Jim Smart
October 1, 2002

What is it about a car-line model designation that quickens the pulse? The Cougar GTE is a special, limited-production cat Mercury brought to us one year and one year only--1968. The GTE was a super-sporty, ultra-elegant Cougar that prowled in its own neck of the jungle. It wasn't just a fast factory musclecar, it was an elegant fast factory musclecar with rich woodgrain appointments, leather, lots of accessories, and a stealthy demeanor it still has today. Early in the '68 model year, ordering a Cougar GTE meant getting the awesome power of a 427ci big-block with a hydraulic camshaft. After April 1, 1968, ordering a GTE meant the newly introduced "poop" of a more powerful 428ci Cobra Jet with greater torque and horsepower ratings.

Mike Johns of Utah had been searching for a GTE for quite some time, but there were obstacles. There was never enough money, or examples he found were so bad they weren't worth the effort. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack and getting your finger stuck at every turn, yet never being able to put your hands on the darned thing.

Mike's GTE plan began with restoring and selling a couple of cars to generate the cash to buy a suitable GTE. Call it the sweat-equity approach toward excellence. With the bank account happy and ready, Mike went to work searching for a nice example he could afford.

He found this one thousands of miles away in Tampa. Buying a collector car long distance is always a calculated gamble. In fact, it's risky. Lengthy conversations with the seller, Hank Huisman, led to a plane ticket for Mike from SLC to TPA. Call this one blind trust and the anxiety that faith can sometimes bring. After Mike's plane touched down at Tampa International Airport, he was greeted by Hank who picked him up and drove him to the Cougar 20 miles away at his home in Odessa, Florida.

When Mike first saw the Cougar, he became overwhelmed, light-headed, and couldn't sleep that night. The car was everything Hank said it was and more--including an odometer reading of 38,000 original miles. What's more, Hank kept his word to Mike and didn't sell the car before he arrived from Utah.

Hank's GTE was a gleaming example of what you could order from your Lincoln-Mercury dealer late in 1967. Underhood, Fords powerful 427. Between the leather-clad bucket seats, a C6 Select-Shift transmission. In back, a 3.50:1 axle ratio designed to enhance the 427’s twist.

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When Mike brought the Cougar home to Utah, he continued the trek to excellence. The 427 was pulled and freshened up with a cylinder honing, new rings, a hot grind from Comp Cams, roller rockers, sodium-filled valves, and a windage tray for good measure. Although the conventional differential didn't need a rebuild, Mike installed a Traction-Lok unit to punctuate the 427’s message. Underneath, Mike installed new suspension components for improved handling and safety. KYB gas shocks keep rubber glued to the asphalt. Kelsey Hayes single-piston front disc brakes do an outstanding job. Those are '69-’70 Cougar Styled Steel wheels in all four corners.

Inside, Mike looked to R&{M Upholstery to find the correct materials and make the interior new again. The rest of the interior was detailed to perfection. Just look at the rich woodgrain, full instrumentation, toggle switches, and optional AM/eight-track stereo. We like this interior because it wraps itself around you with elegance. Mercury understood how to build a ponycar unequalled.

Underhood, Mike has fitted the 427 with a Cougar dress-up kit--cast-aluminum pent-roof valve covers, air cleaner, and dual four-barrel Holley induction. This is an engine room that leaves a lasting impression. Mike gives his friend, Rick Valdez, a lot of credit for his help. Rick did the bodywork, paint, color sanding, and rub-out.

With a complete restoration behind him, Mike takes his Cougar GTE on the prowl whenever unpredictable Utah weather permits. Although you might expect Mike to go easy on the 427, exactly the opposite is true. He warms the tires and revs the mill as necessary, reminding others of those limited- production, high-performance Cougars once available from Mercury for such a short time more than three decades ago. If we're any judge of things, Mike's Cougar GTE will be a rocking and rolling showcase for the "sign of the cat" for a long time to come.