John Machaqueiro
February 4, 2014

Birthdays are the mileage markers of life. Those around us acknowledge that by throwing parties and giving gifts to commemorate that special day. Arguably, most of the gifts are either forgettable, or as we age, long forgotten. There are, however, sometimes gifts that linger, both in the mind and in the garage. The '68 Cougar that you're viewing is the lingering birthday present given to C.J. Sabol. "My mother originally purchased the Cougar for my 14th birthday—in 1982—to keep me out of trouble," he recalls. Ulterior motives aside, you have to admit that as gifts go, that is one cool unforgettable present.

At that age, however, a driver's license was still a few years off in the horizon, but that didn't stop C.J. from getting his hands dirty and working on the Cougar. He started wrenching on the car with his cousin, Jimmy Connor. They swapped out the rear and performed small engine modifications to the original 289 mill.

A few birthday's later, he recalls, "I finally turned 16 and got my license and started driving the car to high school, which led to the first major renovation on it." That renovation wasn't planned by any means. The previous owner had swapped one of the heads, but went cheap and reused all the original parts. As a result, one of the cylinders subsequently swallowed a valve, and the end result was a cracked head. Faced with fixing the damage, he decided to tackle the rebuild, again with the aid of his cousin. They installed a hotter cam, a polished and ported set of 351W heads, a Shelby hi-rise manifold, and a Holley 600 cfm four-barrel carburetor. With the repairs completed, it was again everyday high school transportation. After graduation, the Cougar was parked because he was starting another chapter in his life. When he went off to college, there was no time to do anything on the car.

It wasn't until '89 that C.J. was able to start working on the Cougar again. The climatic conditions in the Northeast aren't too kind to cars that sit outside, so his initial focus was on the deteriorating body. He started by stripping the car down to a bare shell and looking for replacement parts.

"Being a Cougar, there were not a lot of body parts available," he points out. "I purchased three other Cougars as donor cars—one standard, and two XR-7 models—and used them to rebuild the exterior shell of the car." The rest were Mustang parts that were modified as required to fit the Cougar correctly. For this task, C.J. enlisted the help of Bob Bondelo to sort out the bodywork and paint. He painstakingly massaged the sheetmetal until it was ready for paint. C.J. wasn't a big fan of the Augusta Green color that the Cougar was originally dressed in, so he opted for something a bit more vibrant. The new color choice was Cardinal Red, another Mercury color, which at the time Bob applied as a single-stage lacquer finish. All of the chrome and aluminum trim that had been removed was also stripped, polished, or re-chromed and set aside.

The interior followed, but like the sheetmetal, it also presented a few problems. C.J. looked for a replacement leather upholstery kit, but the only thing available at the time was in vinyl. He was set on having leather, so he contracted Willow Grove Auto Top in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to stitch a custom leather interior for the Cougar.

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With the body and chrome work redone, and the interior complete, he experienced that bump in the road called running out of cash. As a result, the Cougar was parked in a friend's garage for several years. During that time, he finished up his engineering degree, got married, and started a family. The car was eventually moved to his in-law's house, and then to his. Work consumed a great deal of his time, and as a result of a job well done, he ended up being transferred to Puerto Rico. That meant the Cougar went into long-term hibernation back in Pennsylvania.

It wasn't until the end of 2011 that he was able to get back to working on the car. After numerous conversations with his cousin, the decision was made to juice up the Cougar's performance. The engine was the first element they tackled.

"We decided on a 351 Windsor motor stroked to 438 cubic inches," C.J. points out. "I had automotive design as part of my engineering curriculum in college and decided to try and build the most powerful naturally aspirated engine I could."

Creating big horsepower means using top quality components, so they started with a Dart Iron Eagle Sportsman block. The remainder of the bottom end consisted of components from Probe Industries and Scat Enterprises. Prior to assembly, the bottom end pieces were all sent to Calico Coatings in Denver, North Carolina, to be micro-polished, dry-film lubricated, or ceramic-coated depending on their intended application. Once that assembly was complete, they turned their attention to the top end.

