Have you ever wondered what it would be like (after a few decades) to get another example of your first car? Well, I decided to do just that, and the results were not quite what I expected…
My parents gave me this 1962 Mercury Comet S-22 when I got my license at 17. Mom had purchased it used back in ’64, and by the time I got it, it had well over 100,000 miles and quite a bit of rust-out which I repaired using Bondo and other dubious methods (story here).
I have owned several cars from the late 50s-early 60s (plus a number of modern daily drivers) since I sold the first Comet in 1990. But childhood memories affect you throughout your whole life, and I started to wonder what it would be like to drive a 1st-generation Comet after 33 years. Would it be the way I remember it?
I was always intrigued by the earliest Comets from 1960-61 with their bigger fins and oddly slanted oval taillights. I occasionally saw these growing up–they were Comets like Mom’s car, but older and kind of mysterious. So I thought if I got another Comet, it might be one of these early oval taillight models.
Ah, but where to find one? Nearly all of these were consumed by rust, wear, and neglect half a century ago. Very few early Comets come up for sale today, and those that do are often rust-buckets in bad shape, or are heavily modified, gassers, etc.
But then in late July of 2023, I found this one on Facebook Marketplace. Not too far from me, almost no rust (except for the leading edge of the hood), and mostly original paint.
It had been sitting at an elderly person’s house for a long time–maybe 15 or 20 years. Does it run? Yes–like garbage. Won’t idle. Horrible exhaust leak. “Can I drive it?” “Sure.”
I got behind the wheel with the young, tattooed, muscular seller (who likes sky diving!) and off we went, chugging down the side streets of Elmwood Park (East Paterson) NJ. I had to use left foot braking and pop the car in neutral and rev at every stop sign to keep from stalling. With the exhaust leak, the Comet sounded like a wicked hot rod (or a cement mixer), as we rattled the windows of nearby houses everywhere we went!
At about 20 MPH I punched the accelerator and the car jumped ahead–which kind of surprised me because I thought this engine/transmission combination would be a real dog. This told me that the engine was basically healthy and the car had some pep.
We got back and agreed on a price: $3000. And that included–miracle of miracles–a rust-free extra hood and a pair of bumpers with no rust pitting on them!
The seller and I went to the house in Hasbrouck Heights where the Comet originally came from. I got the hood and pulled a set of bumpers out of the weeds. In this Google Street View, you can make out what I believe is the Comet under those white tarps in front of the garage door.
What can you get in the collector car market for $3000 these days? Answer: Not much. But I got this.
First thing to do was get it running right and fix all the problems. Adjusting the carb and running some Marvel Mystery Oil through the gas smoothed out the idle. New starter. Then–that most dreaded of all automotive repairs–replacing the exhaust manifold without snapping any bolts! Warren and Jeremy at Kanter Auto Restoration managed to do it, as well as going over the brakes and other miscellaneous repairs. So major kudos to them! I also put in a set of horns from a ’67 or ’68 Mustang (locally sourced from Craigslist).
The bottom edge of the hood was rusted through, but I now had an extra hood!
The hood is white but the car is Batmobile black. I repainted it at home.
Also from Craigslist, I hired a local Mobile Auto Body Repairman (“Jake”) to help me switch hoods, replace the rusty back bumper with a nice one, and attach a missing Comet script on the front fender.
New hood installed–no more rust!
A previous owner had painted the grille black for some reason, so I resprayed it bright silver.
Rusty rear bumper replaced with a clean one.
I repaired and “leveled out” the damaged front seat using patches of lamb’s fleece, cotton batting, and heavy cloth. Then covered the seat with a seat cover which also came with the car (but was not installed).
Intergalactic “Jet Age” chromium instrument panel sparkles when polished. All lights and gauges work. Mileage reads 48,000.
The tires were 1990s or older and ugly, so they were replaced with new Milestar whitewalls: $70 each, which isn’t that expensive for new tires. Full wheelcovers sourced from eBay.
So there it is! But what is it like to drive? Is it the way I remember?
For one thing, when I was young the Comet seemed “big”. Now it seems “small”.
The Comet engine sounds just the way I remember it, especially at idle. This engine is quieter than the one in the old ’62 because of the new exhaust manifold, muffler, and pipes. The view over the hood, little details of the dash and interior–all very familiar. These cars are solidly built like little tanks.
Out on the road, manual steering “feels like a ’50s car”. Steering is slow but smooth, kind of vague in the center, and going around corners requires a lot of “hand-over-hand” motions like you were taught to do in Driver’s Ed.
The brake pedal is harder to push than expected–even after the brakes were adjusted and gone over.
The ride is not as good as I thought it would be, even after new tires. It’s a little stiff and unrefined–not up to the level of a “Torsion-Aire” 57-61 Plymouth/Dodge, or a “Jet-Smooth” 59-60 Chevrolet. Handling is pretty good–you can go around fast turns with little lean.
The engine sprung a surprise–I thought that the 144/automatic combination would be annoyingly slow. Turns out, it’s better than I thought. I may be pressing down harder on the accelerator for a given level of performance, but for normal driving it does what it’s supposed to do.
As a test, I drove up this steep hill in town. Up we went at a decent clip, The Little Engine That Could, with no strain, hesitation, knocking, excessive noise, or any other problems.
I went to my parents’ house . . .
By the way, I’m willing to sell–if anyone’s interested in this Comet, let me know.
So should you buy that lost car from your youth? Will it be as good as you thought it was, or maybe worse, or a mixture of both? Remember–the car hasn’t changed, but you have!
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