COAL: 1961 Comet – Not Nearly As Bad As I Expected

A 1961 Comet Four Door Sedan - Not Its Best Side

(first posted 5/15/2016)     When we left off in the third edition of this COAL saga, it was March 1966, I was newly married, was about three months shy of getting a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Adelphi University, had retired from carpet schlepping and was “trying out” retail work in an Allied Department Store on Long Island NY, and had received my dream career job offer from Shell Oil Company that would start on 6/6/66.

I was also without a car, having sold my COALs 1 and 2 (53 Chrysler and 57 Oldsmobile respectively) because my new bride Annie could not turn their non power assisted steering wheels.

Then I totaled my mother-in-law’s 1959 Ford Galaxie wedding gift.

Oh for the bucolic days of childhood, when all I wanted was to grow up and be an adult.

Quick, to the Newsday classified ads.

There were not a lot of cars that I could afford right then, but the short term simple solution was to get a cheap car that would last for a while and then, after I started at Shell, I’d be in the big bucks and the world would be my oyster. I immediately found the perfect car, cheap, light weight, very easy to steer (important), easy to work on if it came to that, roomy, and newer than any of the cars we had been driving, a dark blue 1961 Comet 4 door sedan.

A 1961 Comet Four Door Sedan - Great Dog Dishes

Comet was Mercury divisions’ answer to the very popular Ford Falcon. Basically the Comet was just a slightly stretched Falcon that had upper scale pretensions, more room, and in my opinion a really unattractive pair of rear end tail lights.

1961 Comet Ad

Paul did a CC on a 1960 Comet a few years back; it’s in the archives here.


The T-Bird inspired C pillar was a nice touch.

A 1960 Ford Falcon Wagon like the one we used to deliver carpets, pads, and tackless.

I already had experience with a Ford Falcon and found it to be a simple, pleasant, and nicely styled machine to drive. My former employer the carpet store had a white Ford Falcon wagon that we used for light loads.  With the tailgate down the rear visibility was great and I could back it up into very small curved private driveways for the delivery of lightweight carpet, padding, and tackless loads. It had a two speed automatic transmission and was good basic transportation without any of the pretensions and weight of larger, more glamorous cars. It was also trouble free.

What’s tackless you say?  A great carpet business oxymoron!

Oxymoronic Tackless Strips. Lots and lots of tacks.

Note-1:  Tackless strips were used to anchor wall-to-wall carpets to the floor butted up against a wall.  Each wood/particle-composite strip was three feet long and had (what I estimated to be) 877,000 tacks sticking out at an angle.  Maybe a bit less, but there were a lot.  Marty, the carpet warehouse manager would scan the diagram of the customer’s house, made some mental calculations while his cigarette bobbed, and then say “three boxes of tackless plus 12 extra strips”.  It was those 12 extra strips that darkened my day and bloodied my hands.  Individual tackless strips were not easy to remove from the box or load and deliver to the work site.  I had to take care that the customer’s new carpet was not stained by my AB negative blood.

Gloves?  We don’t need no stinnnkkkking gloves.

Note-2:  In the late 1980s I would work at Digital Equipment Corporation whose founder and president was Ken Olsen. While Ken was a very wealthy individual and could afford pretty much anything, he was very fond of early Ford Falcons and kept a few for his personal use. The Boston Globe, in its February 8 2011 obituary of Ken Olsen, wrote the following: “Even when his own net worth was measured in the hundreds of millions, Mr. Olsen looked more like an engineer than an entrepreneur, favoring thick-soled work boots and preferring to drive a 1963 Ford Falcon because he admired its design and found it easy to maintain.

A 1961 Comet straight 6.

As Annie and I were using borrowed cars from my family after losing the Galaxie, I made a quick cash deal and got the Comet registered and tagged. It had a 144 cu. in. straight 6 that put out 85 horsepower. The plugs and points were so easy to reach one could possibly tune it up wearing a white long sleeve shirt and not get it dirty.

I proudly brought the Comet home to our little one bedroom cottage that we were renting and Annie opened the driver’s door, paused a long two or three seconds, turned to me while pointing to the floor of the car and asked, “what’s that?”

