In many ways 1961 is the story of the relationship between John F. Kennedy, newly elected President of the USA, and Nikita S. Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union. The two leaders could not have been more different. Kennedy was young, physically attractive, athletic, courtly and genteel. He came from old money and was brought up with all the social privileges and respect wealth could buy, was well-educated and supremely self-confident but relatively untested in the rough and tumble of international diplomacy. In Jackie, he married one of the most gorgeous and glamorous women in the country. She came from the same sort of background and breeding as JFK, and with two cute, charming and photogenic children his family life looked idyllic.
Khrushchev was considerably older, short, rotund and quite homely, came from rustic stock and had little formal education. He embraced Bolshevism at its beginning and backed Stalin in the internecine warfare after Lenin’s death. He was one of the few original communist leaders to survive Stalin’s purges and in fact participated actively in purges in the Ukraine in the 1930’s. He was liaison between the Red Army Generals and the Communist Party during World War II and spent time in Stalingrad during the worst days of the siege. Khrushchev not only
survived the in-fighting following Stalin’s death, but emerged as the USSR’s new leader. He was extremely wily and possessed of a certain peasant cunning you could only acquire by dueling life at its worst. Khrushchev used a combination of charm and threatening bluster to get his way, usually with devastatingly effective results. He was easy to underestimate, and those who dared did so at their peril.
If the new US President was hoping for a honeymoon period after his inauguration on January 20, Premier Khrushchev pleasantly and unexpectedly obliged. In the first hours of the new presidency the USSR released imprisoned US air crews, printed an unedited transcript of JFK’s inaugural address in the Soviet press and cut back on jamming Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty signals. Khrushchev was actually delighted by Kennedy’s win as he believed the new President was a lightweight he could push around.
Kennedy had never met Khrushchev but certainly knew him by reputation. JFK was determined not to let the Russian get the better of him, and so was suspicious a trick lay behind every conciliatory gesture. Khrushchev was actually quite startled when despite his deferential overtures, Kennedy took a hard line right out of the gate.
Unfortunately, an unwillingness and inability to understand their respective opponent’s motives combined with a deep suspicion nurtured over many years rendered both sides incapable of taking advantage of whatever small attempts at goodwill or cordial openings may be offered. For all his bombast, Khrushchev was actually the least intractable of any of the Soviet leaders, but circumstances tied his hands in many ways the West could not appreciate. With jealous and obstinate Party die-hards watching his every move for signs of weakness, a resurgent
China continually challenging Soviet leadership of the Communist world and East German leader Ulbricht threatening to take Berlin policy into his own hands if the Red Army couldn’t do anything to stem the flood of his citizens fleeing to the West through Berlin, Khrushchev had lots to think about.
Khrushchev had been pushing for an early summit meeting to come to some sort of understanding with the West, so he could turn his attention to other pressing matters. Not trusting him, Kennedy brushed the invitation aside.
On April 12, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human launched into space,
handing Khrushchev apparent proof of Soviet scientific superiority. This was really something to crow about! Less than one month later, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American into space, but Khrushchev didn’t care – nobody remembers second best.
Kennedy had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, fairly well-advanced plans for the invasion of Cuba by CIA sponsored Cuban para-militaries. The idea was to make the exercise look like a counter-revolution and thereby remove Castro from power. Kennedy reluctantly agreed to go ahead but in trying to distance the US from the project he made so many changes the operation’s chances for success were fatally compromised. Written into history as “The Bay of Pigs” disaster, it turned out as an utter fiasco with the invaders all killed or captured and the US caught red-handed and red-faced. Cuba and the Soviet Union got to play the aggrieved party yet again.
Now the Russian leader had two aces to play and Kennedy thought perhaps a summit wasn’t such a bad idea. He proposed Vienna and it was the Soviet’s turn to play hard to get. After a fair degree of cajoling by the Americans, the two met on June 4. While several issues were broached, the major outcome was each leader threatening the other with nuclear war if their views on Berlin were unilaterally forced. Using his tried and true tactics along with supposed Russian technical dominance and American embarrassment over the
Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev ran debating circles around the inexperienced young President. An American aide characterized the meeting as ” … Boy Blue Meets Al Capone”. Khrushchev came away convinced he was dealing with a featherweight, and this no doubt deceived him into thinking bullying tactics would work. Little did anyone know that Kennedy’s judgement may have been impaired by heavy doses of medication for his chronic back pain and the effects of Addison’s disease.
