COAL #13: One Last Mercury Caliente Story: Cross-Country Comet Capers

Before we leave my first car in the metaphorical Curbside Classic dust, it may be worth relating some snippets of cross-country adventures successfully completed during my college years at Art Center. (Don’t worry,  further art-school reminiscences are forthcoming.)

One such cross-country odyssey, made during a holiday-season three-week semester break, included two of my fellow Transportation Design students who played key supporting roles throughout the trip.

We departed from Los Angeles early on a sunny Friday afternoon, after having scored a loaf of white bread, a bottle of ranch dressing, and a roll of paper towels at a local supermarket. Gourmets may scoff, but what better provisions for a trio of starving art students to bring along on a 3,000-mile journey, especially since we didn’t want to waste valuable time stopping to eat along the way?

Road food for starving art students.


We also didn’t want to spend money on overnight motel stays, since we were trying to maximize our R&R time with families and friends over Christmas ’71 and New Year’s. Our plan -we were young and foolish, after all- was to drive the entire length of the country in one straight shot, turning off the Comet’s ignition only while stopping to refuel.

Once we left L.A.’s multiple rock-oriented AM radio offerings, the listening alternatives became somewhat more limited. Our on-the-road protocol went something like this: The front-seat passenger’s duty was to ensure that the driver remained awake and coherent. This mostly involved providing commentary on the Art Center semester just ended along with design critiques of passing vehicles. Just as important, the shotgun-seat occupant was the driver’s designated feeder, supplying him with enough white bread-and-ranch-dressing sandwiches to keep him reasonably satisfied. (The rear-seat occupant was generally tasked with the assembly of said sandwiches.)

As night fell, we soldiered onward, the only difference being that the rear-seat passenger attempted to catch a bit of shut-eye while those in front tried to keep each other relatively awake and alert.

The only memorable mechanical malady on this mid-winter trip manifested itself in stages as we traveled through the plains states on a frigid winter evening. At first, we detected a vague aroma of coolant in the passenger compartment, never a good sign. Despite that, we elected to press on for as long as possible, finally turning off the heater and defroster in a vain attempt to reduce the leakage. As we pressed on, traces of the sticky-sweet coolant mix began to coat the inside of the windshield, immediately freezing and thus obscuring our forward vision.

We blocked off the Comet’s defroster outlets and attempted to clear the windshield while driving, swiping it awkwardly (and continuously) with one paper towel after another. Now driving at a somewhat reduced velocity, we eventually reached the point where we were exiting the interstate at every opportunity, looking for a spot to grab some warming cups of coffee (which then necessitated frequent human pit stops). I’m probably speaking for all three of us when I say that I never again hope to endure such miserable, bone-chilling cold, whether behind the wheel or not.

Near the Continental Divide, before the heater core incident…


Finally, by the grace of whoever is the patron saint of cold, tired, and foolish travelers, on one of our off-interstate excursions we passed a Ford dealer in the sleepy hamlet of Oakley, Kansas in the wee hours of the morning. Parking the Comet near the dealership’s service entrance, we tried to catch some very fitful sleep until they opened for business the next morning.

The service tech correctly diagnosed our issue as a pinhole leak in the Caliente’s heater core, which required removing the dash pad and several other assemblies to access.

The culprit, exposed…


I accompanied the tech to the local radiator shop, where the heater core was repaired, successfully pressure-tested, and ready for re-installation. Repair completed, the parts, labor, and sublet heater core work amazingly totaled less than $15.00! Our newly-enhanced driving comfort, however?  Priceless.

The dealership tech drove an Econoline pickup like this one. Source: Motorbiscuit


Oh, and our cross-country trip wasn’t just one straight shot; it included a side trip of about 200 miles to John’s folks place in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where we enjoyed a most welcome home-cooked dinner. The adventure also extended to Oceanside, New York, where Jeff then abandoned the Mercury for the comforts of home, leaving me to head back to northern NJ solo.

The ’71-’72 holidays provided some welcome time at home and a chance to decompress after the first semester of college (and after the rigors of the road trip). My next westward trip would be made in the Comet’s replacement…