- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

On March 20, 1962 a Mercury Meteor Custom two-door sedan was built in Dearborn, Mich. The Meteor, Mercury’s upscale version of Ford’s intermediate Fairlane model, was destined to become a family heirloom.

Meteors were offered in a choice of 14 solid colors or 36 two-tone combinations. This particular car left the factory wearing a coat of Ocean Turquoise Metallic.

The car ended up at the Palmer Mercury dealership of Hamilton Street in Hyattsville, where it caught the eye of Manuel Rojas. A relatively recent immigrant from Ecuador, he passed by the dealership every day on his way to work. It was the first new car he had bought and it came with a 12,000-mile, one-year warranty.

The Mercury Meteor was equipped with a 221-cubic-inch V-8 engine that developed 145 horsepower. The car was advertised as a combination of big-car ride and compact-car economy.

Window sticker prices indicate that the 7.00x14-inch white sidewall tires cost an extra $37, the two-speed electric wipers were $7.75, the backup lights cost $10.70, the wheel covers were $18.60 and the transmission was $69.50. There was no charge for the air cleaner or the oil filter.

Meteor, sandwiched between the larger Monterey and smaller Comet models, rode on a 116.5-inch wheelbase.

The Rojas family took its vacations in the Meteor, and Mr. Rojas used it for his daily commuting trips. It was sufficiently worn and aged to hand it over to an older son to drive to DeMatha High School.

After he graduated, his younger brother, Rene, bought the car in 1981 and has had it ever since.

“I got my first ticket for peeling out of the school parking lot,” he recalls. “It was worth every penny of the fine.”

Mr. Rojas continued to drive the car to Catholic University. Long before his 1989 graduation, Mr. Rojas had begun restoring his Mercury, bit by bit.

With 140,000 miles showing on the odometer, the engine died and was replaced. The blue vinyl interior was replaced soon thereafter. Altogether, the total restoration project consumed the better part of eight years. During that time Mr. Rojas converted his Meteor from a manual transmission to an automatic. He also located in Illinois a new — in the original wrapping — engine hood, grille and front bumper. The rear bumper was sent off for replating.

The intricately curved chrome pieces surrounding the inset taillights were found in Colorado and new lenses came from Illinois. “There was no Internet back then,” Mr. Rojas notes, commenting that finding parts was a much more difficult task. When the time came for repainting, he opted for originality except for the top, which seemed to beg for a different color. That part of the car is now Corinthian White.

The restoration was completed in 1991 and since then Mr. Rojas has struggled to keep his car high and dry. That effort was made easier about six years ago when he bought a house in Bethesda and built a garage.

He estimates that the Meteor has been driven about 4,000 miles in the past 10 years.

When Mr. Rojas sits behind the three-spoke, deep-dish steering wheel, he can peer past the two-thirds-diameter chrome horn ring at the 110-mph speedometer and remember the good old days.

Looking over the expansive engine hood, he sees the chrome-plated gunsight ornaments atop both front fenders. “They’re cool,” he says. “It’s a clean design.”

Mr. Rojas is very comfortable in the family heirloom, as he should be. After all, he learned to drive in this car.

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