Car number nine on my “Great 28” list was built by a company without any salient historic aim or goals; however, it was a “renaissance car” on its own terms. The ’64 and ’65 Comets may have been the pinnacle of Lincoln-Mercury advertising, and even if it wasn’t the most successful sales-wise, one could argue that it was perhaps the high point of the Mercury brand itself.
I’ve always liked Mercury as a brand, but it would be a lie to say that it had a personality of its own (most of the time). After all, the Mercury car itself often vacillated between “Premium Ford” and “Junior Lincoln” status, which is one reason why we speak of Mercury in the past tense. For example, this 1959 Mercury skewed Lincoln, using a MEL 383 (neat and weird, I know) and even a Lincoln 430 in the Park Lane models.
A scant two years later, however, Mercury bodies were Ford-based and engines differed nary a whit from the ones offered down the street at the Ford dealership. The Mercury Meteor above was obviously a Ford Fairlane with some Mercury dust sprinkled on it, which fooled the public not at all. In a harbinger of things to come (much later), the Meteor lasted only two years.
Even the full-size Mercs from 1961 to 1964 (a ’64 pictured here) were simply Ford Galaxies with a side of flamboyance (this wagon is beautiful though, isn’t it?). There are very few Mercury models to which one can point and say “Now that’s a Mercury.” One is the ’49-’51 “Bathtub” Merc (although the Lincolns of that year were similar).
The other, in my opinion, is the 1964/1965 Mercury Comet. Without a Mustang equivalent (until the Cougar came around in ’67), Mercury was forced to make the Comet its own. And I think the advertising department and product planners made the difference with this car. Although it ostensibly was a slightly bigger Falcon with more Mustang-like engine options, it exuded a far racier image.
Mercury significantly revised the Comet for 1964, making it the performance nameplate of the company by way of the new “Cyclone” model. It immediately endeavored to endow its new model with a performance reputation. First, it sent five Comet hardtops to Daytona for a 100,000 mile endurance run.
These four Comets were identically prepared with 289 High-Performance engines, four-speed transmissions, and a full interior (including radios to stave off driver boredom). Other than NASCAR safety equipment, they were stock. Four of the five cars finished the 100,000 mile run, breaking numerous records in the process. They averaged roughly 105 MPH for 40 days and 40 nights.
Car number five also finished the run, but needed a single valve spring replacement at just above 75,000 miles; therefore, it was technically disqualified from any potential record-making. This kind of PR stunt sounds fun, but driving six-hour shifts for 40 days must have been quite a strain on drivers and crew, who managed to knock out 35 second pit stops with regularity. It was worth it for the brand, because Mercury got a lot of mileage (har har) from the Daytona endurance run.
Mercury didn’t stop there. They sent six Comets to Africa for the notoriously punishing Safari Rally, where only 21 cars of the 94 car field even finished (two were Comets).
The crew even wore these cool t-shirts; I bought this one from a guy a few years back at the drag races. His dad was somehow involved in the program, and he reproduced their shirts. I wish I would have bought a spare!
image courtesy of Hemmings blog
One could argue that Mercury was simply trying to establish a reputation via rallying in a way that the very successful Monte Carlo Falcons did the same year (finishing second). The Safari, however, was quite possibly the most unforgiving rally in the world, and Mercury’s relative lack of success in the event ensured that it was a one-off experiment. Somehow, the Falcon never really enjoyed the same image boost from rallying that the Comet did from its motorsports endeavors, probably thanks to the advent of the Mustang.
Of course, Mercury ensured that Comets maintained a presence on America’s dragstrips as well. The ’64 A/FX Comets were 427 “High-Riser” propelled, and shoed by drivers such as Ronnie Sox and “Dyno” Don Nicholson. Dearborn Steel Tubing assembled 21 A/FX Comets for ’64 (including one station wagon for Dyno Don).
In ’65, the 427 “Cammer” found its way under the hood of some cars (or in the case of Jack Chrisman’s Comet, under the cowl with a 25 percent engine setback). Later Comets would become even more wild, like the GT-1 Cyclone pictured behind the ’65 Comet.
As far as the appearance of the 1965 model is concerned, Mercury abandoned the electric shaver grille for GM-aping stacked headlights and Buickesque portholes. It seems like most pundits considered it an improvement, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To recapture that Daytona magic, Mercury sent Comets to the tip of Cape Horn in South America, where they began a 16,000 mile run to Fairbanks, Alaska. In 1965, Mercury broke from their ’64 tradition by using painted images capturing their Comets involved in myriad adventures. In 1965, most automakers (except Pontiac) were doing the exact opposite.
Fran Hernandez (who was involved with the Cape Horn to Fairbanks run, and passed away in 2011) has a bunch of archival photographs posted on his Facebook page, which his family now maintains (here). Great stuff!
The Comet brochure for 1965 also showcased the Fitz/Van style, exhibiting exquisitely drawn Comets in unlikely social situations. After all, who wouldn’t take a Comet two-door sedan to a black tie party and park it out front at a jaunty angle?
In the end, none of Mercury’s advertising blitz matters much to me, because my Dirty Dart loving heart fancies a wagon, a white Villager with Di-Noc sides just like the one pictured in the Ford Motor Company brochure. I don’t need a Cyclone touching 120 MPH down the backstraight. I’ll take a sedate 289-2V parked at a pastoral picnic. Considering my love for automotive art, it’s intriguing that my Comet dream was sparked by a traditional photograph in an old brochure that my dad had lying around.
It’s too bad that my dream is an unlikely one. Fewer than 1600 ’65 Villagers saw the light of day, making my finding one nearly outside the realm of possibility. Nevertheless, I feel like a Comet and I will find each other someday. In the meantime, it’s just another car on a car guy’s list.
On the other hand, it’s no surprise that I want a Comet at all. The motoring press almost universally praised it as a nice-looking performance machine with decent driving characteristics. It proved itself around the world as a strong, reasonably fast car. It had an image, which is something that Mercury attempted to propagate for the rest of its existence, and was never quite as successful.