Curbside Classic: 1956 Mercury Medalist – The Big M

(first posted 3/3/2014)     An integral part of the traveling circus was the advance man.   The show business equivalent of John the Baptist, his job was to spread the word about what was coming and to get everyone ready for the big show.  The concept of the advance man pretty well sums up the 1956 Mercury.

From its beginning, Mercury had been a mildly spiffed-up Ford.  But from 1949-51, Mercury became the beneficiary of a hasty revision to the FoMoCo product plan, and became a junior Lincoln.  This, in combination with the beginnings of unprecedented postwar expansion, showed product planners a new direction for Mercury.  Starting in 1957, Mercury would finally grow up to be a real medium priced car with its own unique body shell.  And for 1958, Mercury would move even higher while an all-new car would be slotted between it and Ford.

I wonder if either of the adult models was much over 5’2″?

But how to transition from the ’55-’56 Ford-based Mercurys to the real Oldsmobile and Buick fighter that was on the way?  Through advertising, of course.  Thus the Big M.  C’mon now, who can forget The Big M?  What grand, glorious mid-century American Hype.  Make no mistake, Ford advertised the absolute snot out of the 1956 Mercury for one reason: to get us ready for the genuinely big Mercury that was on the way but not here just yet.

Take a look at these fabulous ads.  Do you need to go whooshing over mountains?  Do you need to hurtle around a speedway?  Or just impress the heck out of the neighbors?  Then the ’56 Mercury–scratch that–the ’56 Big M was for you!

I first came across some of these ads in old magazines as a kid.  Although the cars were mostly extinct by the time of my adolescence in the early 70s, I never forgot the Big M.  It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that I had been had.  Nobody called these Big Ms.  Nobody ever drove home and had a neighbor say “Lookie there–Herb just bought a Big M.”  But by then, it didn’t matter.  The ad campaign did its job and made at least some people (and a lot of kids) think that the 1956 Mercury was a lot bigger than it really was.

Is there anything really memorable about the 56 Mercury aside from the ad campaign?  What was the actual ’56 Mercury?  Easy–it was a ’56 Ford with an extra three and a half inches of wheelbase and a standard 312 V8 instead of Ford’s 292.  The ’56 Ford was a fairly conservative and ordinary car, and the ’56 Mercury was not much different.  It was not as long as other mid-priced cars (its wheelbase was a whopping seven inches shorter than the DeSoto), nor was it the most powerful car in its class.  So while the competition promoted the cars it had, Mercury sold what it was going to become.  Of course, you go to market with the car you’ve got, not the car you wish you had (or something like that).

There seems to be some pretty nice original upholstery beneath the shredded seat covers.

As Big Ms go, this was what we would now call “entry level”.  The Custom and the Monterey were a bit more upmarket, and serious neighbor-impressing called for the Montclair.  But today’s CC is the low-end Medalist, which is kind of a mystery to me.  After all, if the whole Big M concept was to sell size and power and style in a car that lacked at least 2 out of 3, then why create the new budget Medalist line for the first time in 1956?  The gap between a Ford Fairlane and the next-model-up Mercury Custom (the former value leader) was only $215.  Was it really necessary (or even a good idea) to plop a new, cheaper Mercury into a slot less than 5% above the cost of the Fairlane?

Even stranger, the Medalist would disappear forever after 1956.  The following year, Mercurys would become more expensive cars.  The Monterey would be the base model for 1957, and it would cost less than $100 short of the 56 Montclair, Mercury’s finest.  So when trying to prepare the public for a bigger, more expensive Mercury that you know is coming next year, why on earth create the automotive equivalent of a blue light special in the clothing store that you are trying to promote as upscale?  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by Mercury’s split personality in 1956, because this kind of confusion dogged Mercury for its entire existence as it zigzagged between being a near-Ford and a near-Lincoln.

I wonder if this car always had the dual exhausts.

Muddled corporate focus or not, I was thrilled to find this car.  My wife and I were leaving a restaurant one evening when I spied something red, white and old in a K-Mart parking lot across the street.  I pulled in and saw no cars parked next to it in any direction, so I had no choice but to chalk it up to divine providence and whip out the phone camera.  This car looks like it came right off the streets of Eugene, Oregon, not Indianapolis.  Even a lightly used car will eventually rust here, but this one is in amazing condition for its age, despite having clearly seen its share of weather.

On its own merits, this is not a bad looking 1956 car.  The ’55-’56 Ford had good bones, and the stylists were fairly successful in giving the car a more “important” look.  I will confess that I have always had kind of a fascination with this model’s rear fender bulges and unique taillights.  They are not attractive as much as they are intriguing and despite knowing there are three and a half extra inches of wheelbase in here somewhere, I am at a loss to tell exactly where.

The faded paint gives away the bolt-on headlight eyebrows.

I also wonder why the original owner would buy the cheapo Medalist and then pop for the two-tone paint (red and white no less) but still be fine with the dog dish hubcaps.  Do you suppose that the original owner shelled out for the whitewalls too?

When I was maybe seven or eight, one of my mom’s cousins had one of these on his farm in Minnesota.  It was a manual three speed, and his son (who was about my age) bragged to me that his dad “knew the gears by heart.”  I was impressed.  And I am likewise impressed that one of these is still in service and capable of burbling down to the local K-Mart so that its owner can pick up a few things.  I wonder if he has any idea that he is driving the Big M?