Mercury-Risen: Brian Van Winckel’s ’68 Mercury Cougar

When it comes to tales about 1968 Ford Mustangs, you’ll need a computer-based algorithm to count them all. If you yearn for stories about a resto modded ’68 Mercury Cougar, counting on one hand will probably suffice. This is the story of how Merc’s early cat sunk its claws into our owner when he was just a teen and how it holds tight, 30-years later.

The Early Years:

Long Island-native Brian Van Winckel has been a blue oval man since before, well, before he was even a man. His family has always leaned towards Henry Ford’s finest. After wrenching-on aircraft in the Navy, Brian’s dad Robert built a 40-year career as a mechanic for Baron Lincoln/Mercury in Queens. Brian recalls his dad bringing him and his older brother Tom to car shows, where Fords were always the main attraction.

When Brian was only 15, Tom spotted what would become Brian’s first car. It was a ’68 Mercury Cougar. Brian recalled the vehicle was running, but not driving. Even though it was rough, Tom urged Brian to snatch it up before it got away. The 21-year-old Mercury pony car was close-by, and the asking price was $500, as-is.

Brian had $250, but needed more than just the other half of the money to make it happen – he needed permission. His dad was on board, but his mom said no. Brian had to break out the big guns. So, he went to Grandma, who generously gave her blessing and the remaining 250 bucks.

As it sat, Brian’s Mercury Cougar was yellow with a black vinyl top and interior. The Merc was powered by a 289ci engine with a 3-speed automatic. The master plan was to take shop class at school and get the cat purring by senior year when he got his license. The plan was a success, and by the time he graduated, the Cougar was ready to prowl.

After high school, Brian was ready for the real world, and he immediately put his shop class skills to work. Brian landed his first job at Ralph Oldsmobile in Smithtown, New York. There, he got his first taste of collision repair, a profession he still practices to this day. In his five years at Ralph Olds, Brian learned the ins and outs of body and paint. Occasionally, he also took advantage of some perks.

In his off-time, Brian was able to use the facilities to work on his Mercury. This included skinning the cat of its yellow paint, removing the factory vinyl top, and laying-down a beautiful Ford Grabber Blue paint job. Brian’s father also lent a hand by rebuilding a Ford 302ci out of an ‘80s Mustang and lowering it into the Cougar. With drag racing in mind, Brian tended to the cat’s traction. He installed mini-tubs to accept massive rear wheels and tires, a four-link set-up, and rear coilovers.

Although Brian always had non-descript (FoMoCo) daily drivers, he enjoyed his hopped-up ‘68 Cougar to the fullest. When he wasn’t roasting the asphalt on the street, he was ripping-down the quarter-mile at West Hampton Raceway. This was the way of things for six-years until bitter fate reared its ugly head.

Lost Cat:

In ‘04, Brian and Tom were taking a spirited Sunday morning cruise out to a local meet-up at Captree State Park in Long Island. As Brian describes: They were on the straights of the Sunken Meadow Parkway, when he decided to put the hammer down and blow past Tom in his ’63 Falcon, which Brian had helped restore just a few years prior.

As Brian’s foot hit the floor, he felt a sudden pop. He later discovered it was one of the motor mounts breaking. The small-block slipped out of position and slammed to one side, jamming the throttle linkage wide-open. Despite mashing the brake pedal as hard as he could, Brian was along for the ride. He crashed into Tom’s Falcon, forcing him off the road, which sent him careening into another car. He smashed into the divider and bounced off the tarmac into the grass.

Fortunately, and luckily, no one was hurt. The same could not be said for Brian’s Mercury Cougar. By this time, Brian was a body man for years and knew instantly that his cat’s nine lives were all but spent. The Cougar was simply too far gone to fix. He had it trucked back to his house and licked his wounds.

Waiting to Pounce:

Soon after the crash, Brian fixed his brother’s ‘63 Falcon. He yearned to replace his beloved Cougar, but the responsibilities of a new house and a thriving body shop career at King O’Rourke Cadillac took priority. It would be another three years before his hunt commenced.

