Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Mercury's Little Nightmare: The 1967 Comet 202 427 8V!

They don't make 'em like they used to - for good reason!

I was perusing some old car brochures and came upon an interesting little tidbit.  Back in the mid-1960's, you could order some pretty bizarre cars - station wagons with four-on-the-floor (and rear air conditioning!), midsize cars with huge engines, and of course, all the esoteric shit GM tried and discarded - turbocharging, fuel injection, aluminum block engines, and so on and so forth.  By the late 1960's and early 1970's the party was over - most big engines came standard with automatics and four-speeds were limited to a few sport models.  Turns out no one wanted a Mercury Park Lane with a four-speed.  Funny that.

In the back of the Mercury catalog for 1967 was listed their bottom-of-the-line car, the "Comet 202".  The Comet by then was a doppleganger for the Ford Fairlane - a "mid-sized" car made from a stretched Falcon platform.  In fact, at that time, if you ordered the "Falcon Wagon" it was a Fairlane body with a Falcon "front clip" on it.  The Comet 202 was Mercury's base model, with a standard Comet front end, with the truncated rear of the Falcon.  It was offered as a "Capri" hardtop or as four-door sedan or as a two-door post sedan.  And you could get any engine Mercury offered, up to and including the legendary 427 with dual four barrels.

Of course, Ford offered a similar layout in the Fairlane line - including the legendary "Thunderbolt" Ford drag cars of 1964.  Again, they were huge engines wedged into the smallest car possible - a simple formula that all the big-3 car makers were trying out, to entice "performance" buyers.

Mercury only made a few dozen of the Comet 202's with the 427 - drag racers ordered the two-door post sedan (more rigid than the hardtop) which was shorter and lighter than the standard Comet.  With the 427, dual quads, and four-speed, you could go to the drag strip and race it stock and do 0-60 in about six seconds and the quarter mile in about 14 - not bad for out-of-the-box.  The cars sold for drag racing had the sound deadening deleted, along with no body caulk, saving a hundred or so pounds in weight.

At first, it sounds like a cool car - a humongous engine in a tiny, lightweight car.  Should be fast, right?  Well, maybe in a straight line, and even then, not so much.  I read an article online where they interviewed one owner of such a car and he basically said it was undrivable on the street - with the bias ply tires of the time, the handling was sketchy at best.  And with no sound insulation or body caulk it would be noisy as all get out.  Most were ordered with "heater delete" - forget air conditioning (it was, ironically, an option) or power windows, door locks, stereo system or... anything.

These "rare" muscle cars were designed for drag racing, and today they are talismans of that era - 4,000lb paperweights (or 3,000 lbs anyway) - fun to trailer to a car show and show off, or maybe take to a "vintage" drag meet (doubt they would meet today's safety standards, though).  In terms of a car, they really aren't much.

Today, we expect so much more - and we have so much more. The Comet 202 oddly enough came standard with power front disc brakes - Ford knew at least that much. But in that era, even power brakes (four-wheel drums!) were an option on a lot of "muscle" cars - they were literally all go and no stop - and no cornering, either. Disc brakes didn't become available for most "muscle" cars until the late 1960's and early 1970's - and then, often only as an option!

Now consider one of the most plebeian cars you can buy today - a 2019 Ford Fiesta.  It does 0-60 in about 6 seconds, the quarter mile in about 15 seconds.  It does that with four-wheel disc brakes, radial tires, six-speaker stereo system, six airbags, power windows, power door locks, and a warranty that goes on for years, instead of months (back in the day, these "special order" race cars often came with no warranty whatsoever or at most 60 days).

Oh, and the Fiesta gets 30 miles per gallon, whereas the Comet 202 - or any muscle car of that era - would get in the single digits.  Dual four-barrels and 7 liters are awfully thirsty!

The Comet 202 stickered for about $3,200 according to some sources while the Fiesta started at about $15,000.  But $3,200 in 1967 would be over $28,000 today (!). So not only do modern cars have more features, go as fast (if not faster), handle better, stop quicker, are far, far safer, and wildly more comfortable - and get better gas mileage and are far more reliable as well (and last longer!) but they are staggeringly cheaper, too.  In fact, in this example, almost half the cost.

The "good old days?"  Fuck the good old days.

This isn't even addressing the rust issue - cars of that era rusted out in most wet climates within three years or so.  Exhaust systems lasted about that long, tires maybe 30,000 miles (if you were lucky), batteries about 24 months.  Few cars of the 1960s went over 100,000 miles, much less 200K or more.  Most went to the junkyard at about 80K when the transmissions blew out.

