Airman's ride brings Britain to JBER
Among automotive enthusiasts’ 600-plus horsepower pony cars and hulking SUVs decked out with blingtastic chrome 22-inch rims, Tech. Sgt. Danny Damons’ 1966 Ford Cortina Super might seem rather pedestrian by comparison.
But upon closer inspection of the small green coupe, a not-insignificant mechanical detail jumps out - the steering wheel is on the wrong side.
“Its uniqueness stems from the fact Cortinas were never produced or sold in the United States,” said the 3rd Operations Support Squadron Aircrew Flight Equipment craftsman. “It’s right-hand drive. It’s smaller than an average car, even for a classic. Those things make it unique and cool.”
The Dresden, Tenn., native said he was stationed at Royal Air Force Lakenheath when he caught the bug for British cars.
Damons said he bought and drove a lilliputian 1961 Morris Mini - weighing all of 1,400 pounds - before he spotted and fell in love with the Ford of Britain-produced Cortina while strolling with his wife, Iga, in Felixstowe, Suffolk.
“We were taking a walk by the waterfront and the car just caught my eye,” he recalled. “I walked right up to it and there happened to be a for-sale sign on it. I called about it the next day and decided to buy it.”
Damons said the car was sold to him by a father and son who had worked for years to restore it to its current state.
They swapped the original 60-horsepower 1.2-liter Super engine for a fire-breathing 78-horsepower 1.5-liter GT mill.
Mated to a four-speed manual transmission and tamed by disc-front and drum-rear brakes, the GT engine has plenty of grunt to motivate the 1,700-pound coupe through stop-and-go American traffic.
Lacking traction control, fuel injection, variable-valve timing, ABS brakes, power steering and most driver-assist technologies motorists take for granted today, Damons said he appreciates the purely mechanical nature of the diminutive Cortina.
“I like driving it because it has that classic old-school feel to it,” he explained. “You feel like you’re actually driving the car instead of the car driving you. It’s cool being on the right-hand side, looking out, and knowing people are looking at you saying, ‘Look at that, that’s cool.’
“I like old cars,” Damons continued. “I like the way they’re made. I like the way they look. They look cool, and you feel cool driving them.”
Because it’s not a late-model car, Damons said he didn’t have to jump through administrative hoops to federalize the car once he decided he wanted to bring the car stateside.
“Because it is a historic vehicle, it doesn’t have to conform to EPA standards,” he said. “So, 25 years old or older, you can ship it back. It was a pretty easy process to get the forms from the (U.S.) Customs office where I shipped the vehicle through. I took it down to the DMV and registered it straight up.”
Though in restored condition, Damons said he has extensive plans for the Ford.
He noted minor body-alignment issues and hidden spots of rust, and said he wants to strip it down and repaint it in a single-color scheme with sweet butterscotch paint.
He plans to reupholster the interior in black leather with herringbone fabric inserts.
Finally, he said he wishes to buy a period-correct crate engine to break the 100-horsepower barrier in order to give the Cortina more thrust.
Damons offered advice for troops stationed overseas who may have an opportunity to buy a foreign-market car.
He warned that parts and service can be difficult to source in the U.S., so enthusiasts should learn basic mechanic skills while becoming resourceful at finding parts on the internet.
He also said car enthusiasts should give potential foreign-market acquisitions a close inspection.
“Of course it’s always buyer beware,” Damons said. “Don’t take anything at face value. People can paint over things very easily and make them look nice and come to find out later you have a lot of problems.
“Do your research,” he continued. “Talk to people and get involved in a club. If you show enthusiasm, people love to talk to you and help you out.”
Perhaps as interesting as the Cortina is its owner who has led a rather unique military career.
Damons said he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in the ‘90s as a military policeman and was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Facility, Quantico, Va., with Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), where he was part of the helicopter security detail for former President Bill Clinton.
After he separated from the Marines, Damons said he joined the Tennessee Army National Guard, before a longing for the camaraderie of active-duty service spurred him to join the Air Force.
Damons said during his assignment to RAF Lakenheath, he has gained an appreciation for serving on foreign shores.
“I love being overseas, especially in a foreign country,” he said. “Its perks include experiencing the culture and meeting exciting and new people. If you immerse yourself in the culture and really get to know people, you’d be surprised at how well they respond to you and how much they really do like Americans.”