Curbside Classic: 1960 Comet – Orphan Looking For A Home

(first posted 11/2/2011)     If this goofy-assed little car showed up at your premium brand’s doorstep and told you it was an unwanted orphan, would you let it in? And keep it as a foster child, or adopt it as your own? That’s the scenario Mercury found itself in with the Comet. And true to form, Mercury waffled.

The Comet was planned as a compact Edsel, but when that expensive little venture went belly up, it needed a home. Mercury let it into its dealers, but not branded as a Mercury, just Comet. After all, Mercury had a finely-honed brand identity to protect: uninspired, overwrought, wallowing Buick wanna-be barges that sold poorly. It wasn’t about to let the Comet sully that.

Was Mercury dutifully obeying the oft-repeated maxim against eroding a brand by extension? Perhaps. Mercury was in the depths of its perpetual self-identity crisis, which was exacerbated by the whole Edsel debacle. Ford wanted Mercury to aim up even higher, at Buick; thus the Comet solution. But two significant events changed Mercury’s mind.

First, Buick came out with its own compact Special in 1961. In GM’s heyday in the 1920’s, when the various divisions each decided to expand and fill the gaps between them, their off-shoots were sold under new names: Cadillac spawned LaSalle, Buick birthed Marquette, Olds created Viking, and Pontiac itself was an offshoot of Oakland. GM has quite the cemetery of failed brands. But GM’s decision to let Pontiac, Olds and Buick have compacts in 1961 changed the rules forever. And soon there was the addition of premium Chevys like the Monte Carlo and Caprice. The GM brand muddle was in full swing.

The second thing that changed Mercury’s mind was that the Comet sold quite well for the first couple of years, during those compact boom years. The real Mercuries didn’t. In fact the Comet outsold the big Mercs almost two-to-one in ’61. Probably explains best why the Comet became a genuine Mercury in ’62.

The Comet was a stretched and re-skinned Falcon. Actually, only the sedans rode on a lengthened 114″ wheelbase and had that loopy rear end. For cost-efficiency’s sake, Comet wagons were thinly disguised Falcons with a Comet front clip. Since Comets were planned to be Edsels, some parts still carried the “E” prefix. And the sedan’s rear taillight lens looks mighty similar to those on the 1960 Edsel.

Except for the taillights and finlets, the Comet’s styling was actually way ahead of the whole Ford clan in 1960. It almost perfectly predicts the ’62 Fairlane and Meteor twins, as well as Ford’s general styling trend in the first half of the sixties. Of course, it wears that ’58 T-Bird roof proudly, like so many other Fords of the era. And by 1962, the Comet’s tail entered a more mainstream galaxy.

Other than that longer wheelbase, the Comet shared its mechanicals with the Falcon. That meant only one engine for the Comet’s abbreviated first year: the 144 cubic inch (2.35973722 liter) six that packed all of 90 hp (gross) at 4200 rpm. That would be about 75 of today’s (net) ponies. That made it the feeblest of the semi-upscale new compacts.

The two-speed automatic strangled that herdlet of ponies dead in their tracks. Good thing the slightly stronger 170 cubic inch came along in ’61, as well as the little 260 V8 in ’62. But with a stick and a glass-pack muffler like this one, the little six at least sounds like it’s making half-way decent forward progress.

There’s a distinctive tone to these small Ford sixes. If they’re wheezing through the stock muffler, especially when burdened with the automatic, it’s very nasal, as in dire need of an antihistamine. With a less restrictive muffler, it reminds me of European and other vintage small displacement in-line sixes, like the old Opels, the Triumph six, and others of the period. It’s a pleasant, roarty throb, but smooth and obviously harmless.

Mercury should have been very happy to have the Comet show up when it did, as it injected some very badly needed zip to its languishing sales. In its short first year (1960), 116k Comets found a home. In 1961, which would be the Comet’s all-time best year ever, 197k were sold, which not only beat Mercury’s large cars by a a huge margin, but the Comet actually outsold the Valiant, Lancer, American, Lark, Tempest, F-85 and Special. It was the #3 selling Compact behind its cousin Falcon and the Chevy Corvair. Quite the success, actually.

But like its namesake, the Comet’s sparkle was short lived. Once it earned itself the Mercury name in 1962, it became a slacker, and sales began a long decline. Maybe the Mercury name is a jinx. The ill-fated mid-sized Meteor, which appeared in 1962, didn’t help. It was a lightly reskinned Fairlane, but because the Comet was already a lengthened Falcon, it was almost mid-size itself. The Comet and Meteor were almost indistinguishable, and it all devolved into a typical Mercury muddle. It was not the winged god that gave Mercury its name; it was the mineral: it’s impossible to give it definition, and it’s deadly.

For a few years starting in 1964, Mercury tried to inject some performance vitality into the Comet, including some wild factory-supported drag racing Cyclones. Amusing wheelie machines and cult favorites, but they didn’t really help sell the metal on Mondays. By 1966, Comet morphed into a mid-sized car, which then became the Montego. And by 1971, the Comet’s highly irregular orbit was completed, and it suddenly reappeared as a badge-engineered Maverick.