OWLS HEAD — Win and Judi Rittall approached the mean-looking muscle car, gazing lovingly through the open driver’s window.

“That’s my baby,” said Win, 74, his arms wrapped around his wife, a few tears running down his cheek.

It would be the last time that either would lay eyes on its menacing hood scoop and its elegant chrome bumpers, or hear the deep rumbling of the 428-cubic-inch V8 engine that screams to life with every nudge of the throttle.

On a dreary afternoon outside the Owls Head Transportation Museum, the Rittalls said goodbye to the 1968 Mercury Cougar XR-7 GT-E that they had studiously maintained – and thoroughly enjoyed – for the past decade.

On Saturday at the museum’s annual classic car auction, the Rittalls’ Cougar fetched $228,800, an unofficial world record for its model.

The parting is bittersweet for the retired couple.

Win Rittall never intended to own the Cougar. It belonged to his brother, who secreted it away in his Bath garage for half a lifetime.

But when Rittall’s brother died in 2002 and Win inherited the car, his love for it grew. The sleek, menacing vehicle is a link between brothers who long ago went their separate ways, Win Rittall said.

“It’s been a real good ride for us,” Judi Rittall said. “I hope we found it a good home.”

HISTORY EXPLAINS CAR’S RARITY

It’s not clear where that home is. The buyer, who delivered the winning bid via phone, has wished to remain anonymous.

The price, experts say, reflects the car’s rarity.

The Rittalls’ Cougar was one of only three built with the combination of a 428 Cobra Jet engine, a four-speed manual transmission and a traction lock rear differential.

As of Tuesday, the Cougar has clocked only 54,530 miles, making it a stunningly complete survivor. Parts have been removed and replaced over the years, but both Rittall brothers carefully bagged up and preserved the original parts for posterity.

Besides some fading in the dark-green paint and a few cracks in the leather driver’s seat, the Cougar looks nearly like it probably did when it rolled off the factory floor 47 years ago.

Never driven in the snow or rain, most of the Cougar’s life was spent in a garage in Bath, covered by a tarp.

Supporting its value is a stack of documentation that proves the Cougar’s origin, including the invoice written out by a salesman at Park Motor Mart in Auburn on July 3, 1968. The original price on that invoice is $4,899.95.

Although hundreds of thousands of Cougars were produced in the era, the Rittalls’ is one of only two known to exist with a particular set of trim and options.

When the Cougar’s 1968 model was offered by Mercury, an upgrade package included an automatic transmission mated to a 327-cubic-inch V8, said Jim Pinkerton, who maintains the definitive registry of classic Cougars.

But Eugene Rittall was a discerning buyer.

Even at the height of the muscle car craze, he wanted to stand out from the herds of Mustangs, Camaros and Chevelles that crowded American streets.

In the Cougar, Eugene Rittall found his passion, Win Rittall said.

Sold as an up-market luxury version of the Ford Mustang, it had similar proportions but a more refined interior and styling. The XR-7 GT-E version offered an even more special feature, coming with one of the biggest engines ever offered in a production car, a 427-cubic-inch monster boasting nearly 400 horsepower.

But midway through that production year, Ford ran out of parts for the engines. Henry Ford had changed his mind about the motor’s future in Ford’s racing program, Pinkerton said. So the company turned to another beast, the 428 Cobra Jet.

Of the 113,741 Cougars made in 1968, only 394 were produced with the 427-cubic-inch motor. A mere 37 left the factory with the 428, and of those, only three were made with manual transmissions.

One of them went to Eugene Rittall. The second is owned by Pinkerton, and the third is either lost to time or secreted away undiscovered.

FINAL CHAPTER AFTER MANY ‘GOOD YEARS’

When Pinkerton caught wind that Rittall owned the other 428 Cobra Jet, it took Pinkerton years of convincing to arrange a visit for him to check out the car.

After he made the trek in 1996 and informed Rittall of the car’s rarity, Rittall was spooked. He asked to keep it off the registry, and Pinkerton agreed. The car attracted too much attention as it was, Pinkerton recalled Rittall saying.

So, in garage it remained.

“I don’t believe that he kept it because of its market value,” Pinkerton said. “He kept it for the sentimental value that it had for him.”

The Rittall brothers were similar that way.

Win Rittall said that when he retired and moved to Woolwich in 2005, he vowed to his wife that he would keep the car for a decade – “10 good years,” he said.

In that time they put about 9,000 miles on the car, driving to local car shows, always together. Judi Rittall said she will miss the occasional challenge by another hot-rod driver, and the feeling when her husband hammers down the throttle.

To the stack of documents, the Rittalls have added three typed pages explaining their time with the Cougar – their “final chapter.”

“Now that Judi and I have had the opportunity to enjoy the car and have met some very interesting folks, the time has come to look for a new home and owners that will appreciate the car for what it is,” Win Rittall wrote. “Yes, it is a car that was ‘a little different.’ ”

 

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