Top 5 things I learned painting my car at home

It was challenging. It was rewarding. It was heartbreaking.

During the month of March I tackled what I consider to be the pinnacle of a car restoration — the paint.

When this project began in August of 2017, the 1967 Mercury Cougar arrived wearing dull white paint. I actually wasn’t sure if it was primer or a topcoat. There was overspray on most of the trim, rust was bubbling up on the doors and quarters, and the body panels looked as if someone had played bumper cars in a parking lot full of shopping carts.

Almost four years later, I finally finished the mechanical and interior refurbishment, and I was ready to tackle the paint and body. Here’s the most important things I learned during the process.

Number One: Don’t buy your paint online

I had a white Mustang in high school, and I know white is a popular color for Cougars, but I just wasn’t feeling it. To be honest, if I was building the perfect Cougar it would be Hunter Green with a Saddle Leather interior. However, I ended up with a white Cougar with red interior that originally was Onyx black. I decided to take it back to black, but with a metallic paint. Like many others, I’ve gotten in the bad habit of just ordering things online instead of getting out to a store to see what I’m buying. I ordered all my paint from Eastwood.com. I lucked out with their Epoxy Primer. It sprays really well. The 2k High Build — not so much, but if you dilute it enough it’s ok. The real problem was the Midnight Metallic Black.

The Eastwood base colors mix 4:1, so while it’s $185 per gallon, you’re actually only getting 5 quarts. By comparison the PPG Shopline paint mixes 1:1 at $205 per gallon, so you’re getting 8 quarts. Even with slow reducer I suffered solvent popping in the Midnight Metallic Black, which left dotted lines on the roof and trunk lid of the car. I also screwed up and accidentally drug my air hose along the edge of the roofline. There was nothing to do except sand it all down and start over. I needed more paint. Unfortunately, Eastwood had a big message on their site saying they were out of stock until May. I took a trip to my local Tasco where I should have gone in the first place. They gave me a handful of color chips to pick out exactly what kind of metallic black I wanted and then mixed me up two gallons. Their low-end Shopline paint sprayed better than the Eastwood, and by choosing Ford Tuxedo Black, future color match is easy. I can get touch up paint at any auto parts store.

Number Two: You need good lighting in your work area

I have fluorescent shop lights hanging in half my garage, but the other side is really dark. There is a noticeable difference in the paint work done on the bright side of the garage versus the dark side of the garage. Good light helps you see the wet edge, the extent of coverage, whether or not you’re running the paint, and if you have solvent popping or other issues happening. If I was going to paint more cars in my garage I’d add lighting to the other side of the ceiling or at least set up some shop lights on that side.

Number Three: Sanding is tedious and messier than spraying

Sanding cars is incredibly tedious and messy. I was expecting the spray mess, but being covered in enough poly primer powder that I looked like a ghost was a new experience. The powder gets into the air and settles on everything. It got tracked all over the house. Having a clean area is really important for a good paint job, and it took days of cleaning and washing out the garage to remove enough dust to spray again. Also, use blocks to sand, not your fingers. If you sand without a block you’ll end up with a sad, wavy finish. 2k is the only layer that will hide a few of the issues you don’t spend time sanding before you apply it. Every other layer is going to show everything, so spend the time sanding. But yes, it is really tedious.

Number Four: Carefully read your paint data sheets

Yes, the data sheets show mix ratios, but many of them also specify gun pressure and tip sizes. More importantly, it lets you know how soon you can spray your next layer. For instance, the epoxy primer I used took three days to cure enough for sanding. Three days is a long time to wait for the next coat when you’re trying to fit a paint job into vacation time. However, you could overcoat the epoxy primer with 2k primer after 30 minutes, but if you waited more than six hours, you were stuck waiting the full three days. Once the 2k was on the epoxy, you could sand it within an hour. The clear coat also has to go onto the base coat within a certain number of hours or you have to scuff and spray another layer of base before you can clear. Each paint is slightly different, so always ask for the data sheet when you’re buying the paint.

