It wasn’t just Edsel that got creamed in the late 50s. Ford’s huge push to compete mano-a-mano with GM’s three powerful mid-market brands was a two-pronged attack. Edsel would cover the lower-to-middle range (roughly) of that coveted market segment, and Mercury the middle-to-upper range. That involved creating a new larger body for Mercury and the senior Edsels, as well as a suitable new big engine.
As just about everyone above a certain age or who has read the comic book version of automotive history knows, Edsel bombed out completely, and was gone within a couple of years. But Mercury got hit hard too, both from cannibalization from Edsel as well as from many of the same factors that killed Edsel. By 1961, Mercury was back to what it had been almost all of its life: a tarted up Ford. But for a few years Mercury spread its flashy wings and tried to soar; instead it came crashing back to earth.
The only other time Mercury had not shared its body with Ford was 1949-1951, when the Ford was downsized at the last minute. But it still wasn’t exclusively Mercury’s body; the lower range Lincolns used it too.
By 1952, Mercury was back to sharing the Ford’s body, all-too obviously. This went on through 1956.
The Ford company’s big push upwards and outwards started in 1957, with Mercury fielding an ambitious new range of cars that were topped by the flamboyant Turnpike Cruiser. It’s hard to think of a car of that period that more fully reflects the over-the-top mentality and aesthetic of this period. Every possible Jet-Sputnik-Googie-inspired affectation was in full display. Did it work? Hardly. 1957 sales were down some 15% from what they had been the previous couple of years. This was not a good start.
Why did sales drop? Although the recession of 1958 hadn’t yet properly hit, 1957 saw declines in almost all of the mid-premium brands. There was some growing economic unease, as well as an increasing resistance to the excesses on full display in this segment of the market. The longer, lower, wider, chromier, finnier mantra turned out not to be the one an increasing number of Americans were chanting to themselves when it came to car buying, and import sales swelled during these years, peaking at 10% of the market in 1959. Full size cars that had still been somewhat manageable were now just plain excessive, and a pain in the ass to park and navigate through increasingly crowded traffic. Or just didn’t reflect the the mindset of a growing number of consumers, especially women who never really bought into the length competition thing.
The 1958’s were mostly just a typical refresh, but the new Park Lane took things even further, with a wheelbase stretched from 122″ to a whopping 125″. Did it add any rear leg room? No. And yes, the factory optional continental spare on Mercuries of this vintage were not as rare when they were new as is often presumed now. Which of course made them look even that much more absurd. My speculations on these cars as to whether they were actually real can be found here.
It’s universally accepted wisdom that the Mercuries from this era (1957-1960) had their own unique body. But that needs to be qualified. Yes, they shared no external sheet metal with the big Fords, but they weren’t quite as unique one might be tempted to assume. The new 1957 Fords were plenty big in their own right, and the Fairlane series had a substantial 118″ wheelbase. It’s apparent that the Fords and Mercury shared the same basic underpinnings, the new “cow belly” frame that bulged out towards the rear, allowing rear seat foot wells but still requiring that the front seat had a high floor above the frame.
The only real significant differences appear to be that the frames were of course longer for the Mercuries (and Edsel), and its rear axle was wider, with a 60″ track instead of the Ford’s 56.4″. That made them look a bit less overburdened back there than the narrow rear track Fords. Their front tracks were the same, except for the minor difference of the Mercury’s wider wheels and/or brake drums.
Meaning: while it appears that the front ends of all of these cars were roughly the same structural width, the main section of the Mercury/senior ’58 Edsel body was wider, resulting in an extra inch or so of hip room and almost thee inches of more shoulder room.
The best way to illustrate how this was accomplished is by these two shots of ’58 Edsels: a Pacer, which used the Ford body (top) and a Corsair (below), which used the Mercury body. Note how most of the front end is the same, to share parts. The difference is in the front fenders, where the Corsair has a decided bulge that looks almost tacked on, starting just behind the headlight pods and extending ever wider to meet the doors of the Mercury body. This also creates a decided ledge on the top of the larger body’s door, unlike the Ford body door. This is how the same basic front ends (in track and suspension) were utilized across all three brands, but adapted to the wider Mercury body from the cowl back.
There’s no doubt that Ford (bottom) adopted most of this wider ’58 Mercury body (top) for itself in 1959, starting with the wider front fender tops and the wider door “ledges”. It was a cheap way to give the ’59 Ford a new look without much of the investment, and Mercury was finished mostly finished with it anyway, as it got a substantially new body in 1959. And it’s not just an illusion; the ’59 Ford’s shoulder room gained those three inches to equal the Merc’s. Yet clearly other aspects were different, especially the windshield and the same 56.4″ narrow track Ford rear axle instead of the Merc’s 60″ unit. Playing around with mix-and-match body components was a game Detroit was very familiar with, especially in the pre-unibody era when it was so much easier.
The extra length did the ’58 Mercury no favors on the market: sales utterly collapsed, from the already mediocre 286k to 133k, a whopping 54% drop. mercury was down to ninth place in the rankings. 1958 was a terrible year for everyone except Rambler and the imports, but undoubtedly Edsel’s 63k sales further eroded Mercury’s numbers.
