James Wilson’s 1970 Cougar Eliminator Clone

Confessions of a Cougar-holic

James Wilson's 1970 Mercury Cougar 'Copy Cat'Hi, my name is James and I’m a Cougar-holic. My story, well, I was raised just outside the San Francisco bay area in a small town called Pleasanton, California. At least it was a small town when I lived there. The Good Guys show would start a few years after I left. My father was a sort of car guy. He loved cars, but just never found a car to get passionate about. At one point or another he’s had an Austin Healey, a ’65 GTO ‘vert, a ’67 XKE, and a ’67 GTX. He actually was about to buy a 300SL Gull wing but decided on buying the Austin brand new instead. Unfortunately, I got older and the need for family cars interfered. He was still out there every weekend washing, waxing, and keeping ahead of the maintenance on everything he owned.

Fortunately my uncle lived nearby and was always working on one of his Thunderbirds. I learned to drive on his knee in a ’64 Thunderbird at age 7 and was cruising the farm roads around his house in a ’67 Thunderbird at age 10. Just up the road and back.

By the time I got my license at 16, I had helped my father or my uncle with everything from tune-ups to engine rebuilds, mainly FEs. I even helped rebuild a 1919 Cat and the flathead on an 8N tractor.

Just before my sixteenth birthday, a neighbor was selling his ’71 Challenger 340 T/A six pack for $2500.00. My mom thought, “Too much car.” My dad thought, “Yuck! Mopar! (He hated the GTX.) My uncle was against anything not Ford blue. So instead I got my dad’s ’77 Ford Ranchero GT with all the smog minus the cat’s and with dual glass-packs. Just think what the T/A is worth today!

Well, the muscle car bug wouldn’t leave me alone and I got the first of my Camaros. Of course it wasn’t fast enough, so along with my cousin we changed this, added that, and looking back it probably spent more time waiting on more money than time on the road.

While waiting on another engine for the Camaro, my friend decided to sell his ’67 XR-7 A-code. It was in pieces, but everything was there–mostly. For $500.00 I picked it up and learned how to rebuild a 289. The biggest problem I had with the car besides trying to figure out where everything went was the small engine bay compared to the Chevy. We drove the car for a couple of weeks and were deciding what to do to make it faster when I traded the car for a 6-71 blower for the 350. Neither getting rid of the Cat nor putting the blower on the Camaro was a good decision.

In order to follow my other passion–flying–I soon joined the Army, but still had the car bug. I owned another third-generation Camaro at my first duty station in Fairbanks, Alaska. You have to be a little crazy to have a muscle car as your daily transportation in the frozen North. Along the way, my focus shifted from speed to competition car stereos, from cars to 4x4s, then back to cars.

Fast forward a dozen or so years; I was out of the Army and working on magnetic resonance imagers and computerized tomography scanners. I decided I needed a project. I was looking at sports cars. Mainly ‘Vettes, Porsche 994s and RX-7s. Nothing seemed to grab my attention until I was visiting my in-laws and looking at Richard Gunn’s ’67 standard A-code Cougar, also known as ‘Mistress.’ He had rebuilt the car a couple of years before, and was enjoying showing and tinkering with the car. We were talking about the cars that had never been built. How about a ’67 Cougar convertible or ’67 fastback? I decided to look into getting another ’67 to build up as either a ‘vert or fastback project.

In the summer of ’06, I was cruising the web searching when I came across a Competition Gold ’70 M-Code 4-speed Eliminator back East. Something about that car, the stance, the graphics, and the wing said, “Mine!” I quickly called Richard. “What about an Eliminator?” A long discussion and a bid was quickly placed. I didn’t get the cat but the seed had been sown.

While waiting to find my next target I kept scouring the web and soon found MC.net. I read all I could and my desire only grew; however, my thought process changed. I realized that if I got an Eliminator I wouldn’t want to do anything beyond restoring it. I’ve always had the need to tinker and figured a true Eliminator would not be a good choice for me. So the search shifted to a regular ’70 that could be easily cloned.

Figuring we’d want to inspect the car first, we limited our search to southern California for me and the Portland area for Richard. After a few false starts here and there, in late April ’07 an M-Code standard came up on eBay just down the street from Richard. After a rash of phone calls and an inspection by Richard (“looks good”) a bid was placed.

I was on pins and needles watching that bid-clock countdown but I had a huge smile on my face when I called Richard. “Go pick her up!” Due to work I wasn’t able to get up to Portland until Memorial Day weekend almost a month later. In the meantime, Richard and I made a list of things needed. He enjoyed going on a spending spree at West Coast Classic Cougar. The Thursday of the holiday weekend I couldn’t get done with work fast enough before turning the rental car towards Portland to see my baby.

