It’s Mine: 1954 Meteor Niagara

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Look up ‘Meteor’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see a photo of a very handsome beige and green 1954 Meteor Niagara two-door sedan. If you go to a summer show-and-shines in Calgary, you’ll see a car that looks just like it. That’s because it’s the same car.

Al Hardonk’s Meteor might be the best surviving example of a unique, and now extinct, Canadian brand. And he came to be its owner through a series of fortunate and entirely unplanned events.

Here’s the story: In 2009, Hardonk went to a Calgary car show and spotted the Meteor. Since he had once owned a very-similar 1954 Ford Crestline, he went over to take a closer look. There was a sign on the car that said, ‘For Sale or Trade’.

“I wasn’t really looking to buy a car,” he admits, but once he heard the car’s story, Hardonk says his interest was piqued. But he didn’t really see how a deal could be made as all he had to trade was his 1978 Chevrolet El Camino – and it wasn’t likely to be appraised anywhere near the assessed value of the Meteor.

The thing was, the Meteor didn’t suit its owner because his wife’s medical condition required her to have equipment that had to be powered by a 12-volt electrical system and the Meteor’s system was only six volts. The lady also used an electric scooter, so transporting that was a problem, too. The Meteor’s seller said he’d often thought an El Camino would be the perfect vehicle, if only he could ever find one in blue. Hardonk’s El Camino was blue. It didn’t take long for the deal to be done.

The Meteor was originally purchased in Victoria by the seller’s uncle – apparently, more as a prestige thing than a real need for transportation.

“Not everybody had a car back then,” Hardonk notes, adding, “He got all the showy options.”

Although the two-door sedan wasn’t really the flashiest model in the Meteor line-up, this car was ordered from the factory with two-tone paint, tinted window glass, a radio and premium interior. Dealer-added options included exterior mirrors, a continental kit, exterior sun visor and rear fender skirts. It also had the very expensive overdrive upgrade to its manual transmission.

In its first 50 years, the Meteor only accumulated about 5,000 miles. As Hardonk heard the story, the car was occasionally driven to the grocery store but usually was backed out of the garage every Sunday to be hosed down and then immediately re-garaged. When the nephew inherited the car, he ran the odometer up to about 18,000 miles before selling it to Hardonk.

Meteor was a brand created by Ford following World War Two to give its Lincoln-Mercury dealers an entry in the low-priced field. Essentially a Ford with unique trim and a Mercury dashboard, Meteors sold in respectable numbers for a couple of decades. The 1954 Meteor came in three models – the base Meteor, the mid-range Niagara and the top-of-the-line Rideau – and was powered by Mercury’s long-stroke 255 cubic inch flathead V8, the last time this engine would be offered in a passenger car. The 255 is likely the reason the very expensive overdrive option was added, since it would reduce the strain on the engine at highway speeds as well as improve its fuel consumption.

Although low mileage is a most-desirable feature in a collector car, it isn’t always an unmixed blessing.

“One of the problems I had when I got it was that it hadn’t been driven,” Hardonk says. “All the seals had dried out and the transmission was leaking.”

The good thing was that when the gearbox had been removed and Hardonk suggested that it be rebuilt, the technician said that there was no need.

“I said, ‘Let’s make it like new’,” he says. “The guy said that it looked brand-new, like it had hardly ever been shifted.”

So the seals were replaced and the transmission has worked well ever since.

When the interior began to deteriorate, Hardonk reluctantly decided that it would have to be redone – a blow to his goal of keeping the car original. He was pleased to hear from his insurance expert that interiors are considered consumable, just like brakes, and replacing the interior does not change the car’s survivor status – as long as it’s done right.

“I did it all exactly as per the factory,” Hardonk says. “I had to have the cloth made at a loom in Baltimore. They have the patterns for all North American cars from 1903 on. I said, ‘I have a challenge for you – a 1954 Canadian Meteor.’”

The company assured him that they’d have it and after a month of research asked for a photo so they could match the colours. According to Hardonk, the fabric matches the original perfectly and even the embossing on the vinyl half of the seats was done right.

Running a car like the Meteor has its challenges.

“It has 28 grease nipples. You have to change the oil constantly because it’s a gravity oil filter. Basically, you change the oil before it gets dirty.”

The most challenging thing of all, he jokes, is not doing anything to it like adding options it didn’t come with or improving its performance.

“It’s a survivor,” he says. “I don’t want it hot-rodded and I don’t want it restored.”

Although he drives the car regularly, Hardonk is clear-eyed about its virtues and its vices.

“It looks more comfortable than it is,” he admits. “It’s three-on-the-tree, standard steering and standard brakes. You basically wrestle it down the road. Once you get it up and cruising, it’s nice and smooth and quiet – for what it is.”

The big Merc flathead is so quiet, Hardonk says, that you can’t hear it running when it’s at idle. In a parking lot, he admits, the car is hard work.

As for the brakes, “They’re little nine-inch drums all around on a 4,200-pound car. You can put both feet on the pedal and it ain’t going to lock ’em up. You keep your eye a quarter-mile in front of you.

“Everywhere I go, it’s an instant one-vehicle car show,” the proud owner says about the attention his Meteor receives. “I’ll never sell it. I’m going to drive it until the day I die.”

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