So what killed off the "muscle" cars of the 1960's?  Well, the whole thing peaked in the early 1970's.  The venerated 'Cuda came out just a little too late in the game.  The cars were wildly unsafe and in fact, death traps, particularly in the hands of inexperienced drivers - or even experienced ones. Insurance rates skyrocketed and young people (the target audience) couldn't afford to own such cars.  The Arab oil embargo sealed the deal in 1973 - cars getting eight miles per gallon were just un-affordable. Sure, 5-MPH bumpers in 1974 increased car weight, and pollution controls in the mid-to-late 1970's lowered compression ratios and power output.  But the muscle-car party was over long before then - the story that "them darn-gum gub-ment pollution controls killed the muscle car!" are just bunk.  And by the way, today's emissions standards are far more stringent than back then, and yet today cars have more horsepower than ever before!  And get better mileage.  Thank God for electronic fuel injection.

Now, of course, you might argue I am making a selective comparison. Sure, you could get the 427 in other cars, from the larger and much heavier Park Lane or the famous Ford "7 liter" - but those were heavy luxury cars with such options as air conditioning, power bucket seats, center consoles, and power windows, power door locks, power steering and power (front) disc brakes.   Even then, though, there were no airbags, and handling was atrocious.  And the best sound system you could hope for was an "AM/FM" radio (no stereo) with a "reverberator" rear speaker.  Hoo-whee!  And of course, such cars cost far more than the stripped down street-drag machines.

If you go down the line and compare any car of that era to its successor today, you'll find the same thing.  A stripped Mustang of 2023 is cheaper, faster, safer, handles better, rides better, has far more features and pollutes less than a stripped Mustang of 1964 - or almost any year in-between.   A top of the line "Shelby" Mustang of 1968?  Trounced by the Cobra of today - in every category.  Those old-time cars were just not as advanced.  The "Old School" went out of business for a reason.

Ford reworked the Mustang onto the Fairlane platform (it was built on the plebeian Falcon at first) to accommodate larger engines, probably at the urging of Carol Shelby.  Shelby was famous for stuffing large engines in small cars.  The legendary Cobra, based on a tiny British sports car, was apparently a difficult car to drive, due to its insane torque and unequal weight distribution.  But back then, automotive Engineering was a far simpler task - you wanted more power, you upped the compression ratio and displacement (as my Thermodynamics professor at GMI taught us).  Things like turbocharging ("Too complex!  Too unreliable!") were dismissed out of hand.  Fuel injection?  "We tried that back in 1957 - it never worked right!" (Oddly enough, I have read that the Bendix fuel injection system, which also had an aborted history as the Rochester system, was sold to Bosch - and the rest is history.  Ze Germans didn't give up so easily!).   Things like variable valve timing were not even conceived.  Today, these are features on base economy cars.

Oh, and one more thing:  Cars back then polluted like hell!

Granted, cars today are more complex and thus require more knowledge and special tools (a laptop and a OBD II interface) to work on.  The good news is, of course, that many modern cars today can go 100,000 miles with nothing more than oil changes, a set of tires and maybe a battery - perhaps a set of brake pads as well.   You look back at the service intervals of the 1960's - spark plugs being changed every 20,000 miles, for example, and the "annual tune-up" of plugs, points, and condenser.  And carburetors constantly needed adjustment and cleaning.  Valve lash adjustment, particularly on some foreign cars, was a regular thing (5,000 miles on my 1974 BMW!).   Cars may be more complicated and "harder" to work on, but then again, you may never need to work on it.

So what's the point of all this? Well, again that nostalgia is always suspect.  People like to run down the present and pine for the past - which they view through rose-colored glasses. I hear all the time (although the noise has died down in recent years) from know-nothing blowhards (worse than me, even!) about how cars were "better back then!" until the "gubment" instituted all these rules and laws!  If only we could go back to carbureted big-blocks!

But that 427 side-oiler, on a good day made 425 HP (which was SAE raw HP, not including accessory drag - one reason horsepower declined in the early 1970's wasn't "pollution controls" but the switch to reporting SAE Net HP, which subtracted parasitic losses from the water pump, alternator, power steering pump, etc.).   Today, you can go to the local Ford, Chevy, or Dodge dealer and buy a car with 300, 400, 500, 600, or even 700 HP and above - and in many cases, these are cars in stock, not special-order limited-edition deals.  And they are making this kind of horsepower from smaller engines.  Ford is cranking out close to 400 HP in its 3.5 liter "ecoboost" engine - a motor that size might make 100 HP back in the 1960's.

These are the good old days of hot-rod motoringAnd it shows no signs of letting up.  Electric cars, once thought of as slow and pondering econoboxes, are proving to be as fast - if not faster - than exotic Italian and German "supercars" costing many times as much.   0-60 times of three seconds were thought of as staggering only a few years ago.  Today, many electric cars can do this without breaking a sweat.

The future is bright, despite what the naysayers think.  And the present is pretty decent, too!