Cougar Of A Lifetime: 1968 Mercury Cougar – A Half Century-Long Love Affair

This is me and my 1968 Cougar circa winter 1974 at the top of Mt. Soledad in San Diego. You can tell it is winter as I am wearing a coat rather than my typical shorts and Hawaiian shirt.


In April 1968 my father was in need of a car as he was about to leave the Carnation Milk Company, in Los Angeles, and had to part with his red 1967 Fury III company car. My father started with Carnation back before I was born in 1953 and through them went from Long Island, to Bogota NJ, to Catonsville MD, and to Canoga Park CA where he left. His new job was in San Diego with Westgate California under C. Arnolt Smith.

The month of April was spent looking at cars and I went along for the hunt. He looked at the Porsche 912, the Volvo 1800, the Mercedes 250 I believe, the 1968 Ford Mustang GT-CS in Lime Frost, and the 1968 Mercury Cougar in Sea Foam Green. The Cougar apparently won out for reasons I do not know.

The car was sitting in the center of the showroom and I clearly recall sitting in the car while he made the purchase. After that we moved to San Diego in June and he started his new job. Westgate also paid him for the car and it was now a company car. The great thing about Westgate was that the owner, Smith, owned the San Diego Padres and I could get as many free tickets as I wanted from 1969-72 when my father left. In their very first game I managed to snag my first and only foul ball. It was also one of the few balls they even managed to hit the whole game.

Onto the car which my father parked out on the street in front of the house. The garage was full of boxes and my mother parked her 1968 Satellite wagon in the driveway. There was easily enough room but he put it on the street. Now when the weather cooled down a bit my father ran into his first problem with the car. He could never get the engine to start smoothly in the morning. Between the automatic choke and the Autolite 4300 he always managed to flood the engine. When started plumes of black smoke was the result. Consequently it became my task to start the car in the morning as he drove me to high school before continuing onto work. Of course, I had no problems. This went on every morning. I have no photos from his ownership.

Now the year is 1969 and being at a Catholic High School, without driver’s training, I had to take a night class at the local public school called Patrick Henry. Our behind the wheel was also conducted at night in a 1967 Dodge Dart. My first drive ever was on a dark and rainy night just like Snoopy talks about. All the lights reflected off the wet road so much that I couldn’t see the lines on the road. On my drive around the neighborhood I went off one way while the lines of the road went the other way. The instructor quickly got me back in the right direction. The only other time I had a question was on driving down Texas Street, from the top of the Mesa to the bottom of Mission Valley and Highway 8. I asked if I should simply coast. Yeah, right at a 70 mph terminal speed.

December is now around the corner and I turn 16 on the 18th. I have been collecting  the Motor Trend yearly car summary. They are somewhere around here. Of course, I was thinking of a Mustang yet my father had another idea. He thought I should drive the Cougar and he would make it happen by buying it back from Westgate. It ended up costing $2000 for a 16 month old car with 25,000 miles.

I was going to pay $100 a month for the car while he took care of the insurance. Gas and oil was on me. I was to start a job as a merchandising sales rep in January 1970. It would be 15 hours a week, after school, and covered most all the major supermarkets in all of San Diego County from Oceanside to San Ysidro. There would be weekends when store remodels or section resets took place. I was to be paid $5 per hour along with mileage for my car. This meant no jeans and T-shirts to school but khakis and a button down dress shirt with tie in the car. Yep, I am a 16 year old calling on a Safeway store manager. Well my best friend’s mother always said I was so well dressed for a teenager.

So I take possession of the car on December 18, 1969 and what is the first thing I do? I clear out the garage to park the Cougar inside while my father now parks his 1970 Olds 98 company car on the street. I also got Anson mag wheels, white lettered wide ovals and an 8 track player in the week after that. I know what is important. First 8 tracks were Led Zeppelin and the Grass Roots. Before I forget here is a picture, of the still original spare tire in the car. You can see remnants of where I hand painted the letters on the whitewalls, at the age of 14, as they were just coming into vogue.

Now I can drive to school, go to work, and drive home on my own from wherever in the county. The only hitch was my first traffic ticket and it took only 10 days just down the street from my house. I left the house on Saturday 7:30 am to take the SAT test and a police radar car was on the next street. I was going 38 in a 30 mph zone. I had to go with my mother and see the Judge personally. Yes, Judge it won’t happen again. What also didn’t happen again was a police car ever being on the street again.

First accident was a month later in January when a woman driving a 1966 Galaxie made a left turn in front of me. Nowhere to go and no time to brake and so I hit her in the passenger front fender at about 30-35 mph. The knife edge of my fender cut into hers, popped her hood open, and knocked the battery out of the car. I had my seat and shoulder belts on which I hit forcefully with my glasses flying off into the windshield. The car was repaired and given a complete paint job which I rejected when I first saw the car. Bolts missing from the fender apron, hood latch upside down, and paint over spray all over the rear suspension. That had to be all corrected. Have a photo of the scene which I see once every 10 years in a box. It was a scene as a Continuation High School just let out at 3:30 pm.

My first issue with the car, in 1972, was when the C4 transmission wouldn’t shift from 2-3. I diagnosed the problem, got the correct parts from Ford, and had a local Shell dealer put it in. Never a problem since and the car is at 103,000 miles now. Now to balance all those firsts I can say I had my first date in this car and my first kiss in this car.

By the end of 1972 the Cougar has put on another 40,000 miles due to my job. I got it at 25,000 miles. Then the stroke of luck that changed everything happened and saved the car. My employer wanted to give me a company car which I could use for everything.

