Mechanic’s Tale: The Big Cat




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I recently acquired, repaired, loved, and lost, what I now consider the most comfortable car ever built. About 18 months ago one of my customers brought in his son’s 1995 Mercury Cougar. It had been owned since it was two years old by the father, who had passed it on to his son who, unfortunately, ran it out of oil, so now it had a severe connecting rod knock. The father asked my advice and, since the car was in otherwise excellent condition both mechanically and physically, I recommended getting a used engine and repairing the car, which would have cost $2500.


He thought about it a couple of days and decided that instead he would give his son the 1996 Mercury Sable (sister car to the Taurus) and buy himself a new one. I guess my eyes couldn’t conceal what I thought of this plan. What was wrong, he inquired? Well, his son was kind of hard on cars, if you know what I mean, and whereas the big, heavy, solidly-built, rear-wheel-drive Cougar could stand up to it, I didn’t give the Sable much more than a two-year life expectancy with its new driver. He thought some more about it, but in the end still opted not to repair the Cougar.


Gratification delayed


I knew that some way, somehow, I was going to fix that Cougar. So when the customer brought the title up to me so I could handle disposal of the car, I let him know I might opt to repair it. He didn’t care and — why should he? — he was throwing it away. People are funny though, so it’s better to tell them, lest they see a For Sale sign on their old car a month later and decide you pulled an underhanded trick to get your hands on it.


And there she sat on the front corner of my lot from January 2005 until April 2006. I was busy, and when I had the time I had no money, and when I had the money I had no time. The big hang-up was the cost of the engine. It was just too high to gamble on. It would have been an acceptable price for the repair if I knew I would make the money back on a sale, but on my stretch of Route 1 it is hard to sell anything over $2000. So it sat until a convergence of events. A guy I know who does mobile auto repair told me about a junkyard way down south in the state that was much more reasonable on price. They had a good low-mileage engine for less than half the price quoted locally, and my friend, who made periodic trips down there, would bring the engine back. But still the engine sat on the shop floor until...


Lock your car, take your keys


...that awful morning when I sent José out to get some parts. He asked what he should drive. Why the shop van, of course, my beloved ’89 Plymouth Voyager. Uh, fine Doug, but where is it? Gone! Unquestionably stolen. After the police papers were filed I decided to start repairs on the Cougar the following day. I needed a shop car. Wouldn’t you know that after sitting on my lot unmolested for 15 months, that very night some derelict smashed the back window of the Cougar just to take shelter from a torrential rain? Nonetheless we hooked up the jump box and, after over a year of sitting, she started within a few seconds, rod knock and all. We freshened up the used engine with all new seals and in two days she was ready to drive.


The day I started driving the Cougar I fell head over heels in love with it. The engine was the 4.6-liter V-8 — the same engine that powers the Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car, as well as many Ford trucks, and which is also rated as one of the ten best engines of the last 20 years by yours truly. It didn’t have the wheel-spinning acceleration of a GT Mustang. It was more like the steady thrust of a jet rolling down the runway. She was built for cruising and floating along at seventy-five to eighty miles per hour. The handling was surprisingly good, probably due to the independent rear suspension. She didn’t have the wallowing feel of a big American boat, or the riding-on-tracks feel of a European car. She felt just right. But the best part was the comfort level.


The Cougar is of a family of cars called personal luxury cars (the old Thunderbird, the Monte Carlo , the Olds Cutlass Supreme, etc.). A big two-door car built entirely around the driver’s comfort. The seating was absolutely perfect. I think cars today are built for the way people wish they were (young, trim, sprightly, in exercise clothes). The Cougar is built for the way you are at 46. Creaky joints, binding and twisting flesh and clothes, and a little wide around the middle. It is the only car where my knees were absolutely straight and comfortable and my stomach did not feel cramped. Yes, big SUV’s have a lot of legroom, but high church-pew seating means the angle is wrong to straighten your knees without stressing the rest of your leg. The proof came when I got stuck in, of all places, the middle of the Washington D.C. Gay Pride parade as I tried to take my mother home. We were caught for two hours barely moving until we finally gave up hope of reaching her home and went for drinks instead. I never felt a moment’s discomfort.


Return of the wife


One evening I got a call from the daughter of our babysitter saying that she had spotted my stolen van less than a mile from my shop. Since her family frequently borrowed my van, I knew this was no mistaken identity. I called the police and rushed over to find my van perfectly intact, except for the stink of dime-store cigars. The license plates of course had been switched. Once the officer confirmed it was my van, he escorted me, happily reunited with my old beloved, back to the shop. Now I had no reason to keep the Cougar, which I knew I could sell for a decent price, as compared to my van, which had no resale value. I also knew it’s always easier to sell something you’d rather keep. Still I never seemed to get around to putting that For Sale sign in the window.


There was a great Dilbert cartoon series in which Dogbert takes a job selling used cars, not for the income, but because he enjoys lying to people. One customer brags, “I’ll bet you don’t get many tough negotiators like me!” As Dogbert walks away with a stack of bills he remarks, “That’s the first time I ever sold anyone the car they drove on the lot with.” You guessed it — the original owner came in with his son’s Mercury Sable. Seems he killed the transmission — six months ahead of my prediction. He asked about repurchasing the Cougar.


I initially refused, until I remembered that I was there to make money, and serve my customers, and I had too many cars — so realizing that I had to give up the fling, I relented and sold it back to him for $3250 plus the now defunct Sable. He actually got a good deal because I had not only replaced the engine, I had put a battery in, changed two tires and the brakes, and fixed every little problem it had, including thoroughly cleaning it and finding the combination for the keyless entry.


But it makes me wonder why Ford ever killed those wonderful Thunderbirds and Cougars from the Nineties. They were majestic cars. They must have sold enough of them to make a profit and they never replaced them with a new model, unless you count that pathetic European Ford they brought in and called a Cougar. It had no redeeming qualities and the advertisements seemed to suggest it was the perfect car for a globe-trotting transvestite (remember the cross-dressing spy?).


I guess the aging-middle-class-socially-conservative-guy market wasn’t inspiring the advertisers, but I can still reminisce about my lost love.



Doug Flint owns and operates Tune-Up Technology, a garage in Alexandria, Va.



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