Prior to 1960, each of the Big Three’s brands consisted of essentially one basic car. With the exceptions of the the low volume Corvette and Thunderbird, variety within each make consisted essentially of trim packages. Chevrolet, for instance, had the stylish Bel Air, the mainline 210 and the basic 150. Sometimes there were different engines, or even different wheelbases. But if one were to peel off the bits of chrome and pull out the engine, he would find essentially the same car.
It was a different story at the smaller automakers. The independents were always in search of niches outside the purview of the Big Three. And so it was in the 1950s that they went all-in on small cars. Nash was first to open up the compact market in 1950 with its Rambler. Over the next 3 years Kaiser, Willys and Hudson followed in succession. Studebaker waited until the dust cleared - and the latter three makes were gone - before offering their Lark in 1959. It was a move of impeccable timing that saved the company…at least for a short time.
Import makes like Volkswagen and Renault were also launching their attacks on this diminutive corner of the market. Sales were not huge, but they were growing, and the Big Three eventually took notice. Their offerings all debuted for the 1960 model year. Chrysler’s response was a befinned, mini version of a big-car called the Valiant. General Motors went radical with the rear-engined Chevrolet Corvair. The stylish Valiant probably kept Chrysler Corporation afloat as its odd looking big cars fell flat. The Corvair might have gone down as the best American car of the 20thCentury… had GM’s corporate bean counters not dictated cost savings be made on rear suspension parts. We all know how that turned out.
The Ford Motor Company entered the compact fray conservatively but strongly with not one but two entries. First out was the volume model, the handsome but utilitarian Ford Falcon. The new Edsel division was slated to get a somewhat more upscale version known internally as the Edsel B. That car never got an official name before the Edsel brand was shut down. What remained of the B was folded into Lincoln-Mercury, where it became the Comet.
Production Comets would sport winged taillights that reveal vestiges of its Edsel origins. They are a fitting tribute to perhaps the only element of Edsel’s design that could be called graceful.
The Comet was introduced in March of 1960. Lengthened by more than a foot, it was larger than the Falcon, but still much smaller than a full size Ford. This gave Comet the distinction of being the first of what would become known as a midsized car. Back in 1960 it was called a “senior compact”.
With its Edsel origins, the Lincoln-Mercury division wasn’t quite sure what to do with Comet. Initially it was sold through L-M dealers, but as a separate brand. However, in its first, somewhat abbreviated model year, the Comet “brand” sold 116,000 cars. Offered for a full year in 1961, 183,000 Comets found homes. This was about 40,000 more cars than the combined sales of Mercury and Lincoln. So, come 1962 Mercury claimed Comet as its own.
in the late fifties, Mercury had made an ill-fated move upscale. Thisd was to make room for the even more ill-fated Edsel. The strategy was badly bungled, and as a result, Mercury acquired a reputation for poor quality that dogged it into the early sixties. A bold statement would be needed to wash away that somewhat soiled image. Mercury turned to Comet for some cleansing.
In November 1963, at Daytona international Speedway, five redesigned 1964 Comets were run flat out for 24 hours a day for 42 days, with each car racking up 100,000 miles. Iincluding driver changes, fuel stops and maintenance, they averaged 105mph! Four of the five cars finished the run. This would be an impressive feat today; 50 years ago it was astounding. It helped Mercury sell 50,000 more Comets in 1964 than they did in ’63.
In addition to new sheet metal, the ’64 Comets got the option of a powerful 289 cu in V8 engine. That mill powered not only the endurance cars at Daytona, but in other competitions. From the quarter mile drag strips of Southern California, to the dirt and mud of the East African Safari rally, Comets won.
The 1964 model was Comet’s high water mark for sales. In the opinion of many, including this writer, for style as well.
In 1965, Mercury enlisted legendary endurance racer, Fran Hernandez for another feat of endurance. Hernandez and his team took three new Comets down to Cape Horn at the bottom of the world, and drove them 16,000 miles north to Fairbanks, Alaska. Their challenge: To do it in 40 days.
Symbolic of a biblical transformation of a similar duration, the world of Mercury was transformed. The old talk about shoddy build quality was washed away in the torrent.
No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. A 1966 redesign saw the Comet go from exciting compact to rather dull midsized car. A few years later Comet switched segments again. This time Mercury took the very successful sporty looking - but not acting - compact Ford Maverick. They rearranged some trim pieces and…yawn… called it their own. The Comet name disappeared in 1978, after selling a total of 1.6 million cars over 17 model years.
Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson