Vince Vandergoes took a blue-on-blue Ford Mercury Cougar and turned it into a classic yellow and black muscle car
Vince Vandergoes has had some nice classic cars over the years, including a 1967 Impala, a 1970 Dodge Challenger that used to give the cops in Invercargill a bit of grief, and a sweet 1957 Chevy that he used for a wedding car. But in 2001, when it came time to find a V8 to use as a daily driver, Vince wanted to think outside the box a little.
He needed to find something affordable that he could slowly do up while driving as much as possible in the meantime. He spied a 1970 Cougar that had been brought into New Zealand in 1990. It was for sale in Alexandra and needed a fair bit of TLC, but the most endearing thing was that it was cheap, so he could afford it. Vince’s wife wasn’t so easily pleased and didn’t really like the car, but she liked the tail lights so that was the deciding factor.
The trip was made to Alexandra to get the car, and on the return journey Vince must have wondered what he had got himself into: the new purchase didn’t even make it out of Alexandra before breaking down. Luckily for Vince, he was put on to the president of the hot rod club there, who managed to get the car rolling again for him. By the time she broke down again in Twizel, Vince must have been rethinking his decision, but a quick clean up of the points and he was off again. This time the Cougar got all the way (just) to its new home in the township of Lincoln, just out of Christchurch.
The car was bought with the intention of doing it up, but Vince didn’t want to pull it off the road for too long at any one time. The first thing on the agenda was to get that engine running properly. Vince put in a new dizzy, a four-barrel carb and an alloy intake, and started driving her. Next up was safety, with disc brakes all round and new seatbelts to keep everyone planted if the new brakes were applied in a hurry.
After enjoying driving her around as is for a while, Vince started to get a little serious and pulled out the engine for a freshen-up. Of course, another Cleveland was dropped into place in the meantime to keep the car on the road while this was being done.
Vince didn’t go crazy with the freshen-up as he still wanted a car he could drive daily and take on the odd long journey without hassles. The original 351 Cleveland has been bored 30-thousand and the heads have been slightly worked. The standard rods have been balanced and shot peened and it has dish-top 9:1 pistons. The driveline also got some attention, with an AOD four-speed sourced from the States and installed after a few hiccups, which included having to buy a second donor trans to use as parts to fix the AOD after a so-called ‘expert’ tried to install it a couple of times and blew it up.
The diff was also upgraded to a 3:1 LSD nine-inch with 28-spline axles. Vince updated the suspension with Koni three-way adjustable shocks front and rear, and changed all the bushes to new polyurethane ones.
Again Vince drove his now reliable and smooth-handling Cougar around for a while as he saved to get the panel beating and paint done.
Vince’s painter, Andrew, came around and helped him strip it down to bare metal, and as they got into it he kept saying, “These lines don’t look right”. He was correct, things were a mess. It was a typical American car that had started to rust at some stage, and instead of fixing it properly someone had just slapped new sheet metal panels over top of the old stuff; they’d riveted them in place and bogged over the top of it all. “The bog was 25mm thick in places,” Vince told us. He wanted it done right, so everything was cut out and new metal was formed by Vince’s panel beater. Vince says they custom made the panels instead of getting NOS (new old stock) ones, as he was told that more often than not the new replacement panels don’t fit quite right, and his panel beater said it would be easier for him to make them from scratch. And looking at the lines of the car now ” what a great job he did.
The Cougar was now taking shape nicely, and was a far cry from the rusty old blue car Vince had picked up in 2001. But what colour do you paint a car to reflect the massive change it has undergone? Screaming Yellow, of course. Vince is a strong believer that a muscle car should jump up and say, “Look at me ” I’m here”. This one does. The yellow and black definitely stands out and is a classic colour combination.
When Vince got his newly painted Cougar back home he thought that maybe there was too much yellow, and since he liked the Eliminator look, he got the bold stripes put on, and what a dramatic change it made (for the better, we think).
With the fresh paint and cool stripes now on the outside the interior was looking a bit shabby, so in went new carpet, and the Monza front seats you see here have now been replaced by the original buckets re-covered in black vinyl. Apart from the Nardi steering wheel, Hurst shifter, Auto Meter tacho, oil and temp gauges and Kenwood stereo system, the interior has been left factory spec, which makes for a clean, roomy interior. The black is nicely broken up by the woodgrain dash and centre console inserts.
