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1968 Mercury Cougar - Unforgettable
C.J. Sabol’s 14th birthday present is the kind of gift that keeps on giving
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.