Ease of breathing with efficient fuel delivery for maximum power was the goal. This was accomplished with the installation of Air Flow Research 225 aluminum heads and a custom camshaft from Comp Cams. Complementing that hardware is an Edelbrock Victor Jr. intake manifold crowned by a Quick Fuel Technology Q-950 carburetor and K&N X-Stream air filter. The heads and cam were also sent to Calico Coatings for the same treatments as the bottom end, plus the valvesprings were de-burred. The intake manifold was sent to Extrude Hone in Irwin, Pennsylvania, to have the interior media-ported and flow-matched.

This combination clearly upped the horsepower numbers, which meant that the unibody chassis needed to be reinforced to handle it. C.J. chose Precision Chassis in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to handle the modifications. The first thing they did was to remove the front and rear suspension.

"I had decided to install a Total Controls Product (TCP) suspension system," He adds. The front was converted to the TCP coilover suspension, which included the upper arms, lower arms, strut rods, shock mounts, double-adjustable VariShocks, and TCP big-bearing Grenada disc brake spindles. The steering was also converted to a TCP big-block Ford manual rack-and-pinion steering with a bumpsteer upgrade kit.

The rear was converted to the TCP g-Link canted-4-Bar suspension system with Fab9 housing, which included upper and lower links, VariShock double-adjustable coilovers, springs, and a Fab9 housing. The rear was also mini-tubed back to the framerail to allow for larger rear wheels to be installed. C.J. explains, "Since this was a Cougar, the rear quarters are flared out, which gave us an additional 2 inches of space in the wheelwells as compared to a Mustang. Based on that, we shortened the rear housing by 7 inches, and relocated the lower link attachment points to the inside of the framerail to maximize the size of the rear wheels."

Framerail connectors were welded in to stiffen the body, and a removable X-brace and a driveshaft safety loop were added as well. Further stiffening efforts included antisway bars, a shock tower export brace, Monte Carlo brace, and Truss braces. Finally a six-point rollcage was installed with swing out door bars.

With the suspension and chassis work complete, they installed the engine. Distributing the 600-plus horses required something equally stout, so C.J. settled on a Tremec T-56 Magnum six-speed manual gearbox, with a dual-disc clutch.

Precision Chassis also handled the fabrication of the custom exhaust. The headers were constructed with 2-inch stainless steel primaries and 3-inch stainless steel collectors. The remainder of the exhaust system was all 3-inch stainless steel with an X-crossover, two Pypes 3-inch electric cutouts, two Spin-tech Super Pro Street 9000 mufflers, and custom polished stainless steel tips.

"A fiberglass Boss 429 hoodscoop was also purchased since the air filter housing did not fit under the original hood," C.J. points out. "Once mocked up, we realized it still did not fit, so it was quartered and raised 1 inch to allow the 4-inch air filter to fit."

The final exterior touch was the wheels, tires, and brakes. He explains, "I searched for months for the right wheels for the car and finally decided on a set of custom two-piece Raceline Burst 5 wheels that were black with a polished face finish." Behind the BFGoodrich g-Force KDWII-wrapped wheels you'll find stout Wilwood Superlite binders.

The second-to-last item to be finished on the car was the dashboard.

"It was something that I wanted to look as close to factory as possible," he explains. "I looked at several different electronic gauge companies, only to find most of the diameters were the wrong sizes. I finally found a company called Speedhut that made electronic gauges that were similar in size." With some careful surgery, he was able to make it all fit while maintaining the factory look.

The last and final item on the car was to install new custom electric headlight and sequential taillight controllers. The original headlight covers were operated off the vacuum from the engine, however, that was not an option with the new powerplant.

"I called my best friend, Mike Stahl, who happens to be an electrical engineer and electronics specialist to help me with the design and construction of the controller. We looked at all the systems currently on the market and they use a solenoid-style actuator and controller. These all seemed to be very fast and made a lot of noise, so we purchased a digital controller, and a set of linear actuators, and proceeded to modify the circuitry to allow it to control it the way we wanted." The modified circuitry allows C.J. to control the open position, closed position, speed of the covers, and when the lights are turned on. The system faithfully mimics the original pneumatic system.

At the back, the original rear sequential taillight controller was replaced with a new 2012 Mustang electronic controller with a delay relay, which made the taillights work the same as the original.