Around ’07, Brian began scouting the internet for another Cougar. It didn’t take long before he found a ’68 basking in the California sun, on eBay. Brian lost out on the bidding but decided to call the seller anyway. He spoke to the owner, who reiterated that the car was sold. Brian didn’t take no for an answer and offered another $100. It seems the winning bidder was in Australia, making for a somewhat complicated delivery. The owner called him back, accepting his offer of $3,700. Brian wasted no time arranging transport from California to New York.

Once in his possession, Brian wasn’t disappointed. Being an original California car, the Cougar was rust-free, and the body was straight. The Merc came all stock, with a 302ci and auto trans. As Brian describes, she wore an Earl Scheib gunmetal gray paint job. Brian had a ’68 Mercury Cougar again, but he lacked the time and the funds to build the machine he envisioned. The cat sat for a year until the time was right.

It was Brian’s wife, Concetta, who suggested getting started on the car. Brian was ready and knew he wanted to restomod the Cougar with a pro-touring vibe. The entire build took place in Brian’s garage, except, of course, the paint-job. Brian toiled for two and a half years, finishing in 2011.

Mercury Masterpiece:

Brian’s ’68 Cougar version 2.0, is powered by a worked Ford 302ci engine saved from his first car. It’s beefed-up with ported GT40 heads, bigger valves, an aluminum Edelbrock intake manifold, and a Holley 750cfm 4-barrel carburetor. Inside the small-block is a balanced stock crankshaft, forged 10.1 pistons, and a high-lift Edelbrock camshaft. Brian puts output at 400hp/350 lb-ft at the crank.

Breathing starts with a set of stainless-steel long-tube headers and continues through a full 2.5-inch Magnaflow exhaust. The mufflers dump just short of the rear sway bar.

The power is wielded via an FB Performance-built (Ford C4) automatic/overdrive transmission. The slushbox is connected to a B&M shifter with a transbrake. All that power transfers to a Chris Alston Chassisworks-fabricated Ford 9-inch rearend, housing Strange 4.30 gears.

Varishock front struts and rear shocks take care of the handling. Those are accompanied by an assortment of Total Control Products pieces, including a strut-tower brace, tubular control arms, steering rack, front/rear sway bars, subframe connectors, and a 4-link rear. And, so the past doesn’t repeat itself, Brian secured the motor on a pair of polyurethane motor mounts.

Wilwood 4-piston calipers haul the cat down from speed by clamping on 12-inch vented rotors at all four corners. The Cougar sits on 15-inch Billet Specialties wheels wrapped in Mickey Thompson rubber.

Brian’s body and paint-work are as impressive as what makes it go. The panels are straight as arrows, and the mini-tubs look factory, but it’s the mile-deep paint that draws you in. Brian started with a Glasurit (BASF) Bentley dark blue hue and added black to darken it even more. At first glance in anything but the brightest sunlight, the Cougar appears black.

The interior further exemplifies Brian’s skills. He left the seats mostly stock, but they’ve been recovered-and heated. The headliner is Ultra-suede, and the door panels with roll-down windows are stock ’68 Cougar. It’s all in the details, with a Billet Specialties steering wheel and a completely hand-fabricated aluminum-dash face and center console.

A full allotment of Autometer gauges monitor operations. The late-‘60s radio has been replaced by a Kenwood Bluetooth unit and backup camera. The lens is cleverly mounted under the rear bumper. Like a signed work of art, “Cougar” adorns the passenger-side of the dash face, tastefully handpainted by Nelson Medina Pinstriping.

Completing the package is a beautifully laid-out trunk, which houses the battery, Kenwood amplifiers – OH! and I forgot to mention – a cool 100-shot of nitrous.

Conclusion:

When asked what his favorite aspect of his car is, Brian says without a pause, “the body style.” He’s put about 12,000-enjoyable miles on the Cougar since completing the resto-modification, mostly going to shows and scorching the streets and highways of Long Island. Brian’s Mercury Cougar is another example of a somewhat-obscure model done to a very high level. 

About the author

Andrew Nussbaum

Pontiac possessed by Smokey and the Bandit at 6 years old, and cultivated through the '80s by GTAs, IROCS and Grand Nationals, Andrew hails from Queens NY and has been writing freelance for ten years.
Read My Articles

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