As a direct result of the Vienna conference, Khrushchev ceded authority over Berlin to Walther Ulbricht’s East German government, who immediately began harassing and stopping Allied military personnel trying to enter East Berlin. This was by way of eventually closing the border altogether and thus preventing East Germans escaping to the West through Berlin.
The four-party Potsdam Conference among the victorious occupiers of Germany and Berlin specifically allowed free movement of the military between zones, so the East German action was in direct contravention of existing treaties, and therefore a serious provocation. At one point American and Soviet tanks faced one another just yards apart at Checkpoint Charlie, as an American general sought to probe Russian resolve.
Although everyone stood down, the infamous “Berlin Wall” went up the night of August 12 – 13, and by morning the border was closed. The Wall became history’s most stark symbol of communism’s failure. Although the Wall’s erection provided the solution to a major irritant for both sides, West Germans and Khrushchev took it as evidence the United States wasn’t really all that committed to West German defense. Perceived Communist success in Berlin was viewed as confirmation of Kennedy’s indecisive lack of resolve, and likely led directly to the Cuban missile crisis a year later.
In an ominous look at the future, the United States’ first direct military involvement in Viet Nam occurred in 1961. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson visited South Viet Nam and promised President Ngo Dinh Diem military aid to deal with the communist insurgency. Kennedy was of the view he had to take drastic action to counteract communist mischief-making throughout the developing world, and South-east Asia was a good place to start.
By 1961, rock and roll had mellowed further. Instead of the simple, driving beats of a few years earlier, popular music had given way to elaborate orchestral arrangements with strings and a horn section. Actually, the
year’s #1 song, “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobbie Lewis was a bit of a throwback to yesteryear, but the top 10 also contained Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby“, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” done by the Tokens, and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, all very melodic and sophisticated. Rock was becoming more adult oriented.
There were also a few ballads and folk songs thrown in for good measure: “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean took the year’s #2 spot, and although “Michael” by the Highwaymen captured #10, it would be a few years yet before the 60’s folk music craze would take hold.
Del Shannon’s first and only #1 hit was “Runaway“, which peaked in May and stayed on the charts for 17 weeks; it was ranked #3 for 1961. Del had a number of chart successes, but none ever
rivaled his first. His songs celebrated the pain of unrequited love and he has been called the last genuine rock ‘n’ roll star. He was the first American to successfully cover an original Beatles song with “From Me to You”, but his star started to seriously fade in the 1970’s and he took his own life in 1990.
Gary “U.S.” Bonds is simply awesome and one of my favorites – he always sounds like he’s just smoked two packs of cigarettes. His primitive, driving, muddy effect was achieved in a very basic recording studio owned by his producer. His “Quarter to Three” charted #13 in 1961 and he went on to collect 7 bona-fide hits by the time he ran out of gas in 1963. Bruce Springsteen was a big fan and covered Gary’s songs several times.
The Shirelles were the first of the “girl groups” and also the first black girl group to achieve
acceptance in both the black and white communities, predating the Motown girl groups by a few years. Their first of two #1 hits came in 1961 with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, which placed #10 for the year. The second was “Soldier Boy” in 1962. While the Shirelles broke the ground for those that followed and were said to epitomize the essential spirit of the whole genre, their suggestive lyrics contrasted sharply with their innocent sound. By 1968 the girls were married and with changing priorities the group folded in 1968.
By 1961, Elvis’ appeal was starting to fade. Colonel Tom Parker was intent on remaking Elvis’ image after he returned from the Army by trying to broaden his appeal to include a
family audience. He started to do films, each one accompanied by a soundtrack which inevitably went “gold”. There were several, with each succeeding one becoming more forgettable than the last. “Blue Hawaii” was released in 1961. Elvis’ new look engendered a more archaic and over-produced style which wasn’t to everyone’s taste but he still charted 9 songs in 1961. The original Elvis sound of five years ago was gone for good.
