The superstitions around “Mercury Retrograde” are perceived as explanations for communication and travel gone awry. Maybe that was the first mistake Ford made; naming their middle brand Mercury in the first place. For every two steps forward the brand made, it seemingly made two steps back, and always ended up in the same place: being a Fancy Ford.
The biggest step forward should be considered to be the 1957 models. Previously Mercury had done a dance that placed them as either Fancy Fords (1939-48, 1952-56) or Junior Lincolns (1948-51). The design androgyny mimicked the mercurial label. However, in a flush mid-priced market, the decision was made to make a full fledged, individual Mercury.
The caveat would be that the senior Edsels would join the Mercury on the same basic body the next year. After a solid 1957 model year, the Mercury chassis had an in-house competitor in different drag. The scenario wasn’t helped by overlapping model prices between the two brands. Granted, the situation of overlapping models fighting to justify their existence wasn’t unique to Dearborn; DeSoto fought with both arms with encroaching Dodges and Chryslers.
Nor were matters helped by Mercury pulling a schizophrenic Studebaker-like move and re-introducing the Medalist, last seen in 1956. Better finished and more appealing the first go around, the second helping definitely has a Vienna Sausage and Pork ‘n’ beans vibe. Considering Mercury was aspiring to move solidly into the Oldsmobile/Buick, DeSoto/Chrysler segment of the market, this attempt to cover such a broad swath of the market made little to no sense.
A bit more rationality came with the rethought ’59 models. Gone was the miserly Medalist and the technologically tricked out Turnpike Cruiser. Furthermore, there weren’t any senior Edsels muscling in on the heart of the Mid Price Dancefloor. Bulk was up, as was glass area with the compound curve windshield.
Horsepower was down, however. The Monterey traded its swift kick in the pants 383 V8 from the previous year for the 312 Y-Block that was in engine bays for 1956 and ’57. With a mind towards recession-friendly economy, the former 255 horsepower zing that it provided in ’57 was strangled down to 210 horsepower in a vain attempt to give these bruisers some sense of modesty at the fuel pump.
This makes the 1959 models no less odd ducks than any iteration of this attempt to give the Ford’s middle children an identity all their own. In relative terms it wasn’t a failure; DeSoto during these years always fared worse in sales. However the volume on the premium side of the sales scale Mercury was hoping for didn’t materialize. It depends on who you cross compare Mercury to: they definitely weren’t making significant in-roads to Olds or Buick volume, but they were holding their own.
After one more year of unique clothing, Mercury went direct again in 1961. It returned to being what it had been, a Fancy Ford. It would be stuck in this role until its demise 49 years later. Perhaps, had Ford stuck with crafting a unique mid-priced product beyond 1960, the fate of Mercury might have been less subject to further retrograde periods full of “Ford Twin” products. Review and analysis of what you could have done better in a Mercury Retrograde is pointless, however. In the aftermath of your foiled plans, you might find your true direction.
The roofline was used unchanged for the ’60 models, it appears. Two and four doors. These were never on my radar, even as a kid when they were new. The 1960, with rear skirts, was very nice looking car. Alas, poor Mercury, I didn’t know you well.
What I think we see in the rearview mirror regarding this auto era, is an age when the big men who thought they knew everything about building, selling and marketing cars – discovered the rug pulled out from under them. These cars reflect a confidence and direction that the 1958 recession destroyed.
They were designed during the mid-1950s by men who had a seller’s market after WWII and fought off the 1953 recession, the Korean War impact on the auto market, and then ripped up the Independent brands after 1955. The future looked boundless when their auto competitors, such as the storied brands of Packard and Studebaker, the upstart brands of Kaiser and Crosley, lost their markets to Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. These were the men who respected their military experiences, had to undergo near death experiences personally, and then fight back to keep Ford alive between 1946-1949. They knew that life was not to be assumed in a world capable of atomic bombs, jet bombers, holocaust, and dictators.
By 1955, they were the victors. They called the winning shots. They knew what auto buyers wanted. They knew the way to prosperity was copying the GM 5-Tier brand playbook. They believed they could do it. They also believed that they needed to do it, or they wouldn’t survive the next GM product launches and end up in another near-death experience. The Ford and Chrysler men were watching their Independent auto brethren knock on their doors, looking for new homes, and they knew it was either eat, or be eaten.
