By Brian Earnest
The Mercury Comet had a bit of an identity crisis right from the get-go. The Ford Falcon-based pseudo compacts were originally ticketed for the Edsel lineup. Before they ever appeared in public however, plans changed and the cars were sent to Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, even if a lot of customers there weren’t quite sure what they were.
For 1960 and ’61 the Comets didn’t wear any Mercury identification. Finally, in 1962, they were officially adopted by Mercury and from then on went on to live out a fairly normal existence — albeit in the shadow of the Falcon, Mustang, Fairlane and Thunderbird, among other FoMoCo products.
Tom Finn wasn’t thinking about any of that nearly 20 years ago when he came across his 1965 Comet Caliente. He just knew a good thing when he saw it, and figured the Caliente would be a fun car to fix up and have around for a relatively modest investment. With every passing year, he becomes a bigger fan of his Mercury, even as many other cars have come and gone from his garage.
“I guess I like the rarity of it. It was an unusual car and I can’t say I was looking for a Mercury Comet, it just happened to pop up,” recalls Finn, a resident of Palm Springs, Calif. “To be honest, I was still working in those days and had a lot more money to spend on cars — I had a lot more money than sense! I bought a lot of cars, and I sold a lot of cars, too. But this one has always been a keeper. I’ve had it a long time.”
The Comet was for sale in Folsom, Calif., near Sacramento, and Finn liked it immediately, even if it was a bit tired after surviving 35 years in almost entirely original condition. The big question he had at the time was if the car would make it home to Santa Rosa, where he lived at the time. “I bought it because it was in one piece. Everything was stock on it, but it was in rough condition,” he says. “It was not quite a basket case, but it needed everything. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I like rare cars and I like deals. I think I paid about $2,000 for it.
“The people that had it, I think they were planning on restoring it. But the people got ill, and I think that was the reason they were selling it. They started on it and they planned to restore it, I do remember that. But I don’t know a lot about [its history]. It was in one piece, and we were able to drive it from Folsom to Orange County.”
SECOND COMING OF THE COMET
The Mercury Comet survived largely unchanged for its first four years before finally getting its first major redesign for 1964. The unibody designs were similar to the first three versions, but the updated cars were a little curvier and had more modern grille designs. The Caliente was unveiled for 1964 and marketed as the more fancy, upscale Comet, positioned above the 202 and 404 lines, and below the Cyclone, which was aimed at the muscle car crowd. The Calientes were available as four-door sedans, two-door hardtops and convertibles, with base prices ranging from $2,327 for the sedan to $2607 for the ragtop.
The Calientes had special horizontal chrome bar taillight trim that blended into the rear deck panels. There was also a lower body side molding that ran between the two wheel openings and three chrome dashes that appeared above the front wheels. The headlights had a new forward-sloping stacked design.
The base engine in the Comet lineup was the 200-cid inline six-cylinder, which produced a modest 120 hp. The optional 289 was a popular choice, however, and pumped out 200, 225, 271 hp, depending on which one you ordered.
Carpeting, a padded dash and door courtesy lights were among the other standard goodies on the Calientes. The convertibles also had power tops. Options included two-tone paint; power windows, seats, and antenna; speed control; AM/FM push-button radio and rear seat speaker; tinted glass; and retractable seat belts. Most of the Comets had automatic transmissions, and nearly half had the 289.
The Caliente was the only Comet in the lineup to offer a convertible option, and only 6,035 ragtops were built for the ’65 model year.
Finn wasn’t planning to turn his Caliente into a show pony or trophy chaser, but he did want it restored to the point where he would be proud to take it anywhere. He also wanted to make sure it ran as good as it was going to look.
“It wasn’t terrible, but everything needed to be redone and has been redone,” he says. “All the trim and all the bumpers have been re-chromed… Most of the mechanical work was done by a mechanic — Gene Mitchell in Anaheim, he’s sort of a legend around here. He works on Leno’s cars and everybody knows him …. The paint and body work was also farmed out to somebody in Orange County. It was straight. All I did was basically strip all the trim off and the body shop block sanded and straightened out the few things that needed fixing.”
The Comet’s cream-colored paint is contrasted nicely by the black top and bright red interior. Niceties abound inside, with comfortably padded bucket seats, padded console and dash, a wood steering wheel accented by woodgrain door panel inserts, and plenty of bright work in front of the driver.
Finn has added plenty of his own touches to make the car more drivable, but still looking original. The only obvious change in aesthetics is the American Racing Torq Thrust wheels, which fit in just fine with the SoCal vibe.
The original 200-hp 289 was no dog, but Finn says it’s a little more caffeinated in its second life, thanks to a four-barrel Holly car, headers and an upgraded intake manifold. He’s even got air conditioning for days when it’s too hot for the top to come down. It all adds up to a car that’s a lot of fun to drive — something that Finn does quite often. “It was a factory V-8 car with power steering. It did not have air conditioning, but it does now because sometimes it’s just too hot here to have the top down. I took out the original brakes and it’s got power disc brakes now. Everything was done with genuine Ford parts .
“Since we moved to Palm Springs it’s our winter driver, and in summer we put the top up and put air conditioning on,” he laughs. “I try to make it a point to drive it at least once or twice a week. It’s been on plenty of trips up and down the coast.
“We use it. It has always gotten driven. It looks like a stocker, but the restoration was more performance-oriented than it was trailer queen.
“I’ll tell you, I never had it dyno-ed, but it has to have one of the hottest 289s that I’ve ever seen. It really moves. You can wear out the rear tires real quick.”
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