One of the slogans used to pitch the line-up of big Mercurys in 1960 was “Best Built Car in America Today”. Legend has it this maxim was taken seriously by Ford engineers involved in the car’s design,
many of whom had come over from Packard at the time of the latter’s demise. They truly accepted the statement at face value, and believed in its veracity – their creation really was better built than the competition and they were proud of it.
You can imagine their dismay when confronted with the design specifications for 1961. Mercury was undergoing yet another of its identity crises – it couldn’t decide who it was nor who it wanted to be. From 1946 to 1948 it was a glorified Ford; for the 1949 to 1951 period it had its own body, personality and many other distinguishing characteristics. In 1952 it reverted to its ” … just a fancy Ford” persona which it maintained through 1956.
In 1957 it tried to strike out on its own again with the “Dream Car” concept, and this time managed to preserve its individuality until the 1961 model year when it executed another about-face and remade itself as a Ford once again. This time there was little attempt to disguise what was going on.
Ford strategists had done their best to sell the 1960 Merc as a low-priced economy-minded alternative, but try as they might the car’s image wouldn’t reinforce that message. It was fairly clear it had never been designed as a thrifty choice – its regal bearing radiated resplendent nobility from grille to gas cap. To compound its identity crisis, the marque now had a split personality too. Whatever game plan the corporate intellectuals had in mind, it hadn’t worked. In 1961, image caught up with reality – the bookkeeper mentality had prevailed and the brand had gone decidedly down market. Its motto was now “The Better Low-Price Cars”.
In 1960, Ernest Breech, the architect of Ford’s return from a near-death experience, left the company he had rescued. Whether he resigned or was fired is unclear but his departure precipitated a number of other senior management changes. On November 9, 1960 Robert S. McNamara was appointed to Ford’s presidency with Henry Ford II assuming the Chairman of the Board position. On November 8, 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected U.S. President and one of his first acts was to ask McNamara to become Secretary of Defence in the new Administration owing to his military and strategic planning experience.
As it happens, McNamara was actually second choice, but that’s a story for another day. So, one month after taking on the President of Ford job, McNamara resigned, took a huge salary cut and went to work for JFK. Henry Ford II resumed the presidency and handled both this and the chairmanship.
Ben Mills continued in his role as General Manager of Lincoln-Mercury. This was the third year of his five-year tenure, but the first in which he could make his mark on the Division’s products rather than administering someone else’s inherited ideas. The first order of business was of course to lay the Edsel to rest. Next up was preparing the new Lincoln’s introduction. The 1961 Lincoln Continental was heralded as a masterpiece of exquisite automotive beauty, offered in replacement of a ponderous monument to tasteless excess. Curiously, a 1960 Lincoln Continental Mk V is today worth considerably more than the equivalent 1961 model. Go figure. Elegance is apparently not timeless. Finally, the new 1961 Mercury had some changes of its own in store.
Early in 1959, Ford stylist Bud Kaufman had been tasked with the job of making the 1960 Edsel out of the components for the 1960 Ford. Since everyone knew the writing was already on the wall for the doomed Edsel, it didn’t make a lot of sense to waste valuable corporate resources on a lost cause. The result was a modest face-saving success if not an economic one – but then it was never intended to be a styling tour-de-force nor a financial triumph.
Now Kaufman’s boss approached him with the assignment of making the 1961 full-size Mercury out of the 1961 Ford. It’s hard to be sanguine about this intentional erosion of the brand’s prestige and diligently cultivated public image. It no longer faced off against Oldsmobile and DeSoto – now it was Chevrolet and Plymouth at the low end, Pontiac and Dodge at the high end, (and we’re not talking Bonneville and Impala here either).
The two makes share virtually all sheet metal, chassis and driveline components. The Mercury is a touch bigger, riding on a 120 inch wheelbase, (119 inches for a Ford Galaxie), and reaches 214.6 inches end to end, (Ford was 209.9 inches). The grille consists of a series of stamped concave vertical bars with the whole affair tapering a modest but noticeable degree from the outboard ends toward the centre. Each fifth bar is slightly thicker than its neighbors, (like the couple who live next-door to me). Quad headlights are mounted in heavy chrome bezels, and again incorporated into the grille as in 1960. Each pair is slightly separated from one another by a continuation of the grille motif.
