If you have been around Cougars for long, you will have heard Leon Bray’s name. That’s because Leon has been a Cougar enthusiast for longer than most. . He participated in the early days of the Yahoo List Serve including the legendary Thursday Night chat. He was involved in The Classic Cougar Network when it was started by Steve Eitzen and Gary Wiesenberger. He has been a constant contributor to both MercuryCougar.Net as well as ClassicCougarCommunity.Com. What makes this so remarkable is that Leon lives in a different hemisphere, on the other side of the date line, in Brisbane Australia.
You can think of Australia as an automotive parallel universe. Everything is just the same, only different. Australians are as crazy about their cars as we are. They love to drive and they have a thirst for performance and power. Except they drive on the right instead of the left. Their summer is our winter. Like us they speak English, but the words have different meanings. If you want to know what is going to happen tomorrow you can ask because it is already tomorrow in Australia before you will have breakfast in America.
The official history of the Mercury Cougar in Australia is pretty short. In the spring of 1968, two nearly identical XR-7 Cougars were built for export to Australia. They were sent to Bill Buckle Auto Conversions to be converted to right hand drive. At least one of these cars survives and it wears a Ford Motor Company of Australia data plate. Another '68 followed later in the year. Then in 1970 a single Cougar was imported for inclusion in the Australian International Motor Show in Melbourne. And that is the entire documented history of classic Cougars officially imported to Australia. There may have been others, but these are the only ones that have been documented.
It has been rumored that a few more Cougars were imported into Australia by US service members serving in country during the Vietnam era. They were supposed to export their cars when they left. When that didn’t happen the US government was said to have taken them out beyond the continental shelf and the 12 mile limit, and unceremoniously dumped them into the ocean. Supposedly a few missed the watery grave… So all in all, finding a Cougar in Australia is a very rare thing. And that brings us around to Leon’s story.
Leon grew up around cars and was involved in road racing and rallying. After a stint overseas Leon wanted to get back into performance cars. A Porsche 911 sounded good, but Leon had fallen in with a bad crowd, well they were his friends actually, and under their influence, he became interested in American Classics. Since Leon was working for a subsidiary to General Motors, it seemed like a GM car would be a good choice, and the hunt was on for a '67 Firebird. But as it turns out, there weren’t any in Australia. It was on the internet that Leon first discovered the Cougar, and the addiction began.
Leon tells it this way; “Around 1994, My wife found my 68 XR7 in a local car yard while I was working in Taipei and a friend checked it out, negotiated a huge chunk off the price and drove it home for me. I’ve been involved in the Cougar community ever since”
“We decided to look for a convertible in 1998. Looked at a couple but they were overpriced or had big problems. The 69 was advertised in Melbourne in the local version of Autotrader and I happened to be working in Melbourne at the time. It had been imported into Australia as a rolling shell in the early 1990’s and converted to right hand drive and LP gas. The 351W had been replaced with a 302W.”
"I test drove it at the airport one afternoon before I caught my flight back to Brisbane and the following Friday afternoon I picked it up at the airport, collected my daughter at the terminal and we drove home over the weekend, a total of 1702km (1055 miles!).
After that kind of drive, you might think that Leon’s convertible was done. The truth is there are actually very few parts of the car he hasn’t improved. First there are the things Leon did personally:
• 17” wheels and tyres to suit suspension
• Mazda MX5 electric mirrors – using holes that had been drilled in the doors for Ford LTD mirrors originally fitted
• Fitted with really comfortable seats from Nissan S12 Sylvia
• Custom instrument panel
• Electric remote door locks and alarm
• Quartz halogen headlights with individual 40 amp relays
• Electric headlight doors
• Electric engine fans
• Brakes rebuilt as the brake specialists I paid had fitted the wrong sized wheel cylinders and shoes. Also discovered mis-matched front spindles that had been causing an oscillation at 80kph
• Hi-torque starter with solenoid replaced by auxiliary fuse box and relays
• Camaro front spoiler
And then the things he outsourced:
• Suspension upgraded – new springs, gas shocks and bushes,with revised ride height
• Right hand drive conversion re-done to eliminate bump steer
• Fitted with retractable lap sash belts, front and rear
• Fitted with HVAC from Holden Commodore
• Engine rebuilt by sprint car builder – balanced and blue printed (very smooth) with cam to suit LPG
• Boss 9 scoop – try and find an Eliminator scoop in Oz in 2000
• Painted in limited edition colour, GM Hackett gold, with pearl in clear. A quick paint job.
