(first posted 1/7/2013) Poor Mercury. The beleaguered Ford division just never seemed to hit its stride. Introduced in 1939 as a slightly more upmarket variant of the well-loved Ford V8, it had its own sheetmetal and sold rather respectably, with nearly 65,000 units built in its first model year; but in short order, Mercury became an uptrimmed Ford. With the exception of the natty 1949-51 models, Mercury never got a really unique look. At least, that is, until the mid- to late-’50s.
The mid-price market really took off in the mid- to late-’50s. Makes like Oldsmobile and Buick were making hay as the sun shone, and Ford looked on with jealousy as Buick took third place in U.S. sales. The all-new 1952 Mercury looked a lot like the 1952 Lincoln–which also looked a lot like the 1952 Ford–but that would be corrected quite soon.
It started in 1955 with a refreshed Ford, albeit one still quite similar to the ’52-’54 models under the skin. Mercury was a different story, with an all-new look that did not bear the slightest resemblance to the past year’s model. In 1956 came Lincoln’s turn, with what may have been one of the most elegant American cars of the year. Ford’s models were getting unique identities in keeping with Ford’s desire to out-GM GM. The soon-to-fail Continental and Edsel divisions were also a big part of that, and so was Mercury, which got yet another re-do for 1957.
Thanks to cars like the Buick Special and Oldsmobile 88, most every Detroit auto executive thought fancier and fancier mid-price cars were the way to go. Thus, the 1957-58 Mercury approached luxury- car levels of gadgets, chrome, gizmos and more chrome. The Turnpike Cruiser was the new top-of-the-line model for 1957, and featured such remarkable features as a power “memory” seat. A Turnpike Cruiser convertible paced the 1957 Indy 500, and the future looked bright.
And then everything came crashing down. Nineteen fifty-eight beat the bark off the new car market, and anything plush and pricey took it on the chin. Many car companies introduced “price leader” models, with Studebaker’s frugal Scotsman being the most austere offering. Mercury itself was no exception, hurriedly trotting out an el-cheapo Medalist to stave off the sales drop in the pricier model lines. The Medalist had limited chrome trim (by 1958 standards) and came only in $2,612 four-door hardtop and $2,547 pillared sedan models. Medalists were motivated by a 312 CID V8 with 235 horses.
While automotive Scrooges may have loved the Medalist, the next step up, the Monterey, was much more palatable. In addition to two- and four-door sedans, two- and four-door hardtops and a convertible were available. A bigger engine was also standard, a 383 CID V8 producing 312 gross hp at 4,600 rpm. Cheapskates who wanted a little more chrome could get a Monterey two-door sedan.
If you had more money to burn, the Montclair series came next, as the mid-range model. It had the same available body styles as the Monterey, except for the two-door sedan. As you would expect, interiors were a bit fancier, and there was more chrome trim on the outside. Montclairs used the same 383 V8 as Montereys, but got a slight power bump to 330 hp.
In addition, Turnpike Cruiser versions were available as a two-door or four-door hardtop. The TC had been the top of the line in 1957, but for 1958 was a part of the Montclair series. The TC convertible was gone, too. The surviving models did still retain their “radar pods” on top of the A-pillars, though. By mid-’58, The Edsel was already a disaster, and the TC was probably only their second-worst failure in terms of FoMoCo’s dashed hopes of taking on GM.
Station wagons were considered a separate series, but were largely based on the Montclair and Monterey. Six-passenger two- and four-door hardtop station wagons were offered in Commuter and Voyager trim, plus a nine-passenger Commuter and woody-look Colony Park. All wagons were pillarless, a rare and little-seen bodystyle outside of the Oldsmobile Fiesta and Buick Caballero wagons. The rarest wagon was the higher-trim Voyager two-door wagon, with a mere 568 produced.
The main reason the Turnpike Cruiser went to second-banana status was because there was a new line topper, the Park Lane, which was meant to be a Buick Roadmaster fighter. Ironically, that same year Buick introduced an even more expensive model than the Roadmaster, the Series 700 Limited, which was priced in the $5,000 range. Sadly for both Buick and Mercury, more expensive models were about the last thing needed once it became clear a recession was going to royally screw up new car sales.
