Car of the Week: 1961 Mercury Comet S-22

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

For Craig Macho, it was love at first sit.

From the moment he climbed into his 1961 Comet S-22 and parked his backside in the backseat, the Stoughton, Wis., has been smitten with his sweet little Mercury. Even back then, 38 years ago, he knew he was picking an odd car to get attached to, but he couldn’t help it. He was a Comet fan.

“I was 17 years old and I was hitchhiking home from work back in 1977 and a buddy of mine stopped and picked me up. It was in Madison, Wis., and I didn’t have a car,” recalls Macho with a grin. “So he picks me up and I sat in the backseat and loved the interior and thought it looked great, and I asked him if he was thinking about selling the car and he said not right now. So I said, ‘Let me know when you’re going to sell it.’”

The owner wasn’t in the mode to let the Comet go, but that didn’t stop Macho from trying again later.

“Later that next spring I was walking home and I walked by his house and it was sitting in his driveway all covered with snow … I still didn’t have a car [laughs]. So I stopped and knocked on his door and said, ‘What’s up with the car?’ and he said, ‘The transmission doesn’t work anymore.’ I asked him if he was still interested in selling it and he said yeah. I said how much do you want for it and he said 50 bucks, so I went home and got 50 bucks, went back and my brother-in-law helped me get it back on the road. He went to a junkyard, picked up a transmission for 50 bucks and away I went.

“So yeah, I bought a 17-year-old car that was broke. But I was thrilled.”

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Thirty-eight years later Macho still has his Comet and the car looks fantastic. Macho has performed a bit of a slow, rolling restoration on the S-22 over the years, swapping in a new engine once and repainting the car white twice. It was his daily driver for a time, but once he could afford a second car, Macho has faithfully parked his Comet during the winter months, certain that he wanted to keep it as his hobby car well into his own retirement.

“Back when I bought it I needed a car, but I also wanted a cool car and a collectible car and I liked the size of it. I knew it wasn’t going to be highly sought after and it was unique and highly original and somewhat rare. That’s what I liked about it,” he says. “It was in good shape. There was a couple little rust holes in the back, but the fenders were fine. It was complete and there was no rust-through on the floors or anything like that. It was relatively easy on the bodywork.

“I had it painted in ’84. They did all the bodywork in ’84 but, unfortunately, they painted it a little different white than I wanted. It was a little too white, so I lived with that for a while, and then in ’97 I had it painted again and this time they used the correct color white. I had all the bumpers rechromed and polished up all the trim. I’ve collected a lot of parts for it. I’m always looking for parts. Any time I find Comet parts I buy them.”

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From what little Macho could gather about his Comet’s past, the car had spent at least some of its life in Florida, which no doubt helped preserve its body and undercarriage. Somehow the car ended up in Wisconsin in the 1970s, eventually landing with the sister of the man Macho eventually bought it from.

“But in the late ‘70s it wasn’t much of a collectible car back then,” he chuckles. “Nobody was really keeping them. They were just an old used car.”

Macho jokes that he was one of the only kids his age who was willing to roll around in an early 1960s car during his teen years. There were millions of compact cars on the streets by then as the gas crunch raged and economy car boom hit, but not many of those little cars were from 1961.

That 1961 model year marked the sophomore season for FoMoCo’s Comet nameplate. By then the company had already changed courses with the model, which was built as a twin to the Ford Falcon and ticketed to be part of the Edsel family tree.  With the Edsel quickly needing life support, however, the Comet was handed over to the Mercury Division, even if you couldn’t tell by looking at it.  Those first couple years, there was no Mercury badging to be found on the Comets. Mercury churned out more than 183,000 Comets for the 1961 buying season, including about 14,000 equipped with the S-22 sport package.

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“The S-22 was a trim package,” Macho notes. “It’s got the bucket seats, the fancier full wheel covers, bigger engine.”

The engine upgrade was a 170-cid/101-hp inline six-cylinder with a one-barrel carburetor.  The standard Comet mill was a 144.3-cid inline six rated at 85 hp. Other available options included: Heater and defroster ($74.30); back-up lights ($10.70); padded instrument panel and visors ($22.40); two-tone paint ($19.40); push-button radio ($56.80); electric tailgate window ($29.90); whitewall tires, on passenger car ($43.40; tinted windshield ($10.30); wheel covers ($16); windshield washers ($13.70); and two-speed electric windshield wipers ($9.65). A three-speed manual transmission was standard. Ford-O-Matic automatic was optional.

“It’s got the 170 [engine], two-speed automatic. It’s got a transistor radio — all the Comets had the tube radio,” Macho notes. “It’s got bucket seats, console … dual mount antennas.”

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The dash in Macho’s car still has the original paint, but the rest of the interior has been restored since ’77. The gauges and steering wheel are all original as well.

“The dual antennas, that is my own interpretation,” Macho says. “When I first got it and had it painted I had them weld the antenna mount shut on the front fender — like when you ordered a radio delete. Then you didn’t have a hole in the fender. I knew these had antennas available and thought they would look cool, so it was my interpretation of what should have been done. You can get those antennas for this car. It came with a template for this car.

“It has backup lamps, too, which are pretty rare — this style. The backup lamps are from the Edsel, because Comets were supposed to be Edsels.”

Macho knew little or nothing about Comets were he made one his first car back when he was 17. Since then he has become an expert on the subject. He’s picked up a couple more 1961 Comets over the years while scavenging  parts. “You can’t have too many Comet parts. I bought one car just because it had the right gas cap!”

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The S-22 designation for the Comet two-door sedans was shortlived. For 1962 the sport package was renamed the Comet Special. A year later the Comet’s whole persona was changed with the availability of V-8 power. Convertible and hardtop models also joined the Comet lineup.

Macho has definitely found the 1961 models to be far scarcer birds than the second-generation (1965-65) and third-gen (1966-69) Comets, and that’s the way he likes it. If fact, it was his hope all along.

“It’s usually the only ‘61 S-22 at a show. You don’t see ‘61s very often,” he says. “The ‘63s were more popular because you could get a V-8 and you could get a ragtop and they were a little more performance-oriented. This one, underneath the pretty exterior is a pretty mundane car. It doesn’t go fast. It’s just an economy car.”

“The number one comment I get is “my mother, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle … all had one.’ Everyone knows somebody who had one, but nobody has one themselves anymore! [laughs].”

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Macho still gets lots of use from his Comet, frequently appearing at car shows around his home state of Wisconsin, including a trip last summer to the Iola Old Cars Show in Iola, Wis. As always, the road trip was half the fun.

“It rides nice down the highway. It’s got a nice long wheelbase so it cruises really nice. It gets decent mileage and it’s a cute car,” he says.

Eventually, Macho figures he’ll pull the Comet off the road for a while and give it a proper and official restoration. He figures the little Mercury has earned such treatment after serving him so well over the years.

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And it all started when he tried to thumb a ride home at the age of 17.

“Yeah,” Macho concludes, “thanks for not buying me a car Mom!”

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