For the Drive of Your Life – the New 1951 Mercury

The Korean War labored on with no end in sight, and nobody sure about the size of the Chinese presence in Korea or even if they intended to engage in combat. Both questions would soon be answered.

People Volunteer Army soldiers

People Volunteer Army soldiers

The Chinese army (Peoples Volunteer Army – separate unit of Peoples Liberation Army organized so the Chinese government could plausibly deny they were actually at war with the U.S. This is the same farfetched deceit employed by Putin today), moved at night and hid during the day such that reconnaissance never picked up on the looming threat until they attacked in force in late November, 1950. U.N. forces sustained heavy casualties and were pushed out of North Korea altogether.

U.S. Eighth Army commander Lt. General Walton Walker had been killed in a vehicle accident just before Christmas, and was replaced by Lt. General Matthew Ridgway. Upon his assuming command, the PVA attacked again, this time retaking Seoul in January, 1951.

General MacArthur visits the front

General MacArthur visits the front

General Douglas MacArthur suggested using atomic bombs against the Chinese, to disrupt their supply lines and so alarmed America’s allies they lobbied for his removal. As it turned out, the PVA had already outrun its ability to resupply and a counter-attack by Ridgway successfully assaulted the exhausted PVA and once again forced them out of the South Korean capital. By this time Seoul had been taken and re-taken four times and was virtually a ghost town.

Logistical support for the PVA was critically deficient and probably explains why they were not more successful. Sheer weight of numbers should have allowed them to dominate any opponent, but lack of even basic necessities ruined morale. Since they had almost no air support and no trucks, all supplies had to move at night by foot or bicycle.

U.S. soldier with BAR

U.S. soldier with BAR

Military commanders understood the problem, but political leadership did not want to admit the intrinsic failings of the system nor their inability to master the problem. Most of all they didn’t want to have to go hat in hand to Stalin and ask for help, but the predicament was confounding the whole war effort and the appalling prospect of defeat threatened. Pride was swallowed, the U.S.S.R. supplied air cover, pilots and vehicles, and the struggle once more gained momentum.

Peace negotiations in January, 1951 failed partly because MacArthur had insisted the Chinese admit defeat. This eventuality was seen as obviously impossible by everyone but MacArthur, and was never going to happen for any number of reasons.

Seoul 1951

Seoul 1951

As a result, the U.S. negotiating position and strategy were severely undermined and the resulting embarrassment proved too much for President Truman. MacArthur was fired in April and replaced by Ridgway. There was still significant combat after this, but by the summer of 1951, the war had degenerated into a blood-drenched stalemate in which little real estate was taken or lost.

The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage against the United States of America began March 6, 1951. The accused were a married couple with long-term Communist sympathies who had apparently operated a spy ring passing American atomic secrets to the Soviets. Reading about their exploits now it sounds more like they were running an incompetent slapstick routine than anything particularly sinister.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Julius was an amateurish spy wannabe and there is now some question Ethel knew about or participated in any mischief at all. The most serious transgression seems to have been Julius’ facilitation of passing along a clumsy hand-drawn atomic bomb diagram produced by David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother and a machinist at Los Alamos. The Rosenberg operation fell apart when Klaus Fuchs a Soviet spy working in Great Britain got caught and fingered his courier, Harry Gold, who also emerged as the Rosenberg go-between. Gold turned on the Rosenbergs to save himself.

The Rosenbergs were convicted and executed June 19, 1953, becoming the only American citizens ever executed for espionage. All of their accomplices spent some time in prison, but none faced the electric chair. Soviet archives opened recently indicate the Rosenberg’s efforts were not helpful to them at all. When told about this revelation many years later, the presiding judge said it didn’t matter, the intent was still there.

Marilyn Monroe, 1951

Marilyn Monroe, 1951

Black music was completely unacceptable for consumption by white audiences, especially impressionable teenagers. It was too impassioned, fiery, explicitly sexual, (by contemporary standards – by today’s norms it’s no worse than naughtily playful), confrontational and too much identified with black culture. Pressure for acceptance of rhythm and blues emanated from rebellious teenagers looking for something edgy, forbidden and vaguely dangerous – the same things that have always motivated teens. The earliest rock was an attempt to satisfy this demand while toning black music down just enough to mollify parents’ fears. Rock became a synthesis of black rhythm and blues, black gospel, white rockabilly, white country & western, and the then popular but bland “crooner” product.

Dominoes, 1951

Dominoes, 1951

The #1 rhythm and blues offering in 1951 was “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes, with the lead on this particular song done by the bass player, Bill Brown. This was a bit unusual as Billy Ward, Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson, all extremely accomplished singers, were members of the group. Being blatantly sexual, the piece certainly tested the limits of what was permissible, but any question was answered when it crossed over to the pop charts, coming to rest at #17. Black music was starting to reach the mainstream. Some have argued this was the first rock ‘n’ roll song.

