mercury tried to keep a sporty streak going: the Capri name bounced to a Mustang-based model and then to a small Australian-built, Mazda-powered convertible in the early ’90s; the Cougar badge later made a brief reprise on a small, front-wheel-drive sports coupe.

In 2003, Mercury revived the Marauder moniker for a performance-tuned Grand Marquis, but sold just 11,000 over two years. By then, the boundary between Ford and Mercury vehicles had all but vanished.

That line, though, was still clear when Gary Davis he bought a new 1970 Mercury Marauder X-100, a full-size coupe with a 429 cubic-inch V-8, for $5,100. He still owns it.

Mr. Davis caught the Mercury bug early. “One of my first car memories was going with my father in 1949 to shop for a new car,” he said. “He looked at Hudsons and Pontiacs and bought a Mercury.”

When Mr. Davis ordered the Marauder, a worker let him slip in to watch the car going down the assembly line.

“It was a dream to drive,” he said.

Mr. Davis had no takers when he tried to sell the thirsty Marauder in the 1980s, so he had it repainted and began driving it to weekend car shows. The interior is original, except for tiny teeth marks in the door trim left by his daughter decades ago as a 2-year-old.

In Massapequa, N.Y., Bob McMinn also credits his father with lighting the Mercury fire for him. “He had a ’55, and later a ’64 Comet,” said Mr. McMinn, an accountant who advertises his affection for the brand with a neon Mercury sign in the front window of his house. Eight of his 20 vehicles are Mercurys, from a ’46 woody wagon to a ’94 Capri.

The ’46 woody wagon is among the most valuable Mercury models today, with the best examples selling for more than $100,000. He bought his 20 years ago for $375, replacing its seized V-8 with a rebuilt engine from Ford.

Mr. McMinn bought his first Mercury in 1959, a ’54 two-door sedan. Today, he has a ’54, a ’56 and a ’57 in that same style, a cheaper alternative to the more popular pillarless hardtop models. What’s needed, he said, is more time to drive his cars — one thing he hopes to get when he retires.

Jori and Inka Rintamaki make the time now to drive their 14 Mercurys. In the summer, the couple treks to club meets, cruises and car shows near their home in Sumiainen, Finland, and in neighboring countries. Their Mercury collection includes two Marauder X-100s, a ’59 Monterey and a ’66 S-55 two-door hardtop, a fairly rare full-size coupe. Mr. Rintamaki’s daily driver is a ’98 Grand Marquis; his wife drives a ’96 Cougar XR7.

“I love Mercury styling,” Mr. Rintamaki said in an e-mail.

Last September, the couple made a pilgrimage to the annual James Dean Run in the actor’s hometown of Fairmount, Ind. Of the 2,000 cars that converged on the 1.5-square-mile town (population 2,700), 160 were 1949-51 Mercurys, according to Jerry Robbin, founder of the International Mercury Owners Association. And many of those, including Mr. Robbin’s car, were lead sleds.

The Rintamakis shipped two Mercurys for the event, a restored ’51 sedan and a customized ’50 M47 pickup truck that Mr. Rintamaki and a friend built. (In addition to selling pickups under its own brand, Ford also sold them as Mercurys in Canada in 1946-68.)

Mr. Baumann, the Cougar enthusiast from Michigan, said his father remained loyal to Mercury and drove a Grand Marquis. “I’m old enough to drive that car now, but I don’t like it,” he said.

More his style, he added, would have been something like the Mercury Messenger design study that made its debut at the Detroit auto show in 2003. With classic Cougar design cues and a Mustang V-8 under its long hood, the Messenger hinted at a sporty Mercury revival that never came.