Roadhouse Relic: 1951 Mercury Eight Sends Greetings from Austin

Austin, Texas is famous for many things, including its murals, and “Greetings From Austin” on South 1st Street has to be the most well known, selfied, and Instagrammed mural of them all. This landmark street art has since 1998 graced the outside of Roadhouse Relics, a studio and gallery devoted to vintage-style neon signs that evoke mid-century Americana. My visit to this Austin landmark was surprisingly devoid of smartphone-wielding millennials and surprisingly featured a mid-century American curbside classic: a hot-rodded 1951 Mercury Eight.

The 1949-51 Mercury Eight, the third generation of the sole model of Ford’s middle division since 1939, began as part of Ford’s all-new 1949 lineup of postwar designs. All had modern pontoon fender styling, and Lincoln and Mercury shared bodies that featured sedans with suicide doors. The Eight derived its name and power from Ford’s flathead V8, its displacement increased from 239 to 255 cubic inches by a longer stroke for the upscale Mercury. The 1949-51 Mercury has not been featured yet here on Curbside Classic 70 years later, but in its time it received plenty of attention. The 1949-51 Mercury soon became hot rod royalty, then Hollywood royalty.

Mercury Eight coupes of this generation served as the basis for many of the original custom “lead sleds” that shaped hot rodding in the 1950s. They included the Hirohata Merc that Sam and George Barris created in 1953 from a 1951 Mercury coupe. Shown here with Sam Barris, the Hirohata Merc had a lowered top, stretched front and rear fenders with frenched lights, and many other custom details including a dashboard pinstriped by Von Dutch. The Hirohata Merc is the most famous custom car of all time according to numerous magazine articles, and I have no reason to say that they are wrong.

The 1949-51 Mercury Eight then attained cinematic immortality in 1955 as James Dean’s car in Rebel Without a Cause. The film, released shortly after Dean’s death in an auto accident in his Porsche 550 Spyder, made him a worldwide icon of teenage angst and his character’s 1949 Mercury coupe one of the legendary movie cars of the 1950s. As long as James Dean and 1950s Hollywood films are remembered, the 1949-51 Mercury Eight will live on, even after the last one has ceased to exist.

Image from Amazon

Rebel Without a Cause actually showed James Dean driving multiple Mercuries of different years, as Paul pointed out to me during the drafting to this article. The producers had a 1949 Mercury as the featured car but also showed James Dean driving a 1946-48 Mercury, in a typical period Hollywood continuity error. “James Dean and his Mercury ’49” would nevertheless go down in history, as Bruce Springsteen sang in “Cadillac Ranch” a generation later.

A combination of car and setting this good usually happens for a reason, and some internet sleuthing several days later found that the reason was that this custom 1951 Mercury Eight sedan belongs to the owner of Roadhouse Relics, neon artist Todd Sanders. The creator of 1950s-style neon and a famous symbol of Austin driving a relative of some of the most renowned hot rods of the 1950s seems highly appropriate to me. Being in a hurry with limited time in Austin, I did not walk into Roadhouse Relics to ask about the car, and I wish that I had so that I could have learned more about it. A sedan rather than a coupe as the basis for a custom hot rod departs from the norms of the 1950s, but the 1949-51 Mercury sedan’s suicide doors make it an inspired choice, and it would be interesting to learn more about how the owner selected it.

Who built this car is a question that does not need to be asked, because the same internet sleuthing found that its builder was Mercury Charlie, an Austin-based car customizer who clearly has a special affinity for Mercury and for the 1949-51 Mercury Eight in particular. His biography proudly describes his own 1951 Mercury, a 1951 built for TV star motorcycle and car customizer Jesse James, a 1950 built for guitarist Charlie Sexton, and the 1951 profiled here. This car’s immaculate stock-looking interior with a custom Mercury head floor shifter sends me a subtle but strong message that this car presents a tempting combination of originality, old school hot rodding, and perhaps some new performance additions.

Originality prevails on the car’s exterior, with clean but slightly rough black paint all around and some impressive patina on the rear. This Mercury’s appearance suggests a well-used but well-maintained old car, parked for many years in a south-facing carport with the Texas sun beating down on the trunk.

What lives beneath the hood and behind that magnificent “MERCURY 8” fender spear/badge is anyone’s guess but is likely to be quite healthy. I would like to think that this Mercury’s original flathead V8 hot-rodded with multiple carburetors provides the horsepower, transmitted through a classic 4-speed or modern 5-speed hooked to that Mercury head floor shifter. The suspension may use airbags or hydraulics to lift it when necessary, since the car’s low stance looks great but may risk undercarriage damage on hilly streets, of which Austin has many, being in the Texas Hill Country. Whatever is in there, I expect that it would provide a driving experience comparable to that of Paul’s Ultimate Curbside Classic 1950 Cadillac Series 61 coupe.

Like a well-aged vintage wine from a distinctive terroir, this 1949-51 Mercury Eight represents 1950s hot rodding and the city of Austin well, and I hope that many others recognize its qualities when they see it while sending their own Greetings From Austin.