Alan Freed, WJW Cleveland

Alan Freed, WJW Cleveland

In 1951 the legendary Alan Freed had coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” to describe the type of music he played on his “Moondog House” radio show after midnight on Cleveland radio station WJW. In actual fact he played unadulterated rhythm and blues for teenagers to listen to in bed under the covers late at night without their parents’ knowledge. Rock was born and had found its audience.

Nat King Cole began his career in the mid 1930’s as a jazz pianist. He was never known as a rhythm and blues artist despite his race and the times. A few of his original compositions were based on black folk music, and some have said presaged rock ‘n’ roll but I think that’s a bit of a stretch. By the late 40”s, he had gone to conventional pop and in 1951 placed two pieces in the year’s top 5.

Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole

 

 

 

These were “Unforgettable” at #2 and “Too Young” at #4 – the former became his theme song. This was a remarkable feat considering he was black and the context of the era. His craft continued to struggle with latent racism throughout, but he went on to enjoy huge success and sold a ton of records. He appeared in a number of movies and in 1951 did three guest appearances on “Texaco Star Theatre”. Bo Diddley considered Nat King Cole a big influence. Nat was a heavy smoker, believing the habit contributed positively to the quality of his singing voice – unfortunately lung cancer claimed him in 1965.

Johnnie Ray

Johnnie Ray

The #1 song in 1951 was “Cry” by Johnnie Ray, (back-up from the Four Lads), with #3 taken by “How High the Moon” done by Les Paul & Mary Ford.

Mercury approached 1951 with a freshened-up style, but also with a design that was clearly an evolution of the foregoing two years. The marque owed its classically graceful yet vaguely menacing stance at least partly to the depth and pitch of its hood and trunk lid in relation to its fenders and beltline. The overall effect was irresistible. The step-down character line in which the front fender flows smoothly into the car’s flanks eventually dipping down towards the rear bumper, was retained, however with the rear quarter panels significantly lengthened and fenders rounded, it terminated somewhat further forward. The space thus created between it and the bumper was occupied by a vertically ribbed stainless panel – on appropriately equipped cars “Merc-o-Matic” appeared above this covering.

1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

The rear fenders protruded rather aggressively beyond the trunk lid and were finished with prominent vertically-oriented cathedral-style taillights sheltered in eye-catching chrome bezels. Otherwise, rear end treatment echoed that of 1949, including a very similar trunk lid decoration and twin bumper guard arrangement including a connecting cross-piece. It was necessary for the bumper’s outboard portions to project somewhat to accommodate the out-thrusting, trailing fenders.

1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

The front bumper is also home to two guards between which the license plate housing resides. These bumper sentinels could be significantly enlarged and embellished as part of an extra-cost dress-up option. The grille itself consists of several equally spaced vertical bars reminiscent of the previous two years but wider and more boldly convex. It wraps around into the front fenders incorporating integral turn/signal lights. A circular opening appears in the grille behind each bumper guard, adding visual interest to the overall design. The hood’s leading edge is graced with a full-width chrome bar centred by a half-moon shaped medallion housing a red plastic Mercury head emblem and MERCURY embossed in semi-circular block lettering around its top. The same mascot from prior years perches atop the hood. Hubcaps this year are slightly concave, centred with a red plastic Mercury head medallion in relief.

1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

1951 Mercury Sport Sedan

The roof-line assumes a slightly changed silhouette in 1951, owing to a reshaped C-pillar which permits a larger backlite. Mercury played up the safety aspect of the 1,000 square inches of glass in the new rear windshield, noting the increased visibility available to the driver, (although the C-pillar was still pretty large and inhibiting). The overall effect is to imply less of a “stubby turtleback” and more of a longer, lower look. The front windshield is still split, the side windows remain unchanged and the single spear running along the beltline underneath the side windows from the A-pillar to the leading edge of the trunk, remains untouched.

1951 Mercury Sport Coupe

1951 Mercury Sport Coupe

With the demise of the entry level business coupe, available models were reduced to five. The Coupe was re-christened the Sport Coupe. Your new Mercury could be ordered in one of sixteen solid colors or nine two-toned combinations. Hues for 1951 were definitely taking a step away from the somber to the more bright and cheerful, but still couldn’t be described as vivacious. Monterey once again enjoyed its own palette, comprising four colors unique to this line with contrasting cloth covered roofs. Monterey lost its chromed interior garnish moldings and custom steering wheel this year, but gained an ashtray light and a vanity mirror on the passenger’s sun visor. A coat-of-arms emblem replaces the Mercury head on the doors.

1951 Mercury Monterey Coupe

1951 Mercury Monterey Coupe

Inside, instrument panels and garnish moldings came in one of six shades, all chosen to compliment exterior colors, and four of which were carried over from 1950. Other than a few very minor tweaks, redesign of control knobs and new steering wheel hub, the dashboard is identical to 1950. The automatic transmission selector is on the column complete with a small indicator gauge atop the steering column, showing which gear you were in.

