COAL: 1979 Mercury Zephyr – White Trash

Impatience can cost you dearly. With your spouse, it can lead to a nasty argument. At a restaurant, you could end up with pee in your soup. At work, it can lead to a hostile work environment and may cost you your job. Behind the wheel, it can kill you or someone else. Impatience has been a running theme in my life, and how I ended up with this car.

In my defense, sixteen years is a long time to wait. As my sixteenth birthday came closer, I was effectively a ticking time bomb nearing detonation, and I wasn’t going to stop at 00:00:01 like they do in the movies. I had $3,000 in the bank, which was more than enough to get a decent used car in 1985. That final trip to Mr. Grocer to get the issue of Autotrader, you know, the one that was going to have my first car in it, was a momentous occasion. My goal was to have the car in my driveway on my sixteenth birthday.

In addition to impatience, one additional undesirable quality that can cost you dearly is misinformation. In my case, it was the exact definition of “sports car,” at least from an insurance standpoint. I had somehow come under the impression that anything even remotely sporty was considered a “sports car” and thus would be charged accordingly. Did I ever call the insurance company to check? Did I even ask anyone else? No. This unfortunate impression ruled out Celicas, 200 SXs, Mustangs, Camaros & Firebirds with less than eight cylinders, and pretty much anything else remotely interesting to a sixteen-year-old boy. This limited my choices substantially (and I still feel foolish to this day).

I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure I tore through the Autotrader and looked at everything that wasn’t a [face palm] sports car or a gas guzzler. I would love nothing more than to have kept that issue so I could look through it again to see what I could have had, but somehow in my impatient, auto-ravaged induced haze, I landed across this ad:

1979 Mercury Zephyr, AC, PS, PB, 6-cyl., 49,000 Miles, $1,500.

Wow, $1,500 for a six-year-old car with air conditioning and so few miles was a good deal in 1985. I had to have this car NOW! Sure, it wasn’t the enthusiast’s choice, but it was a very practical one. I asked Dad to go look at the car after work the next day. I’m not sure why I agreed to let him go without me. Maybe it didn’t matter, since I was going to like it no matter what? Who knows? Dad gave it the thumbs up, and he and my sister went to get the car the next day while I was at school, and it was waiting for me when I got home.

Check out those whitewalls and wire wheel covers!


There was my new white beauty in all its glory, with fancy wire wheel covers, whitewalls, and a smattering of chrome. And rust on the hood. And red tape over the broken tail lamp. Oh well, nothing that can’t be fixed. Let’s look inside.

Every car needs a Garfield deodorizer.


Stark honesty would be a very good way to describe the interior. Remember, these were the days when the most you were provided was one grainy black-and-white picture of the car and a brief description. So, this was the first time I had seen the inside of the car. Bench seat, column shifter and an AM/FM radio surrounded by that lovely beige color that seemed to grace just about every Fairmont and Zephyr. And what is that musty smell? Something to worry about another day. It even came with a free car cover, which I found in the surprisingly shallow trunk.

I’m not sure where I got this information – maybe it was on the title? – but I was the third owner. The first owner was Avis, which, being a former rental, I didn’t think anything of at the time but would later learn to avoid like the plague. Almost.

My sixteenth birthday arrived shortly thereafter, and I had arranged to take my driver’s test first thing that morning. I figured I had it made because I learned to drive in Dad’s car, which was a manual, but was taking my test in my mother’s automatic. The examiner was a very nice man — nothing to be nervous about there. I buckled my seat belt, turned on the car, did the preliminary check to demonstrate that all the important components were functional, selected “Drive,” gently pressed the accelerator, and…um…ran a stop sign. After the examiner pointed out what I had just done, he had me turn around and go back. He was nice about it, and even said that he wouldn’t have terminated the test had it not happened in front of all the people in line waiting to take the test. Let’s just say it wasn’t much of a sixteenth birthday.