But playing by the rules others write doesn’t often work out. What worked for GM’s marketing division with their brands, didn’t mean there was room in the market for copycats. Just because GM had a Pontiac, an Oldsmobile and a Buick, didn’t mean there was room in the auto market for a Dodge, a Mercury, an Edsel, a Lincoln, a Continental, or a Desoto. Even with the death of the various Independent makes, the numbers necessary to justify launching new copycat brands by Ford and Chrysler – weren’t there. Even if the 1958 Recession hadn’t happened.
What we see here are late 1950 cars full of futuristic images of a Sputnik-age, fighter jet plane styled in Moderne home fabrics. Like the Titanic, these gilded age American autos sunk quickly, as though they hit an iceberg too. By April, 1957, it was apparent that the auto market would contract by almost 40%, compared to the previous year. If you were an Independent, you were gone. If you were expecting your copycats to win over a new market or compete head-on with the mighty GM, your world just got nuked.
After 1957, the auto world would never be the same. The men would no longer have that confidence that designed the late 1950s car we admire today. By 1960, the same men who thought they ruled the world were watching their backs as the axes fell on multi-million dollar corporate fiascos they championed only five years earlier. These men saw themselves as captains of new auto juggernauts, not fighting corporate turf wars over Valiant, Lark, Beetles, Falcons and other compact cars. These men had to bury their confidences with they gave last right to brands within their own corporate headquarters. Desoto, Edsel and Continental gone. Lincoln, Buick and Dodge on life support.
This Mercury comes from that big balled era of chain smoking men of the confident age. A lot of us saw our fathers and grandfathers admire these chromed machines. Today, we still see these cars as dreams delayed.
I would say a lot of that (over)confidence returned in the late 60s, resulting in the excessively large cars that came out in the ’71-’73 era, once again just before another crisis (energy) knocked them down again.
The imports’ market share had been halved from 1960 to 1964, which undoubtedly gave the guys in the executive suite the mistaken feeling that they had done it with their brilliant compacts, when that actually wasn’t so much the case. The imports crashed due to their not being up to American driving and maintenance habits, and lousy dealers/service. Which explains why VW kept right on growing during the import collapse in the early 60s.
The inflationary climate of the 60s made it easy to keep raising prices in order to keep the profit growth on an upwards trajectory too, rather than addressing the fundamentals of the business.
Detroit got very complacent again in the mid-late 60s, setting themselves up for an even greater fall, this time one they mostly never recovered fully from.
Hence the Brougham Age of padded vinyl roofs, shag carpeting, coach lamps, hood ornaments, denim covered trunk decks flaunting derrieres, and bordello interiors of tufted velour in librariesque silences between pounding disco tunes.
Exner meets Shaft.
Definitely Paul, and the cycle was to continue with the SUV boom of the 1990s leading to absolute neglect of passenger car product, which came home to roost in the bankruptcy when the house of cards built on financing profits came down with the GFC.
I’ve possibly skipped another smaller boom and bust, after a slow recovery through the latter 1970s and 1980s before the 1990s recession. In that case arguably the ‘only’ contributory factor was not learning the lessons of complacency mentioned above, or vastly underestimating the investment needed to develop viable products in a changing regulatory environment and marketplace.
I was sure you’d come back with this great response, Paul. One of bad moves by Detroit in the 60’s was letting the compacts creep up in size to the point where they had few products to meet the needs of the increasing trend toward dense, urban living (even the suburbs were becoming crowded) or to cope with rising fuel prices and shortages that were to hit soon. The Japanese already had to create automobiles to cope with these concerns and were in a great position to adapt them for the US market.
The trend toward increasing size happens again and again, by all makes today – note the penultimate generation of Accord that was so bloated. I continue to believe that due to urban living, restricted parking, an aging driving population, etc, there will be a strong demand for smaller, more maneuverable vehicles with decent interior space no matter that larger cars can be made much more economical than in the past.
