Rare: Could 1968 Mercury Cougar XR7 428 Cobra Jet Be Dyno Don Nicholson’s?
It was pretty high-dollar. I mean, he was asking $40,000 for a car that needed a complete restoration,” Royce Peterson says.
In August 2016, Peterson got a call out of the blue from a “fairly well-known Ford collector from St. Louis” named Mike (last name omitted for privacy). The Cougar community is a small one. Peterson already knew that Mike owned this XR7 Cobra Jet.
“I’d seen him post pictures of it online, but I had no idea it was for sale or going to be for sale.”
Apparently, Mike realized that Peterson, a well-known collector in Dallas, might be interested in his historic Cobra Jet Cougar. The two talked on the phone. The subject of the CJ‘s Dyno Don heritage was certainly an issue, as was the car’s completeness, rust-free body, and the fact that the Cougar was a numbers-matching XR7 that started and ran.
“After I got through talking to him, I thought about it for maybe a half an hour,” Peterson says. “I called him back and said I was going to do a wire transfer for what he was asking. I wasn’t even going to dicker with him on price.”
Needless to say, Peterson was enthused. He had another connection to this car that excited him even more.
“In the early 2000s I had another CJ Cougar, maroon with white interior. In 2002 I had it at the dragstrip in Hebron, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. They had an all Ford drag race and car show every year, and Ford Motorsports—I guess that’s what it was called at the time—had hired Don Nicholson to be at the event. He was there signing autographs right next to the staging lanes. They had shut down the track for some reason. I was in the staging lanes sitting in my Cobra Jet Cougar, and Don got in my car. He said, ‘Hey, I’m Don Nicholson.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.'”
Nicholson is a big deal to Cougar fans. Lincoln-Mercury gave him one of the two Boss 429 Cougars back in the day (1969) to campaign on the strip. So, being a super Cougar enthusiast, Peterson was in awe to have Nicholson jump in his car and start a conversation.
“He said he had one just like this one. He started telling me about his car. He said it was red with a black interior. He said it was really cool, had a Cobra Jet and automatic.”
Being a collector, Peterson asked Nicholson if he knew where that car was, but Nicholson had no idea. Peterson asked if he had any old pictures. The answer was again no, that he had moved and it had been so long ago. Nicholson signed the air cleaner lid on the Cougar Cobra Jet. Peterson managed to have somebody snap a photo of him with Nicholson in front of his Cougar.
Peterson’s mind drifted back to 2002 and his encounter with Nicholson. Was the CJ he just found, red with black interior, Dyno Don’s old Cougar? Peterson figures “it almost has to be.” He has traced this car back to 1993 to a Jack Miller in the suburbs of Atlanta, who bought the car from a “teenager.”
Peterson had the car shipped in an enclosed trailer from Virginia to his home in Dallas. The car has a cheap paint job from the 1980s, Hooker headers, no smog, a “little bit of a cam,” an aftermarket transmission cooler, and the correct date-coded center section to the 9-inch rearend, which is “a real unusual piece” for a 1968 1/2, featuring the original 31-spline axles. The Traction-Lok chirps the tires even when pushed.
When it was new, the Cougar’s options included a black vinyl roof, a “High-Ratio Axle” (3.91:1) Traction-Lok differential, F70-14 belted black-sidewall tires, a console, power disc brakes, power steering, a Tilt-Away steering wheel, an AM/eight-track stereo radio, tinted glass, front seat headrests, and chrome styled steel wheels.
Peterson is still trying to trace the car to Nicholson, who lived in the Atlanta area in the late 1960s. He worked for a Mercury dealer and was professionally drag racing at the time.