Rumors have persisted for years that Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury brand is headed toward Boot Hill, joining such other once-stalwarts as Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn and Plymouth.

Ford insiders say Mercury is absent from Ford's future new-product portfolio. The venerable Grand Marquis is being phased out, and Ford has chosen not to spin off a Sable version of its all-new '10 Taurus.

But J Mays, Ford group vice president design and chief creative officer, hints there may yet be life for Mercury.

Standing near show models of the upcoming ‘11 subcompact Ford Fiesta and ‘12 compact Focus, Mays declines to comment on whether there will be Mercury versions of the cars.

“Mercury is a good complement to Ford (brand) cars,” he says in regards to the brand's future, citing the Milan as an example.

The Mercury marque has a decidedly low profile at this year's show. No concept cars and only four vehicles on display: the Mountaineer SUV, Mariner Hybrid, Milan Hybrid and standard Milan sedan.

Mercury has been a Ford mainstay for more than 70 years. It was introduced to compete with mid-price General Motors Co. as an upscale version of the Ford brand.

Dropping Mercury would leave the company's Lincoln-Mercury dealers bereft of a lower-cost offering, unless Ford chooses to attach the Lincoln nameplate to a more moderately priced vehicle.

Mark Fields, Ford's president-Americas, says Mercury remains “important,” but in a lesser role than before.

“It used to be that Mercury was the volume piece of Lincoln-Mercury,” he tells Ward's. “We've decided Lincoln will be that now. Our focus is to winnow down the Mercury lineup, concentrating on the Mariner, Milan and a C-based product.”

A few years ago, talk at Ford headquarters centered on a proposal to market Mercury as a brand specifically for women. However that proposal died a quick death.

There now is talk Ford is looking at rationalizing its retail organization into 1-stop points for all brands, something current Lincoln-Mercury dealers likely would oppose. Lacking Mercury, however, obviously would weaken their competitiveness.