It was a rainy, chilly April 1954 day in Lowell, MA. I was in my kindergarten class, doing some mind-numbing exercise, when all of a sudden my dad walked into the classroom and asked the Penguin if he could pick me up early. “Sure”, said Sister Holier-than-Thou and Keep My Kid out of This. All I was thinking was, “What the ef have I done now?” With great trepidation, I walked out into the gloom only to be confronted with the most beautiful taillight I had ever seen! God, if I had been able to achieve an orgasm at that age, I would have. I was knocked out.
These bodacious taillights were attached to a gorgeous, baby-blue 1954 Mercury Custom two-door sedan. It had full wheel covers (Dad: These aren’t hubcaps, kid, these are wheel covers!), big tits up front, and—gloriosky—a V8! No more waiting in soup kitchen lines. The exhaust note on the Merc was orgasmic.
It turns out that dad had visited a New Hampshire Mercury dealer one evening, in search of a gas cap to replace one lost earlier that day while he was schlepping Socony-Mobil product on a sales trip. He noticed the Baby Blue Bombshell on the showroom floor, and immediately up-rated his purchasing strategy from gas cap to new car. He made the deal for $700 plus his dog-assed 1953 Dodge. The next morning he went to the dealership to pick up his new car. He saw that the dealer was about to have a sales meeting, and asked if he could attend. They asked him if he was the guy who’d purchased the Merc Custom; he said that he was. They told him that he should be chairing the meeting.
Dad’s next car was a 1955 Mercury Custom two-door sedan: Mint green, full hubcaps and red wheels. By 1955, Mercurys still had their tits and great V8s, but their tail lights weren’t nearly as cool. I was totally influenced by the local thugs in 1950 Mercs who’d never have thought of taking off without laying rubber (or “chirping”, in the parlance of the day). I asked my Dad to make the Merc chirp, so he let out the clutch and then nailed it. No chirp. I was bummed out. But at the family farm in Illinois that summer, my uncle borrowed the car from my Dad and drove to his friend’s farm to show it off. His friend had a concrete barnyard, and as we were leaving my uncle popped the clutch, and damn! The thing chirped! I was ecstatic! I told my uncle that Dad would really appreciate knowing his Merc could lay a patch. My uncle threatened to kill me then and there.
Alas, 1956 brought a change: Dad jumped to the Olds camp. This was another life-changing event, at least as far as I was concerned. It was our first two-tone car, done up in red and white. It was also our first family car to have an automatic transmission, and it took my father a while to learn to drive it. We were were in Kearney Square in Lowell, driving home from the dealership after taking delivery, when the car stalled. My father fiddled with the controls, put the pedal to the metal and patched out big time–right next to a cop on foot. We got the hell out of Dodge.
The Olds pictured above has the same color scheme as my Dad’s car, but ours didn’t have Fiesta hubcaps or whitewall tires. The Ninety-Eights had different trim than Eighty-Eights, but you get the idea. My favorite memory of this car is from a sales trip to Maine with my dad. At the end of the day we were traversing a valley, headed for Skowhegan, as the sun set. I looked over at the speedo. We were doing 90 mph (145 kph). It was serene: No noise, no effort. That night, we stayed at a great old white wooden hotel in Skowhegan. The dining hall had a piano, and during dinner my father suggested that I reprise my first piano recital. I belted out the Prelude to “Aida” and “Dixie”. The crowd roared.
Next: Station Wagon O-Rama
What part of Lowell did you grow up in?
All of my family is from Lowell, and I live in Nashua just a quick 10 minutes north.
I went to the Franco American School until second grade when I my parents (mother was a lowell high teacher for 40 years) let me go to the Nashua public schools.
Love those 50’s OIdsmobiles.
I guess that it would have been Centralville, on Humphrey St. just off Methuen St. I walked to St. Michael’s school close to Bridge St. Once or twice a year we would go as a family to buy shoes at the Little Shoe Store in Nashua. It’s no longer there. The Greenridge Turkey Farm had the best fried clams in the world. My aunt Mary Martin taught English, Latin and Greek at Lowell High from 1910 until 1956. I buried my father with her at the family plot at St. Patrick Cemetary on Gorham St. just a few blocks away from 1400 Motors where the 1955 Mercury was bought.
I don’t mean to hijack the thread…
My mother grew up on Whitney Ave off of 18th street.
Father grew up on Webber St off of Middlesex.
I miss the Turkey Farm too…now its a Barnes and Noble..yuck.
1400 Motors is long gone..another sad loss.
Most of my family is buries in St. Joseph’s cemetary, although I think there are a few old bones in St Patrick’s also.
What years did your mother teach at Lowell high? She may have known my aunt. 1400 Motors, a Lincoln-Mercury dealer, later became Pease Motors which sold my father his ’56 Olds and later my 1960 Plymouth.
My mother retired in 2006, so I think they missed each other by about 14 years.
Your Aunt cerrtainly taught my Grandparents from both sides, as well as at least 20 great aunts and uncles.
