Lesley Weller never considered herself a car enthusiast, but a Mercury Comet she saw in a TV show made a deep impression on her 13-year-old mind. After years of dreaming, ownership is now a happy reality.
Words: Zack Stiling
Photography: Paul Trunfull
Many readers of a certain age will acknowledge the role TV played in nurturing their interest in American cars. Shows such as Happy Days, Starsky & Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard were a window into a car culture far removed from that of provincial England. If you weren’t already a confirmed enthusiast, buying Custom Car and going to Santa Pod, you weren’t likely to see an American car anywhere else except, perhaps, for a grainy black-and-white road test of a Chevrolet Vega in Autocar.
Enjoy more Classic American reading in the monthly magazine.
Click here to subscribe & save.
Lesley Weller is too young to have caught such shows when they first aired, but she was profoundly influenced by One Tree Hill, an American drama series broadcast from 2003 to 2012 and one of its main stars in particular − a black 1963 Mercury Comet convertible. The coming-of-age series revolved around five students at the University of North Carolina as they matured into adulthood. A number of classic cars featured prominently, but none more so than the Comet of cheerleader Peyton Sawyer.
Like many people, Lesley has always been able to appreciate and admire old cars without necessarily considering herself an enthusiast but, with the Comet always in the back of her mind, she eventually gave in to the urge to become an owner. She says: “It’s been my dream car since I was 13. I saw it in One Tree Hill and loved its shape and styling. I never dreamt I would have one until one day when I was in the situation where I could afford to buy one.” Her criteria were fairly precise. It had to be a ’63 and black, as in the series, but she permitted herself one deviation: “I thought that in this country, a hardtop would be more suitable than a convertible.”
The story goes that it was a one-owner California car which changed hands only when its owner died. Having received a respray and an engine rebuild, it was offered for sale by Hayes Classics in Roseville, which sold it to Lesley. It was shipped over and arrived in October 2021. “It was like it had been wrapped in cotton wool. It took a few months trying to find one,” Lesley says, “because they’re quite rare in America in that condition. There were plenty that were cheaper, but they needed more work doing. When I got it, I had all the electrics redone as they were 60 years old and not great.”
She’s also given the underside a generous coat of underseal, lest it should not take too kindly to the sudden change from the dry California climate to our damp British one.
While it’s common knowledge that the Comet was an upmarket version of the compact Ford Falcon, this is a little more special, being a sporty S-22 model. The name doesn’t denote anything too outrageous, just a response to the Chevrolet Corvair Monza of 1960 which kicked off a spate of slightly more rakish compacts for 1961, which would also later include the Ford Falcon Futura. In essence, at launch, these were just two-door sedans with vinyl bucket seats rather than bench seats but, while the Monza’s party piece was a four-speed gearbox, Dearborn introduced a bigger, 101bhp straight-six as an option.
“I just wanted to get it for myself, but while I was waiting for it, I thought it would make a nice wedding car.”
The last year for the S-22 was 1963, after which it was renamed Caliente, but that year saw it extended to convertible and hardtop body styles and, for the first time, the Comet could be specified with the well-regarded 260cu in, 164bhp V8. Other features of the S-22 package for ’63 were a centre console with locker, special badging and exterior trim, and six tail-lights rather than four. Lesley’s matching-numbers Comet is about as good as ever it got; being a hardtop and having both the 260cu in V8 and the four-speed manual transmission. While the Comet was one of Mercury’s best-sellers, staying in production for the whole decade and selling hundreds of thousands, the S-22 variant has always been a rarity. Just 17,867 of all variants were built for 1963, of which 5807 were hardtops, costing $2635 before options.
There are some people who, never having owned a classic car before, buy one and then get upset that it isn’t like a modern car. Lesley, fortunately, is cast from a better mould and hasn’t found any cause for disappointment. In fact, now that 12 months have passed since the Comet came over, she says: “It’s been one of the best years of my life.” Getting into classics when you’ve not been born and raised with them can be daunting for anyone, but she wasn’t totally out on a limb. “My partner has several classic cars and some friends have American cars. One of them let me have a go in his before mine arrived, then I got the Comet and now I prefer driving it to my daily car. I don’t find it an issue being left-hand drive. I just love driving it, going on road trips here, there and everywhere.
“I took it to Suffolk and all around Norfolk for a week, taking pictures for my website, and I’m planning to do Scotland’s North Coast 500 next year. I’ve been constantly going to car shows and meets. Every weekend since February I’ve been somewhere different.” The website Lesley’s referring to is Ravens Comet Hire, now that she’s realised there’s a market for hiring it out. “I just wanted to get it for myself,” she explains, “but while I was waiting for it, I thought it would make a nice wedding car. Because of where my love for the car came from, I knew there’d be some interest for the same reason. I had an enquiry from all the way down in Torquay where the fiancée was a really big One Tree Hill fan. Everyone asks about miles per gallon but I say it’s about smiles per gallon. If the wedding’s all the way up in Scotland, I’ll travel there.”
That’s quite a promise to make, but why shouldn’t she drive to Torquay and Scotland and everywhere in between? We all know American cars eat up miles effortlessly. “Once you’re used to the steering it’s fine, because it hasn’t got power steering. It changes gear so smoothly and engine-wise it purrs like a kitten. I’ve had it soundproofed for long journeys to make it more comfortable, as you found yourself shouting to talk. I’ve used Dynamat to keep it American, so now you can hear yourselves and listen to music. I’ll have the original radio converted to stereo and Bluetooth so that it works properly.
“It’s got all-round drum brakes. People ask me if I’m going to convert it to discs, but I’m quite happy with it as it is. It will stop on a sixpence.” Driving it’s one thing, but maintenance is the other consideration. “I’ve done a few bits myself but my partner’s like the main caretaker and friends have helped me out. I’ve found some suppliers for mechanical stuff. Bodywork and interior bits and bobs are harder to get hold of. I’ve had to source a couple of parts from America.”
“It’s been one of the best years of my life.”Lesley
We might say well done to Lesley’s partner, but he’d best not be left unsupervised with the Comet. “He’s more into Jap stuff,” she explains. “He’s got a Datsun 280Z, a Mazda kei truck, MX5s and some Mercedes. If he had his way, he’d put it on air and slam it to the floor, but I want to keep it as original as possible.” Quite right, Lesley, quite right. Now that Lesley’s a confirmed Comet enthusiast, we might ask if she’s feeling drawn to anything else American. “I’ll try other cars out in the crowd that I run with. There’s lots of choice but there’s no other car that I’d want.
“I’ve had plenty of people making offers to buy the Comet, saying ‘Everything has a price’, but not this. It’s not for sale!”