Squeaky clean

by Larry Dargis . Apr 22 2016
Mercury Comet

Mercury Comet

The late 1950s saw sales of foreign compact cars in Canada reach more than 20 per cent of new car sales. Clearly, buyers wanted smaller, more economical cars than the large, chrome-laden models many North American makers had to offer. This consumer shift resulted in a variety of American compacts hitting the market as 1960 models. Offerings included the Plymouth Valiant, Chevrolet Corvair, Studebaker Lark, and Ford Falcon.

Thanks to thrifty pricing and simple, straight forward styling, these compact models had a bright future.

In the Mercury division of Ford, the plan was to introduce the compact Mercury Comet in the United States in March 1960, but it wouldn’t reach the Canadian market until 1961. This would have left Mercury dealers in Canada without a compact car to sell, so Ford of Canada gave Mercury dealers the new Frontenac. Basically a clone of the Falcon — with some easily distinguishable trim — the Frontenac sold well before it was replaced by the Mercury Comet in 1961.

For 1961, the Comet came to Canada in four models, the two-door and four-door sedan as well as two- and four-door station wagons. Available with a base 85-horsepower, Thrift-Power 144-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine, it offered basic transportation for six, with good fuel economy — all for about $2,100.

Today, there are still a few of these jewels around, and compared to other classic vehicles, they can be purchased and enjoyed for a reasonable cost. For Cheryl Sinclair of Lockport, it was all about finding a neat summer driver. In the fall of 2015, she answered a for-sale ad that led to a 1961 Comet sedan in Ste. Agathe.

An original Manitoba car purchased new in Steinbach, it was in great shape. Painted metallic blue with aftermarket aluminum slotted mag wheels and newer radial tires, it had great curb appeal as a sporty sedan. Equipped with dual rear antennas, AM radio, two-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission and back-up lamps and an updated blue vinyl-and-cloth interior, it was hard to resist.

At first, it seemed to be just right, but after purchasing it and taking it out on the road to a few car shows, there were a few quirks.

“It died on the way to a show in Selkirk,” said Sinclair.

Issues included a carburetor that stumbled, causing the car to stall, a weak starter motor, and a leaking radiator hose. The little Comet had some reliability issues but the problems could be easily addressed and corrected with a few upgrades.

Sinclair’s significant other is Sheldon Root, owner of Motion Performance (in the automotive world, it’s like having the A-Team in your corner). Root has built many successful drag cars and street performers and was more than willing to lend a hand. “Cheryl loved the car,” said Root, “it was just a matter of making it reliable and modernizing it without changing the theme of the car.”

Root started with a trial on the chassis dyno where the Comet produced a whopping 27 hp at the rear wheels. An afternoon of diligent tuning netted an increase to 46 hp, far short of the 100 or so ponies it needed to be a real highway cruiser. Many would have just dropped a small V-8 into the engine compartment but Root had another take on it.

He opted to transplant a 1978 200-cubic-inch, six-cylinder donor engine that required no chassis or engine mount modifications. With the powertrain out of the car, the undercarriage, suspension, braking and fuel system were all rebuilt. The newer engine received a full rebuild, including decking the engine block and milling the head to achieve a 9.6:1 compression ratio.

The cam was changed and adjustable valvetrain added for the solid lifters. The intake manifold was originally cast for a single-barrel carburetor, but Root modified it to adapt a dual Rochester throttle body to feed the multisequential electronic fuel injection. This coupled with the required O2 sensor and crank trigger ignition brings this little engine into the next millennium.

These modifications along with a C4 three-speed automatic transmission will make for a great summer driver. Although he hasn’t put the car back on the dyno yet, Root reports the new engine provides a significant increase in both power and fuel economy.

For Sinclair, it’s been a winter project full of cleaning , bagging, painting, and trying to remember where everything is as the Comet goes back together. According to Root, it was a fairly simple task. “The whole project was just some time and parts,” he said, “and it gets Cheryl something to drive that she won’t worry about.”

As spring nears, the major thrash to complete the Comet comes to a head. It’s crunch time, as it’s entered to be in the Manitoba Street Rod Associations 17th annual Rodarama car show, taking place April 29 to May 1 at the East End Arena in Transcona. Rodarama (www.msra.mb.ca) offers a close up look at local hot rods and street machines before they hit the road for a Manitoba summer.