Growing up in the small southwest Kansas town of Fowler, Steve Walker was like a lot of kids, working hard on his folks’ farm for little or no pay. But that didn’t mean he didn’t get rewarded.
“I was starting my sophomore year in high school and my dad came driving this home one day. He saw it sitting at a farmer’s house near Ensign for sale. He bought it for me,” Walker said.
“It” was a beautiful 1969 Mercury Cougar Eliminator in Competition Orange — and it came equipped with the legendary 428 Cobra Jet engine. It was almost more than he could wrap his 15-year-old mind around.
“It was my dad’s way of reimbursing us for our work,” he said, noting that his younger brother received a 1970 big block Chevelle SS as a reward for his toil.
“We lived about a block from the high school, and I drove my car to school every day,” Walker recalled. “It took several minutes to warm it up each morning. I probably could have walked to school faster.”
Surprisingly, the Walker boys didn’t get into much trouble with their high-performance cars. The Cobra Jet engine in his Cougar Eliminator was conservatively rated at 335 horsepower and breathed through a functional ram air-style hood scoop. The Eliminator package also included hood pins, a front chin spoiler, a rear deck spoiler, an in-dash tachometer and a black stripe down the side that ended in an “Eliminator” logo.
“We never got into drag racing. But my brother and I would race each other once in a while,” Walker confessed.
When he left town for college at Friends University, the Cougar Eliminator went with him and served him well as daily transportation.
“I went on a mission trip in the summer of ’75 and I just got back to town and thought I needed to go see what’s happening downtown. There was a girl from Cimarron and we were sitting in our cars talking to each other, when some guy comes around the corner and rear-ends me. It shoved the rear quarter panel in,” Walker recalled.
The Cougar spent most of that summer in a body shop in Dodge City being repaired. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he decided the Cougar didn’t really match his career path, so he sold the car and bought a nice, sensible Subaru hatchback from a co-worker.
“I just sort of lost interest in (the Cougar) … it was a spur of the moment deal. I went from a muscle car to a tricycle,” Walker said. But he said he would stop by and visit the Cougar when he was in the neighborhood, making the new owner promise to call him if he ever wanted to sell it. Unfortunately, that call never came.
“Then in 1999, the car kind of found me. I got a call from a guy in Denver. He had found an insurance card in the glove box of the car with my mom and dad’s name on it and they gave him my number,” he said.
“Every time I was in Denver on business, I would call him and take him and his wife out to dinner. I bugged him repeatedly to sell it back to me. We became good friends and then in 2012, he had a weak moment and I was able to buy it back,” Walker said.
He received the long-awaited call on a Friday and was in Denver by midday on Saturday.
“The first thing I did was crawl under the car, looking to see if the repairs that had been made to it were there. I wanted to make sure it was my car. I didn’t want to buy an impostor,” Walker said.
The car had been repainted, the engine rebuilt and a new headliner installed. Walker’s Cragar mag wheels had been replaced with a set of Shelby-style 15-inch wheels. But it was, in fact, his car.
“What’s amazing is that it still smells the same as it did in high school. I could blindfold myself and everything came back as if it hadn’t been gone for 30 years,” he said.
With the help of friends John and Boone Reichenberger and John Sebastian, Walker got the original Holley carburetor back on the big 428 and tuned up. The brakes were fixed and the radiator had to be recored to cool a persistent heating problem and seals were replaced to stop some minor leaks in the C-6 automatic transmission. New fuel and water pumps were also installed and the air conditioning brought back to life.
Now Walker and his wife enjoy driving the Cougar Eliminator as often as possible.
“I got lucky,” is how he describes having his first car back in his garage. “I learned my lesson. The rule at our house for our kids is, ‘You cannot sell your first car.’”
Reach Mike Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org.