But no one could have guessed the roller coaster ride of 1955-57 was going to crash when the Turnpike Cruiser, Park Lane and Edsel were put on the production schedule. These cars would have done well in 1955. And the ’58 Park Lane was quite a car, even if sales were less than wonderful, at 5,241 four-door hardtops, 3,158 two-door hardtops and just 853 drop-tops like this one.
Park Lanes set themselves apart from lesser Mercurys with winged front fender peak ornaments, Park Lane script on the C-pillar (relocated to the front fender on convertibles), chrome headlight trim and rectangular-pattern trim plates in the rear bumper pods.
Taillights were suitably Jet Age, and while the same basic design was found on all ’58 models, the Park Lane’s units were even more chrome encrusted. Airplane styling cues on cars, which had begun with the 1948 Cadillac’s fins, were still alive and well in 1958.
Two-tone paint was available, and with the color break on the side (as shown on our featured car), a three-tone effect could be had. This was certainly not a car for shrinking violets. And befitting its “Big M” advertising campaign, these were big boys: The Park Lane had a 125″ wheelbase and 220.2″ overall length. Other 1958 Mercurys were only slightly more petite.
Inside was more of the same. Want power? You could have it all if you checked all the boxes: Power windows, seats, cruise control, Seat-O-Matic (power seat with memory function) and the expected power steering, brakes and automatic transmission. Convertibles mimicked the two-door hardtop’s roofline, right down to the wraparound backlight. Park Lanes came in only three body styles: the $3,944 four-door hardtop, the $3,867 two-door hardtop and the $4,118 convertible.
I found this beautiful rose-and-black Park Lane at the Dahl Ford 75th anniversary car show. I had only been there a couple of minutes, but I immediately deemed it the best car in the show. With only one exception, I still stand by that statement. Another guy looking at it told me that the owner lives down the road from him and had had it completely restored. His wife is an artist and she picked out the colors. I think she chose wisely. What a showboat!
While I’m not typically a fan of continental kits, this car is so over the top that it almost fits in. Still, I can’t help but wonder who would have splurged on one back when these cars were new? “I don’t know, this car looks awfully short. Maybe a continental kit will make it look longer.” I would not, however, want to parallel park this baby.
In this shot, you can see the “Multi Drive Keyboard Control” for the new-for-1958 Multi Drive automatic transmission. Yes, those are push buttons. On the left is “High Performance” button for sprightlier response; on the right was the “Cruising” button, for smoother, economical operation. The typical neutral/park and reverse buttons are in the second row, along with the parking brake release and a hill control function to keep the car from rolling backward while stopped on a grade.
Multi-Drive was standard on all Park Lanes, along with a 360-horse 430 CID V8. This same engine was shared with the Montclair Turnpike Cruiser, but the TC had to make do with a 122″ wheelbase and 213.2″ overall length.
As you can see in the photos, 1958 Mercurys were not drastically different from the 1957s. The biggest difference was up front, where standard quad headlamps and a new bumper-grille mimicking the rear bumper appeared. While 1957 Mercurys could be had with quads, not all states had yet approved them, so dual headlamps could be substituted if necessary. Come 1958, all states had approved them, so all Mercs sported them regardless of their destination.
Parking lamps moved to the grille from their 1957 spot above the headlamps. Also prominent was a gilded “M” below the hoodline. New “rocket” taillamps, wheel covers and side trim rounded out the changes.
But what about 1950s Mercury? What happened? Well, in 1959 the Mercury was extensively redesigned and looked like an all-new car. It retained its special body and was not a Ford carbon copy but, in reality, was not all-new–just a clever re-do of the 1957-58 body. The 1960s were the same deal, with a seemingly new car hiding the 1957 chassis and trim.
That was especially obvious on the two-door and four-door sedans, where the 1957-vintage roofline was quite noticeable despite being somewhat reshaped in 1959.
Nineteen-sixty was the last roundup for unique Mercurys for a good five years. The 1961 models were embarrassingly half-heartedly retrimmed Fords, and the unique selling point for Mercury had disappeared. A Mercury was now a Ford in a tuxedo–and probably a rental.
Nineteen sixty-five would see another chance for Mercury, with cars styled “in the Lincoln Continental tradition”, but that’s a story for another day. For this morning, let’s just bask in the ’50s goodness of this Mercury. What a car!