C.J. points out that, "Since the start of this project at the end of 2011, my main objective was to have the car ready for the 2013 Ford Nationals in Carlisle. It started on June 7 and the car was finished on June 6, just in time. Needless to say, once on the show field, he immediately started getting comments on the car from the other Ford and especially Cougar owners. He proudly boasts that, "I was really happy to hear the comments since I built the car to what I thought looked good. The car drew a lot of attention during the show from people wanting to know what I had done to the car. It also drew crowds every time I started the engine and opened the electric cutouts." That interest in the car bagged him a First Place at Carlisle. Not too shabby for a car with paint that is 20-plus years old.

The Details

C.J. Sabol's '68 Mercury Cougar

Cast-iron Dart Iron Eagle 351 Sportsman block, 438 ci built by C&S Engine Designs (Cheltenham, PA)
4.125-inch bore
3.100-inch stroke
Probe lightweight I-beam connecting rods
Probe lightweight forged 4340 forged steel crankshaft micro polished
Airflow Research 225 aluminum cylinder heads, 2.080-inch intake valves, 1.600-inch exhaust valves, triple valvesprings, ceramic-coated combustion chambers and valve faces, valve stems dry-film lubricated, valvesprings de-burred and dry film lubricated by Calico Coatings (Denver, NC)
Competition Cams billet roller camshaft
Probe 2618-T61 forged aluminum pistons, tops ceramic coated by Calico Coatings (Denver, NC)
11:1 compression ratio
Edelbrock Victor Jr aluminum intake manifold, ported and flow matched by ExtrudeHone (Paramount, CA)
Quick Fuel Technology Q-950-AN 950-cfm carburetor tuned by Second Street Speed, Inc. (Perkasie, PA)
Meziere Enterprises 55 GPM billet aluminum electric water pump
Be Cool triple pass 1,200 HP radiator
Fuel Safe 16-gallon fuel cell
Aeromotive A1000 fuel pump|
MSD Digital 6 plus ignition, billet Ford distributor, Blaster HVC II coil, DynaForce mini starter
Precision Chassis (Pottstown, PA) custom headers, 2-inch primaries, 3-inch collectors
3-inch stainless steel x-pipe
Spin-Tech Super Pro Street 9000 mufflers
Pypes 3-inch electric cutouts
Tremec T-56 Magnum six-speed
Tremec Shifter
Ram Automotive 9000 custom dual-disc clutch
Ram Automotive 157T billet aluminum internally balanced flywheel
McLeod hydraulic linkage
Total Control Products FAB9 rear housing shortened 7 inches
Strange Engineering Truetrac differential
Strange Engineering 35-spline axles
3.89 gears
Relocated lower arm bracket to interior of framerails
Front: Total Control Products front coilover suspension, VariShock Double adjustable shocks with 500-pound springs, Total Control Products upper control arms with a 1-inch drop shaft, Total Control products lower control arms, large bearing front spindles, Total Control Products 1.125-inch antiroll bar, Total Control Products big-block Ford manual rack-and-pinion steering
Rear: Total Control Products G-Link canted four-bar suspension; Axle brackets, pivot ball upper and lower links, VariShock double adjustable shocks with 200-pound springs, 0.75-inch splined-end tubular antiroll bar
Front: Wilwood disc, Superlite 6R six-piston calipers, 12.88-inch cross-drilled and slotted rotors
Rear: Wilwood disc, Superlite 4R four-piston calipers, 12.90-inch cross-drilled and slotted rotors
Wilwood manual aluminum tandem master cylinder
Front: Raceline Wheels, Burst 5, 18x8, polished finish with black inserts, 4.5-inch offset
Rear: Raceline Wheels, Burst 5, 18x12, polished finish with black inserts, 7-inch offset
Front: BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDWII, P245/35ZR18
Rear: BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDWII, P335/30ZR18
Restored interior upholstery finished in black leather; Precision Chassis six-point rollcage; Total Control Products swing-out door connectors; Speedhut gauges; G-Force five-point harnesses up front; Scott Drake rear lap belts
Cardinal Red lacquer paint applied by Bob Bondelo; Mustang 429 hoodscoop modified by Paint by Weaver; electronically controlled front headlight doors and rear sequential taillights