Car of the Week: 1970 Mercury Cougar Eliminator

Barry Jadin is only half kidding when he says he always seems to want to do things the hard way. If that’s the case, he certainly got his wish with his resurrected 1970 Cougar Eliminator. T
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Barry Jadin is only half kidding when he says he always wants to do things the hard way.

If that’s the case, he certainly got his wish with his resurrected 1970 Cougar Eliminator. The car is a stunning muscle car masterpiece today, but it has traveled a long, hard road.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s a little bit of masochism,” laughs Jadin, a resident of Appleton, Wis. “I guess that’s always kind of been my M.O., even when I was younger. Anybody can just go buy something that’s nice. To me, it’s a lot more rewarding to take something that is a basket case and turn it into something nice. Maybe I’ve always been a proponent of a silk purse from a sow’s ear type of approach."

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And then there’s that thing about wanting to prove doubters wrong. Jadin says he had plenty of people questioning his sanity during the 16 total years it took him to pull together his awesome Mercury. He took the jabs with a smile at the time, but inside it added plenty of fuel to his fire.

“It’s funny how your friends and family turn on you!” he chuckles. “My wife (Jeanne) was kidding me for quite a while that I wasn’t really ever going to get it finished. My family members would kind of just laugh at it. It was in the shop at my dad’s. I didn’t even have my own shop at that point … My family members would all come over and there it was, with a sheet draped over it and everybody would laugh.”

The affable Jadin had been dreaming of a really nice Cougar for years, however, and he had learned the value of patience. He changed courses several times during his lengthy restoration journey, but he always kept his eye on the same goal — to end up with a really nice Cougar that lived up to his own high standards. And he didn’t mind starting at the bottom.

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“My love affair with the Cougar started when one of my buddies in high school got one – a ’70 Cougar, similar to [this one]. The first time I saw the car we were going out at night, and I was following him, and he hit the lights in back with the sequential turn signal and was just in love with Cougars after that,” Jadin recalls. “That’s where it started! So obviously I had to get through high school and college, and I was finally in a position to be looking or a car. And I thought, ‘I have a couple of buddies with Mustangs, and I don’t really want to compete with them. I need to have something different.’ The Cougar fit the bill because it’s a little bit different… and hopefully we don’t have too many arguments between me and the Mustang guys.”

Jadin probably could have afforded something a little nicer, but wasn’t afraid to start with a rescue project picked up a battered base 1970 Cougar back in 2002. At first his plan was just to restore it enough to make a nice driver. But given his own meticulous nature, the eventual path he took was predictable. “I didn’t have big plans for it. Then as as I get into a little bit, you know your plan tends to evolve so pretty soon I was thinking, 'Boy I really like the look of an Eliminator. What if I put the parts on it and make it look like an Eliminator?' That seemed to me like a good idea at the time. But once I got deeper into it I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have $30,000 invested in a car that’s worth $10,000. If I’m going to do this right I really need to have an actual Eliminator.” That led him to find Car No. 2 — a retired ex-racer with a multitude of problems living in a yard near Deadwood, S.D.

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“The guy that I bought it from was not the original owner, but he had owned it during the ‘80s. It was his daily driver for a while back in the ‘80s when cars like this weren’t worth anything,” Jadin says. “He finally got in a position where he needed to sell it, and some local guys bought it from him, and he told them, ‘If you are ever decide you don’t want it anymore. I want first chance to buy it back.’ And then the story goes, about 3 years later, he saw it sitting in a backyard in town and they had drag raced it and it was in bad shape. His heart was broken, but he talked to them and got them to sell him the car back. He had intentions to restore the car, but his health was kind of fading and he recognized he was never going to get it done, so that’s when I got my hands on it.”

“There was no engine in it. No transmission in it. It was literally a shell with a fiberglass front end on it. They had torched out the rear wheel wells so they could put big racing slicks in it.”

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In other words, it was a basket case, but Jadin figured two project cars were enough to make one good one if he stayed with it and stuck to his long-range plan. The ensuing years involved a lot of parts chasing, fruitless internet searches, long stretches where nothing got done, and plenty of frustration. For a couple years, Jadin stopped working on the Cougar altogether, instead spending his time resurrecting a couple of “Mazda rotary engine cars. "I really got interested in those rotary engines, and I did a couple of those cars in between. There were a couple points where, yes, I was getting tired of it… That’s why I took a break from it for a couple years. I did some other fun stuff, worked on some other cars. And to be honest, I was kind of tired of looking for items I couldn’t find.”

