- "​Light Taupe Metallic" never looked so...well, damned plain, that's what.

1​987 Mercury Cougar - How Far Does $400 Go?

H​ere's a hint: start apologizing to your wallet. Right now.

I​n the last update from the Garage, I lamented the death of the Cadillac limo for about five seconds before getting over it, taking the money I got from the scrappers, and buying a $400 1987 Mercury Cougar LS for the next project. To be clear from the start: this car will not be pampered, will not be restored, and stands a chance of ending up in the same predicament that the Cadillac did. Or not. That's the beauty of fate..."we'll see" is a perfectly acceptable answer to any question I get involving this oversized Ford Mustang. We extracted the car from a yard in Indiana, dragged the car back to the shop, and has managed to get the engine to wake up and the car to move around, if only just barely. So, what all has been done to make this beater roadworthy and legal? Because, yes, readers, this car, one that had been derelict for nearly a decade, is now registered, insured, plated and being driven.

I​ need to apologize to my Shop Vac for having to deal with this mess.

I​ need to apologize to my Shop Vac for having to deal with this mess.

T​he short list was simple enough: get the tires from the Cadillac mounted on 15" wheels that would bolt onto the Cougar, check the fluids, change the oil, check the brakes, address a couple of small issues, and we should be good to go. The oil change showed black but otherwise servicable fluid, and the filter offered up no surprise. The spark plugs were ancient but still functional, so they were changed for new items. The distributor cap and rotor were swapped out at this time as well. The first brake inspection turned up nothing amiss...the lines looked good enough, the pads were solid, and the brake drums were locked in place but functional. There was an unholy shake in the car when you drove above 50 miles an hour and it was plainly evident that the fuel system needed to be cleared out with fresh fuel. So, with the car drivable enough, I went the cheap route: I stole the wheels off of my wife's 1980 Ford Mustang and tried to drive the Cougar to the inspection station so I could get the paperwork to get license plates. Eight miles into a 22-mile trip, the transmission cooler line failed, spraying automatic transmission fluid upwards, towards the catalytic converter. Everywhere the car went looked like a proper murder scene. Once I fixed that, I tried again. The drive was absolutely horrific, with the car cutting out every quarter-mile or so, but I would get up to speed, shut it off, coast for a bit, then refire and re-accelerate. Not the best idea, but it got me to inspection, got me license plates, and got me home.

Y​IKES.

Y​IKES.

Y​ep, that's a wheel.

Y​ep, that's a wheel.

T​he next few days were spent making the car drivable, since it's trip to get inspected had greyed my hair by a shade or two. I initially feared that the engine was shutting itself off due to a fuel starvation issue, but upon disassembly of the intake manifold setup it was clear that the gasket between the throttle body join and the manifold had failed, allowing coolant water to be ingested into the engine. It's a sheer miracle that the 5.0L didn't hyrdo-lock, and once fixed the engine was quite happy. Next was the front suspension and that death wobble. Upon inspection it appeared that the suspension had been recently gone through, but while moving the tires around we found one that had separated belts, causing a growth to form around a third of the circumference of the tread. Hastily, I made a deal for another set of Mustang 10-hole wheels and had the fresh tires swapped onto them. The result was a world of difference...the car was a pleasant, soft cruiser! Unfortunately, this dredged up another fault, this time one that nearly killed not only the car, but myself.

L​ook, gang: a clue!

L​ook, gang: a clue!

Y​ep, serious clue going on over here.

Y​ep, serious clue going on over here.

W​hile driving the Cougar into town on a rainy afternoon, I happened upon the mail carrier out doing his duty. I went for the brakes to slow down...and the pedal slammed to the floor. This was beyond an "oh, shit!" moment...the words I used were much, much coarser. If the emergency brake had failed in any way, shape or form, I would've stuffed the Mercury into the first ditch I could find and would've left it there. There was no doubt what had happened: the driver's front soft brake line exploded and drained the master cylinder completely. Every soft line was replaced. During the bleeding process, the passenger rear wheel cylinder in the drum brakes exploded, so in addition, I had to rebuild both rear drum setups from scratch, springs and all. I'll be loose with some things, but brakes are not going to be on the list.

S​o, how much money do you reckon went into bringing the car up to code? The answer is $850, and $100 alone of that figure was putting tires onto wheels. The wheels were free, I had the tires on hand. A lot of the cost is due to the upkeep and maintenance of the car. In addition, you can discount another $105 for a replacement rear-view mirror, passenger-side fender, and the missing interior "cubby box" as they didn't make the car do anything. The fender won't even be installed until after March is over with. There are still a couple of issues that could be dealt with, like a leaking power steering unit and rear main seal, but for now the car is drivable and safe.

U​ntil next time...

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