Number Five: The cut and polish process is a completely different skill set

I was aware that I knew nothing about painting cars, so I invested in a weekend seminar to learn the basics long before I bought any equipment. We spent lots of time spraying, but the cut and polish process was just a PowerPoint slide with a quick demonstration. I was woefully unprepared to polish paint, and the Meguiars paste and $29 buffer from O’Reilly’s weren’t helping the situation. My first attempt wet sanding left too much orange peel. (By the way, did I mention sanding it incredibly tedious?) My second attempt was better, but after the cutting compound, you could still see swirl marks in the paint. My third attempt finally ruined the paint on the hood. After many, many hours I finally have a handle on wet sanding. A friend from the Cougar Club loaned me a professional polisher, and I bought some quality cutting compound and polish. The results are better, but if I could do it all again, I would have spent a long time practicing these processes on a car with bad paint, not the car I spent four weeks painting. Yes, when I mentioned heartbreak in the introduction, this is what I was talking about. There are definitely sections of the car I will have to paint again due to my own incompetence when trying to polish it. The wet sanding, cut and polish is not quick. It’s another job in itself, and it will make or break a paint job.

I know, there are no mind-blowing epiphanies here, but if anyone out there is debating whether or not to paint their car, I hope this helps.

Adding XR7-G exhaust cut-outs to a 1967 or 1968 Mercury Cougar

There’s one detail of the 1967 Cougar that always bothered me — the way the exhaust sits under the rear valance.

Originally, I believe the Cougar had turn-down exhaust tips that were somewhat hidden, but through the years almost everyone has run the exhaust under the valance, both to keep fumes out of the car and to give it more of a muscle car style.

However, in 1968, the XR7-G package boasted exhaust cut-outs with chrome trim rings, which to me, makes the back end of the car look much classier. Since I was undertaking body work to prep my car for paint, I decided to retrofit the XR7-G trim rings and exhaust tips onto my 1967 standard.

I ordered the trim from West Coast Classic Cougar. While it seems like a high quality reproduction part, all repro parts have their quirks. The odd thing I found about these trim rings is that one mounting peg is a different size. With pegs facing up, the right peg is a size smaller than the center and left pegs. This really doesn’t matter except that the spring nuts supplied with the rings are all the same size. They fit tightly on the center and left pegs, but fall right off the right peg. You will have to source a smaller size spring nut to mount them.

One good part about these trim rings is that they are symmetrical, so you can easily flip them over to trace the pattern onto your valance.

Step one was to remove the rear bumper guards and brackets. Not all Cougars had the bumper guard option, but if yours had them, and you are removing them, don’t throw them away. Each bumper guard has a core value of $50 and the brackets trade for about $100 a pair.

I got varying measurements from XR7-G owners as to how far apart the cut-outs should be spaced. I found my exhaust pipes lined up right under the top mounting holes for the bumper guards, so I used those to mark the centerline for my cutouts. I’m not trying to pass off my car as an XR7-G, so I would much rather have good exhaust alignment than perfect factory specifications. If you’re measuring from the bottom edge of the valance, on mine the outside edge cuts were exactly 8″ off the end-curves of the valance.

I could have probably cut the entire shape out with a dremel, but on the Classic Cougar Community forum, a member suggested using aviation tin snips to quickly do the bulk of the cutting and then just clean up the edges with a dremel. I decided to give that a shot — plus it gave me an excuse to buy some nice tin snips.

The only downside to the tin snips was the bend it puts in the lower portion of the valance, but it was easily tapped straight with a hammer and a dolly. I finished cutting and cleaned the edges up with a dremel.

Drilling the mounting holes precisely enough to get the bottom edges to line up perfectly straight was the trickiest part. Using good metal bits and stepping up the hole sizes made it much easier. In the end, I had to oversize a few holes to give the trim some adjustability.

