The story begins in 1964 when my mother was working as a secretary for David Long, Northeast Regional Sales Manager for Ford Motor Company in Teterboro, N.J. She needed a new car to replace her aging 1953 Pontiac. Mr. Long directed her to the local Fette Ford dealership, who, he assured her, had the perfect car–a 1962 Mercury Comet S-22, just two years old and in really nice shape. My mother paid $1200 for it. This turned out to be one of the greatest transportation bargains of all time.
Driving the ’53 Pontiac was, in her words, “like driving a tank”–a slow and clumsy car that was now eleven years old. To her, the Comet was sleek, trim, sporty–easy to drive. Such an improvement over the tired old Pontiac.
In October of 1964, my mother married my father and they moved into an apartment in Chatham, N.J. So they now had two cars–the Comet and my father’s MG 1100. Two years later I was born, and the apartment was too small for a growing family. In 1967, they purchased a split-level home in Morris Plains, N.J.
Now I should point out that Mom and Dad were brought up in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II (with its rationing and shortages, and lack of money). This produces a certain kind of mindset which abhors debt and frivolous spending, and values bargains and making every dollar count. Coupons are clipped, and larger, important purchases are saved up for. (This is actually a reasonable, healthy way to live, but you won’t learn that from watching television.) My father is also a very mechanically-inclined, do-it-yourself type person who is able to fix broken appliances and do home maintenance projects by himself, without having to resort to calling “The Man”, i.e. a professional contractor or repair man. “The Man” is always referred to in derision, and is assumed to be a ham-fisted, incompetent-when-it-comes-to-the-details slob of low moral character who will overcharge and rip you off. (Sadly, in my own experience, I have found this description to be valid in too many cases.)
The years go by (as they always do) and my father commuted to work in his MG 2-door sedan, which was later replaced by an Opel GT (looks like a race car!) and then a Honda Civic. Meanwhile, Mom kept driving her Comet, using it for trips to the grocery store, Grandma’s house, and other little errands, and we took it on occasional short vacations. The Comet was kept in the garage, and when anything broke on it, Dad was able to make the repairs, keeping it out of the clutches of “The Man”. Luckily, it was a simple and easy car to work on, and it didn’t seem necessary to replace it with anything else.
Fast-forward to the 1980s. I am 16 1/2, and that means I’m taking Driver’s Education at school. I’m actually looking forward to the school day because at 2:00 I get to go out driving with Miss Burcher, the Driver’s Ed. teacher. This is the first time I have ever driven any car. The school used an early ’80s Dodge or Plymouth K-car two-door sedan. It was exciting and great fun to go out and just drive up and down random highways and back roads, for “practice”. But eventually Driver’s Ed. was over and I needed my own car.
I think part of the reason my parents held on to the Comet for so long was because it was assumed that I might “inherit” it as my first car. I encouraged this because I had a fascination with cars of the 1950s and early ’60s. And I knew it was a special Comet, an S-22 with bucket seats and lots of deluxe touches. I liked the fact that it had some of the ’50s “swoosh” with its triple jet tail lights from the ’60 Continental Mark V, fins like the 57-58 Fords, and a deluxe steering wheel and horn ring lifted straight from a 57-58 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser or Park Lane (round, not flat on top).
Now at this time in my short, one-month driving career, I was unaware of “differences” between cars in terms of the way they drove. My only frame of reference was the nearly new K-car I had test-piloted. When I got behind the wheel of Mom’s Comet for the first time, “Whoa–What IS this?!” The accelerator responded numbly with lots of valve clatter and noise, but little power. The manual steering felt loose and bathed in goo. Manual brakes were hard to push. Meanwhile, Mom had graduated to a brand-new Volkswagen Quantum station wagon. Was THIS what I had to look forward to? I mean, if Mom thought this Comet was “peppy” and “sporty”, I can’t imagine what a sluggish beast that ’53 Pontiac must have been!
Well, it’s amazing what a few little tweaks can do to make things better. With Dad’s help and advice, I did the following: adjusted the valves to get rid of the clatter; applied some kind of patching material to silence the exhaust manifold leaks; adjusted the brakes (so they now felt like power brakes); advanced the timing (for more power); plugged holes in the firewall and added more insulation; installed radial tires; and last but not least, applied lots of bondo to repair rear fender rust and used a cookie sheet and some roofing tar to patch a big rust hole in the front floor (passenger side). I also polished every tiny surface of that fantastic chrome speedometer so it shined and sparkled in the sun with the brilliance of a multi-faceted cut diamond!
As anyone who starts driving a different car knows, “You get used to it.” The improvements made it a pleasant cruiser in the Eisenhower/Kennedy vein, but it was still pretty slow, what with its small 6 cylinder engine and smooth but power-robbing “Comet Drive” automatic transmission. But sometimes style and charisma means more than speed. I was driving a genuine American classic from the “Golden Era”, and friends and people I’d meet thought it was a unique and nostalgic car that was by that time rarely seen. The late ’50s-early ’60s were a lost, antediluvian, but not too distant era which still resonated in pop culture–and it brought forth warm, cozy feelings and associations with “American Graffiti”, “Happy Days”, and re-runs of “The Andy Griffith Show”. Those I let take a turn at the wheel were amazed by the smoothness of way it drove, and how solidly everything was made, with no cheesy plastics and fake wood grain, which were so common in the ’80s.
“Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end” my father says. So it was with the Comet. In 1989, I got T-boned at an intersection. Bondo, it turns out, doesn’t have much impact resistance, and it all got blown out. The car was still drivable, but I sold it to my boss (who wanted to hot-rod it) for $200. That never happened, and he sold it to another young kid. I never thought I’d see it again, but once when I was driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood–there it was! Stuffed back at the far end of a driveway, I took one last look. It was covered with surface rust, which I always kept at bay with frequent polishing. I opened the door, sat down in that familiar seat, and stepped on the brake pedal–which went straight to the floor! At that point, I knew it was hopeless.
The sun sets, but then it rises again. I had to get a new car. I bought this Mercedes, offered for sale by a fairly wealthy South American gentleman in town who owned several really nice cars. A 1972 model 250, with the larger 2.8 liter engine, and only 41,000 miles. It was superior to that old Comet in nearly every way–power, handling, solidity, and especially prestige! There’s something about saying, “Yes, I drive a Mercedes.” Plus, having that shining three-pointed star leading the way–mounted on that chromed, neo-classical grille! I would go on to drive that Mercedes for the next nine years. But that’s another story–stay tuned!