My wife was pissed at me. Coming home from the grocery store, she shifted into 2nd gear, and the shift lever came out of the steering column dangling in her hand. The shifter was what is now called a three-on-the-tree in a 1965 Comet Caliente. Under the hood was a 289 cubic inch V-8 which was rebuilt the year before.
One weekend in 1970, I was cutting across NE 24th Street in Amarillo and saw a Mercury Comet on this small car lot. Later on my way back, I stopped to look and discovered it was a V-8 and 3-speed standard transmission. I was in my 1952 Plymouth, and the lot owner said he’d give me $100 trade-in for my ride. We made a deal, and I began a relationship with North State Bank in Amarillo. Forty-three dollars and change each month.
Since Mom had a 1964 Mercury Comet, I was familiar with the car but was unfamiliar with the Caliente model. Mom’s was a small 6-cylinder with an automatic transmission, and this Comet with its V-8 was a beauty.
If you want to buy one now, the current purchase price is steep. A quick search turned up one for $25,995 and another for $74,900. Both are immaculate. A project car can run in the $9000-$13,000 range. I did find one listed for $7400, but no pictures and no description.
My wife and I drove the car for a while, and it developed some issues. It was losing power and running pretty ragged. After some work on the car, I decided it was time to rebuild the engine.
My good friend, Steve, and I pulled the engine in our driveway and did the work in the one-car garage. After we got into the engine, we found the problem. The cam lobes were flat. With that discovery, I decided a little upgrade would be nice. My research showed a Boss 302 hydraulic cam would fit my mighty 289. And at only $19, it was only a couple bucks more than the replacement cam.
After Steve and I completed the rebuild on the 289 and went through a proper break-in period, it was time to test her out. How? We headed to Amarillo Dragway on a “bring what you drive” weekend. The tech inspector put the Comet in N Pure Stock class. I was thrilled with the declaration of white shoe polish on the windshield. A real badge of honor. Cool stuff.
Three cars showed up in my class, including me. The first race went well against the little Ford Falcon, but the second race was different. When I pulled to the line, the car next to me was a 352 cubic inch Ford Galaxie. I got her off the line and pulled away through second gear. When I hit third (a strict highway gear), the Comet fell flat as she lost the power band. Just before crossing the finish line, the Ford, still in second gear, clipped me.
I was so upset. How could the NHRA rule book class a 289 ci small block and a 352 ci big block the same? My little short-stroke V-8 against her long-stroke V-8? When I asked the techs, they said it was a weight issue. My lighter car had 200 horsepower, and her heavier car showed 250 in the books. The stroke did not come into play. Lesson learned.
It was still a fun day at the track but winning would have made it better.
Shortly after the drag strip issue, the shift lever issue became more prevalent.
The shift lever coming off in your hand was due to a worn out and bent shift housing on the column. The roll pin would fall out on the floorboard and when it did, presto chango, the shift lever exiting the column and required some fancy stabbing to get back in before the need to shift to third gear. It was exciting. And probably a bit dangerous.
My first “quick fix” was to put a hose clamp around the shift lever and tighten it as much as possible. That was temporary and didn’t work quite as planned.
I had a plan to fix the shifter problem. Really. I was going to buy a Hurst Mystery shifter and convert the car to a floor shift. The Hurst shifter was $29.95 at the time. All I had to do was save up $30 bucks and tax to make it better. That project never happened.
My buddy Steve had a 1969 Chevelle SS he bought new, and it was a nice car. I started looking at new vehicles, and before it was all done, I had a great idea. I’d buy a new car, and that would make the shifter a non-issue.
See, I needed cash for the new shift unit, or I could buy a brand new 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle with nothing down except the Mercury Comet as a trade-in. With my trade-in, the new Chevrolet was $2645.00. Of course, there was a little something called monthly payments on the Chevelle. $90.64 each month. The problem there was I only made $87.50 per week before taxes.
Yes, I could have bought several Hurst shifters for the first month’s payment. They don’t call it “New Car Fever” for nothing.
Years later when I told this story to another friend he called it the “they wanted cash for the battery” syndrome. Yep!
Oh, and the worst part. I bought two new tires for the front of the Comet that never got installed before I traded her in at the dealer. A few month’s later I went to sell the two tires to a friend and discovered I never pulled the second one out of the trunk of the Comet. And it was long gone. I called Hudiburg-Jones Chevrolet to see.
That is the story of the one that got away. Of all my cars, this is the one I miss the most. There are a couple of others, but the Caliente tops the list.