My exhaust hangers were adjusted all the way down to get the pipes under my rear valance, so it was easy enough to raise them up to move the exhaust tips into the new cut-outs. However, it wouldn’t be a DIY project without an unexpected challenge. I didn’t notice that the backside of one hanger bolt had two nuts on it, and I twisted off the head trying to tighten it back up.

Thankfully I had a replacement nut and bolt rolling around in my toolbox, so it only caused a short delay.

The old rusty exhaust tips already look better poking through the new cut-outs. It will look really great when I have the larger, shinier XR7-G tips welded onto the system.

Once I had proof of concept and good measurements, I ran through the entire process again on the reproduction rear valance that I’m prepping to install before I paint the car.

I think I may toss the flat nuts and use speed nuts to install the trim rings, so that they are easier to unscrew if I want to repeatedly install and remove them while I continue doing body work and changing things on the car.

So now that I have the XR7-G exhaust trim, the real question is whether or not I should add the XR7-G hood scoop!

Installing LED headlights on a 1967 Mercury Cougar

I like the warm, yellow glow of vintage halogen headlights. Unfortunately, they’re not so great for actually seeing at night. The go-to fix for the past 10 years has been High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlight conversion kits. Of course, these bulbs draw much more power than the originals, which wasn’t great for vintage wiring that was never meant to handle that sort of amp draw in the first place. The solve that issue, it required the installation of a headlight relay and some new wiring to alleviate the load. Otherwise, turning on your brights might result in a fire.

With LED technology becoming so commonplace I figured there had to be a better solution. We converted all the bulbs in our boat to LED years ago. Surprisingly, there still wasn’t a great LED solution being carried by any of the major restoration and parts shops.

Projector LEDs are by far the best option, but most of them are really funky looking. I wanted something that looked as original as possible. My search led me to a site called dapperlighting.com. They have a projector LED headlight called the OE7, which still looks like the vintage 7” glass lights used on Mustangs, but it has a projector housing inside with an LED bulb. Unfortunately, my 1967 Mercury Cougar has four 5.75” headlights.

Dapper Lighting also sells an array of 5.75” lights with various halos, colors, and even options to make them change colors and work as turn signals, etc. It’s neat tech, but it’s not what I needed at all. My headlights don’t even show unless they’re turned on, so having halos that come on with the parking lights or turn signals built into them would be a complete waste of money.

My search moved on to eBay. I found a vendor called Stark Lighting that was selling stock looking 5.75” glass bulb housing with an H4 bulb socket on the back paired with LED bulbs. It was a plug and play solution, but I was hesitant to purchase them. Being a non-projector bulb and housing, I was really worried about the glare. I can’t stand those cars on the road that put the HID bulbs in a housing that was never meant for them and blind everyone on the freeway.

After much debate and a drive home from the grocery store during which I couldn’t tell if my headlights were turned on or not, I finally decided to give them a try.

cof

While the Stark Lighting eBay listings proudly display the Sylvania logo, there was not any sort of logo to be found on any of their packaging.

The housings are real glass, but they don’t have the same concave surface as the stock lights.

The bulbs have a large heatsink and fan on the back. I have my questions regarding the longevity of those little fans, but we’ll see.

The metal retaining rings took some finagling to seat over the H4 housings, but there were no issues with the bulbs protruding out of the back. There was plenty of clearance for everything. All four bulbs have high- and low-beam capability, so you just leave the center blade exposed when you press the connections together on the high-beam only plugs.

The result was a stock looking headlight with a very white light.

rhdr

I drove the car around for a weekend with stock headlights on the driver side and LED headlights on the passenger side. There was a dramatic difference.

rhdr

I could see much further down the road with the LEDs.

I was hoping that after the conversion I would be able to just change the bulbs from the rear of the housing instead of removing the entire housing, but there is a retainer clip over the bulb that can’t be opened with the housing installed in the car.

I don’t feel like these lights cause crazy glare for oncoming drivers, but I aimed them down more than what the manual specifies just in case.

