Curbside Classic: 1964 Mercury Comet 202 – To the Moon and Back

(first posted 9/18/2011)    How many of us can say we’ve owned and loved a car so long that we could have driven it to the Moon and back if we wanted to?  As we’ll get to shortly, if we just kept up on regular maintenance, we could all drive the sturdy and stylish 1964 Mercury Comet to space and beyond if we had a Highway into the sky and beyond.

As has been told before, the Comet was intended as an Edsel.  When the Edsel brand was sent to the guillotine at the end of 1959 the Comet was marketed as a stand alone brand, not unlike the Plymouth Valiant.  Being a ridiculous runaway success, it was folded into the Mercury Brand just in time to get a big(ger) brother, the Meteor.

Our scrappy little Comet didn’t have much to worry about.  Not being all that much smaller in interior space (being the first stretched Falcon on a 114 inch wheelbase) than the Meteor, marginally pricier than the Falcon and by 1963 available with V8 engines and a Convertible, it didn’t give the Meteor much room to breathe and grow.

So, for 1964 the Meteor was sent packing and the Comet got some very chic updates.  The “Continental” look, at least in the grille was applied delightfully.  Gone were the stubby tail fins and other ephemeral “Am I a Ford, Edsel or Mercury” touches that made the original Comet geeky yet charming.  Like shedding braces, the Comet wanted to strut its stuff as one of the more sophisticated compacts on offer.

The same soft focus dreaminess that was used to give the Skylark a relaxed elegance was soon applied to the marketing of the Comet. And to spice things up there were two new sub models, the spicy Caliente and the thunderous Cyclone. Replacing the awkward S-22 designation for sporty Comets, they implied exotic elegance (the Caliente) and a whirlwind of performance (the Cyclone).  Neither particularly disappointed.

Underneath this new fire and elegance was surprising durability.  A set of Cyclones was sent out in one of those traditional 1960s endurance tests.  That fleet of 5 Cyclones was driven for 42 days, 24 hours around the clock, and the cars racked up 100,000 miles.  Average speed (including required maintenance, fuel stops, driver changes, and other repairs) exceeded 105 mph, with top speeds often going close to the 120-mph mark.

During the run, only one of the four cars suffered a problem big enough to pull it out of the trials.  After six weeks of constant driving, the rest of the Comets drove the entire distance with nothing more serious than the need of a tune-up and oil changes.

This endurance test is peanuts compared to one particular Comet Caliente, that has gone over half a million miles with basic maintenance.  I think we’ve all heard the story of “Chariot” the Comet Caliente and her owner Rachel.  With a set of lifetime guarantees on parts (the things you eventually have to replace) like shocks and mufflers, the basic sound design of the Windsor 289 V8 and Merc-O-Matic have stood the test of time.

Unfortunately for the future Comets, it was one of the last times that they would soar.  More like the Meteor, these later Comets would soon fall to earth.  Starting with the 1965 models’ “everyone follow Pontiac” looks, then moving genuinely to take over the Meteor’s space in 1966 (and becoming properly paired with the Fairlane), each model year got less and less distinctive.

I made a similar comparison between the 1962 Monterey and Galaxie 500.  Same issue, 2 red cars, very similar.  And again, I give a slight tip of the hat to the Ford, given that it has more crisp detailing.  The Comet looks a little bit bloated.  It also lost all of the distinction of looking very junior Continental like our 1964 subject cars.  Of course, the Comet took a serious blow when 1967 brought the Cougar, which was the last true runaway success that the brand would see until the Sable nearly 20 years later.

This pretty much leaves the Comet with one seriously distinctive model year.  1964 is the only year you can look at one and not immediately think in the first 30 seconds “gussied up Falcon.”  And in a way, it was the close of an era.  After 1965, only the Corvair bothered to be glamorous and under 200 inches long.  All iterations of the Nova (and its series of clones) screamed bargain basement no matter how many vinyl top patterns were available.  The Dart and Valiant were innately appliance related, from being practical muscle cars to practical sedans.

In 1964, the concept of a true Luxury Compact meekly sighed a resignation that America will always look for the bigger and better.  It turned in the crisply tailored suit for the leisure suit and gold chains.  But before it completely disappeared, it made one grand exit with the finest style, accessories and quality that pleased a number of customers for years.