To the extent described one could say the look was somewhat reminiscent of the 1960 grille. The hood is hinged at the cowl, (for the first time since 1956), with a slight crease running front to back down the centre. The leading edge follows the grille’s taper and is trimmed with stainless along the hood lip. This chrome garnish continues along the top of the grille where it meets the fender and wraps slightly around the side with the overall “brow” effect continuing as a crease along the front fender as far as the door. Model designation in chrome script appears on the door where the decorative ridge ends.
The centre of the hood lip is decorated with a stylized plastic shield embedded in the stainless strip, while MERCURY appears in stainless script on the front of the hood, offset to the driver’s side. All of the grille’s narrowing occurs along the top edge such that the substantial cantilevered horizontal bumper is the same width throughout its span, except for its upswept ends which wrap around to the front wheel wells. Turn/signal lights are plain rectangular lenses set in the bumper’s outboard ends. Small decorative gun sight ornaments grace the forward top of each front fender.
Lower rear quarter panels affect a horizontal character line running from the top of the wheel well, back toward the rear, becoming more pronounced as it approaches the bumper. Other than a single stainless spear proceeding along the belt line from the top of the front wheel well almost all the way to the tail lights, the car’s sides are flat and unadorned. A low-key feature ridge begins on the top of the front fenders aft of the gun sights, runs along the door sills to the rear fenders where it develops into modest fins. The rear bumper is moderately cantilevered but does not form part of or incorporate any other design elements – the Monterey’s are slightly upswept at the ends. All models carried Mercury script on the passenger’s side of the trunk lid.
The windshield is significantly smaller and does not curve around the sides nor into the roof as in previous years, thus eliminating visual distortion in the corners, the knee bruising dogleg and the “heat pollution” Consumers Report found so worrisome.
A timidly unassuming scion had inherited the Mercury name and tradition. Development costs had been well contained and that of course at the time was more critical than former dignity and reputation.
The big Mercury came in three versions: Meteor 600, Meteor 800 and Monterey. As befits a fresh image of economical prudence, Montclair and Park Lane were quietly retired – both were resurrected in 1964 and survived through 1968. The Meteor 600 was intended to appeal to entry level buyers looking at Chevrolet Bel Air and Plymouth Belvedere, (a cynic would also add Ford Fairlane), and was available as a 2- or 4-door sedan. It carries a large wrap-around rear window characterized by thinner C-pillars.
Because of rear window styling, the Meteor 600 cabin is actually a bit longer than its more senior brethren. Tail lights are horizontally oriented individual oblong units located on either end of the body colored rear filler panel between the trunk lid and the bumper. The fuel filler neck is located behind a door in the middle of this panel. The Mercury “head” is emblazoned on the door. All A- and B-pillars were chrome, with the latter of the imitation hardtop school.
Next up the ladder is the Meteor 800 which could be ordered as a 2- or 4-door sedan, or a 2- or 4-door hardtop. C-pillars were wider, modeled after the Galaxie, and sported bright drip rails. The C-pillar’s bottom half is enclosed in a horizontally ribbed chrome cover both inside and out, and the 4-door hardtops have chrome sail panels with the same motif. The outside also features a stylized medallion on the casing. Each side of a stainless capped rear filler panel carries three individualized protruding round tail lights, each in its own chrome pod and visually held in place by four small decorative chrome supports. The middle ones are back-up lights, while the filler panel is horizontally ridged, mimicking the
C-pillar design. With the exception of door sills, all windows are set in stainless frames. Three attenuated horizontally oriented stainless strips are placed on the side of the front fender between the headlight and the wheel well, while rocker panels are covered in a bright molding. Meteor 800 would be roughly equivalent to a Ford Fairlane 500.