Copy Cat Is Born

1970 Mercury Cougar Prior to RebuildCopy Cat started life as a Deep Gold Metallic Standard M-code on November 11th 1969. I was three years old. The car was sold by Valley Garage in Kent, Washington with a medium ginger decor group interior. Few options were checked: power brakes, power steering, tilt wheel, console and a clock. I have little knowledge of her existence in the previous 84,000 (184,000?) miles. At least one poor-quality repaint along with an engine rebuild using a 72 CJ block and a carburetor and intake swap were done before I got her. No doubt she had been rode hard and put away wet.

Originally, I intended on making a faithful clone of a true Eliminator. Competition Gold, black interior, camera case, the works, but the more I looked at the pictures, talked with Richard, and thought about it, the more my plans shifted.

“What about burnt orange?”

“Huh!”

“What about carbon fiber for the stripes?”

“What?”

A lot of ‘What if’s,’ and ‘How about this or thats’ filled our conversations.

My vision for Copy Cat evolved and solidified. I tried imagining what Ford would do today if they were building the Eliminator.

That first long weekend we had planned out a lot of detail work beginning with the basics: tune-up, brakes, and seals, freshening things up and enjoying her. Then reality threw a bucket of cold water in our face. Rust!

While jacking her up to work on the brakes I got the chance to really inspect the undercarriage. Oops! The passenger side floor was pretty much toast, and the driver’s side would need to be repaired. We still did a lot of the planned work that weekend, but decided rather than getting it back on the road we’d wait until after the floors were finished.

James Wilson's 1970 Cougar 'Copy Cat' and Richard Gunn's 1967 Cougar 'Mistress'Fortunately, I was able to schedule work along with some vacation time so that I could get back up there to keep going. Those first months I often joked that everyone else had driven my Cat more than I as I had less than 5 miles on her in two months. Still, looking back we accomplished a lot in those two months. We detailed the engine compartment, rebuilt the steering, refurbished the interior, welded in new floors, put on new tires and rims, and just fixed a lot of minor nuisances.

Finally, on the last day of the Fourth of July weekend we were able to take her for a cruise along with Mistress.

At the end of the month we attended her first Prowl in Issaquah where she got second in ’69/’70.

Along with researching future upgrades, I got to put more miles on her that summer. We capped the summer off with a fun photo shoot for a friend of Richard’s at his boss’ private airport.

James Wilson's 1970 Cougar at the Prowl in Issaquah Photo Shoot at the Airport

Copy Cat Sharpens Her Claws

Body Work BeginsWith the beginning of the rainy season our old friend rust decided to make a reappearance. In addition to water getting in along the top moldings, bubbles were forming under the vinyl top. Rather than repair these problems, I decided to jump into the body work right then. After research and interviews, a body shop right at the end of the street was chosen, and Thanksgiving weekend tear-down began. Living in Southern California and working on a car in Portland, Oregon forced our hands on quite a few things. I had originally intended to complete all my drive-line and suspension modifications prior to starting on the body. We got lucky with the tear-down and my schedule, and in a few days had the body ready to be stripped as a first step.

At Superior Paint in Gresham, OregonSuperior Paint in Gresham, OR was great to work with, and actually finished a month ahead of schedule, putting a bind on us we weren’t expecting. Along the way more ‘what if?’ sessions led to shaving the side marker lights and emblems, flush mounting the antennae, and adding the unique Eliminator/R striping in carbon fiber.

The first iteration of the stripes was the cause of my only anxiety attack during this stage. One Friday afternoon in early March, the first pictures of the stripes appeared in my in-box. My first thought was, “Wow!” Not quite the carbon fiber look I was going for, but wow! However, the more I thought about it, the more concerned for the overall look I became. Of course it was the weekend so I had nobody to calm my fears. Monday morning, heart in my throat, I called the shop expecting this to be at the least an expensive mistake–I’d approved the small-scale sample–or worse a pissed-off painter. My fears were unfounded as the same concerns I had led my painter to come in over the weekend on his own time to re-mask and prep waiting on my call. Thanks, King! Just one of the amazing people who helped along the way.

Late March, and Copy Cat was back home in our garage for the long-awaited reassembly. It was at this point I learned another truism. What looks good against bad paint, looks bad against great paint. Fortunately, Don and West Coast Classic Cougar is nearby, and with a couple more of his house payments helped by yours truly, I had new chrome along with a slew of other needed items.

Copy Cat with Fresh Interior and ExteriorAgain, new paint demanded a new interior and another friend was made at the end of the street. Bob Fish worked his magic stitching a new leather interior to go with my vision of combining the ’67 with the ’70 in a ginger-and-black leather. I learned yet another lesson. Although anything is possible, some things are a lot harder to accomplish than first thought. I didn’t realize the amount of work I was making when I asked Bob to stitch the leather on a bias on the insets of the side panels. Running the bias around the radius of the back panels while maintaining the straight horizontal lines created a lot of extra trial-and-error work to accomplish. Thanks Bob!

