Curbside Classic: 1966 Mercury Monterey and the Indian Summer of the Full Sized Convertible

(first posted 11/3/2011)     The second half of the 1960s was the last point in time full sized convertibles had any relevance in the American market. A short five years later they would all but have disappeared from most non-General Motors brands. Was it a warm Indian summer, or was it just time to set the clocks back and hunker down for the Malaise Era?

In American car culture, the convertible played a starring role. Nothing says open highway and freedom in the most American (Automotive) way than folding a roof and letting the world rush by you at interstate to illegal speeds. And any full sized Mercury convertible like this 1960 Park Lane would fit the bill: Lazy V8, automatic transmission, AM radio and vinyl (or even leather) seats.

But then there’s the reality. Most convertibles (up until recently) have fabric tops, which at the least will likely fall apart within a decade of constant exposure to the elements, and at worst leaves you vulnerable to theft, or well, if you flip over one of these 4,000lb beasts, death.

Between the styling revolution of the pillarless hardtop during the 1950s, a few appearances of the sunroof and dramatic increase in air conditioning, by 1966 Convertibles were starting to show signs of being an endangered species. After a record year of convertible availability and sales in the robust year of 1965 (helped by all new full sized convertibles from GM, Ford, Mercury and all Mopar brands save Imperial) sales started to taper off.

1966 was the last year for that ultimate glamor convertible, the Thunderbird, until its ill-fated reincarnation in 2002. AMC would bow out a few years later, first killing the Ambassador and American, and then the Rebel. Come 1972, if you wanted big and flamboyant hairdryers, your only option was to look at the jello-bodied B-body quartet at General Motors, or pony up for that final holdout, the Eldorado.

So before we go too far off into the the grim-and-dim disco downspiral, let’s ponder what’s great about this Monterey. And, really, without slicing off the roof it doesn’t have many virtues to recommend it over a heap of other convertible competitors. Chances are it has the 275 horsepower 390 V8 for adequate cruising through its Multi-drive Merc-o-Matic.

Coils at all four corners starting in 1965 insured the Mercury (and most all Full sized Fords) upped the ante in the boulevard ride isolation game. So it was best to point the Monterey and its siblings in a straight line at 70 and forget all of your cares, until 13 miles per gallon caught up with the 20+ gallon tank further down the interstate. Perhaps at mile 300. Or sooner.

But the biggest strike against convertibles like the Monterey was the fast growing epidemic of The Brougham Disease. Although we were still five years from couch cushion velour upholstery, the creeping of vinyl tops, layers of sound deadening and “Walnut grain appliques” were finding their way into the preferred spots in automotive brochures. It’s easier to make a profit margin with 3M tape, extra fabric and a bolt in Air Conditioning unit. Not so much with extra frame bracing and a folding top mechanism.

It reflected a desire to isolate oneself from the harshness of realities in every way possible, from the massive exodus to even further flung suburbs away from inner cities to the growing popularity of soothing Adult Contemporary Music. I’m pretty sure Dionne Warwick would have traded her Monterey Convertible for an LTD or Marquis the moment she arrived in San Jose.

And so with sales of only 3,279 convertible Montereys produced in 1966 it was one of the harbingers to come. And the results are still with us today. Practically every car one can look at for the 2012 model year feels like a rolling isolation chamber, from the lowliest of Yarii to the most expensive of Bentleys.

About 10 years ago, Mercury teased us with the possibility that it could come back. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Frankly the Marauder rehash would have worked better on a spirit level had the convertible version actually made it to market. In a way, every new non-sports car is a “Brougham”. Part of me looks at these fossils of another time, nearly fifty years ago when young hearts ran free on the interstate, and wonder where it all went wrong.