Mark Houlahan
Brand Manager, Mustang Monthly
November 15, 2011
Photos By: John Machaqueiro

This story, like so many others, begins with two people meeting and falling in love. Elmer Hamm of New Carrolton, Maryland, first met his future wife, Kathi, when he caught his cousin skipping school at the local mall. His cousin saw Elmer first and she was trying to hide behind her friend Kathi. Elmer, who was a firefighter at the time, was introduced to Kathi on the spot (probably to try and take some heat off of his cousin). Later, at a firefighting training class, Elmer saw Kathi show up on the arm of another firefighter and he quickly expressed his interest for Kathi to his fellow classmate. The response Elmer received was, in effect, a challenge and before long Elmer had won Kathi's heart and the other firefighter was going home alone. That was 1971, and Elmer and Kathi were married the following year in November.

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At the time, Kathi's daily driver was a blue '68 Mercury Cougar that her late father, Jack, had purchased brand-new in 1968 from Palmer Mercury in Hyattsville, Maryland, for just less than $3,600. Elmer still has the paperwork on the Cougar and it shows Jack paid $75.96 a month for 36 months to finance the difference after putting down $800 cash and trading in a '60 Corvair, for which the trade in value was but $50! Kathi's mother, Amelia, signed the car over to Kathi and Elmer after they were married for Kathi to continue using as a daily driver.

In 1974, Elmer bought his wife a new car and drove the Cougar as his daily driver for the next 18 years. Then, in 1992, Elmer figured it was time he got a new car as well, so the Cougar was relegated to third-car status and only used occasionally. The very next year, Kathi passed away suddenly due to an unknown heart condition.

Elmer loaned the Cougar to Kathi's mother after Kathi's passing. "Amelia had some land barge and wanted something smaller to drive," she told Elmer. "I think she just wanted it for something of her daughter's to hold onto, for sentimental reasons," Elmer stated. While she did drive it on occasion over the next few years, it mostly sat in her driveway, eventually parking it for good. In 2007, Elmer went to go check on the car and found it being used as a storage shed of sorts in the driveway.

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"The motor was pretty much done, locked up, and it was almost completely lost/destroyed," Elmer lamented. He decided that he couldn't lose Kathi's car now, too, and felt it deserved to be restored as a way of remembering his late wife.

Elmer started searching out restoration shops in earnest that year. He found a place in Virginia with a great reputation, but when the owner told him to write a check for $150,000 and he'd call him when it was done, Elmer's jaw dropped and he kept looking. As a firefighter, he'd sometimes have to take his station's fire trucks for repair at a shop partway between Ocean City, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Retired now, he'd seen the business go away and something else take up residence in the building. He decided to stop in one day and see what the business was and that's when he stumbled right through the front door of R&M Performance.

"I've been looking for a place that does cars, as I have one that needs to be done," he told the crew at R&M. The guys asked what kind of car and when Elmer responded with "a '68 Cougar" they said that they've never seen anyone build a really nice Cougar. After talking about the project further with R&M's principals, Matt, "Big" Russ, and Russ Hutchins, Elmer was satisfied that R&M was the right place for the Cougar to be restored.

Elmer's first thoughts leaned toward going back to original at first, but R&M said the car was too rough to go back to stock. The Cougar had major metal repair work ahead of it and a lot of the hard-to-find correct parts were beyond repair, requiring a lot of NOS parts and a lot of Elmer's wallet to do it right. R&M felt it was worth the time, however, to build it back as a custom.

"Build me a nice car. I'm putting it in your hands," Elmer told them. "I want a car I could drive every day and be proud of." Kathi's dream was to redo the car someday. It was originally blue and she loved the blue color, so keeping it blue was the first of but a few mandates. "I must have looked at 500 different blues and ultimately R&M mixed a custom color for the Cougar," Elmer explained.

The restoration and custom work took 26 months and in the end, Elmer had the Cougar he asked forùa completely rebuilt classic with today's looks and upgraded handling, braking, and performance. The only real disagreement was the interior color. Elmer wasn't crazy about the saddle color, but R&M said, "Trust us. If you don't like it, we'll change it." Elmer saw the finished interior and thought it fit the combination well, and never second guessed R&M again throughout the build. Probably the hardest part was getting a lot of the OE chrome parts. Some of them had to be handmade and some were the originals sent out for re-chroming.

Currently, Elmer doesn't have a garage to store the car in, as mandated by his classic car insurance, so he came to an agreement with R&Mùit stores the Cougar for free and in exchange it can take the car to events and show it to prospective customers. Currently, the Cougar is a rolling business card of R&M's work and available services, if you will. Elmer has only driven it a few miles, but once he gets his garage situation sorted out, he's looking forward to sharing Kathi's Cool Cat with car show and cruise night attendees every chance he can get.

The restoration and custom work took 26 months and in the end, Elmer had the Cougar he asked for

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The Details

Elmer Hamm's '68 Mercury Cougar

Engine

  • 347ci small-block Ford stroker
  • 4.030-inch bore
  • 3.400-inch stroke
  • Forged pistons
  • 5.400-inch I-beam connecting rods
  • HP iron heads with 1.84/1.54-inch valves
  • Edelbrock aluminum intake
  • 650-cfm Holley Street Avenger carburetor
  • HEI-style distributor
  • MSD 8.5mm Super Conductor plug wires
  • Vintage Air Front Runner serpentine conversion kit
  • BeCool aluminum radiator module with electric cooling fans
  • Engine built by Blueprint Engines
  • 330 hp/390 lb-ft

Transmission

  • C4 three-speed automatic
  • 2,500 stall B&M torque converter

Rearend

  • 9-inch axle housing
  • Traction-Lok differential
  • Strange 3.73 gears
  • Strange 31-spline axles

Exhaust

  • Mid-length headers, 1 5/8-inch primaries
  • Borla ProXS stainless steel mufflers
  • 2-1/2-inch aluminized steel dual exhaust

Suspension

  • Front: Heidts Mustang II, coilover shocks, antisway bar, power rack-and-pinion steering
  • Rear: Heidts four-link, coilover shocks, Panhard bar

Brakes

  • Front: Wilwood 11-inch disc, polished aluminum four-piston caliper
  • Rear: Wilwood 11-inch disc, polished aluminum four-piston caliper

Wheels

  • Front: Billet Specialties Profile Collection, polished Stiletto, 18x8
  • Rear: Billet Specialties Profile Collection, polished Stiletto, 18x8

Tires

  • Front: Toyo Proxes T1R, P245/35R18
  • Rear: Toyo Proxes T1R, P245/35R18

Interior

  • Custom beige leather by R&M Performance, Cambridge, Maryland; Billet Specialties steering wheel; polished tilt column; NuRelics power windows; Auto Meter C2 gauges; Lokar Performance pedals; custom console with Lokar shifter bezel/boot; Kenwood Excelon KDC-X494 AM/FM/CD player; 4-inch front speakers; 6x9-inch rear speakers

Exterior

  • Custom mix PPG blue base/clear paint applied by R&M Performance, Cambridge, Maryland; underside completely body worked; wet sanded and painted to match