The needs of auto drivers change throughout their lives. When they are single, they can have a small car. But when they have families which include more than two children, their cars must be much larger. After the children leave, the need changes again so that we see older empty nesters ending up in smaller cars than they had when they were living at home with their children.
With each generation, we see a similar pattern of smaller cars becoming larger in order to maintain a market position as their drivers become parents.
It is a far more important impact than believing that people are buying cars because they feel they are living in a crowded city.
People buy cars for the personal needs, not their perceived societal ones.
@VD: There’s a difference between interior space for people and casting a huge shadow. The downsized ’77 GM B-Bodies were as or more roomier inside than the whales they replaced. Same for the downsized big Fords. For that matter, it applied to all the downsized cars that the Big Three developed in the 70s and 80s.
The downsized ’61 GM full-sized cars had substantially better interior accommodations, due to raised roofs and other changes.
In truth, American cars in the early-mid 50s had the best passenger accommodations until modern times. As Detroit’s cars got wider, lower and longer, passenger accommodations generally suffered. Sit in a mid-50s Cadillac or ’55 Chevy, and see for yourself: upright sofas, with gobs of rear leg room, and easy ingress/egress.
This is why American families embraced the minivan so enthusiastically, because it had roomy and upright seating and yet drove like a car. Winner! Yet the first Chrysler minivans cast a much smaller shadow than any big sedan from Detroit.
The “Bulgemobiles” that Detroit unleashed in the late 50s and again in ’71-’73 had decidedly worse space utilization, and passenger comfort was sacrificed at the altar of “styling”, such as it was.
It’s unforgivable that while the Big Three car companies managed to survive this difficult time, others, particularly independent car makers have been taken out of business. The only independent that seemed to survive was American Motors. That company continued until the 80s, before it, too, was taken out.
We can and have, discussed how the Independents failed, but to blame it on the Big Three doesn’t do justice to how the products compared within the market. If you could have found a Kaiser dealer, your car lacked a modern engine, if you could have found a Studebaker dealer, your car was a warmed-over five year old design that didn’t have much value. If you could find a Packard dealer, you discovered a Studebaker with duo-headlight pods grafted on the front fenders, double-canted fins grafted over five year old Packard cathedral tail lights, with a Packard price tag.
When the Big Three competition heated up, they couldn’t take the heat. What many foresaw as their only means of survival, joining up, would have meant seeing Studebaker, Nash, Rambler, Packard, Kaiser, Willys and Hudson emulating the Big Three anyway. After 1960 we would have seen only Rambler and Studebaker surviving – just like both actually did. Every auto corporation, even the Big Three, had to lost brands due to the 1958 Recession. It is only luck that Buick survived to today.
Completely forgivable, IMHO.
I agree. And it’s unforgivable that independents weren’t able to compete with the Big Three car makers.
Unforgivable…who are you declining to forgive? The Big Three for making a more appealing product, for having better marketing and coverage, for running their business better than the independents could? They’re running a business. Competition hurts. The government for letting the Big Three get too big, for awarding them lucrative contracts, for not doing more to protect the independents? What would you have had them do, exactly, in that era of macho captialism? Or is the consumer the one we cannot forgive, for purchasing the products of the big manufacturer over the little guy? It’s easy to forget that, while today we may find a ’56 Studebaker or a ’53 Packard more interesting than a ’56 Chevy or ’53 Cadillac, they weren’t necessarily more appealing at the time. Quite the opposite in many cases.
Unfortunate? Yes, it was very unfortunate. And consumers losing choice is never a good thing, nor is the shuttering of long-established businesses and the idling of American factories. But I think unforgivable is quite a stretch.
Free markets are a bitch sometimes.
Pontiac was the GM make “on life support”, before the ‘Wide-Track’, DeLorean, and Bunkie era. They were called ‘old ladies’ cars with straight-8 motors. The Silver Streak trim was called “suspenders” in jest.
Such an odd juxtaposition between the clean, minimalist lines of the featured house in that 1957 ad and the car’s busy detailing.
The trim pieces on the side of the rear fin looks like they’re made to emulate dials. It’s reminiscent of a child’s imagination, really. Dare I say I prefer the Edsel??