The Meteor nomenclature had been used by Ford of Canada since 1949 to designate what were basically Fords with different trim and ornamentation, sold by Mercury dealers. 1961 was the last year Canadian Meteors
were offered in this guise, but their existence no doubt generated a bit of confusion. Somewhat mitigating any potential befuddlement, the Meteor 600 and 800 were not sold in Canada. While the Canadian Meteor was a Ford in different clothing, it was certainly differentiated by distinct grille, rear end and side decoration treatment but came in all the body styles available to Ford. No quiet unobtrusive departure for this Meteor!
Monterey was promoted to the top of the line, a position it hadn’t enjoyed since 1954. It could be had as a 4-door sedan, 2- or 4-door hardtop or convertible. Mercury convertibles gave up on the Turnpike Cruiser rear window treatment in 1961, returning to the more traditional look shared with Ford. The long horizontal spear running down the side of the car is extended almost to the headlight on the Monterey and encloses a black hard rubber “rub strip” insert in its centre. The Meteor 800 and Monterey have scooped handhold recesses behind the door handles. Monterey corresponds to Galaxie in the Ford stable. Unfortunately Mercury did not field an offering equivalent to the Ford Starliner.
Chrome rocker panels on the Monterey extend to include a similar feature on the rear quarter panels joined by a thin highlight covering the rear wheel well lips. The flattened oval shaped stainless filler panel at the rear expands to include a wide chrome surround enveloping it, with brightwork capping the ends of the fins and trunk lid.
Four station wagon versions were available; 6- and 9-passenger editions of each of the Commuter and Colony Park.
The rear-end has a serious forward rake while the lower half of the bottom hinged tailgate door consists of a horizontally ridged chrome plate, visually comparable to the rear filler panel on a passenger car. The natural progression of this application is into the rear fenders where semi-circular tail lights along with back-up lights are located, directly below the fins. The back window lowers into the tailgate, manually in the Commuter with power assist standard on the Colony Park, optional in the Commuter. Electric control switches for this operation are located beside the ignition switch and externally in a circular device on the tailgate centrally located below the window. Second and third rows of seats fold flat to increase cargo capacity. The third row is forward-facing. Rear side windows curve around to meet the thin D-pillar which forms a frame for the tailgate window. All-around visibility is excellent, but these side windows aren’t easily found today. Hardtop styling was no longer available on wagons.
The Colony Park’s looks are enhanced by the addition of faux dark brown mahogany side paneling outlined with imitation ash fibreglass framing. Perimeter ash rails are inset with a thin chrome feature strip. The Commuter is otherwise finished like a Meteor 800, while Colony Park is equipped as a Monterey.
In another cost saving maneuver, Mercury employed a dash layout originally designed for the 1960 Ford and Edsel, albeit with more glitz to signify the intended additional degree of cultural gentility. With a few emblematic changes, major logistical expense was thus avoided. The same schematic was adopted by the 1961 Fords.
A narrow concave band runs across the middle of the dash, tapering to a gentle point at either end. On the Mercury this ribbon is fitted with a bright vertically ribbed insert splitting the wide oval instrument panel, the upper half of which contains all the gauges, while on the Ford it’s painted. Knobs for various controls are located within the band, either side of the steering wheel, while the radio is found further to the right, accessible by both driver and front seat companion.
“Idiot” lights for generator and oil pressure, the automatic transmission selector quadrant plus the odometer are found directly above the steering wheel. The ashtray is below the radio, with the glove box in front of the passenger. In case you couldn’t remember in which chariot you were comfortably ensconced, MERCURY appears in script on the glove box door. The instrument panel is modestly hooded by the dash and shares the double-ended arrow motif. It contains a conventional speedometer along with fuel and temperature gauges and a clock. The instrument panel’s lower half houses heater controls, the speed control and ignition. Air conditioning could be ordered as a factory or dealer-installed option, but as was customary at the time it hung beneath the dash looking like an after-thought.
The master power window switch can be found on the driver’s door panel, while the 4-way power seat control is on the bottom left side of the driver’s seat.
Meteor 600 interiors were naturally more spartan than the rest of the line, consisting of vinyl bolsters and color-keyed “Country” tweed fabric inserts. Such further detail as was supplied, reposed in stampings in the seat and door panel vinyl to imitate horizontal pleats. Meteor 600 floors were sheathed in a rubber mat rather than carpeting.
