My fondness for the basic, Plain Jane automobile started at the age of seven when my father bought his first new car, a 1962 Mercury Comet.
My father Joe grew up in a border area between Poland and the Ukraine. He had dreams of being a carpenter which ended when the German army rolled into the hamlet in 1943 and ordered all young men over the age of 16 to join their ranks. His service nearly ended in a mortar blast in Germany where he was wounded with a broken jaw and shrapnel to the to the arm. Perhaps that’s also how he lost part of his ring finger (he never clearly explained how that happened). Moments after the attack he stumbled onto a road and was picked up by a couple of German officers who took him to a medical facility for treatment.
Sometime during his recovery word came that the Soviet Army was moving west so my father fled not wanting to encounter those forces and perhaps risk execution or imprisonment in the eastern Soviet Union. Thankfully he made it to the American lines where I believe he was jailed for a time and then released once the Americans learned he was from eastern Poland. Dad spoke very highly of the American GI’s and we used to have a picture of him hamming it up with them. Sadly, that pic is gone. But there is one of him on a horse near the American compound. Dad through whatever channels gained documents to come to Canada after 1946, although Brazil was an option, but he had a job in Ontario as a woodcutter and so the decision was easy. He feared going back to his home not sure if there would be repercussions for fighting against the Soviets.
He eventually made it to Edmonton, married mom and three years later I came along. Life started in a central Edmonton boarding house where the rent was free in exchange for mother for cleaning the entire house. Dad by then had a good job as a labourer with the City of Edmonton. Frugal living got them a small two bedroom bungalow in the Forest Heights neighbourhood complete with single car garage and white picket fence. About 800 square feet for around $8,000. No car, that would not happen until the spring of 1962 after Dad learned to drive. The house had to be paid off first which it was. I remember my father saying the Comet sedan cost him $2700.00. It was either Sea Blue or Light Aqua with a black and white cloth and vinyl interior. No carpeting just a black floor mat. If I think for a moment, I can still remember the aroma of the floor mat and the new car smell of the vinyl seats.
I can’t remember if the Comet had whitewall tires at the time. No wheel covers, just hubcaps. The little 170 cubic inch straight six was coupled to a 3-speed manual transmission. Dad paid for plastic seat covers, a driver’s side mirror mounted on the fender and a thick black undercoating which over time proved itself in preserving the underside of the little sedan through many Canadian winters. He did not order a radio, that would come later from the Simpson Sears automotive department where the mechanic would mount it under the instrument panel.
The little Comet was built in Ford’s Oakville, Ontario plant and offered our family the freedom to travel everywhere. My parents enjoyed travel by car whether to a rural area east of Edmonton where my grandparents and other relatives lived or to Calgary (only two lanes at that time) or to the mountains surrounding the resort town of Banff. Yes, it wheezed up some mountain passes particularly in British Columbia. The Comet let us down only once outside Medicine Hat blowing a water pump. Dad always carried a gallon of water in the trunk so once the radiator cooled, he poured in the gallon and we returned to the “Hat” and a gas station to have the water pump replaced the next day.
Two long highway trips were made to Ontario in the east to visit Dad’s old friends. Once in the summer of 1965 where we cut through Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario spending the night on the US side of the border. This was quite an eye opener for ten-year-old me. Free glasses and dishes at the gas pumps, pretty girls, cars that I had never seen back home (Wide-Track Pontiacs, strange looking Chrysler models, Opels). The same trip was duplicated in 1967 Canada’s Centennial year. But unfortunately, my father was not keen on driving to Montreal for Expo 67. Never during those trips did the little sedan let us down. I remember my father saying the car averaged around 27mpg on the highway. We stayed in motels, ate in a variety of cafes and restaurants and Dad would always chat it up with someone when filling up with gas. The only time I recall being bored was driving from Manitoba across Saskatchewan and back home to Edmonton. A lot of wheat fields and not much else.
When the Comet reached around 80,000 miles the head gasket blew one summer morning as we were heading out to visit Mom’s relatives. A family friend repaired it and my father came to realize that after eight years it might be time to buy another car. In 1970, he stepped up to a Cutlass Supreme four door hardtop.
The Comet became the “work’ car and once I obtained my license at age sixteen, occasional transportation. That came to a sudden end one winter Sunday afternoon in 1971 in a shopping centre parking lot. Back then stores were closed on Sunday and me, a friend and a couple of other pals thought it would be fun to do donuts and slide around on the icy parking lot. Then I came around the back of a Dominion grocery store and lost control slamming into a brick wall of the store at over 15 mph. Restyled the front end rupturing the radiator in the process. Dad was not impressed and although not badly damaged, he refused to repair the Comet. It was sold to the father of my friend who operated a small car lot in a rundown area of Edmonton.
Bugs me to this day I ruined a perfectly good car that might have been in the family even to this day. The Comet had been well cared for and always garaged until the Cutlass joined the family. Sorry Dad; Happy Fathers Day.