In a lot of ways, the ’58 Edsel is the most restrained and resolved of all ’58 Ford offerings (I’m including the Squarebird in that assessment as well). Most of the Edsel’s details “work” in a way, it just has the gangling portions of all Ford products of that time.
Which I always see as the wheelbases looking shorter than they actually are. Especially in the Mercury’s case the front overhang looks a shade too long.
I like the ’59 Mercury, but Perry, I’m with you as the ’59 Edsel is clean. I have seen Ford photos of the ’59 Edsel Corsair using the Mercury body – it works.
There was one of these at a local auction several years back, seafoam green. If you get a chance to sit behind the wheel of one of these, do it. The dashboard is Buck Rogers cool, and the whole deal is the epitome of the late 50s vibe. Alas, the car went for four grand and was more filler than filings…
The 1959-60 Mercury must have set a postwar record for most expense amortized over the fewest units sold. A completely unique structure shared with no other line and a horrible seller to boot.
I have often wondered if there were plans to update that body for 61 and beyond. However, offering a Mercury larger than a Lincoln would not have been the move. I always kind of liked the 60 with the gigantic canted ovoid taillights. This 59 looked like a cross between a 58 Dodge and 58 Studebaker.
And nobody but Laurence can find stuff like this at the curb.
From what I understand, this ’59-’60 bodyshell was to have been extended into 1961. Disappointing sales and the ‘nix’ of the senior Edsels (due to THEIR disappointing sales) on the Mercury body led to the decision to revert back to “Fancy Ford” status . . .
Rare car here however one resided near my home town for decades bought new and converted to RHD its still around somewhere the owners had a rather interesting fleet consisting of Mercury car and pickup and a very old 1928 Republic truck.
I LOVE these Mercuries! The ’57s-’60s were so space agey, and as Aaron65 notes above, Buck Rogers cool. Even if they didn’t sell well, they were a premium entry in the mid-priced field, with the Park Lane approaching near luxury status. Our neighbors across our cul-de-sac had a ’59 Montclair 4-door hardtop, I always enjoyed seeing it swoop up and down our hill, looking like it was a mile long. Fun story, early one morning when I was in high school, the neighbor backed the car out into their driveway, then forgetting something in her house, got out of the car and left it unattended, thinking she had put it in park. But either she hadn’t, or it slipped out of park, and rolled backwards out of their driveway, gaining speed as it crossed down the cul-de-sac, up our driveway apron, smashing into the front of our house, right opposite where my mother was still sleeping. The whole house shook like a bomb had gone off, and my mother came racing down the hall screaming what the hell had happened. There, sitting on our front lawn was the big Mercury, its rear bumper and tail end crunched up and a matching Mercury-sized hole gaping in our stucco façade. The neighbors never lived it down, although everything eventually got repaired, everyone remained friends, and the Mercury lived many more years.
At the risk of rekindling the brouhaha of the recent “There goes the Neighborhood” post, I ran across the attached picture of a fund-raiser car wash here in Palm Springs late last year, conducted for an anti-bullying cause. It’s a fun juxtaposition of “Detroit iron meets California muscle,” and the prominently featured car is a ’59 Mercury Park Lane, which, coincidentally, I happened to run across at a car show here later this spring. You don’t realize how enormous these cars were until you see them up close and personal. The upholstery fabrics were beautifully luxurious, the details a feast for the eyes, and yes, the Buck Rogers instrument panel was in its full glory. Wonderful upscale cars in their day, a fitting denoument to the fabulous ’50s.
I think I remember seeing pictures of this one uploaded on the Freewheelers Facebook Page. What’s remarkable to think is that, although already gargantuan, the Monterey is incrementally smaller than a Park Lane. And the Monterey is a pretty big beast to begin with.
