1971 AMC Hornet SST (top; image by author); 1973 Mercury Comet (bottom; image by Jim Donnelly).
Editor’s note: This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a regular basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing, and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.
Featured in this edition of This or That are a couple of once-commonplace compacts: a 1971 AMC Hornet SST and a 1973 Mercury Comet sedan. Although these cars were assembled roughly 24 months apart, both were ushered from their respective assembly lines at an opportune time. Economy was just beginning to trump performance for a multitude of reasons, while unbeknownst to many the first oil crisis was looming on the horizon. Here are a few details pertaining to the Hornet and Comet; however, if you want to read the original stories, both were former subject material in our Hemmings Classic Car magazine — just click on the provided links above.
American Motors reintroduced their Hornet for 1970. It was big news for the badge at the time, although Hornet — a name that once spoke of high-performance — was now fixed to a newly minted compact engineered to replace the aging Rambler, but with a modern body design. Offered in multiple trim levels and bodystyles, two-door variants touted a 108-inch-long wheelbase; the chassis being a unit-body platform that — unlike its predecessor — utilized a ball-joint coil-sprung independent front suspension, with an upper A-arm and lower control arm with a strut rod. The rear suspension used typical parallel semi-elliptic leaf springs. Its base engine was a 199-cu.in. six-cylinder, which was accompanied by a three-speed manual transmission. Options were somewhat plentiful for the utilitarian AMC, including a pair of larger displacement engines, an automatic transmission, and a small list of comfort and convenience equipment for passengers.
Model year changes seemed minimal when the 1971 editions were released, including the aforementioned Hornet SST (a trim level above the base Hornet sub-series) that could have been obtained as the pictured two-door sedan, or in four-door sedan and wagon guises. Again, the base engine was a straight-six (a 135-hp edition), which would have held the price tag at a steady $2,274. However, our feature car was optioned with a 150-hp 258-cu.in. straight-six, which was backed by an also-optional Shift-Command automatic (a 210-hp 304 was also offered, as was a 360-cube block installed with the famed SC/360 package). In the as-stated configuration, the compact weighed a little over 2,700 pounds while the engine touted an average fuel economy of 16.8 mpg. Though performance wasn’t its key selling point, one online report suggests that in the stated engine/transmission configuration, the Hornet SST could clock 0-60 mph in 12.3 seconds and shuffle down the quarter-mile in 18.9 seconds at 75 mph.
Meanwhile, Mercury received its own compact car in the form of the Comet. Introduced for 1971, it was based on its corporate sibling, Ford’s two-door Maverick, which had replaced the Falcon a year prior. The one-year delay did two things for the Mercury version: The unit-body platform had a few more months of engineering under its belt, and it allowed corporate designers time to expand the platform to include a four-door body. At introduction, the Comet’s standard powertrain combination was a 100-hp 170-cu.in. six-cylinder backed by a three-speed manual. On the option chart were a pair of 200-cu.in. sixes (rated for 115 and 155 hp) and a two-barrel 302 rated for 210 hp. Ford’s SelectShift automatic was also obtainable. The only modifications to this arrangement for 1972 were the change to the net output rating system and the two-barrel 200 being replaced by a 250 six-cylinder.
As to our featured 1973 sedan, the chassis dynamics remained essentially unchanged since its release. The four-door rode on a 109.9-inch wheelbase with the body- – now featuring mandated crash bumpers and a front end more akin to the Maverick — coming in at 192.4 inches. Together with its base powertrain system, the compact tipped the scales at 2,904 pounds and cost $2,389. Speaking of powertrain, the ’73 models ushered in its first significant change in that the base engine was now a one-barrel 200 that made 84 hp (eliminating the 170 altogether). Two options remained: the 88-hp 250-cu.in. six (featuring a one-barrel carburetor) and — as equipped in our feature car — a two-barrel, 135-hp 302-cu.in. V-8 that also touted an economy rating of 14.1 mph. Though the three-speed manual was still standard, our feature car also was optioned with the SelectShift automatic. According to one report found online, the low-output 302 tucked neatly within the four-door Comet could manage a 0-60 time of 10.2 seconds while traversing the quarter-mile in 17.6 seconds at 80 mph.
A final note: 1971 Hornet SST (coupe) production reached 8,600 buyers, while four-door Comet production culminated at 28,984 units for ’73.
Though the prospect of owning a compact economy car may not be high on every car-collector’s bucket list, having covered the basics, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?