Cyclone warning: 1971 NASCAR tribute is a long-distance traveler

Beginning at home in Delaware, Rob Day was surprised that he’d encountered the police only once on his 6,700-mile coast-to-coast round trip in a 1971 Mercury Cyclone. One night in Nevada, an officer asked him to move his car farther off the road as he repaired a headlight adjuster. That the car was customized as a tribute to the now-defunct brand’s most successful NASCAR racer seemed unimportant to the highway patrolman.

Day’s Cyclone did draw plenty of attention from onlookers as he and his then 16-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter took turns driving on the journey in 2006. The car is a visual clone of the #21 “Purolator Mercury” campaigned by Wood Brothers Racing in the early 1970s.

The 1971 model is one of numerous versions of Mercury’s mid-size Montego and its sporty sibling, the Cyclone, which Day has owned. His infatuation with Cyclones began 35 years ago, after a Dodge Charger crashed into the Ford Torino GT he was driving. Needing a car for college, he found a 1971 Mercury Cyclone – the Torino’s corporate cousin – for $900. He took the car to a drag strip, posting a 15.1-second quarter-mile time, which was impressive then for a two-ton car with a 351-ci V-8. He also autocrossed the Cyclone, beating smaller, lighter cars’ times.

Day said that, while he does not consider himself a big NASCAR fan, he had admired the #21 Wood Brothers Racing Mercury when he was a boy, watching the races on a black-and-white TV. “I didn’t even know the real color of the car until I saw it in a magazine,” he said. David Pearson and A.J. Foyt were among some of the sport’s celebrated drivers who piloted #21, Foyt winning the Daytona 500 in 1972 and Pearson winning 11 of the 18 races he entered in 1973.

Day didn’t want a raucous, rumbling semi-racecar, but rather a visual tribute that was comfortable and reliable to drive long distances. A lowered front end and painted steel wheels give the Cyclone a vintage racecar stance. Day brought magazine photos to a woman who made reproduction stickers, and he also found some vintage sponsor stickers on eBay.

The real NASCAR Cyclones ran with Ford’s Boss 429-ci V-8, but Day said, “My whole car budget was less than one of those engines.” So, despite its “429” hood stickers, his car instead runs with a Ford 351 “Cleveland” hooked to an early-1980s Ford automatic overdrive transmission. That combination, he said, yielded over 20 miles per gallon on the highway.

Day assembled his #21 tribute car in five months from a Montego he’d bought on eBay from a seller in Texas. A friend did the body and paintwork, while Day worked on the chassis, electric system and interior. The latter features the Cyclone dashboard and door panels, along with more comfortable front seats from a late-1980s Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe.

Aside from his cross-country trip, highlights that Day has enjoyed with the car include visiting the Wood Brothers Racing Museum in Stuart, Va., to see the real #21, and having Pearson, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, pose for a photo with the clone at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

The racecar clone is the second special Mercury that Day built. While Ford offered a 1970-71 Torino convertible, Mercury did not offer an open Montego or Cyclone, so he made his own. Building the car was not a matter of grafting Cyclone body parts and trim to a Torino convertible shell, however. The two models did not share major exterior body panels, and there were other differences between them. Day learned all of those differences during the two years he took to assemble the convertible using parts sourced from 23 salvage-yard cars. The engine is a rebuilt 351 out of his long-ago wrecked Torino.

Although Day has not taken the convertible coast-to-coast, he has driven it to events as far away as Michigan and Tennessee. He likes those early ’70s mid-size Fords and Mercs so much, he started and maintains the Cyclone Montego Torino Registry for them.

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