Now even in a well-lit parking lot at night, I can still tell my headlights are on when I pull the switch. This has definitely been one of the best modifications I’ve made to the car.

Tips & Tricks for Installing a Lokar AOD Transmission TV Cable Kit

The 1967 Mercury Cougar project came with a 1980s Ford AOD transmission. This conversion is a nice upgrade over the original C4 if you plan to do much highway cruising.

OntheRoadAgain

However, the craftmanship of the original conversion left a bit to be desired. The person had used the factory AOD throttle valve (TV) cable, which didn’t really connect correctly to the carburetor. They had also fabricated a cable bracket and spring return that wasn’t holding up too well. I had noticed quite a bit of flex in it, and when I attempted to unbolt it from the intake manifold to investigate, it disintegrated.

TVCableBracketDisaster

The Lokar TV cable kit for AOD conversions came recommended from several different car magazines and forums online, so I decided to give it a shot. I won’t go into detailed instructions for the installation because there are a couple great videos about that already.

However, I will mention a few problems I encountered during the install and my solutions.

The first thing I did was add a Geometry Corrector to the Holley carburetor. While some people said they connected the Lokar cable directly to the carb with no issues, this piece creates an even pull from idle to WOT.

SonnaxGeometryCorrector

Then I tackled the transmission end of the cable. The shift lever went on with no problem, but the cable bracket was a trick. The Lokar kit comes with a longer bolt to replace the original pan bolt. It goes up through the pan and has a nut that goes on the back of it to support the tension.

LokarTVbracket01

On my car there was not enough space between the hole and the wall of the transmission to get the nut threaded onto the end of the bolt. If I had been doing this project with the transmission on a bench, I might have been able to hammer in the housing a little or bend the lip down a little to create enough clearance, but neither of those things were going to happen in the car. Instead I grabbed the dremel and shaved down the back edge of the nut.

ModifiedNut

With the flat side against the transmission case, I was just able to get it to thread. That stupid nut was the hardest part of the project.

Once I had the transmission end put together, I tackled the spring return bracket on the carburetor.

LokarReturnSpringBracket

The Lokar bracket that comes with the kit is really engineered for a throttle cable, so I had to adjust the bracket all the way in towards the carburetor, and it still barely has clearance for the throttle rod. However, the rod has full travel and the bracket isn’t causing any binding, so although I’d like a little more space, it seems ok. In the photo above you can see the Lokar adjuster tool that comes with the kit on the cable between the snap connector and the stop adjuster.

Strange fact, the allen wrench sent in the Lokar cable kit did not actually fit the set screw in the stop adjuster. I had to dig one out of my toolbox. Not sure how Lokar let that issue sneak past QA. Not a big deal, but then again, it’s not much of a confidence builder either.

Once the cable and all the brackets were installed, I screwed the pressure gauge into the TV test port on the passenger side of transmission and started the car up to set the TV cable tension.

With the car in neutral and absolutely no pressure on the cable, I was still getting 40 psi on the gauge. After several google searches and various tests, I finally pressed my finger against the shift lever and found it moved just the slightest bit. The gauge instantly dropped to 0. I let my finger off, and the lever slowly moved back out a few millimeters and the pressure came back up to 30 psi.

I have no idea why the lever wants to move by itself. This was not really discussed anywhere in any of the instructions. However, on some forums people had claimed that the Lokar cable spring wasn’t heavy enough to return their transmission to neutral while others defended it as being great. It definitely wasn’t strong enough for my transmission. I fabricated a little bracket and hung another return spring on the system, and suddenly, all my pressure readings were exactly where they were supposed to be.

LokarTVbracket02

I used vice grips to hold tension on the cable and tighten the set screw with the Lokar spacer in place to 35 psi.

PressureCheck

Then as soon as I pulled the spacer, the cable would snap back and the pressure would drop to 0 psi.

As soon as I removed the pressure gauge I took it for a test drive, and the shifts were much smoother and not as late as before.

One step closer to being on the road.

CougarTagSmall