Great stories, Don. Thinking back I recall little personal history with Mercury. I clearly remember that two families in our small town in the midwest bought new Mercurys in 1959, and that the 59 was perceived to be a more popular, toned-down design from the 57-58 (certainly the front end styling was more conservative). I started to say that I could not remember ever riding in a Mercury but recalled that one of my high school friend’s family bought a new 66 Parklane with the Breezeway window that we would lower when were out driving and smoking our first cigarettes in the teen years. It was dark green, loaded, and quite a nice car though rare even then. Mercurys must have sold much better in the west than in the midwest (I recall many more of the James Dean Mercurys when I was small than of the later models). Given their more radical styling in the late 50’s, that makes perfect sense.
I am surprised to find praise for the 58 Edsel here as I thought it was pretty unattractive as a kid when it came out and still think so today. Those protruding headlights, the infamous grille, the fussy lines. I’d rather have a Mercury of any of those three years. This is a great shot of the 59 in all of its fabulousness.
Those taillights would look great on a Pontiac. Red arrowheads for everyone!
FYI if Edsel and Mercury shared a basic body shell at least the Mercury version did without the chrome lady parts front styling.
The cars of ’59 were certainly unique. Considering the body shell sharing going on at GM, Ford may have been producing the most unique product of the big three this year.
By strength sales, seeing a ’59 Ford or Chevy into the early ’70s was possible, cars like this were simply gone. A shame. I really rather like this. The ’60 was kind of an odd one, though.
I prefer the 1958 Mercury over either the 57 model or the 59.
I can see the questionable design decisions in many late-50’s cars, but as a small kid in that era the mind-boggling complexity of these apparitions was like a pre-LSD trip down the rabbit hole – you could be entranced for what seemed like hours, wide-eyed at every glittering and glowing detail.
It helped of course that it was all much closer to eye level at the time.
I like this a lot despite it’s receding roofline.It looks a bit strange where the roof and windscreen join.I’d take a 59 Ford,Edsel or Mercury over a 59 Lincoln anyday.
FoMoCo’s product styling from this period leaves me underwhelmed. I suppose my yardstick is the 1960 Quicksilver concept, which translated well as a Ford and Edsel, but not so successfully as a Mercury. The 59 ‘fastback’ you’ve featured here is to my eyes the pick of the bunch for that model year across the four brands. As ever, your pics are first rate and an excellent analysis to boot.
The last Edsel really was a beauty with that Pontiac style grille.I’ve only seen a few at shows and in magazines.
I agree Gem, particularly as a wagon definitely a beauty.
Ditto on the ’60 Edsel. I have liked them since they were new. AMT made a model of the convertible at the time. I still have two of them. I grew up in a very small town in which there were 2 of them as new cars. They were both 2 door sedans. I was pretty happy one day to actually get to ride in one after school. In the next town someone had a white 2 door hardtop. That thing was beautiful. All in all one of my favorite cars.
If my orientation is right that looks like Turk heading east up to Stanyan. There has been off and on several cars for sale using pictures from that area on Craigslist for about 3 years now. Possibly the same seller who has been quiet for some time now. This was one of the cars along with another tu-tone late 50’s Mercury.
From what I know, he’s a former (or current) Cab Driver that lives in the Maroon Full Five behind the Mercury. I’ve featured a few of his cars before (1956 Studebaker President, 1960 Chrysler Saratoga). Whenever the sun is in the “Golden Hour” and I’m on that side of town I generally go out to Turk Street to see what he has parked out there.
Think he has about 15-20 or so rides, mostly late 50’s/Early 60’s obscurities. From what I remember of this Monterey on Craigslist last time it was for sale, is that it has no Power Steering or Brakes. It must be somewhat of a beast to drive.
Only 15-20? There was an older fellow who lived at the corner of Clement and 21st through the entire 90’s. Three story apartment building with the first level all open garage as one sees in the City. He had untold numbers of old Japanese and European cars stashed along the street and other streets. Made parking extremely difficult as he only moved them for street cleaning. He would fill an entire block on both sides till a few flat tires persuaded him to move them out.
Died in 2002 and it was found he was a hoarder of old useless car parts and hundreds of old tires. There were five full size dumpsters of junk under that apartment building when it was discovered and cleaned out.
What kind of cab do you have to drive to live in a sweet pad like that and own a huge stash of classic Detroit iron? Is he the guy who drives the Cash Cab?