1400 Motors was around as a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership until just about 10 years ago.
They also sold Chryslers-Plymouths-Jeeps (and owned the Infinity dealership) in Nashua up until about 2 years ago under the 1400 Motors name
MY DAD HAD A GREEN 54 MERCURY 4 DOOR SEDAN . THOSE TAILLAMPS WERE COOL. THE 55′ WERE A DOWNGRADE
I gotta tell you I disagree. I think the ’55 is the looker. I’m not sure I know what a Mercury is but I think the ’55 is one of the better ones.
Interesting to recall that quaint practice of trading a car every year.
And how quickly cars changed back then…not only styling but the whole package. Compare, in your mind, the 1956 Olds with the 1978. Only 22 years, and the cars show NO resemblance.
Of course, Olds is no more; but pick your brand and compare 1993 to today. Changes, sure…mostly refinement, in drag-coefficient reduction and in depth and breadth of electronic controls and toys.
And it has to be that way now; as automakers first priority is complying with the ever-changing laws and regulations. Styling and fashion statements are pushed back; and the higher cost of these products requires, for them to be saleable, a higher expected lifespan.
Spot on observation. However, German customers (and their fans) would suggest you got it backwards. They *wanted* longer auto lifespans, which requires higher build quality, requiring higher upfront cost, requiring higher MSRP, requiring less frequent updates. Any fan of how `well-built’ a 70s-80s Mercedes-Benz or even VW was as compared to a lousy bargain-basement Chevrolet (which cost 1/2 to 1/10 the price) will have got his/her dream market now.
But the real reason for disappearance of radical design changes is the siege of the American car industry. US firms, especially GM, were the pioneers of a car’s *styling* being a sales driver. The fact that GM’s cars were also technically competent was a by-product of the company’s engineering depth. Till that point, exceptional styling was only accessible to ultra-rich folk who could afford coachbuilt cars from European design houses. GM brought it to the lowest possible social class that could afford a car. Chevrolet cars were certainly not the equal of high-end Packard or Rolls, but they *looked* like a million bucks. Buying a Chevrolet ensured that you wouldn’t be ashamed to stop beside a Roller at a red light.
Germans never really got into the act. VW’s Heinrich Nordhoff held automotive stylists in contempt, and would have gone on building the Beetle for twenty more years if saner heads, West German Govt., and death had not prevailed. A similar strategy was followed across the Wall by the East German comrades with the Trabant. Even Mercedes-Benz (not a volume manufacturer before the German taxi explosion) has had One(tm) design for each vehicle type for the past fifty years, with only incremental changes. All really unique MB cars have been either one-offs, supercars, or coachbuilt.
Japanese manufacturers never had any original designs to start with, and they continue down that path today. I certainly hope I live to see their copycat industry destroyed by Chinese copycats. Its only a matter of time now.
Foreign automakers interested in pushing the design envelope were in Britain (defunct), French (tending to irrelevance), and Italy (mainly FIAT, but due to the unusually high proportion of auto-styling houses there). Of those, FIAT may legitimately call itself an American manufacturer now.
All automakers are now essentially following the Nordhoff VW way, making all improvements under the hood while keeping the design the same. In Germany, it was always this case. Britain is too small a market now, and French cars are bought by too few people to afford the radical chic of the Citroën days.
If another automaker comes along and sets styling as one of the primary goals and sales-mover, and applies economic manufacturing techniques to achieve this in low-price cars, I’ll buy its cars. Till then, it is not proper to blame regulations for this. There were no regulations in 1966, yet VW did very well.
Thanks for reminding me just how fine those ’54 Merc taillights were. Especially since the rest of the car wasn’t exactly orgasmic! You’ve really captured the thrill that a new car back then created, especially in the kids.
Very interesting how much things changed with his switch to now “dead” brands.
What we need now is a point-counterpoint kind of piece where we contrast the thrill of the Martins’ 1954 Mercury with the agony of the Niedermeyers’ 1954 Ford. 🙂
Also, the point is so true about people who traded frequently. Years later, my father would still trade every two years or so as often as he could. Back into the early 1970s, those frequent trades brought such different cars. Later, it was “great, another Taurus – what color did you get this time.”
Back then, a six year old car, especially in kid’s years, was positively ancient! I would have felt better about a not-quite-so-old Olds, though. A neighbor had one like that, and I spent a lot of time admiring it.
Okay, geezers, reality check time. In 2008, my niece graduated from high school, my sister promised her a new(ish) car. The girl insisted on a Focus, PT Cruiser, or Jetta. She had been driving a hand-me-down ’91 Lumina sedan. Low mileage, like new, missing one hubcap; really nice, perfectly fine car. I asked my sister, “Why don’t she just keep the Lumina. It is really nice.” She replied, “The girl said it is too old.” “Old?”, I said, “It’s only a ’91.” “You got to realize”, she replied, “She was born in 1990.” I got punk’d. And old, all of a sudden. And my niece got a ’03 Focus.
In 1954…5 years before I came along …but 4 years into her divorce, My Mom bought a 54 Bel Air, That She still relied on in 1962 to with her carry Her 5 Kids from MrB, and my brother and I ….already playing with cars, watching 4 cars…all play day long , as i did in the back seat of the grand prix. we kept black beauty until i had chicken pox in feb 66. i know because i did not get to go to the graveyard and i wanted to see her resting place, so i think i cried till they told me stress would make it more itchy.