A COUGAR WITH MUSCLE

The term Top Eliminator was familiar to drag racing buffs, but to Mercury fans the term simply meant “hot Cougar.” Car Life wrote, “Think of it as a family car with guts and you’ll be happy with it.”

Evolutionary design changes characterized the 1970 Mercury Cougars. They included a new vertical grille and a forward-thrusting front end. Promoted as “America’s most completely equipped sports car,” the new Cougar grille had a center hood extension and an “electric shaver” style insert. Its design was reminiscent of the 1967 and 1968 models’ grilles.

Features for the basic Cougar models included upper body pin stripes, wheel opening moldings, roof moldings and windshield and rear window chrome accents. The sporty interior featured high-back bucket seats, courtesy lights, carpeted door trim panels, a vinyl headliner and a rosewood-toned dash panel. The Cougar convertible had a Comfortweave vinyl interior, door-mounted courtesy lights, a three-spoke steering wheel and a power top with a folding rear glass window. There was a two-door hardtop with a base retail price of $2,917. Prices for the convertible started at $3,264. Only 2,322 ragtops were made.

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The Cougar XR-7 had distinct wheel covers, rocker panel moldings, a remote-control racing mirror and an emblem on the rear roof pillar. Interior features included vinyl high-back bucket seats with leather accents, map pockets on the seat backs, a tachometer, a trip odometer, a rocker-switch display, a burled walnut vinyl applique on the instrument panel, rear seat armrests, map and courtesy lights, a visual check panel, loop yarn nylon carpeting and an electric clock with elapsed-time indicator. The XR-7s came in the same body styles as the base Cougar, at $3,201, and $3,465, respectively. The XR-7 ragtop had a run of just 1,977 units.

The 1970 model year was the last stand for the Eliminator. The production total of 2,267 was up slightly over 1969 (2,250), but the muscle car landscape was changing and FoMoCo pulled the plug on the potent Cougar after a four-year run.

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The 1970 Eliminators came standard with the new 351 Cleveland four-barrel V-8 that was rated at 300 hp. There were options galore for the muscle car’s engine compartment including the Boss 302, the 428 CJ and a new version of the 385 series big-block 429. This “Boss 429” package included Ram-Air induction and a 375-hp rating. “Call it the road animal,” said Cougar literature. A rear deck lid spoiler, body graphics and a restyled scooped hood returned as part of the Eliminator’s image.

One car enthusiast magazine of the era tested a 1970 Cougar Eliminator with the 290-hp version of the “Boss 302” V-8. It carried 12.4 lbs. per hp and did 0-to-60 mph in 7.6 seconds. The quarter-mile took 15.8 seconds.

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A MIDWEST MERCURY

Jadin did some homework and found out his second Cougar was sold out of dealership in Lincoln, Neb. He figures that the car was a dealer order meant to catch customers’ eyes and get them to stop and take a look around the showroom. If that was the plan, it didn’t last long. “It sold literally in a week and a half after it was built,” Jadin noted. “My guess is the dealer ordered it. A lot of dealers wanted a car that looked like this on their lot, with this color, and the hood scoops and spoiler and all that. That’s what brings the 19-year-old kid with money into your car lot.”

From there the car wound up as a daily driver for a time in South Dakota, then was relegated to the race track.

“The front end of this one was in pretty bad shape. The guys had drag raced it, so actually they had a fiberglass front end on it it,” Jadin noted. “It was in tough shape, so I had to use a donor car and really put two cars together to make one."

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“The parts hunting when I started back back in the early 2000s, there was no such thing as finding parts on the Internet, or it was in the very early stages of it. There were parts for this car like the gauge cluster [on the passenger side], that’s a very rare part and only on the Eliminators and nobody reproduces that material. The only option is to find a real one or a real bad fake. I hunted for a long time. At one point I didn’t know if I’d ever find one that looked acceptable, but sometimes luck is on your side, and I found one at a swap meet in southern Wisconsin … Then I had to chase down the other one. I only had half a set. There was probably a 5-6 year period I was looking and trying to locate them. It’s a whole different game now. Whatever you’re searching for now, somebody has it. It’s only a matter of how much you’re willing to pay for it, and then are they willing to sell it to you?”