Meteor 800 seats wore the same vinyl bolsters but inserts were vertical tuck and roll patterned, complentary-colored “Luster Weave” fabric. An all-vinyl interior is optional, but bolsters and inserts are usually of contrasting colors. Door panels are all-vinyl, each side having two large, (one front, one back) decorative rectangles, each framed by a stainless surround. The inside of the rectangles contains vertically embossed pleats and bolted on arm rests.
The template for Monterey interiors is very similar to that of the Meteor 800, but fabrics are richer. Metallic vinyl bolsters can match or contrast with “Shadow Weave” inserts, while armrests are a bit fancier but still bolt-ons. Convertibles and wagons have matching or contrasting all-vinyl interiors – the former do not have the room for the “rectangle” feature in the rear seat.
In truth, both Galaxie and Starliner have more attractive and sumptuous upholstery designs and selections – I would say the latter is altogether a more handsome choice.
For the first time in its history, Mercury tabled a 6-cylinder engine – the “Super Economy 223” was standard issue in the Meteor 600 and Commuter. In an earlier incarnation it had been available in 1954 Fords. Using regular gas, its 8.8 compression ratio could develop 135 horsepower. Also boasting a compression ratio of 8.8, the 2-bbl, 292 cid V8 was base engine in all other models and had been introduced in the 1955 Mercury when it was called the “Super Torque”. In 1961 it could put out 175 hp; six years earlier it was rated at 185 or 195 hp with a lower compression ratio!
Mercury finally got a taste of Ford’s big block “FE” (Ford-Edsel) engines with the introduction to the line of the Marauder 352 cid first available to Fords in 1958. In one if its original forms – Interceptor Special – it was rated at 300 hp with 4-bbl carburetion.
If it isn’t patently obvious by now, Mercury’s total focus for 1961 was on thrift and economy, so the emphasis was on the fact its 2-bbl carburetor would run quite happily on regular gas while producing 220 hp. This engine was available across the line-up.
For the few eccentric outliers Mercury suspected may be lurking in the weeds, it was hoped the final offering, the Marauder 390, would satisfy their primitive yearnings for brute power. Sadly, at 300 hp it wasn’t all that loutish at all. It ran a 4-bbl carburetor, dual exhaust, liked premium gas, exercised a 9.6 compression ratio and was not available to purchasers of the Meteor 600. Too bad – that would have been a sleeper!
All base engines along with the Marauder 352 could be matched with the three speed standard transmission, although only the two smaller ones could accommodate overdrive. Overdrive had never been a particularly popular option, but one would have thought Ford would be pushing it a bit harder given the climate of frugality they thought they were in. Merc-o-Matic was the base automatic transmission and its three speed configuration could be ordered in combination with any of the three smaller engines. Multi-drive Merc-o-Matic afforded one the ability to start off in second gear if one so desired. It could be mated with any of the V8’s and was mandatory for the Marauder 390.
Some other technical improvements Mercury felt warranted in bragging about included a “sealed” front suspension in which no lubrication was necessary for 30,000 miles, (due to the use of molybdenum disulfide grease in the suspension ball joints and steering linkage pivots), together with a continuation of the Road Tuned Wheels innovation improved this year with “cushion-link” front suspension arms, (not available on Meteor 600) and swept back ball joint front suspension. A new zinc coating was said to act as a rust inhibitor for the undercarriage, while aluminized mufflers increased their life by three times. “Diamond Lustre” finish apparently never needed wax. Power Transfer rear axles were new this year and basically amounted to a limited slip differential. A number of features weren’t new, but that didn’t mean they didn’t deserve a little renewed chest-thumping: two-position door stops, mammoth trunks, seats that encouraged proper posture, self-adjusting brakes and tappets, no hard spots on the driveline hump, extra-long rear leaf springs, wide tread design, and integral design of frame and body together with rubber mounts to cushion road shocks.