Seems like I can remember a situation as long as The car is involved .
You’ll love this one…
When I was little, I thought that cars “aged” like people, meaning that I thought all cars started out looking sleek (at least in 1970’s-early 80’s terms) and started looking like the old cars from decades before!
On another note, part of my youth is recalled by remembering what car we had during a given year. When I was seven, our 1972 Impala was replaced by a 1980 Dodge Omni.
A year later in 1984 that was replaced by a 1982 Dodge Aries. Eight months later that was replaced by our first new car, a 1985 Buick Skylark. 1986 got a break, but in 1987 dad replaced his 1978 F-150 with a stunning 1986 Olds Cutlass Supreme Brougham. The next year it got replaced with a new 1988 F-150. 1989 saw us move to Florida and the truck was traded for a 1988 Dodge Dynasty LE. I could go on, but you get the point, that as a kid who liked visiting auto dealerships, my dad took good care of me and supported my addiction quite well 🙂
What I couldn’t understand was, how people could be so backwards and primitive that they made cars that way…so long ago, nine, ten years. With high trunks and those backwards vent windows that left little squares of glass for the windows on great big doors…and those foolish little windshield wipers! Great big trunks, which had lids that went down as much as out…not compact, like in our modern age of 1968.
New cars would NEVER get old and faded and rusty like those products of backwards times. Besides…how could that enormous padded dash get old and faded and dirty? Not happening. Age and dirt and rust was for those benighted junkers with painted-steel dashes and rubber floor mats…with their clouding and cracked glass and big swatches of rust.
Funny how kids see things….
That IS funny Richard. I can see why you came to that conclusion … For Me old Meant those 52 Chevrolets That had The hump whale look and anything before.
Not the Shiny New 65!
I would love to have those Brochures Mom and Dad Helped me procure before 1975.
Curious, but anywhere outside the USA, a `Merc’ will mean a certain three-pointed star bearing car. Is it so in the US now?
I call MBs Mercs, but that may be because I watch a lot of “Wheeler Dealers” on TV 🙂
“Japanese manufacturers never had any original designs to start with, and they continue down that path today. I certainly hope I live to see their copycat industry destroyed by Chinese copycats. Its only a matter of time now.”
CarCo, I have to respectfully disagree with each of these statements.
– To take the most glaring exampple, yes, Hondas of the ’70s and 80s were built around the platform templates of European cars for American tastes. The execution of these cars, their concern for how people actually drive and live with these expensive machines, was so much better than their Western predecessors that they have to be seen as different in kind, not just degree. No, the grilles and taillight lenses weren’t very interesting. But if these cars weren’t markedly better than Rabbits, Fiats, Chevettes, etc., then how did they take over the market?
– As for wishing for the Chinese to “destroy” them, I don’t. I don’t pretend to be an expert in comparative labor relations, but I would think that a Japanese autoworker enjoys a more prosperous, secure lifestyle than his Chinese counterpart. We can wish for the poor to get richer without hoping for the impoverishment of the “rich,” and I use those quotes because a even a rich-country factory worker isn’t exactly Mitt Romney.
– “Only a matter of time”? Yes, poorer nations have to press the advantages of lower labor costs, but will higher-wage economies go away? Should they? Have Sweden and Germany been impoverished by globalization?
Not trolling you, just a little (perhaps over-caffeinated) difference of opinion. I certainly concede that my US-centric perspective probably has some big blind spots.
Capitalist motto: We’ll build a better mousetrap, and they’ll come.
Japanese motto: We’ll build (your) mousetrap better, and they’ll come (to us).
Chinese motto: We’ll make your mousetrap for you, but we want a cut.
My motto: Build your own damned mousetrap. 😀
Japanese cars started with cloning Austin and the Brits, went on to clone European economy cars, and are now cloning European luxury cars. Better manufacturing does not imply original design. And worst of all, they’re *still* at it. Now that American auto-industry is in full-on Euro-cloning mode it is not so egregious, but its still present.
As for the Chinese, they’re simply improving their manufacturing capability. When Chinese manufacturing becomes equal to Japanese quality (it already is in electronics), then low Chinese labour cost will make the copycat business model unsustainable. Then, either Japan, inc. will finally develop original designs, or the industry will be gone. Either way, the *copycat*industry* will be destroyed. That’s what I was hoping for. Not the destruction of Japan itself!
When I was a 16-year-old kid in 1956, my first car was a 1947 Chevrolet. It was old.
Now I’m 72, and my 1984 RX7 doesn’t seem to me like an old car.
Funny how a guy’s viewpoint changes…or maybe it’s not the viewpoint that changes – after all, a 1947 Chevrolet still seems like an old car to me.
I’m the same way. I’ll see a ’92 Sedan de Ville go by and think “that’s not an old car, I remember when they were new!”
What happens when you let a car sit for 54 years:
1954 Mercury, for sale in East Orange NJ. License plate is from 1959 or ’60; windshield inspection sticker is from 1964. Was just pulled out of the garage where it has been hibernating all this time!