1960-1963 Mercury Comet

Perhaps it was just a coincidence of timing, but then again maybe the Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford Motor Company was hoping some "luck of the Irish" would rub off on it when it introduced its first compact car -- the 1960 Mercury Comet -- on St. Patrick's Day, 1960.

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The 1962 Mercury Comet Custom 4-door wagon cost $2,526.
A 1962 Mercury Comet Custom 4-door wagon cost $2,526.
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There was quite a bit of apprehension about new products in Dearborn, especially at Lincoln-Mercury; after all, the division was still licking its wounds and cleaning up the mess left by the Edsel, which had been discontinued the preceding November.

Then, too, there had also been some major changes in leadership within the company, all while trying to turn a profit with some rather outlandishly styled Mercurys and Lincolns that were struggling in the market.

To get a better understanding of where the Lincoln-Mercury Division was situated in early 1960, one has to look back to the mid 1950s. A decade removed from the end of World War II, America was the world's industrial leader, including a booming automotive segment.

Meanwhile, the devastated industrial strength of Europe was being restored in the post-war boom. European automakers were exporting a growing array of vehicles from powerful sports cars to small, frugal "economy cars" quite different from the large, flashy, and powerful jobs coming from U.S. factories.

Ever since taking up the reins to his grandfather's company, Henry Ford II had been aiming the family business to compete directly with market leader General Motors. In 1955, Ford subdivided itself into five different automotive divisions, much like GM.

Under a plan created by Francis C. "Jack" Reith and supported by Lewis D. Crusoe, Ford vice president of car and truck operations, there were to be distinct divisions for Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln, plus a new Continental Division and a Special Products group that would give rise to the Edsel.

As a reward for his great idea, Reith, a member of the "Whiz Kids" management team that Henry Ford II hired right after the war, was given the Mercury Division to run. He immediately went to work to make the brand as unique as possible. A totally new Mercury was produced for 1957 with futuristic styling.

However, Reith's plan soon started to crumble. For starters, in July 1956, the Continental Division -- maker of the low-volume ultraluxury Continental Mark II -- was absorbed by the Lincoln Division. Then, amid flagging sales of the all-new Mercury, the final blow for Reith came in late August 1957, when Mercury was reunited with Lincoln in a single division. Reith was out of a job, as was Ben Mills, who had headed up Lincoln; both were replaced by James J. Nance, late of struggling Studebaker-Packard.

Within days of the Lincoln-Mercury remarriage, Edsel hit the market. Despite great fanfare, its sales were instantly disappointing, and by the middle of January 1958, ailing Edsel had also been incorporated into the Lincoln-Mercury operation. The result was the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division.

During the "Eisenhower Recession" that started in late 1957 and ran well into 1958, one of the few automotive success stories was the sales gain of imported cars. While the 1958 model year would see overall domestic production drop by more than 30 percent from the previous year, import sales experienced a 66 percent increase. (Some of the imports were British and German Fords sold by Ford Motor Company dealers.)

In late 1957, Ford had begun work on a new small domestically produced car, but now it was full steam ahead. When word got out that the Falcon was on the horizon, Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln dealers began clamoring for something like it of their own to sell.

By early winter 1958, it was determined that a compact could indeed bolster ailing Mercury sales. But would it fly? With some already starting to read the writing on the wall that the Edsel was not fitting in with medium-priced cars, its marketing aims were revamped. For 1959, Edsel was touted as being "just above the low-priced three." With this new angle of upscale economy, it seemed logical to give Edsel a Falcon spinoff.

Another unexpected turn of events took place in August 1958. Ben Mills, another of the original Whiz Kids, had been repositioned as Nance's right-hand man following the Lincoln-Mercury reunification. Now, he was summoned to the office of Henry Ford II, where he met with top executives Ernest Breech and Roberts S. McNamara, and asked for his thoughts about the progress of the Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln Division.

After a frank conversation, a quick decision was made: Nance was gone and Mills was offered the position to try and make this burdened group of automobiles a profitable concern.

Mills knew that there was plenty wrong that needed to be corrected and that it had not happened overnight. He asked for five years to get everything back in order and for the division to start turning a profit. Understanding his point of view, Henry Ford II, Breech, and McNamara granted his request and offered him plenty of assistance, including new products and marketing directions.

Continue on to the next page to learn more about the Mercury Comet's styling.

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