THE IDEA IS TO DRAG-RACE THIS OLD BEAST BUT KEEP ITS LARGER-THAN-LIFE LOOKS FIRMLY IN THE 60S
Sam Bellairs says his 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente was a barn find — and he’s determined to keep it looking like one. Not for him a ground-up restoration to a near-new finish. He wanted his Mercury to be driveable, but never wanted to forget it was a rough old beast when he spotted it on eBay.
That was about five years ago, and he’d just sold a “big plodder”, a 1966 Dodge Charger. He wanted a 1964 Fairlane or a Comet, and this car came up first.
“It was in Detroit, and they wouldn’t sell it to anyone outside the US. Steve, from Kiwi Shipping [based in California], imported my Dodge, so he bid in the auction while I was on the phone.”
The reserve was $1580 and he got the car for $2500, without an engine, a gearbox, and with “hardly any” suspension. It was sitting on a transporter and, though it looks tidy in the photo, he was under no illusions it would be mint.
Kiwi Shipping collected and shipped it, and Sam had the basics of his Mercury for about five grand. But importing a car isn’t simple. It has to go through stringent, costly examinations, and though Sam’s car had very little rust to worry about, the compliance man saw it had had an altercation and he had to get it straightened.
He wanted anything he fitted to be period-correct, so as much as possible was from the 1960s. “I went through three engine blocks before I could find a genuine 351 Windsor [5752cc]. It’s rare, 302s and 289s they made loads of, so the right blocks and heads are hard to find.”
It helps that the Comet was initially based on Ford’s Falcon, then the Fairlane, with a longer wheelbase and nicer trim. Sam reckons 95 per cent of his purchases were on the internet. “I bought a fuel pump off eBay this morning, the cam off eBay, the lifters, the intake manifold, the supercharger...”
Ensuring everything came from the right period was a mission at times, though the four-barrel manifolds and carbs were available, as were the steel rear wheels and American Racing fronts.
The signwriting wasn’t applied when he bought the car. He did it himself, using photos of 60s Super Stock races to get the right feel, and the name “Bellairs and Sons”, a garage in Detroit in the 1960-70s that one of his family owned. He even has the key fob from those days.
Sam was so keen to get the correct raced, rattled and rolled feel that he rubbed lacquer into exterior rust stains — using a toothbrush — to halt the rust while keeping the look, then sanded it so it wasn’t too shiny.
As for the cabin, the seats have clearly led a hard life, and the brightly coloured trim has come away from the dash where it looks as if years’ worth of passengers have dug terrified fingernails in.
There’s a C4 auto transmission, an eight-inch rear diff and drum brakes all round, no power steer, no radio. Not that you’d hear it over this feral engine. It sounds impressively hairy-chested at idle — and when Sam puts his foot down there’s a cataclysmic roar as your eardrums explode.
I briefly wish I had a three-pointer seatbelt instead of the lap belt Sam had fitted. “It’s pillarless, and in a big accident the top mounting tends to pull the roof down.” Um ... It took a year just to go through the compliance system, which added $10,000 to the cost.
The instruments don’t work, so modern ones slung beneath the dash keep an eye on the engine vitals because, yes, Sam will take this car to the drags. “The plan was always to drag it, and drive it.” And he is driving it, though it’s only been on the road for four months.
He hasn’t been out of Auckland yet but he takes it to town, does the school run in it, and is hoping to get 12 seconds down the drag strip, though at present it only revs to 4000rpm before it runs out of fuel — hence the newly bought fuel pump.
He hopes to take it to Meremere several times a year, but as he’s in real estate, it can be hard to get out on a Sunday. He likes the old cars because they’ve got style, and a presence. He’s not kidding — this Mercury may not be mint, but it’s certainly larger than life.