- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

The next best thing to having a friend in high places is having a mother employed at a California Lincoln-Mercury dealership.

Jim Stagner was working for the Federal Aviation Administration in the late 1960s near San Francisco overlooking Half Moon Bay when he learned that the new model year Mercury planned to manufacture a super-high-powered version of the Cougar.

He called his mother at Sierra Lincoln-Mercury in Fullerton near Los Angeles and asked her to order one of the new hot rod Cougars. He specified the competition orange color and demanded that his car be the first Cougar to be delivered.

Mercury produced the Cougar Eliminator only in 1969 and 1970. Mr. Stagner's Eliminator was delivered in June 1969 with the 335-horsepower Cobra Jet 428-cubic-inch V-8 engine beneath the functional hood scoop.

The window sticker, which Mr. Stagner still possesses, indicates $3,694.31 as the base price. With the Eliminator package, the Eliminator Decor Group as well as all the other goodies such as power steering, power brakes, tinted glass and hood lock pins, the price of the car soared to $4,485.30.

Because Mr. Stagner's mother was a dealership employee he got a deal and paid only the base price. One of the line items on the window sticker that brings a chuckle today is the $1.33 charge for the four gallons of gasoline the dealer put in the car.

When Mr. Stagner went to get his muscular orange Cougar he found it prominently parked in the showroom where the dealer was milking it for every last bit of publicity. He drove the prize home to San Mateo and then the fun began.

The only alteration from factory stock Mr. Stagner made was the installation of traction bars.

Mr. Stagner, behind the three-spoke steering wheel was a regular competitor at Northern California drag strips until he went to school in Boston. He drove his Cougar cross-country and, when not in school, he competed at local New England drag strips.

After school he drove his high-powered car back to California. Soon thereafter, Mr. Stagner went to another school in Oklahoma City.

Of course, he drove his Cougar there, towing a U-Haul trailer, and once more competed at the local Midwest drag strips.

"The amazing thing," Mr. Stagner said, "is the car gets 11 miles per gallon regardless of the load or speed. It doesn't seem to care."

During the first seven years that he owned the car Mr. Stagner entered his outstanding Cougar against Chevelles, Camaros, GTXs, Road Runners, GTOs and 442s in 47 races and took home 45 trophies.

In 1976, while driving to work one day after he had retired the Mercury from racing, the car shuddered and Mr. Stagner steered it off to the shoulder of the road.

"At first I thought the power steering had failed," he said.

"There was a big hole in the side of the block."

A new short block from the factory was ordered and, after a lot of money was thrown at the problem, the Cougar was restored to mechanical good health.

After more years as a daily driver the Cougar was tucked away on its 111-inch wheelbase in a Southern California garage where it hibernated from 1985 to 1998. That hiatus explains the remarkably low mileage of less than 91,000 miles recorded on the odometer.

Probably the vehicle's best-known feature when it was new was the sequential turn-signal taillights with 24 vertical chrome separations on each side of the license plate.

The all-black interior is completely original, including the speakers in the front doors. Only the headliner has been replaced.

Mr. Stagner said replaing the package shelf under the rear window is next on the never-ending list of things to do.

The standard-issue spoiler on the trunk lid is, according to Mr. Stagner, strictly for show. The chin spoiler under the front bumper actually works.

At 135 mph the engine is turning only 6,000 rpm, Mr. Stagner reports.

"It's been a reliable car," Mr. Stagner notes, assessing that the only problems have been because it's a performance engine. "That's a small price to pay."

The original F70x14-inch tires were long ago replaced with wider radial tires. "When I punch it," Mr. Stagner said, "I want it to go."

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