Ok, nowhere near as flashy as the Cougar, and it was an automatic but it was free. No more miles on my Cougar and all gas and oil paid for. The truly ironic thing is that I have had three speeding tickets in my early life and two of them were in this car.

The Cougar now went into hibernation at the condo my parents bought on Mt. Soledad after they moved to the Orinda in June 1972. Now with the Cougar off the road I was able to use the Ford Muscle Parts Book to treat my car to a Stage 1 level of intake, Holley 4 bbl now, Crane Fireball camshaft, heads pocket ported, and headers. The interesting thing here is that when I assembled the engine back into the car after the machine work I dropped the distributor hold down bolt through the opening. Into the engine it went where there was a windage tray in the way. I was so mad I picked up a baseball bat, everyone left the garage, and I beat on the intake in great anger. Plink! The bolt fell into the oil pan where it stayed till 2010.

That combination above was not great for torque and low speeds but on the freeway the car was a terror. So much so that one day my friend Alex, in his 1972 Mustang Fastback with a 351C-4V and four speed, and me in my Cougar raced up Mt Soledad Mountain Rd at 70 mph, in a 35 zone one day, and attracted a SDPD motorcyle officer. We entered the condo complex via two different routes. Alex took the direct, I took the indirect, and as Alex was coming down to the right turn I saw the officer trailing him. Oh oh! Well no turning around so we parked and the officer lit into us. However, he didn’t give us a ticket but a warning as he said this was a mandatory lose your license if a ticket. I still have it in the glove box very faded.

Circa 1974

Time has now marched onto September 1977 and I must now leave my favorite place, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, for Berkeley and Graduate School. That meant the end of my company cars which included a 1973 Audi Fox auto, a 1974 Plymouth Duster with the 225 slant six ( I really liked that car) and a 1976 Chevrolet Nova with the 250 six. It also meant leaving the beach I had spent so many years on where I would body surf. Still have my Churchill fins, from 1973, in the trunk today as seen above. Also my hang out was right there in front of World Famous from 1971-77 and when I came back on vacation from 1978-81. I can see the spot.

I was now living back at home as home was six miles from the Cal campus. The Cougar went into the garage as my mother had gotten a new 1978 BMW 320i which left the 1974 Audi 100LS without a driver. That became my car till 1980 when I got a 1980 Civic Wagon. I exited grad school in May 1981 and started practicing in September that year. The Cougar pretty much remained in hibernation from 1984 through till 1991. Mainly because it needed to be smogged and so needed to pass emissions and visual. I couldn’t pass visual so I couldn’t register the car.

Consequently she fell out of the system and when the no smog prior to 1975 law was passed I could put here on the road again legally. Actually she was on a bit earlier through subterfuge as in faking the visual at a friends garage. Being out of the system meant I needed the new white plates with seven digits now and not my original black plates. The DMV asked for them and I refused to turn them over to them. In 1998 I was able to bluff my way past a DMV employee and get the black plates reinstated before the YOM law was ever passed. Cost me $46.

This is the first Stray Cats car show in 1994 and you can see no front plate. Have never used one as I liked the clean look. The original black front plate is safely stored in case I get a fix-it ticket. Have only had one issued in 49 years.

By 2010 it was time for new tires and the need to go to a 15″ wheel. I also decided it was time to go back to what I first had in 1969. Just so you know I do have the original turbine car covers and all other original engine parts in my garage.

In 2012 I saw that the heads needed to be rebuilt and decided to buy Dart heads with larger valves to go with a new cam. Well that was a mistake as the car was worse off performance wise. I should have known better. In 2016 I then made the decision to have the original J Code heads rebuilt. They needed 16 new bronze guides and 16 new hardened seats. At the same time I ported the exhaust to remove the Thermactor slug of metal that blocked 25% of the exhaust port.

The engine has a new camshaft in and I am setting up to check the timing while waiting for the rebuilt heads which take 4 months at my shop. I don’t mind as there is no rush and they give me a great price considering the work needed.

This above picture was taken on the 5th. Now lest one think I always know what I am doing with and engine, even though I have done four, there were issues here. First drive in May the #7 spark plug worked it’s way out while on a freeway test drive. Do you know what that sounds like? Last month while running the engine in the garage I noticed a water leak directly under the fan. Darn, I need to reseal the water pump. Uh, no I need to actually use a gasket to begin with. I did a few test drives without a gasket and very little water loss. Still the car ran so so and I thought it could do better.

The valves could also use a tad more adjustment so I start on the driver’s side. I take the wires off and then stop in my tracks. Wait, why is 7 on 5, 5 on 6, 6 on 7 and 8 on 8? I brought 7 through the first slot in the wire retainer as Ford suggests because 7 and 8 fire one after the other. Only I screwed up by not putting it on 7. I amazed it ran and ran on a road. With it done right the car now starts instantly and has settled down. Finally the car is ready to go back on the road after two years.

The original interior as of today. Note my Puka shell necklace from 1973 hanging on the mirror. The lambswool seat cover from New Zealand bought by my mother in 1974.

In the center compartment there are my record books covering 1970-1974 the car’s most active years. Also two unused stamps with a face value of 5 and 6 cents.

I have thought over the last 6 years about repainting the entire car but have decided to leave her as is but I need to put the pinstripes back on. Note here that San Diego State was a state college in 1971 when I started. Didn’t become San Diego State University until my second year 1972. So you see the decal I put on in 1971.

Today the car has been mine for 49 years while I have been associated with it for 50 1/2 years. I expect it will be with me for another 25 years at least. So it will truly be the car of my lifetime.

Hopefully I’ll duplicate this photo 25 years from now, at the three quarters of a century mark, standing just like this.