Vince took the Cougar to the drags at Ruapuna for the muscle car weekend, and although he had never been on a drag strip in his life, and admitted that his reaction time was hopeless and he missed gear changes every pass, he still managed a best time of 13.85 with an average of 14 for the day, which isn’t too shabby for a car that might not be a daily driver any more but still gets out every weekend and goes on the occasional longer trip away.
Vince knows he could get a lot more out of the car with better reaction times and gear changes and some engine mods, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice its driveability on the street, which is what it has always been about. Vince admits it’s not the fastest car, but it was never intended to be. “The intention was to have a car I could jump in, start up and drive and it would be reliable ” and it really is that.”
Vince told us that until now he has never had a car that does everything he wants, but this one really does. He has had fast cars that handle like crap, cars that handle all right but aren’t overly fast, and cars that look good yet that’s about it. This one seems to encompass it all.
Vince has nothing against Mustangs and Camaros but is happy to have something different that you don’t see every day, and with this Cougar sitting in the driveway, we think he has done everything he set out to do.
We can also attest to the fact that it does go hard and handle well, as Vince took us for a blat around the quiet back streets of Lincoln, giving us a small example of the power and handling of a machine that looks, sounds and feels true muscle car.
For much of its life, Mercury has lived in the shadow of the Blue Oval, always getting the leftovers. As such, the Cougar generally played second fiddle to the Mustang. This is not fair, because the Cougar was more of its own car than it got credit for at the time. The sweetest of them was the high performance Eliminator model.
The name alone conjures up images of an action movie, a bloodthirsty video game or comic book superhero. The Ford Mercury Eliminator was only produced for two years, 1969 and 1970. Although more than 72,343 Cougars were produced in 1970, only 2200 Eliminators drove off the assembly line. The Eliminators of 1969 and 1970 had different stripe packages on the hood and lower body line, however both had the black-out look of the Ford Mustang Mach 1.
Vince Vandergoes – Owner Profile
Occupation: General manager Tile Direct
Previously owned cars: ’70 Dodge Challenger, ’57 Chev, ’67 Impala
Dream car: ’71-’72 Plymouth Road Runner, ’70-’73 ’Cuda, ’67 GTO, ’69-’70 Dodge Charger, Buick GSX, Olds 442 W30
Length of ownership: Seven years
Build time: Seven years and counting
Thanks to: “My kids Alice, Troy and Morgan for helping me and putting up with me wanting to take them driving all the time. Janeen for putting up with the countless dollars, time and headaches spent on the Cougar. Stu McLeish (mechanic, engine builder and best mate), Jeff ‘Queenie’ Duggan (just for being Jeff), Andrew Griffin (painter), The Panel Beater, Alan (Caltex Wairakei Christchurch) for help and advice, Wayne (Southern Mustang) for help and advice.
1970 Ford Mercury Cougar – Specifications
Engine: 351ci (5752cc) Cleveland bored 30 thou, balanced and polished crank, standard rods balanced and shot peened, Keith Black Hypereutectic dish top 9:1 pistons, Melling oil pump, ARP bolts, aftermarket performance harmonic balancer, 2v small chamber heads ported with larger 4v valves, high energy comp cam, Scorpion roller rockers, K&N filter, Edelbrock air gap performer intake, Barry Grant speed Demon 750cfm carburettor, MSD electronic distributor and ignition, three-inch twin exhaust into 2.5 after mufflers, custom three-core radiator, twin electric fans, high-flow thermostat, Milodon alloy high-flow water pump, new starter motor, rebuilt steering box and power steer unit
Driveline: AOD four-peed, B&M shift kit (street), Hurst shifter, 3:1 LSD nine-inch diff, 28-spline axles
Brakes: Front standard discs, rear Falcon discs
Suspension: Koni three-way adjustable shocks front and rear, standard springs, one-inch front and ¾-inch rear sway bars, polyurethane bushes throughout
Wheels/tyres: Cheviot Minilites 15×8-inch, BF Goodrich tyres with 235/60-15 front and 245/60-15 rear
Exterior: Eliminator stripe kit, front spoiler, new rubber throughout, halogen headlights, rear spoiler, Eliminator bonnet scoop
Interior: Seats original (retrimmed), Nardi Torino steering wheel, Hurst shifter, Auto Meter pro comp tacho, Auto Meter water and oil gauges, Kenwood six-stacker stereo, four-inch front and 6×9-inch rear speakers
Performance: 250bhp (186kW) at the wheel
Words: Barry Lorimer Photos: Quinn Hamill