Jadin was able to salvage some original interior parts, such as the interior door panels and side panels. He meticulously re-created the sail panels behind the back seat using the original cardboard-type material and some reproduction fabric. He had the seats reupholstered and replaced the headliner and carpet.

The engine block fell into Jadin’s lap at of the big Carlisle swap meets when he wasn’t quite prepared to buy it. "We drove out there with four guys in just a car, and here I have an engine that I need to take home!” he chuckles. “There was a block that came with it that wasn’t an original block, but I wound up finding this engine that had correct numbers for a ‘70 and it was a factory rebuilt engine. When I bought it in the early 2000s it was still sitting on the pallet from when Ford had rebuilt it. After sitting all those years I had to go through it and rebuild it, but at least I had something where the heads and everything matched.”

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“The engine, basically I went through it and did most of that work, and I had one of my high school buddies help me because he’s built several Ford engines. The two of us did that together. The body work, I have another buddy, Kurt Thiry. He has a shop in Rosiere, Wis., of all places. He has a small shop he runs by himself, but he’s probably more particular and meticulous than I am. So he did the bodywork and the paint. I worked with him quite a bit. We actually assembled the whole car without paint, just the panels and everything to get it all fitting right, then we tore it back down and I put the engine and drive train it, and then put the whole thing back together again and painted it at the end.”

Aside from installing a roller cam for a better torque curve and smoother-running engine, Jadin says he went to great lengths to keep the car as stock as he could. When he couldn’t find a correct part, he simply waited and kept looking. Almost everything else, from the stitching on the vinyl seats to the glorious Competition Gold paint, is just the way it would have come from the Dearborn plant.

“One thing I like to point out: The exhaust is a reproduction exhaust, but I guess this is how anal I am. The reproduction is based exactly on the original exhaust system. It comes from West Coast Classic Cougars out in Oregon. Well, I fabricated the hangers to look just like the original because, you know, if you stoop down you can see them. And you have to get that right! [laughs].

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Jadin found the car’s original build sheet under the back seat and it showed that the South Dakota Eliminator came with a three-speed transmission and Competition Handling package, which meant it had the rear sway bar and a different spring rate. It also had styled steel wheels.

“I think those were the only options they had on the car,” he says. “It came stock with a 3-speed, and when I was rebuilding the car, I thought, ‘Yeah, the 3-speed is fine but it would be nicer to have a 4-speed, so that’s what I did. The originally tranny is sitting up on a shelf in the garage, and that will go with the car if anybody ever wants to put it back to original."

“Everybody has a different approach to it. My feeling is there was only 2,000 Eliminator package cars built, and to me that is rare enough that it didn’t deserve anything other than an original restoration. I’ve gone through a lot of pain to use all original parts. I’m proud to say I blasted all the individual leaf springs, and you can still read the original parts numbers on them. This is supposed to be a rare car, it just deserves to be kept that way.”

It’s clear from the look on his face when his right foot wakes up the growling 351 under the hood that Jadin loves to drive his Cougar the way it was intended — with the windows down, decibel level up and at a brisk pace. He will never be accused of babying his baby.

“I think for me the biggest thing when I first started driving it was, I was surprised how well they ride, he says. “People think of older cars from ‘60s and ‘70s and they have this vision of them being loud, riding rough and not handling, but this setup — and it’s back to original — they actually drive really well. It really rides nice and it’s actually a dependable car. You could drive it every day if you had the heart to do it.”

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Jadin has had a lot of fun short trips behind the wheel in the past four years. None were more memorable than the first one he took when the car came back after the final paint had been applied and it was all done. He had to trailer it home in December with snow and salt on the ground and wait four long months for the Wisconsin winter to make his maiden voyage. When the car finally came out in April, though, Jadin was more than ready to go for a long-awaited joy ride.

“It was definitely satisfying, after all the ribbing I took from my wife and everybody. She got to sit next to me when I took it out and her and I took that first drive together," he says. “Yeah, it was definitely satisfying after all those years.”

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