Mercury last tried to sell safety in 1956, without success. With the public’s newly emerging economic responsibility, perhaps their latest pang of duty/guilt could be carried over into the realm of self-protection. With this in mind, Mercury trumpeted the extra security offered by seat belts; deep dish steering wheel; child-resistant locks; padded dash, armrests and sun visors; safety glass and mirrors; a wide-contoured frame within which all passengers were enclosed; double panel construction of roof, hood, trunk lid, floor and doors for greater rigidity, (Meteor 600 did not enjoy reinforced floors). Interestingly, advertising boasted about how new glass eliminated distortion and cut down on excessive heat and light entering the cabin, all while improving visibility – these features now thought negative had been considered positive selling points in 1959 and 60 – talk about letting Consumers Report write your copy! Finally, Mercury, (along with all Ford products), now felt able to present purchasers with a 12-month or 12,000 mile factory drivetrain warranty. At the time, such generosity was unheard of, and reflected unprecedented confidence in the brand.
With Edsel now history, was the intention to invent new low-brow Mercurys to take their place and cover the recently vacated price range? Considering the many shared design cues with the 1960 Edsel, those that would argue the 1961 Meteor 600 was really meant to be the 1961 Edsel may have a point. Priced a bit higher than its 1960 namesake, Monterey retained its “place” in the competitive medium-priced field – but now the whole line had gone into direct competition with the Fords. They were making the same mistake as they made when pricing the first Edsel! Check out this comparison of similarly equipped cars:
|Meteor 600||2-dr sedan||2,533||2,261||2-dr sedan||Fairlane|
|Meteor 600||4-dr sedan||2,587||2,315||4-dr sedan||Fairlane|
|Meteor 800||2-dr sedan||2,711||2,492||2-dr sedan||Fairlane 500|
|Meteor 800||4-dr sedan||2,765||2,546||4-dr sedan||Fairlane 500|
|Meteor 800||2-dr hdtp||2,772||2,597||2-dr hdtp||Fairlane 500|
|Meteor 800||4-dr hdtp||2,837||2,662||4-dr hdtp||Fairlane 500|
|Monterey||4-dr sedan||2,869||2,706||4-dr sedan||Galaxie|
|Monterey||2-dr hdtp||2,876||2,713||2-dr hdtp||Galaxie|
|Monterey||4-dr hdtp||2,941||2,778||4-dr hdtp||Galaxie|
|2,586||2-dr wagon 6p||Ranch Wagon|
|2,656||4-dr wagon 6p||Ranch Wagon|
|Commuter||4-dr wagon 6p||2,922||2,868||4-dr wagon 6p||Country Sedan|
|Commuter||4-dr wagon 9p||2,995||2,972||4-dr wagon 9p||Country Sedan|
|Colony Park||4-dr wagon 6p||3,118||3,057||4-dr wagon 6p||Country Squire|
|Colony Park||4-dr wagon 9p||3,189||3,127||4-dr wagon 9p||Country Squire|
It’s not that the 1961 Mercury was a bad looking car – in fact the Monterey was quite pleasant. But it was no longer a fitting heir to its storied and legendary ancestors. There wasn’t much to choose between a Galaxie or especially a Starliner, and a Monterey.
The base Comet was much more car than the ghastly Meteor 600 and at $1,998, was priced considerably lower. The Meteor featured rubber floor mats instead of carpet and boasted sun visors and ash trays as standard equipment – who wouldn’t prefer a Comet!
Comet, the new medium-priced upscale compact remained the star of the show and probably saviour of the Mercury brand. The scorching sales pace started in 1960 continued unabated into the following year, and with this in mind Comet chose not to meddle with success. Obvious changes for 1961 were minimal, but despite this limitation sedan trunk capacity increased by 1.9 cubic
feet. While sold by Mercury dealers, the name “MERCURY” does not appear anywhere, inside or out, while “COMET” in stainless script graces the hood on the driver’s side and the rear quarter panels within a cove outlined by character lines highlighting the sides. The name is also stamped in capital letters on a stainless panel between the rear bumper and the trunk lid. A “Galaxie” roofline continued for 1961. The wide C-pillar offered all sorts of appearance possibilities, but the resident artistes settled for a modest horizontally ridged panel across the bottom and a stylized comet higher up. Three sets of chrome,
vertically oriented decorative bars appear on the sides of the front fenders between the headlights and wheel wells. Bumpers are simple one-piece cantilevered affairs with the gas tank filler neck, tail lights and back-up lights positioned as in the previous year. The trunk lock is located in an attractive flattened V-shaped crest on the trunk lid – attractive but curiously unrelated to any other design elements on the car, (some said it looked like a modified Edsel crest).
