Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1961 Comet, With New Optional 101 HP 170 Six – It Should Have Been The Standard Engine

The 1960 Comet was the first “senior compact”, one year before the B-O-P trio arrived with that brief. The Comet had a rather long 114″ wheelbase (two more than the GM compacts), and was clearly aiming at a similar market, one step up from the plebeian Falcon, Valiant, Corvair, Lark and Rambler.  Just one problem: it had the same weak-chested 85 hp 144 cubic inch six as the Falcon. Yet it weighed more, thus was even slower. And outclassed performance-wise by all of the competition, except for the flathead Lark six.

For 1961, that issue was addressed to some degree by the new 170 cubic inch version of the “Falcon six”, boasting 101 hp. This is the engine the Comet should have had standard from the get-go, but it was still an option, and would be until 1964, when it finally became standard.

The Comet, originally intended as the compact Edsel, got off to a decent start in 1960, despite the modest power. 1961 would see sales almost double, to 197k; were they propelled upwards by the availability of the 170 six?

CL tested one with the 2-speed “Mercomatic”, and found “useful gains in hill climbing and highway passing ability”. The fuel mileage penalty for all of this rip-snorting power was about 1 mpg, as you don’t “really drive for performance, i.e. use every pony in the stable to pull you away from every signal, then no doubt you’d get poorer mileage“.  Having spent too much time behind the wheel of a GF’s ’64 Falcon with this august drive train, I can assure you that there’s no driving “for real performance” in these. Yes, it was decidedly better than the 144 teamed with the automatic, but it was still not something a performance oriented driver was going to be attracted to.

With the larger engine, the Comet lives up to its avowed intention of being the compact for people who don’t like small cars“. CL did say they were hard pressed to feel any difference in its ride versus the shorter (109.5” wb) Falcon. As to handling, it was acceptable, up to the point where the little “kiddy-kar sized” 13″ tires “become a factor“.  Beyond that point “it gets downright spooky.” CL made the usual recommendation of getting better shocks.

The brakes were about as modest as the handling.

Although CL was certain that a manual transmission version would be a bit quicker, they recommended the automatic, if for no other reason than to avoid the non-syncro first gear.

As to the actual performance numbers, 0-60 in 15.2 seconds was about reasonably ok for a six cylinder automatic at the time. Curiously, that’s about two seconds quicker than their results when they tested a ’61 Falcon with both the 144 and 170, in manual and automatic versions. Just goes to show; don’t take these numbers to the bank.


Related CC reading:
Curbside Classic: 1960 Comet – Orphan Looking For A Home

Car Show Classic: 1962 Mercury Comet