1951 Mercury Upholstery

1951 Mercury Upholstery

Upholstery fabric alternatives were many and pleasing, featuring the new hard-wearing nylon cloth. Altogether there were six combinations from which to choose for the sedans and coupes which also included vinyl and leather. Convertibles, Montereys and station wagons highlighted their standard leather possibilities – you could only get a Monterey with cloth inserts in turquoise. Other interior refinements include coat hooks, separate left and right vent controls, a front seat adjustment knob and a dome light.

Engine size remained at 255.4 cid, but horsepower was upped a bit to 112 owing to some internal modifications which increased efficiency. This slight increase helped compensate

1951 Mercury Dash

1951 Mercury Dash

for power lost via the new automatic transmission. For those interested few, Mercury once again won its class in the Mobilgas Economy run.

Oldsmobile and Cadillac had been able to offer the Hydramatic automatic transmission since 1940. Lincoln had tried and failed with its Liquamatic in 1942 – all those that actually made it into production automobiles had to be withdrawn and replaced with manual shifters such that no installed examples exist today. Little is known about them except they were unbelievably complicated and so spooked Ford they took another 10 years to develop a home-grown automatic. Since 1949 Lincoln had been quietly putting Hydramatics acquired from G.M. into their cars but in 1951 Ford, Mercury and Borg-Warner unveiled

1951 Mercury Grille

1951 Mercury Grille

the new Ford-o-Matic and Merc-o-Matic automatics. The new transmission had been the subject of extensive engineering and rigorous testing such that it could enter service with confidence. Buyers were very excited about the innovation, but the comprehensive testing program curtailed production such that only 28% of new Mercurys were thus equipped. The option added $168 to the cost of a new car, but by 1959 over 90% of Mercurys leaving the factory sported a Merc-o-Matic. Unfortunately the Merc-o-Matic was not as smooth nor as peppy as the Hydramatic.

Ford was first to use the P-R-N-D-L sequence for automatics, placing neutral between reverse and forward gears. This was originally done as the engineers thought this a logical layout for a motoring public accustomed to standard shift manual transmissions, but in time the built-in safety aspect became obvious too. Attributes included engine slowing on

1951 Mercury Station Wagon

1951 Mercury Station Wagon

manual downshift, neutral only starting, and downshift under load. Normal starts occurred in second gear, with low used only on demand when chosen manually.

Chrysler was the last of the major American car manufacturers to get on board the automatic transmission band wagon, 14 years after the Hydramatic debuted and almost 3 years after the Merc-o-Matic (and Ford-o-Matic). Packard and Studebaker had introduced their versions in 1949 and 1950 respectively. Most companies had launched semi-automatic transmissions as early as their last pre-war models, but these continued to require a fair amount of driver involvement and concentration.

1951 Mercury Convertible

1951 Mercury Convertible

Americans still feared the Korean conflict could necessitate restrictions on automobile production and so continued to inundate dealerships. Entire Mercury production of 310,387 beat 1950’s total and even bested 1949’s extended selling season, despite an 8% increase in average price. The Sport Sedan with 157,648 copies was the best seller.

As 1951 drew to a close there were in fact some material and capacity shortages as Ford started manufacturing jet engines and such raw materials as copper, chromium and zinc were channeled into military production.

1951 Mercury Convertible

1951 Mercury Convertible

With the inauguration of the restyled 1952 Ford cars, we bid farewell to E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, one of the industry’s premiere pioneer designers. The durability of his cab-back, elliptically fendered, prominently bulbous hood and trunk “look” from this era continued on with General Motors, Chrysler and Hudson until 1957. Even after this time, whenever a designer wanted to convey an image of luxury and prestige they often reverted to this stylistic approach, (the 1992 Buick Park Avenue or 1998 Lincoln Town Car for example).$_57 (41)

About Bill

I have enjoyed a life-long fascination with American cars, particularly Mercury and its Canadian relative, Monarch. I'm old enough to remember Turnpike Cruisers when they were new, but not the 118's. The Merc is now scheduled to cease production after over 70 years and so will join Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Imperial, DeSoto, Thunderbird and of course Edsel in history's graveyard. Perhaps this is as it should be -they all became pale shadows of what they once were.
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2 Responses to For the Drive of Your Life – the New 1951 Mercury

  1. EDUARDO GOMES says:

    BOA NOITE, ESTOU EM NEGOCIANDO A COMPRA DE UM FORD MERCURY ANO 1951, MAS ESTOU COM DIFICULDADE EM LOCALIZAR A NUMERAÇÃO DO CHASSI E A NUMERAÇÃO DO MOTOR? ALGUÉM PODE ME DAR UMA ORIENTAÇÃO.
    ATENCIOSAMENTE
    EDUARDO GOMES
    FONE: (79) 9819-6797
    ARACAJU – SERGIPE – BRASIL

    • Bill says:

      Hello Eduardo, You will the Vehicle Identification Number stamped on top side of frame right side near front body bracket.
      Regards, Bill

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