Ford products of the era had a peculiar penchant for florid grilles in which the designer almost seems to confuse fussiness with tasteful elegance. Comet grilles, at least to this point, would be good examples. The anodized aluminum grille for 1961 was a series of flattened diamond shapes joined together and running horizontally, with each column separated by a thin vertical bar – somewhat reminiscent of a 1959 Ford. The previous year had two horizontal bulges sitting atop one another, separated by a bar. Other strange offerings abounded – the 1963 Ford was a beautiful car except for its grille that looked like bad bathroom wallpaper; the 1961 Ford resembled a series of kitchen drawer pull knobs. By 1975, the classy Marquis grille spoiled its elegance with tastelessly filigreed headlight
doors simulating a baroque wrought iron fence. The most handsome FoMoCo grille were the 1965 Galaxie and 1960 Mercury – the all time winner would be any Chrysler 300 from 1957 t0 64. An automotive writer once described the 1952 Mercury front end as looking like the face of a ” … leering Hallowe’en pumpkin”, but I digress.
Comet body styles were unchanged from 1960 – 2- and 4-door sedan or 2- and 4-door station wagon and could be ordered in two trim levels – standard and the “Fashion Decor” group. The latter arrived with imitation hardtop styling and an all-vinyl interior. As well, the new Comet purchaser could choose from an increased variety of interior trim offerings. Air conditioning became an
option this year provided it was mated with the new larger engine.
In 1961 the 170 cid Thrift-Power 6 became available to Comet and Falcon as an optional upgrade from the 144 cid Thrift-Power. The new engine was a stroked version of the existing one, embodied several internal improvements and produced 101 hp from an 8.7 compression ratio, up from 85 hp. Both engines employed a single barrel carburetor, although the 170’s had greater breathing capacity. Power was delivered through a standard manual transmission or two-speed automatic; when the car was equipped with the 170 cid engine, the automatic transmission came water-cooled. This year saw several other chassis and suspension improvements, many of them to accommodate the new larger engine.
By 1961 both General Motors and Chrysler were trying to muscle in on Comet’s market niche. Newcomers included Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F-85, Buick Special and Dodge Lancer. The Comet was narrower but longer than the competition, considerably more under-powered when equipped with the base engine, but also priced near the bottom of the range established by the fresh faced novitiates. The field had suddenly become quite crowded and was made even more so when in an effort to gain a competitive edge the pink-cheeked competitors started offering “sporty” versions of themselves.
Comet countered this new threat in the spring of 1961 with the introduction of the S-22 sport package exclusive to the 2-door sedan. It consisted of everything in the Fashion Decor package plus an all-vinyl interior complete with bucket seats separated by a floor mounted storage console and a shiny ribbed cover, special badging on the rear quarter panels, a two-tone four-spoked steering wheel, more opulent arm rests and luxurious carpeting. It would appear the 1961 Comet was the very first Mercury to be equipped with bucket seats and console, (although it still wasn’t officially a
Comets were now available in Canada. In 1960 Canadian Mercury Meteor dealers sold a Falcon lookalike named the Frontenac, with a big red maple leaf in the middle of the grille.
The overall industry suffered a 15.2% drop in production for 1961. Sales for the big Mercury fell to 120,088 units, a decline of 22.6% – it would appear the public wasn’t yet ready for this much thrift. Comet’s resounding success continued and when its results were finally tallied,
Mercury’s overall total rose to 317,351 vehicles, sufficient to place it in seventh spot – interestingly only 197 cars separated Mercury from sixth place Oldsmobile. Comet had saved the day again.
Despite the rather poor showing for the large Mercury, executive Ben Mills was let off the hook based on Comet’s success. Interestingly, the Falcon and Comet concept had been Robert McNamara’s brain-child.