Non-Stop Nonagenarian Rachel Veitch Brings Half-Million-Mile Mercury to Food Lion AutoFair
Ten years ago, Rachel Veitch drove her 1964 Mercury Comet show car 600 miles from Orlando, Fla., to the Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Today, the sedan registers an amazing 563,000 miles, the 92-year-old has become an internet phenomenon, and both are preparing to re-visit the AutoFair, which takes place on a new date this year – Aug. 26-29.
Veitch and her “Chariot” will be on hand throughout the four-day automotive extravaganza to meet old and new friends in the Showcase Garage. The pair will be joined there by other Food Lion AutoFair attractions, including the world’s only collection of street legal bumper cars, a display of Hippie Vans, the 70th anniversary of the hot rod icon 1940 Ford and a custom sports car build.
Pushing a car's mileage to the feathery edge of the endurance envelope was not Veitch's intent when she drove the Misty Yellow Mercury home from the dealership on Feb. 17, 1964; she and her husband just wanted to get cheaper transportation than the '59 Cadillac Coupe DeVille they were trading.
“We were going broke trying to keep the Cadillac running and putting gas in it,” Veitch recalls. “The Mercury Comet was a good-looking little car that I felt would be economical and reliable.”
Veitch (“rhymes with peach,” she says) was not aware of it at the time, but her instinct about the reliability of Mercury's smallest model had been proven by an endurance test just five months earlier when a team of drivers put 100,000 miles on three Comets at Daytona International Speedway over a period of 38 days. Each of the Comets' V-8 engines had performed without breakdown despite speeds that averaged more than 110 miles per hour. As for its value as an “economy” car, any American model that could return 20-22 miles per gallon on the highway in 1964 was miserly in the eyes of 46-year-old Veitch.
After reviewing all of the accessories, packages and powertrains available, Veitch settled on a four-door Caliente model with tan interior, the 164-horsepower/260-cubic-inch V-8, automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering and every other option on the list except power brakes. The 2,700-pound sedan, loaded with creature comforts, went to its new home for $1.22 a pound at $3,289.
From there, Veitch put an average of 1,000 miles on the Comet every month for the next 46 years. Most were work-related, with Veitch traveling to and from her job until her retirement in 1990 at 72 years of age. The only major mechanical work performed on the car's drivetrain was a valve and ring job at 216,000 miles and an engine rebuild after the Merc passed the half-million mark.
“I raised four children who gave me nine grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren,” she said. “With all that practice, and having been a cardiac nurse my entire career, I’ve gotten good at taking care of things. On my car, I always made sure to change the oil by the owner’s manual recommendations, and I had it serviced regularly. That's all it took.”
Perhaps there’s a gene for mechanical ability she inherited from her father. One of Veitch’s earliest memories is of being a little girl in Erie, Pa., and watching her father scrape the carbon out of a '24 Essex engine as part of its regular maintenance.
Since purchasing the Comet, Veitch has installed seatbelts - most cars were sold without them as late as 1965 - and cruise control.
“I got stopped for going 92 miles per hour on the interstate,” Veitch recalls, “so I decided it was time to get the cruise control. That V-8 in such a small car really makes it want to run.”
Midas and JCPenney have regretted ever offering Veitch unlimited warranties on their products; the Mercury has had eight mufflers and 18 batteries replaced free of charge. Sears has installed three free sets of shock absorbers. Lifetime maintenance adds up to $50,000, which includes approximately 180 oil changes, $4,000 for the 2007 engine rebuild, and $2,800 for a paint job in October, 2009.
Since retiring, Veitch has become a celebrity among Ford and Mercury car enthusiasts. The non-stop nonagenarian and her high-mileage Mercury have visited many states east of the Mississippi River, traveling to car shows in Michigan (where she won a trophy during the Ford Motor Co. 100th Anniversary show), Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and New York. She’s even driven as far as Galveston, Texas, to show off her pride and joy.
The internet has expanded Veitch’s circle of friends and admirers to an international level. Her three-minute appearance in 2007 on www.growingbolder.com, a website for active older adults, has been viewed more than six million times. She was also featured on NBC’s Today in August 2009.
“I tell the other old ladies all the time that, if they really want to have a good time, they need to get an old car and hit the road,” Veitch says. “I’ve made more friends around the country with that Mercury than I ever would have guessed possible.”
Hours for the Aug. 26-29 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or go online.