Working Cars

1972 Mercry Mont.

It caught my eye in the parking lot of a local strip mall.  There, in what I can say with the use of a cliché’, in all its ‘gleaming beauty’ it sat in the morning Merced County sun.

It was a 1972 Mercury Montego.  It reminded me of a scale model kit I put together back when I was a kid.  I asked the owners Peter and Eleanor about it and they told me it’s been in the family for over forty years.  

It’s not uncommon to see vintage automobiles around Merced and throughout California.  Most of the vehicles that are thirty, forty, or more years old, are basically “classic” cars that make their way to the many car shows and swap meets that define life in the Central Valley for auto enthusiasts.

But this one, the 1972 Mercury Montego, is a working car.  The owners drive it regularly, fix it when it’s broken, and it’s been with them since the day Eleanor’s father bought it from McAuley Motors of Merced brand new forty-one years ago.

“My father drove it right up until he stopped driving,” Eleanor told me as I asked about the history of the car.  “I got it after he passed away, and it’s been with us ever since.”

Eleanor and her husband Peter are proud of their Mercury.  Peter likes working on cars and has been able to do most of the repairs to keep this one going as it’s racked up over 140,000 miles since it was new.  

It’s not the only vintage car the couple owns.  Eleanor drives a 1970 Buick Skylark.  

“Peter put in a Corvette engine and Corvette wheels,” she says with a smile.  She likes the more powerful engine but she’s not crazy about the sports car tires.  She puts up with it because Peter did the work.  

Their third vintage car is a 1979 Lincoln Continental.  “That’s the ‘going out on the town’ car,” Peter says.  

Any classic car person will tell you that ownership comes with a lot of concessions.  Parts are harder and harder to come by, filling the gas tank is horrendous (it costs $120 to fill up the tank of the Lincoln), and in the case of larger vehicles such as the Mercury and Lincoln, garage space is at a premium.

“Our garage is pretty much just the car,” Eleanor says.  “I barely squeeze by to get into the house.”

 But there are so many plusses.  Peter recalled a couple of occasions when the car was involved in fender bender accidents caused by other cars running into or backing into the Mercury and the Lincoln.  The other cars, much newer than these vintage vehicles, received extensive damage, but the autos from the 1970’s sustained only minor bruises.  “The bumpers could take a lot, Peter said.   “I did a minor repair of a piece of vinyl in the bumper after one of the accidents, while the other driver was looking at a lot more damage.”

While Peter handles most of the repair work, the car occasionally needs the attention of a more specialized mechanic.  When that happens, he takes it right back to McAuley Motors where he’s a regular and special customer. According to Peter, “There’s a guy down there who really knows the car well.  He takes good care of it for us.”

At about fourteen miles to the gallon, the 1972 Mercury Montego will never make it on a “most fuel efficient” list.  When I divide the 140,000 miles driven into the forty-one years the car has been of service, it works out to an annual average of about 3,100 miles.  At this stage in the life the vehicle, not much is expected from it.  Peter and Eleanor drive it around town to run errands and go to appointments.  It’s in great shape and the couple intends to keep it that way.

“We’ve had offers to buy it,” Peter says.  “But we just tell them, ‘thanks but no thanks’, it’s not for sale.”

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.