Strangers On This Road We Are On

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This is a 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente Coupe. By this point, I was nearing the end of my travels, and was beginning to miss gratuitous chrome. This is our last destination (though not, it must be said, our last car). Welcome to Iceland, the land of fire and ice that came before the land of dragons and premium-cable sex scenes. It’d been a long time since I’d seen a Mercury, especially one as nice, or old, as this one. I really did not know what to expect of Iceland when I visited, but a mid-sizer Ford with an identity crisis? Girl, you really got me goin’. 

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So why is a Mercury Comet, a car from a brand that was never sold outside of the North America, on a volcanic island in the north Atlantic? The answer is a healthy bit of serendipity. I visited Iceland on the last weekend of April, which, completely unbeknownst to me, was also the week of the Icelandic Saga Rally of 2015, an event in which crazy people from around the world ship their classic automobiles to the frigid North for a week-long hybrid between a scavenger hunt, a road trip and an outright race. Rallies are a downright embarrassing amount of fun, a fact which I discovered once I returned to Bucks County, but that’s a story for another day. Today’s story, the story of the Comet, begins with Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford.

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The car that eventually became the Mercury Comet was originally destined to be an Edsel, a derivative of the Ford Motor Company that has since become a byword among marketing professors for abject and outright failure. To make a long story way too short, the Edsel brand was a disaster that was killed off in 1959, which left the Comet out in the freezing, volcanic tundra. The car was sold as just “the Comet” (people were pretty into space during the sixties, I’m told) for the first few years of its life, without a brand to parent it, until it was adopted in 1962 by Ford’s always-challenged Mercury. The Comet had more than a little in common with the Ford Falcon, though the Mercury did feature a longer wheelbase and some nicer interior amenities. Regardless, the Falcon relation means that this car is actually (distantly) related to the original Mustang, so it had that going for it.

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It had a lot going for it, actually. The Comet was no slouch. If you skipped over the optional inline-6 and went for the V8, this car produced 164 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Those are impressive numbers even today. And you could get an even more powerful “Cyclone Super” V8 that made 210 horsepower. You had a couple of options when it came to transmissions as well, ranging from a three speed automatic to a four speed manual. This is the “Caliente” model, which was the second-most luxurious Comet on sale, and could be had as a sedan or convertible, in addition to the coupe shown here. The suspension was also fairly sophisticated, with better springs at all four corners. Upgraded steering and shock absorbers also featured, as did a bigger fuel tank. All of this was great, undoubtedly, but the Comet had a problem, and it had nothing to do with its technical performance.

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The Comet sold- it sold pretty well, in fact, and the name stuck around until the late seventies. But no one really remembers the Comet, they remember the Falcon upon which it was based. And that’s the problem with Mercury: identity. Like, if we looked at Ford in the sixties, we were looking at Ford, obviously, which made cars and trucks for the blue-collar, working man. And then there was Lincoln, which were ultra-luxury Fords made for presidents and douchebags from Queens trying to make it in Hollywood. Which left Mercury as the awkward middle child in this mixed up, muddled up, shook up world. The Mercury brand never differentiated itself from its siblings enough to carve out a niche, which is why, in 2010, the company shut down for good. Their cars are largely forgotten now, which I suppose makes it appropriate that it’s here, given this is Forgotten Metal. So let’s celebrate it: this forgettable car made memorable by circumstance, surviving here in a decidedly unforgettable land.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Rachel Veitch, a 91 year old Floridian woman, owned a Comet Caliente from the moment she bought it new in 1964 until her eyesight gave out in 2012. She drove the car daily. At the time the car was retired, it had over 562,000 miles.
  • Over the course of 42 days at Daytona International Speedway in 1963, five Mercury Comets were driven continuously around the track, accumulating over 100,000 miles. Their speeds averaged between 105 and 120 miles per hour.
  • The Icelandic Saga is far from the first rally to feature a Comet, as the car also undertook the East African Safari as well as a transcontinental trek from the southern tip of Argentina to Fairbanks, Alaska, a journey not unlike the one undertaken by the Renault 4.
  • The waterfall in the background of these pictures is Skógafoss, which is situated on a former coastline and features some truly breathtaking panoramas, hiking trails and, on this particular day, rainbows.
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