Comet Steering Wheel and Shift Lever - Remember Horn Rings?

What’s what?  Oh, that.  Right.  That is the clutch.  It’s easy to use.  I’ll teach you.

There are times in one’s life when we have enough experience, and maybe some maturity, to be able to look back and identify the consequences of decisions made in the past, and how those decisions, good and bad, impacted the trajectory of our lives.

It’s obvious to me now that getting the Comet without Annie’s input was a bad decision.

I know that now. But, as many have said before me, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Before I describe how my manual transmission teaching expertise made quite an impression on Annie and some nearby motorists, let’s discuss the results of my getting-to-know the department store retail business.  As noted in the prior COAL write up, Allied Department Stores offered me a part time position at their Long Island Gertz Store in a management trainee capacity so as to get a feeling for the business. If all went well and if we liked each other, they might make me an offer. It was an 18-mile commute each way. I was used to walking to work to the carpet warehouse so commuting was new to me.

First off, retail means 7 days a week (unless you live in Bergen County NJ where old fashioned blue laws still ban the sale of clothing, shoes, furniture, and appliances on Sundays). Even my former employer the carpet store was closed on Sundays and that wasn’t even the owner’s religiously designated day of rest. But I was an eager beaver and was being paid by the hour, so bring it on!

They assigned “management trainee” stints to me working a week or two in different departments.

I liked men’s furnishings and men’s shoes and bought some of those products using my employee discount in preparation for starting my real programming career in June. After all, I did not have a great wardrobe but would need one soon.

I loved the toy department. I wore my enthusiasm for it on my sleeve and customers responded in a positive way to that. I demonstrated and sold a lot of toys, even during a time in the year when toy sales were usually quiet. I also played with a lot of those toys.

The Pet department was fun. It was no problem for me even when I had to go in on my day off to handle the special feeding and cleaning needs of a live pet department. Store management told me they did not want to leave these tasks to some of the other, less trusted workers. I was flattered, and perhaps that is what they were counting on.  I clocked an hour or two extra doing pet care and feeding chores on my day off.  The Comet was easy on gas so those 36 miles were relatively cheap.

Predictably, the women’s wear and women’s shoes were not comfortable departments for me. When we were very young my brother Jeff and I spent what felt like hundreds of years waiting in women’s wear departments as our mother shopped, then tried on, tried on some more, shopped, and then tried . . ., well, you get the idea. I felt an immediate aversion to the women’s wear and shoes departments.

It was embarrassing for me trying to fold flimsy and dainty items back neatly after being handled by customers and I could not actually say anything constructive (or proper) to customers about these products. Why was I here? What kind of management track was this? The veteran female sales associates took pity on me and helped get me through that stint. They were all wonderfully sensitive people and knowledgeable workers; they called me honey.

Yes, a size 6. But these usually run a bit small; let’s try an 11.

Note 3:  While Married With Children was still 21 years in the future, I learned with impressive speed what Al Bundy would teach the world in 1987, and that is that some people are just not cut out for some forms of retail sales.

That was OK by me because I had the Shell Oil Company offer in my pocket. All I had to do was keep up my grades, get that degree, keep working to pay the bills, keep the Comet running, and teach Annie to drive stick. Easy peasy.

Teaching Annie how to use the Comet’s three-on-the-tree transmission started well.

A Comet with 3 speed manual transmission. How hard can it be to teach this?

First we started at the kitchen table with ground school.  I discussed engine torque, what it was and how it might not be so strong at low engine RPMs. Then we discussed (with diagrams – every topic had a diagram) the position of the clutch behind the motor and in front of the transmission, and what the clutch pedal did when pushed to the floor, and what the clutch pedal did when one let it up (gently, but not too slowly, and not too quickly either), and what the clutch friction point was and how to feel for it, and what damage could occur if the clutch was slipped too much (clutch plate wear) or if the clutch pedal was kept down too long (throw-out bearing wear), or if you put it into first while still moving without double clutching (first was not synchronized), etc. etc.