Fortunately, I was able to retake the test the following Saturday at another DMV and passed it with no problem. This turned out not to be a big deal because the car spent most of that week at my friend’s dad’s shop getting a full servicing anyway, which included a new carburetor (at 49,000 miles?). My parents also bought me an AM/FM/Cassette stereo, which they paid to have installed. It sounded terrible but looked really cool. I added one of those $50 Radio Shack graphic equalizers to augment the “tone control” (Remember that one? You can have bass OR treble, but not both). For those of you unfamiliar with an equalizer, it effectively breaks down bass and treble to about 12 different levers, which I then spent hours fiddling with only to end up with something that still sounded terrible.

Now that I was a fully licensed driver, I was able to take the Zephyr out for a full shakedown. I drove it down the street, made a hard-right turn, and WHOA, what is that buzzing noise??? It appears that other manufacturers were able to make power steering that goes lock-to-lock with no problem, but Ford gave a stern warning if you hit the lock point. Well, I guess I’ll just have to learn to not turn the wheel all the way.

You’re not supposed to notice the tape…


While there wasn’t enough power to spin the back tires (at least until I discovered neutral drops), acceleration wasn’t bad. Forty came up a lot quicker than you would think based on the available horsepower, and since most of my driving was in town, that was all right with me.

I picked up my friend Mitch and headed for the car wash, and everything seemed pretty watertight. After turning out of the car wash, however, we heard a splash, and water came gushing out from under the dashboard on the passenger side, drenching Mitch. Well, that explains the musty smell, the car cover, and all the foam sealant inside the cowl vent. I took it to a body shop to get an estimate, and they told me it would be about $1,000 to fix the rust holes on the firewall where the water was coming in. I tried using the car cover, which was a pain since it rains all the time in South Florida. So, I just became adept at mopping up the water periodically from the back seat where it all flowed.

Another issue was the gas mileage. It was terrible, and the 200 CID six was supposed to be “economical.” Even when I tried to drive it gingerly, it didn’t improve much. Combine that with a 16-gallon tank, and you’re looking at a driving range only slightly longer than a Nissan Leaf. I asked my friend’s dad, the mechanic who worked on the car, what kind of mileage I should be getting. “About 12.” That was about right.

It was then, I believe, it hit me. What the hell had I done? Of all the cars in all the towns in all the world, how did this one drive into my life? Why a sedan, when there were still plenty of much-cooler coupes back then? My attitude toward the car, and my treatment of it, changed dramatically.

First step was a can of spray paint to cover the rust on the front cowl and hood, which ended up looking like a bunch of crisscrossed white stripes. Then, Mitch didn’t think we really needed those power-robbing emissions controls. Out they came, with a test pipe replacing the catalytic converter. We popped out the collar on the tank fill that prevented the use of leaded gas, filled it up, and…couldn’t really tell the difference. Since we didn’t seal the test pipe to the rest of the exhaust system properly, the car sure sounded like it needed a new muffler fast. We also threw on some plastic headlamp covers that I purchased from the JC Whitney catalog. I wish I had pictures of that one, but I’m sure your imagination is up to the task.

Other experiences included lights that randomly started going on and off, as the leaking started to corrode the switch. The passenger side mirror flew off as I carelessly left the school parking lot one day a little too close to the gate. The air conditioning quit, and the defogger went with it. Ever try driving in Florida without a defogger? It also leaked oil, though I did learn how to change a valve cover gasket thanks to Mitch. And there was that time that I backed out of my driveway right into my neighbor’s brand new Buick Riviera. Folks, if your neighbors have a teenage driver, do not park in the street right across from their driveway. That’s just asking for trouble.

Highlights included loading the car up with lots of people who used me because I had a car friends, and the fact that at least I had my own car. That was about it.

After about a year, Dad decided to try a work-from-home job like my mother’s and said that I could use his car since they wouldn’t be needing two. I think that my parents just wanted the heap out of their driveway. I put it back into the Autotrader for $750, and it sold quickly. I’m sure the guy who bought it thought that was a great price for a seven-year-old car with only 58,000 miles!

Though impatience would end up being a running theme in my life, this was the only time I let it force me into a purchase of this magnitude.