Copy Cat Back from the Paint ShopA new front suspension was ordered in the middle of May, and this led to the biggest headache. My struts were back-ordered but were expected to ship around the third week of June. No problem, the order was made and I expected the other parts to show up in about a week. What did I say about working on a car in Oregon when you live in California? Well I forgot about it until I went up for another long Fourth of July weekend to finish the car. You guessed it, no parts! Now, one of the things we found during the tear-down was that my front suspension was completely shot. More phone calls and I had no ETA on my parts. Okay, on to the next problem. We wanted to debut the car at the West Coast Nationals at the end of July, and I wanted to drive it there! Yikes! Well, the Cat gods looked down favorably on us and after some long days my kitty was ready the day we had to leave. That’s right; the real shakedown was done during a thousand-mile drive from Portland to Southern California, and, you know what? She purred the whole way down

Copy Cat on the Prowl

Copy Cat at the West Coast NationalsThe West Coast Nationals were a blast, and Copy Cat lapped up the attention. Garnering first in Resto-Mod and the President’s award. It seems my club, The Southern California Cougar Club doubted my vision and that I could pull it off. Some even doubted this Cat existed! We made a lot of new friends that weekend and look forward to returning this year.

When I was able to take her out, Copy Cat got a lot of attention that summer. She got another first for best ’70’s muscle car at a local monthly show along with a couple of fun Sunday-morning Coffee and Cars cruise-in’s. Talking with all the different people, both car-lovers and better-cat-lovers, was the best part. It’s what I enjoy most about taking Copy Cat out for a spin.

Nine Lives

No, Copy Cat is not finished. Since moving up to Portland myself this winter, I’ve added a 3.50 limited-slip rear end and added a shift kit to the FMX. She has been shown at the Portland International Roadster show (I was robbed! Fourth place! Damn Camaros!) and enjoyed a run up to the Mustangs at the Courthouse show in Port Angeles, Washington where she won 2nd in class, Best Cougar.

The future includes the West Coast Classic Cougar 20th anniversary bash along with a return to southern California for this year’s West Coast National show. I plan to install the rear disc brakes along with the front suspension that I ran out of time on last summer. I want to install a rear stabilizer bar, possibly add an overdrive transmission, and add fuel injection. A custom gauge cluster, more detail work, possibly a refresh of the current 351C, and further upgrades are all things I’d like to do down the line.

When will she be finished? Who knows? I still would love a ’67 convertible, possibly a clone of Rocket’s G-Force without the top. A ’69 or ’70 428 would be nice, or maybe a real ’70 big block Eliminator. The biggest thing holding me back–besides money–is space, although I hope to have that taken care of soon. I doubt Copy Cat will ever be finished, but she might like a litter mate…

Copy Cat’s Tail

  • Full Eliminator kit minus the camera case
  • 2002 Plymouth Prowler Orange with Custom Eliminator/R carbon fiber graphics
  • Shaved marker lights, flush mounted retractable antennae
  • Carbon fiber rocker panels and interior trim
  • Custom leather interior with modern seats
  • Alpine Stereo system with custom speaker pods
  • Cougar engine dress-up kit
  • Export brace with Monte Carlo bar
  • 17X8 Raceline GT rims with BF Goodrich KDW II 225×45/17 tires
  • RRS stage 3 strut kit with RRS power rack and pinion ’04 Cobra big brake kit.

Along the way I learned some of the hard truths taught by any forgotten breed of muscle car, particularly our Cats.

  1. That piece you have to have is made of unobtanium.
  2. I once saw a Cougar at Barrett Jackson go for $100k, so this small piece I’m trying to sell is worth more than your first born.
  3. This part fits everything so of course it won’t fit your particular model.
  4. In order to make this work you need to leave a piece of yourself, usually along with a lot of your blood.
  5. Part store employees are paid low wages for a reason. Why should you expect them to have a high-dollar education?
  6. Everything on the Mustang will fit the Cougar except when it doesn’t.
  7. Always budget twice the money (at least) and three times the time required.
  8. If it doesn’t fit at first, get a bigger hammer.
  9. Start with the best car you can. The money you save on purchase will cost you twice the difference to repair in the end.
  10. Stick with your vision! Don’t let others talk you out of building your car your way!
  11. Opinions are like… (I think everyone knows this one)

Purrrrfect Friends

  • Special thanks to Richard and Beverly Gunn whose patience and dedication to this project helped ensure it’s completion, not to mention the disruption to Mistress who gave up her warm garage so often over the last two years.
  • Don, Linn and the crew at  WCCC for all their invaluable assistance in helping this kitty become reality.
  • Dale, Steve, Hollywood, and King at Superior Auto Body in Gresham, OR for bringing my vision to life.
  • Bob Fish for the great and unique interior.
  • The guys at STB coatings in Portland, OR for doing what hade never been done (at least to our knowledge).
  • Jeff Ford of RRS who spent many phone hours helping me get things just right.
  • All the members of the So Cal Cougar club for helping with inspiration and warm wishes.
  • And finally, the crew at MercuryCougar.net for listening to my dumb questions and making sense of them enough to give solid answers.

Thanks, James