So what was the response for 1959? A new and even bigger Mercury! The lesser models now had a 126″ wheelbase, whereas the Park Lane now sported a whopping 128″ wheelbase, as well as new (and longer) styling. Obviously these cars were locked in before the fiasco of 1958, so there was nothing left to do but suck it up.
And prepare for the mercy killing of Edsel, which for 1959 consolidated on a single Ford-based body with 120″ wheelbase. As noted earlier, this body was actually the wide ’57-’58 Mercury body recycled.
The senior ’59 Edsels were planned to also share the new ’59 Mercury body with the new greenhouse. But that was stopped in its tracks. Which left the 1959-1960 Mercury as the most unique ones ever, as they essentially nothing of their extravagant body with anyone else. Presumably it wasn’t really all-new, as main aspects of the inner body structure were almost certainly carry-overs, But the greenhouse certainly wasn’t, as well as the rest of the external panels.
Which brings us to our actual CC, which I found in Bend, OR on our recent camping trip. It was a fortuitous find, as it’s the first of its kind in my years of car hunting. And it’s in essentially original condition, making it a genuine CC. Not surprisingly, it’s a lower-trim Monterey, as that was by far the (relative) best selling line of Mercuries in 1959. It certainly looks relatively more down to earth than the Park Lane.
One of the most distinctive stylistic features of these cars were their huge windshields, which wrapped around on the top as well as the sides. Very impressive, except for the dog leg intrusion on entering and of the solar intrusion on sunny days. Its chromed surround is of course missing.
The scope of that giant windshield is best appreciated from the inside. The instruments and controls are housed in a multi-layered, highly sculptured structure. And unlike the pathetic exposed shifter rod on the Fords, the Mercury’s is fully integrated in the steering column. I’m not certain, but it looks like at least part of that column might have been shared with the Lincoln.
Here’s a factory shot that really puts that windshield into perspective.
Here’s a better shot from our archives.
The rear window is almost equally impressive as the front windshield.
No wonder the tops of the upholstery back there is sun-fried.
My shot of the rear compartment is less than clear, but you get the picture.
“Cruiser” designates the hardtops of the Monterey lineup, which also included sedans and convertible.
Wagons had their own designations. Somewhat curiously, the cheapest one, the 2-door Commuter, was a hardtop no less!
Under their capacious hoods, Ford’s heavy-metal V8s lurked exclusively. The standard version in the Monterey was the Y-block 312, rated at 210hp. For more power (and weight) the super-heavy-weight class MEL V8 was on tap, in two 383 inch versions; the 280 hp version standard on the Commuter wagon and optional on the Monterey. The 322 hp version was standard on the Montclair, Voyager and Colony Park. The Park Lane got the Lincoln-sized 430 inch version with 345hp standard, outgunning both Cadillac and Imperial in that department. Well, everyone, as the 430 was the biggest displacement engine in the US at the time.
Sales got a very small bump from all that extra effort, rising 13% to exactly 150,000 units. That increase was well below what its competition did in a substantially stronger sales environment. Quite clearly Mercury was under-performing, and undoubtedly its fate was sealed that year.
That would take until 1961 to be fully implemented, but the 1960 Mercury clearly showed where that was heading. The 128″ wheelbase was axed, prices were dropped, and its value proposition was emphasized, now that Edsel was no longer a reason to keep some distance above the Ford and its competition. Mercury was now playing Pontiac’s game (minus the styling), by competing directly with the low-priced three’s V8 models.
Did it work? Very slightly. Sales increased 3%, to 155k for all of the genuine Mercuries. Which makes the ’60s just as rare as the ’59s.
But the new 1960 Comet, originally intended to be a compact Edsel and not yet technically a Mercury, was a success though, selling 116k units.
That saved the bacon for the division overall, and Comet became a legitimate Mercury in 1961, when sales exceeded 300k for the first time again in some time. And of course the 1961 big Mercury was no just back to being a tarted-up Ford. Mercury division sales would stay in the 300k range through 1971. Starting in 1972, Mercury’s fortunes improved considerably, thanks to the industry-wide movement to favor mid-premium brands in the 70s and 80s.
On a personal level, I can attest to the poor sales of these Mercuries from their profound scarcity in my Iowa City years. The first one I encountered close-up was in a car port when I discovered a shortcut to my daily one-mile walk to Lincoln School. It was a four door hardtop, and one of the higher trim versions. I was somewhat astounded, as I felt I had discovered a completely new species of the family automobilus. I pored over this exotic car, whose unique windshields, front and rear, made it clear to me that this was not just a gussied up Ford, unlike the case with all of the Chrysler company cars which all shared the same windshield from lowly Plymouth to lofty New Yorker. This was a genuine exotic in every respect.
But Chrysler probably did it right. The extra effort put into these Mercuries made them a great find in 1961 as well as in 2018, but it did nothing for the brand and Ford Motor Company. But who cares about them? Life would be so much poorer without these extravagant follies.