When I acquired my hobby car, a restored baby-blue '65 Mercury Comet convertible four years ago, I did not expect it to be much different from my daily-driver Ford Focus wagon.
After all, while my vintage car presented a politically incorrect (but very satisfying) V8 engine and even an automatic transmission, I thought it would be pretty much just like any other car.
My “first convertible” had been a similar '65 Comet (albeit with a Straight 6 engine and 3-on-the-tree manual transmission). Hence my nostalgic desire to have another.
But whenever I went for a recreational spin (top down of course), it was the little “modern” things from my Focus that I noticed missing on the Comet.
They are items we now take for granted like cup holders, a sound system with a CD player, cruise control, remotely adjustable outside mirrors, effortless starting and drive-away thanks to electronics, as well as power windows, brakes and steering, air bags and pollution controls.
Things such as automatic transmission and power windows became options in the 1950s, but this '65 was originally ordered by a dealer or customer without them.
Further, for Detroit, 1965 was one of the last years before the onslaught of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (1968) and Environmental Protection Agency dictates (1972). So I call the Comet my “Last Pre-Modern Car.”
Of course, today there are few dealers who were active in the business 46 years ago or longer, and only those who now also are vintage car collectors can fully appreciate how much improved today's cars over those of a half-century ago.
Still, while we have gained a lot in our cars, we have lost much, too.
The '65 Comet Caliente was typical for that era's industry, standing up as a “luxury compact” against Buick Special Skylark, Olds F-85 Cutlass, Pontiac Tempest Le Mans, Dodge Dart and Coronet, Chevrolet Chevelle, Rambler Classic, Studebaker Cruiser and in-house competitor Ford Fairlane.
All had wheelbases between 111 and 117 ins., overall lengths from 194 to 206 ins. and were stickered at about $2,600. The Comet fit right in the middle with a 114 in.-wheelbase and 195-in. length. The lowest 202 series 2-door sedan was priced at $2,108 while the upper series Caliente convertible went for $2,607. Today, that's about $18,400.
Mercury this year joined the list of other once-familiar nameplates to disappear from the marketplace, such as Studebaker, Rambler, Oldsmobile, Plymouth and Pontiac. They live on for us old car collectors.
In those days, list prices were for vehicles pretty well stripped. Power anything cost extra. Today, thanks to when import brands were assembled at overseas factories and thus unable to handle America's customization wishes (so they made practically everything standard), the sticker price now includes most once-optional features. Then again, many of them weren't imagined a half-century ago.
Some other interesting comparisons can be made between my 46-year-old Mercury Comet and the '10 Mercury Milan Premier my wife drives.
The most obvious differences are available choices. In 1965, the Comet was offered in four series (202, 404, Caliente and Cyclone) and five body styles (2-door sedan, 2-door hardtop, 2-door convertible, 4-door sedan and 4-door station wagon).
The '10 Milan, a bit smaller than 1965's compact cars, came in only one body style, a 4-door sedan, with just the single step-up series, Premier.
In 1965, Mercury buyers could choose from 16 different color paints, plus 27 2-tone combinations.
In cloth or vinyl, there were seven different interior trim color schemes.
The '10 Milan had a choice of only 10 monochrome (and generally dark) colors and three interior trims.
Pre-modern cars of the 1960s may have been less safe, less loaded and less eco-friendly, according to the Feds.
But they sure were prettier.
(Mike Davis writes about the auto industry, past and present and is the author of several automotive history books.)