Curbside Classic: 1971 Mercury Comet – Not a Baby Lincoln

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I remember when the Mercury Marquis started to become popular. A friend of my father bought a new one in 1969.  As my father admired it, his friend said, proudly, “It’s a baby Lincoln”, and he wasn’t far off.  The ’69 Marquis was a step up from the Mercurys of old that everyone recognized as gussied-up Fords.  Coming on the heels of the ultra-successful Cougar, it indicated that Mercury finally seemed to be finding its way out of the long, dark wilderness.  Sure, Mercurys shared basic Ford platforms, but their Ford roots were skillfully hidden under well-styled sheetmetal and luxurious interiors.  And then came the Comet.  Two steps forward, then one step back.  Or was it three?

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The original Mercury Comet (CC here) was not initially conceived as a Mercury, but actually made a pretty decent one.  On a longer wheelbase than the Falcon, and with very different sheetmetal and more deluxe interiors, it was certainly a step up from the new compact found down the street at the Ford dealer.  By 1966, the Comet had morphed into a mid-size car, leaving Lincoln-Mercury dealers without anything in the compact segment.  With FoMoCo working so hard to move Mercury upmarket, this was probably not such a bad thing; after all, very few Buick, Olds and Cadillac salesmen had to peddle Novas–at least before the ’70s.

One of these things is not like the others . . .

One of these things is not like the others . . .

So the 1966-70 Falcon came and went without a version ever crossing the threshold of a L-M showroom, where both Cougars and Continentals flourished.  But the blissful oasis of style and class found at L-M stores would soon be crashed by the arrival of Ford-clones like the 1971 Comet.

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The 1970 Maverick (CC here) was Ford’s answer to, well, I’m still not sure.  It was too big to be a VW fighter, and was hopelessly outclassed on the higher end by Chevy’s more substantial Nova and Plymouth’s superior Valiant.  But as an inexpensive and simple American car, it was pretty successful.  The 1971 addition of a Maverick four-door to the Ford lineup also brought a thinly disguised Mercury version called–what else–Comet.

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Total badge-engineering?  That would come a few years later, with the Monarch and the Zephyr.  At least the Comet got its own Mercury-ish hood (complete with power bulge) and taillights from the Montego.

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OK, there was also that attempt to replicate the aura of the classic ’60s Continentals with chrome-tipped fender ridges and rocker panels (optional at extra cost).  Unfortunately, the look did not really translate.

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’71 Comet brochure (left) vs. ’71 Maverick brochure (right). The upscale Mercury comes without Cub Scouts.

Inside and underneath, the Comet was indistinguishable from the Maverick: same running gear, same chintzy interiors.  Shown above are the optional interiors, mind you.  Really?  We can’t even get a glove box in this little Lincoln?  Really, it’s sad to think of all the hard work to create the aura of “The Sign of the Cat” being flushed down the toilet with this slightly-less-cheap Ford.

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This particular example alone almost makes my point.  Though it is certainly a Mercury, it was Found On the Road Dead.  Did it just run out of gas?  From the looks of what’s inside, perhaps it simply ran out of oil.  I can just hear its owner muttering, “Why the hell didn’t Grandma buy a Dart?”  In addition to life-giving fluids, this one could also use some cleaning up.  Dare I suggest Comet cleanser?  I wonder if anyone named Halley ever went out and bought one of these?  They certainly should have.  I’ll stop with the stupid Comet jokes.  But admit it – doesn’t this version of the Comet deserve them all?

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I will go on record as saying that this generation of Comet is my favorite Maverick.  I liked the nose and tail treatment of this car better than the Ford version (at least on the 4-door models), and this early model was fairly attractive before the fitment of the chrome-plated snowplow blades that passed for bumpers in 1973-74.  And while this car is certainly not as exciting (if I may use that word) as the  1972 Comet GT found by Paul Niedermeyer  (CC here), this basic black Comet sedan has at least a shred of Lincolnesque elegance about it.  At least I’m trying to talk myself into seeing it.  Not working for you?  Me neither.

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I think the best we can do is to identify this car as Mercury’s final tipping point–that place in history where Ford Motor Company threw up its hands and gave up on the brand.  It’s a good thing the Continental Mark IV was generating lots of cash for L-M dealers, because this car started the slow leak of what little amount of prestige Mercury had been able to generate by then.  Sure, there was a certain expedience that the Comet (and the even more-cynical Bobcat) provided in the way of volume following the Arab oil embargo, but smaller Mercurys would never again be mistaken as anything other than Fords sold through an alternate dealer network.

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I guess we could think of this Comet as one of the last Mercurys able to give its owner even the tiniest illusion that they did something worthwhile by buying a Ford at their Lincoln-Mercury dealer.  But a baby Lincoln it ain’t.