22 June 2016

1964 Mercury Comet Cyclone creates whirlwind of memories

Nighttime drives in the 1964 Mercury Comet Cyclone, which he bought new, revive powerful memories for Charlie Caldwell. He lives on property that’s been in his family since the 1840s, and his Painesville, Ohio home is located just 100 yards from the one he grew up in.

“I still drive the same roads that I drove as a kid,” said Caldwell. “In the Comet, I really feel it takes me back. I feel like I’m 19 again when I come up through those hills.”

Revving the highly modified 289-ci V-8 and shifting the four-speed stick, Caldwell hears and feels much more performance potential than the Cyclone began with in 1964. He said the car’s distinctive dashboard, with its soft green backlighting, along with his high school graduation tassel hanging from the rear-view mirror – complete with a high school girlfriend’s ring attached – help create the time machine effect.

Mercury introduced the Cyclone version of its crisply styled Comet compact in January 1964, seemingly to provide a showroom link to the brand’s short run of specially built, lightweight Comet drag-race cars. Those high-powered specials carved out their own drag racing history. The Cyclone street model, however, came up well short of the advertised “whiplash of surging power.” The car's 289-ci V-8 engine, rated at 210 horsepower, was hardly going to snap anyone’s neck.

The Cyclone package was mostly cosmetic: chrome engine trim, a bucket seat interior and chrome wheel covers. The same year, Pontiac introduced its Tempest GTO with a 325-horsepower 38-ci V-8 and sporty design cues, igniting the car industry’s muscle car trend. Mercury wouldn’t join that group until 1966 with the 390-powered Cyclone GT.

Caldwell was still in high school when he bought his Cyclone from K&B Lincoln-Mercury in Willoughby, Ohio. “The salesman’s name was Bill Hill – you don’t forget things like that,” he said. Other details also remain top-of-mind decades later: “I paid $2,863.13 and financed it with a local credit company,” he continued. “My father had to co-sign the loan. The payment was $84 per month, and I wasn’t sure I could make it. I was working at two gas stations and a pizza mill.” Caldwell became a police officer soon after buying the Cyclone.

The one option Caldwell insisted on, a four-speed manual, cost $188 extra over the standard three-speed stick. He had to special-order his car and wait six weeks for it to arrive. The first night Caldwell had his new Cyclone, he cruised to the local burger joint, where he parked next to a new Ford Fairlane, the Comet’s corporate cousin. “I knew the guy,” he said. “But I didn’t know what the double checkered flag badge on the fenders meant.” He would learn the flags signified the high-performance, 271-horsepower high-performance version of the 289 engine – by losing an impromptu race to the Fairlane on a deserted road outside of town.

Caldwell continued using the Cyclone as a daily driver for several years, later storing it in his parents’ garage, and then his own. In 1990, he cleaned up the Cyclone and got it back in running order. Then, around 2002, he began collecting and restoring the mid-’60s Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars he had long admired. He was about to restore another when is wife, Denise, insisted he refinish the Cyclone instead.

“I tore it down completely,” said Caldwell. He had Michael’s Racing Engines in Macedonia, Ohio breathe some fire into the original 289 V-8, installing a stroker crankshaft to bring its displacement to 331 cubic inches, and filling it with speed parts including solid valve lifters, a Holley 650-cfm carburetor and Doug’s Headers with electric cut-outs.

Caldwell and his wife worked on the car together, sanding, painting and polishing. To capture the vintage Comet drag-race car look, Caldwell added an aftermarket hood with air scoops. “I also added the Cragar S/S wheels that I couldn’t afford when I was a kid,” he said.

Charlie and Denise Caldwell drive the 1964 Comet Cyclone to car shows up to 200 miles from home, trailering it for longer trips. The car has won several major trophies. “The Comet puts a smile on my face every time I drive it,” he said. “It’s my wife’s favorite, too.”

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