I assured her that she should not worry about the un-synchronized first gear because if she was moving at all, second would be fine. No smile or agreeing nod; Annie kept staring at the diagrams, probably soaking it all in and thinking how smart her husband was and what great diagrams he drew.


Ground School (Check), Now First Orientation Flight.

The next step was an orientation ride to a quiet street or parking lot. The Comet had no console so Annie could clearly see my feet doing their clutch and gas pedal stuff as we rode to a quiet part of town. I even showed her that the gas pedal wasn’t even needed when starting up. With the engine idling, I put it in first, let the clutch up to the friction point, and then just ease ….  It stalled.  Twice.

Well, this was embarrassing.   The Comet’s little engine (85 hp, 138 lb.-ft.) didn’t seem up to handling no-throttle starts and as a result, would make it a harder car in which to learn to drive stick.  The last car I did this in was my friend Richie’s 1963 three-on-tree F85, similar size car, much stronger motor (155 hp, 210 lb.-ft).  Live and learn.

Note-4: Many years later I would show my younger soon-to-be-driving son Will the same no-throttle start in my 2002 5 speed PT Cruiser (definitely a future COAL and one you may find surprising).  The no-throttle starts worked fine in the little ChryCo Cruiser.  Its four cylinder engine (150 hp, 162 lb.-ft.) was not much stronger than the Comet, but it sounded like a Soviet tractor and pulled like one too.

We changed seats in the Comet. Stall. Stall. Screeching start and jerky stop. Stall. If I had been smart and been watching her face rather than outside the window and the clutch foot, I might have notice this was going really badly. We got to an intersection where there was more traffic than I anticipated and in the middle of a left turn the car stalled.  Annie opened the door, got out, and quietly walked away amidst the now stopped intersection traffic. She did not say a word, or yell, or curse, or anything.  Even the fellow motorists in the intersection were quiet, no horns, no gestures.  It seemed like they knew what was happening and felt bad for both of us for the pretty little blond girl.

By the time I slid over to the driver’s seat and parked the Comet Annie was nowhere to be seen. I looked and looked on foot in ever widening circles, looked in restaurant and store windows, then drove slowly around in ever widening circles, looking. Finally, with a non-trivial level of worry, I drove back to the cottage.

Annie had gotten home before me, on foot. She wasn’t overtly angry, overtly being the key word here. I was then introduced to what many men call the Marriage-Wall-of-Silent-Anger.

A few silent days later, Annie took the Comet out by herself and returned about three hours later and said “I got it; it was easy”.

She drove that Comet better, more smoothly, and quite a bit faster than I.

I guess I was a big jerk good teacher after all.

Must have been all those detailed diagrams.

The only issue with the Comet was a tendency for the engine to emit puffs of smoke through a pipe under the motor.  It looked like some sort of crankcase vent tube.  I was too busy during that time to investigate fully as the car ran well and I had seen similar emissions coming out of other Falcons and Comets.  Probably a Ford thing.

Later in June, BBA degree in hand, proud owner of three cheap inexpensive suits, five white shirts, five ties from Tie City, a pair of wing tips from Gertz, and a four inch wide Samsonite plastic briefcase, I started work as a computer programmer trainee at the Shell Oil New York Data Service Center in the Sperry Rand Building in Rockefeller Center.

Rockville Centre Long Island Railroad Station

I commuted to Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad and could walk from the cottage to the elevated station, so Annie had the Comet full time and started classes at Adelphi University working towards the first of what would be multiple Masters degrees.

Clearly, Annie was intelligent, much more so than her husband.  I suspect you the readers already knew that, and maybe some of you were also thinking “if only she had better taste in men”.

With the new programming job going well and Annie happy in her studies, we both finally felt we could relax a bit and stop feeling like we were juggling too many activities in too little time and living on the edge of a financial cliff.  Perhaps it was time to say goodbye to the tears and fears of a questionable future, and say hello to a calmer life with some domestic peace and prosperity.

Well you know that’s not going to happen.


Be Back Next Week

Thank you for reading this; be back soon.