The end result is exactly what you would expect: a reliable comfortable and smooth cruiser that handles and look great. But like every project car it is never really finished. Leon says; “The convertible is going to get a major refresh and upgrade next year. It won’t be a restoration and I’m sure some won’t like the modifications – most of which are bolt on and can be reversed. Keep an eye on the forum for details.”
While there may not be a lot of Cougars in Australia there are a lot of opportunities to get together with other gear heads. When asked about shows and cruises he shared this: “There were two regular monthly cruise events in Brisbane when I first got the convertible. At one stage in Brisbane, if there were two Cougars in the one spot it would have been classed as a national convention and it was a bit of a surprise when someone shouted out “nice Cougar” as I was driving along. There is a lot more interest in the car now that more Cougars are coming to Australia and new owners need advice.”
In putting this story together I asked Leon to tell us a little bit about living in Australia.
“It’s Sunday morning here and I’m playing hookey from church because the 70’s brake lights stopped working.”
“I live south of Brisbane, which is Australia’s third largest city. The climate is sub tropical, a bit like Florida, with no real winter (about two cold weeks in August) and hot and humid in summer. Here we put the convertibles away in summer because it is too hot.”
“Brisbane is a bit like a small mid west US city with a population of $2.5M and is influenced by much of the US fast-food culture, although we know how to make good coffee and great tasting beer. It is about an hours drive to the Gold Coast beaches and 2 hours to the Sunshine Coast beaches. Brisbane is half-way between Melbourne, 1000 miles to the south, and Cairns / Barrier Reef, 1000 miles to the north - so you can’t drive from Melbourne to the Barrier Reef in a day.”
“The car scene is a mix of hot rods, Eurospec, JDM and Australian, American and European classics. At a cars and coffee you could see a mix of Ferrari, Austin Healy, Monaro, Falcon GT, GTR Skyline, 240Z, BMW 635, Murcielargo, Ford Zephyr, Mustang, Impala and the occasional Cougar.”
“Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have kangaroos hopping down the street, even though I live in a forest, and we live in relative safety so we don’t have to carry a knife. Drop bears can be a problem though.”
We need not fear too much for Leon’s life; I have been assured that drop bears are most commonly encountered during snipe hunts and even then they seem to only attack those with non native accents…
About Right Hand Drive Conversions
Up until 1998 right hand drive conversion was mandatory and involved far more than meets the eye:
• Repositioning the steering column
• Installing a local Falcon steering box – I use XF Falcon power steering boxes
• Changing the drag link to have the correct ends for the new steering box and idler arm
• Repositioning the brake booster, which involves re-profiling the firewall for the correct pivot angle, (there were some crossover installations that left the booster on the left hand side and ran a supported rod from the brake pedal across the car to the booster)
• Repositioning pedals and re-profiling the pedal arm to get the correct pedal position
• Cutting the dash into several sections, repositioning the instrument panel and glove compartment and welding it back together
• Flipping over the wiring loom and running it down the right hand side of the vehicle
• Changing the headlights so they dipped to the left
• Changing the wipers to sweep to the right hand side
• Fitting Australian Standard inertia reel seat belts and child restrain anchorages
• And in some cases, changing indicators to amber lenses (using the reversing lights as indicators)
You can now register a left hand drive classic car without having to convert to right hand drive. You only have to change the headlights and seat belts for cars later than 1969. This is has led to a much larger number of old American classics being imported into Australia.