The story of my first car began in Maud, Oklahoma. It was 1974 and I worked a newspaper route to buy myself a car. I was also taking an auto-mechanics course. After a year of each, I had saved enough and knew enough to start shopping around.
I came across a few I liked. As the months passed, I saved more, so the list of the possible candidates grew. Then, late in 1975, Dad told me about a 1968 Mercury Cougar he saw on his mail route. It was a beautiful gold color, inside and out. It had a 302cid with a two-barrel carburetor under the hood, a 3-speed manual transmission, manual steering and manual brakes. The good points were the fresh paint, bucket seats, console, working air conditioning, good tires and it ran great.
I figured the guys at school would like it. I might even get a date.
I spent the next two days debating the pros and cons. The owner and I bantered about a purchase price. I offered to split the difference and he agreed! A few hours later, I found myself proudly driving my ‘68 Cougar home. It was December 23, 1975. On December 31, 1975, I changed the title to officially make the Cougar mine — a great way to start a new year!
Dad told me he found “a set of chrome reverse wheels with baby moons that have big fat tires on them. They can be your graduation present if you want them.” I gratefully accepted and the transformation of the Frankenstein Cat began.
The following summer, I had custom duel exhaust put on the Cougar. By late fall, I installed a citizen band radio. An AM/FM stereo with an 8-track player was in the dash soon after.
After a malfunction of the hood latch at highway speed, the original hood and roof were damaged. I went to a salvage yard and found a maroon-colored hood. I added a scoop and pins from a 1969 Mustang and sprayed it with brown primer. Now, the Cougar had the looks and sound of a muscle car, but not the power.
It did prove to be a dependable daily driver and I was right about it being noticed by the fairer gender.
After picking up a date one night, we went driving. Suddenly, the Cougar began to shake violently. With a loud thud, the passenger side front wheel went flying. Upon examination, I noticed that the center of the wheel was missing. I borrowed some temporary replacements from a car buddy. Some time, $50 and four concrete blocks later yielded new Magnum 500 wheels for the Cougar.
The next few years, the Cougar took me back and forth every day. There were the normal repairs required — battery, alternator, clutch etc. — but no major problems. Some months later, someone called into a radio show about a garage sale. One of the highlights was an Edelbrock aluminum four-barrel intake manifold for a small-block Ford engine.
For $50, I had the beginnings of the power I needed to back up the Cougar’s look and sound. A trip to a salvage yard reaped a Holley four-barrel carburetor. I rebuilt the Holley and installed it and the intake on the 302. The first test drive was exciting! It ran much better. The police officer who pulled me over agreed.
As time went on, the Cougar started showing the miles and required some attention. I acquired a ‘67 Cougar GT, less the engine and transmission. I added the power steering and power disc brakes to my old companion. I replaced the lower arms, ball joints and spring saddles with new units. I used a template procured from a friend to drill new holes to relocate the upper arms, just like Carroll Shelby did to the racing versions of Mustangs and Cougars.
I installed the sway bar from the ‘67 Cougar GT with new bushings and link kit. I also added a one-piece Shelby export brace. I ordered new coil springs for a ‘68 Cougar GTE and installed them. I rebuilt the disc brake assemblies and installed those with the power-brake master cylinder assembly from the ‘67. I got the proper brackets and pulleys for the power steering pump to fit the 302 from a salvage yard. I replaced the original 2.79 ratio 8-inch rear-end with the 9-inch, also from the ‘67 donor, and gave the Cougar a 3.25 gear ratio with Posi-Track and bigger brakes.
I found a ‘67 XR7 and replaced the original instrument cluster with the XR7 unit, giving the Cougar a full set of gauges with a much-needed tachometer. I also installed the XR7 overhead console and opera lights. At the same time, the front fenders and driver’s door, damaged in a parking lot years before, were replaced with near-perfect ones.
The car drove and stopped like a completely different vehicle. It had the driving attributes of a real muscle car. It was five different colors, so I sprayed the whole car with primer, aka Oklahoma racing color. The transformation into a performance car was on its way. I loved the sound, performance and more aggressive look.
About this same time, a buddy bought a 1966 Ford Mustang. It came with a set of high-back bucket seats from a ‘71 Mach One Mustang. He didn’t like the seats, so I traded him seats from the ‘67 Cougar. I installed the Mach One seats in my Frankenstein Cat. They were not only more comfortable, but looked really nice.
My companion on weekend drives loved how the Cougar drove. On one trip, with a loud boom, the hood of the Cougar went flying over the roof and landed behind us. It seems that someone forgot to replace the hood pins at the last pit stop. We found the pins in my buddy’s pocket. Upon returning, he presented me with a ‘71 Ford Torino shaker hood scoop assembly. It was the perfect look for the Cougar.
Another longtime friend gave me a replacement Cougar hood. I completed it with wastegate air extractors taken from the fenders of a Z28. Those served to enhance engine cooling, helped relieve front-end float at high speed and just looked damn cool.
The Cougar and its tired 302 were put on the backburner for years while I ran my auto repair and restoration business. But in 1989, I decided it was time for it to live again.
I started with a low-millage 5.0-liter from an ‘86 Mustang GT. I ported the heads and had them milled. Bronze valve guides with positive oil seals and new valves with a multi-angle grind were installed as well. I installed forged flat-top pistons. The rotating assembly was balanced, blueprinted and micro-polished. I installed a custom-grind performance camshaft, a blueprinted high-volume oil pump, true roller cam chain and gear set. I converted it to electronic ignition. Long-tube headers completed the horsepower improvements.
The change from a 302 to a 5.0 required modification of the accessory brackets, fabrication of the belt pulley on the harmonic balancer and the use of a truck flywheel. The flywheel allowed me to convert to a 11-inch diaphragm-style pressure plate and clutch. It was also during this revamp of the Cougar that I obtained a close-ratio 4-speed top-loader manual transmission with a Hurst shifter. It was back on the road again!
I relocated the battery to the trunk — Shelby style — thus improving ride, steering and rear-wheel traction. The clutch and brake pedal assembly had become worn and broken. The force of the clutch return spring was simply too much for the factory plastic and pewter bushings, and had been a constant maintenance problem. I replaced the bushings with hand-fabricated bronze ones. I made a brace for the new pedal hanger bracket and made it greaseable.
The next step was installing the interior from a ’68 Cougar XR7 while leaving the Mach 1 seats and original manual shift console. That conversion included the installation of a tilt-away steering column. Now, finally, it was a real muscle car; a great balance of road car, drag racer and cruiser with a lot of luxury and style.
Many miles — about 80,000 — were added. People really liked the car and it became a local legend. Strangers would ask questions about it at gas pumps and a few races were had. I would occasionally get pulled over by the police, but it was usually a car guy who wanted to chat.
Then, something happened. There was a noise and a loss of power. I was sickened! I still had plans for the Cougar. It was broken, worn and never got the gold paint it deserved. I told myself the broken engine was only a test mule and I had found the weak links. I browsed catalogs and put it back together in my imagination: A stroked small block with better heads, modern bushings, a wing on the trunk with a chin spoiler and paint, but a richer gold — not too bright, but so deep you could swim in it.
Time passed, then a marriage to a wife who understands my love of the car and four more kids. They listen as I tell them stories of the old days and my adventures in the Cougar. They have never ridden in it but love it. I occasionally still get asked “Still have your old Cougar?” by people who remember it. There it sits, waiting for the breath of life, waiting to roar again.
-Mark Crook from Shawnee, Oklahoma