By Brian Earnest
When he was a teen-ager on the prowl for his first car, Nick Herzfeldt didn’t expect to wind up with his great-grandfather’s Mercury.
And he darn sure didn’t expect to still be driving it, showing it and generally having a ball with it 24 years later.
But it’s funny how things work out sometimes with cars that deserve to be kept alive, and Herzfeldt’s unique 1969 Mercury Montego would sure seem to qualify.
The car is actually on its third body and second engine, but it’s still close enough to the same car that Herzfeldt inherited back in 1986 to make it a cool, if slightly non-stock, survivor. Even if it hadn’t been lovingly re-created with new bodies twice in its past, the Montego would still be somewhat unique in that only 17,785 of the two-door versions were built for 1969, and the remaining examples seem to be few and far between these days.
“The kick that I get is when you’re out there driving along and people point to it and say, ‘What is that car?’ You can read their lips," Herzfeldt says. "‘What is that car?’ They’ve never seen one before.”
Herzfeldt isn’t sure he had ever seen one before he owned one, either. “When I was 15 I bought a GTO that I had every intention on restoring,” he recalled. “But my grandpa had been kicking around not driving this car … and I didn’t know it at the time but my dad had been working on it regularly. One day he said, ‘This is the car you are going to buy’ and I wound up driving this one instead.
“I don’t think I had ever even seen it before.”
The mid-size Montego was launched in 1968 and lasted until 1976 as a kissing cousin of the popular Ford Torino. In many ways it was an upscale version of the Comet, and in various years was available as both a two-door hardtop, four-door sedan, station wagon and station wagon.
The base engine was the 155-hp six-cylinder, but more muscular V-8s were optional, including the popular 302-, 351- and 390-cid Ford mills that landed in so many Mustangs, Torinos and Cyclones of the day. The Montego hardtop weighed in at 3,074 lbs. — 14 more than the sedan — and carried a base price of $2,538.
With the Mercury family tree somewhat cluttered at the time with the Comet, Cyclone and Cyclone GT, Cougar and Cougar XR-7, Monterey, and Marauder, it was tough for the Montego to stand out and forge its own clear identity. For the most part, it was overshadowed by the Torinos and Cougars of the FoMoCo clan, and Montegos that have been preserved as hobby specimens are scarce these days.
But Herzfeldt, a resident of Manitowoc, Wis., has been determined to keep his car rolling since the day he got it, even after he wrecked it once horsing around when has still in high school. “When I had gotten the car, it only had 38,000 miles, but it was a 16-year-old car and it had some rust and some issues from being driven in the winter,” he recalled. “So, after driving it that first year I took it off the road and started welding on it and trying to preserve it. I worked all summer painting it and welding and learning how to work on it. I got in on the road just in time for homecoming, and then a couple weeks after that I totaled it! I was out screwing around on a slippery ice-covered road, and I wound up rolling it in the ditch.”
Instead of dragging the car to the boneyard, however, Herzfeldt decided to do whatever it took to get the car back on the street. “I just couldn’t tell my grandpa that I totaled his car,” he said. “There was never a question in my mind that I was going to fix it.”
As luck would have it, the only other 1969 Montego coupe Hertzfeldt knew about belonged to a man who didn’t live far away. “It was one I had actually taken some dimensions off of when I was making patch panels for the first one I was restoring,” he said. “Within a day, I think the very next day, I drove over to him and asked if I could buy it and why I needed it. I gave him my whole sob story and asked him if he’d be interested in selling it and he said sure and I bought it for 100 bucks!”
Herzfeldt quickly got busy with the task of transplanting everything he could save from his original car — including the original 351 Windsor engine, four-speed transmission and almost all of the interior parts — to the body and frame of the second car.
“The second car donated the body, basically,” he said. “For homecoming my senior year, I was able to get it out on the road fully done.
“It looked identical. I took it over to my grandfather’s house, and he couldn’t tell. He never found out … I think the only way you could tell was the VIN.”
Herzfeldt kept that version of the car alive until 1999, when he decided it was ready for a third body, this time from out of state. “I found a rust-free, totally complete car in Southern California that was just sun-baked, but it had no rust whatsoever,” he said. “At that point the car was still in good shape, but it was getting soft and the frame rails were soft. It just would have needed a lot of work to make it structurally real solid again. So I managed to find one in Southern California and had it shipped out.
At that point, he also gave the Montego a fresh power plant with some performance upgrades. The car’s current 5.0-liter V-8 with World Products cylinder heads came “from a mid-‘80s full-size Ford, as near as we can tell.” The car was repainted its factory correct Medium Gold Metallic, given a Ford AOD four-speed transmission, and today continues to run as good as it looks. “This motor is the one we’ve put the majority of the miles on and it runs awesome,” Hertzfeldt said. “We try to run in the Hot Rod Power Tour every year and we’ve driven it to Florida, New York City, Oklahoma, Arkansas twice now … It rides great.
“Being the Mercury version, it’s got a little more cushy interior than the Torinos and Mustangs from back then. I’ve changed a few things on it. The springs are a little lower all the way around for better cornering, but it still handles like an older car.”
For all the attention and surgery the Montego has had over its lifetime, Hertzfeldt said the only work he has had to hire out was the color coat spraying and an upholstery job for the front seat. And if the current body ever goes, Hertzfeldt figures he’ll just come up with another body and make version 4.0. After all the time he and the Montego have spent together, he has no plans to part with his Merc.
“They are not as collectible as Torino Cobras, or other Torinos, but they only made about half as many as the Torinos, so you don’t see very many,” he said. “The family connection is what really makes it valuable to me.”
“It was Grandpa’s last car and I haven’t ever really given it any thought to selling it. It’s sort of stuck with me through thick and thin.”
Got a car you'd like us to feature as our "Car of the Week"? E-mail us and tell us about it