Oh boy! No power steering and no power brakes on a big 124″ wheelbase car. Could handle the no p/s OK, but in my youth, driving the ’61 Catalina with no power brakes – drums at that – low gear to avoid brake fade and slight pump of the brakes – was the ticket heading down California Street from Van Ness (my Dad’s office was the Hartford Bldg at 666 Cal. St.) or better yet, Taylor Street. Hot cooking drums and a warm Merc-O-Matic. Yeah, baby!
Love those tail lights almost as much as the ’59 Chevy’s…
Great photography and post, Laurence. I hope your hiatus from CC is over and we will be seeing more from you.
Well it is a good thing cars have gotten smaller over the decades otherwise San Francisco parking would be even more difficult. Nice looking Mercury and I love those taillights.
To me the Fords of the this era were far better looking then Mercury, Edsel, and Lincoln. And they were the least expensive, except for maybe the Thunderbird.
Styling inspiration was the ’56 XM Turnpike Cruiser showcar created in ’55. They cluttered up the front on the actual production ’57, I think the ’59 was closer to the mark. Not bad for the era but not good either. Ford styling lost their way in the late ’50’s for Mercury and Lincoln, but look at the industry in general.
Thanx Laurence ! .
Well done .
I agree with other posters that the ’58 Edsel was a better looking car than this. Mercurys from 1952 through 1964 suffered through their identity crises in public, which certainly confused potential buyers. Trying to cover every price point led people to ask, “Is it a Ford? Is it a Lincoln?” They decided it was neither and bought an Oldsmobile. The best line I’ve heard about Mercurys of that era was in “Hemmings Classic Cars” a few years ago – “The 1961 Mercury looked like a Ford that had been to Space Camp”.
Mercury did have pretty far-out styling in general from ’57 into the early 60’s. i sometimes question what they were trying to achieve, but the results were always interesting, and packed with detail.
I have been noticing how FoMoCo’s styling in this era (with the notable exception of the 57-58 Fairlane 500) was exceptionally square and blocky. Sure, there was a lot of plated gingerbread and some creases here and there, but the basic shape of the cars (including Edsels and Lincolns) was much like a rectangular block. Other than the 56-58 Stude, there was really nothing else like these, especially by 59 when the Ford took on that look as well. Perhaps Ford styling really was a bit ahead of the curve here. Nothing out of GM or Chrysler would have organically led to the 61 Continental. It is always hard to discern a trend at its beginning, but in these cars I see the basic shape that would take us through the 70s and 80s. Scrape away all of the crap, and update the greenhouse, and this is the beginning of the modern, angular car of the 60s.
I’ve never been a fan of the 1959-60 Fords or Mercurys. I’ve always preferred those built between 1955 and 1958. I do like the 1958-59 Edsel, with its distinctive grille, makes it look different from the other Fords, which I think was the whole point of the Edsel.
I remember riding in a ’59 four door sedan to grade school in about ’61 or ’62 or so; a neighbor’s mom owned it.
Sitting as a child sized passenger in the right front seat made the car seem even bigger. The distance between the seat and the right side of the dash was huge; sticking my legs straight out did not result in kicking the dash. There was a pod of the instruments on the left/driver side but the right side of the dash was relatively barren and created, with that expansive windshield, loads of leg room up front.
This is one of the first cars that, in my opinion, looks much better in four-door form – particularly a four-door hardtop – than as a hardtop coupe. With its size and styling theme, which is to suggest massive dimensions in every way possible, it looks better with four doors, whether it’s a sedan or a hardtop. This is the least attractive hardtop coupe of the era.
A 1959 Park Lane hardtop sedan in very good, all-original condition periodically pops up a local car shows. I wouldn’t mind having that one.
A little appreciated fact…the 59-60 Merc used parallel, 3 speed electric wipers, while the 58-60 Lincoln made due with vacuum wipers, who knows why?
Beginning in 1965 through MY ’78, Mercury was more related to Lincoln than Ford (Park Lane and Marquis anyway); Montclair/Monterey would be more like the “fancy Ford” . . . . .
The front ends of those Mercurys look like vacuum cleaners.