As the new 1958 cars were being introduced, the number 1 song on the Hit Parade was “Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters – the year’s top hit was “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors. Elvis was still gyrating although in March he was inducted into the Army and posted to Germany.
At the same time, society was bemoaning the rise of juvenile delinquency and blaming it on the breakdown of law and order following World War II, when in reality they were just trying to imitate Elvis. Actually I think Elvis was trying to imitate Ersel Hickey, the most bad-ass rockabilly singer of them all, (with a name like that you had to be bad-ass). Ersel only charted one song on the Hot 100 Hit Parade – “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” hit number 75 in 1958.
In October, 1957 the USSR successfully launched the first man-made satellite into orbit – Sputnik – and the space race was on. In November the Soviets sent another satellite aloft, but this time it was manned – by earth’s first space-dog, Laika. In December the US made their first attempt, deploying a Vanguard rocket with a satellite on board, but it exploded 2 seconds after lift-off. They somewhat comforted themselves by successfully firing an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile 500 miles down range from Cape Canaveral, Florida. In February, 1958, the US triumphantly launched a Jupiter-C rocket carrying an explorer satellite. Face had been saved! It may be worth noting the Soviets never announced anything until they already knew it was a success. Good PR management that! Meanwhile, the governor of Arkansas sent the National Guard into Little Rock to prevent African American, (Negro in contemporary lexicon), students from entering an all-white high school.
In an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, both Toyota and Datsun enter the American car market for the first time. Some 287 Toyota Toyopets were sold the first year, but they were found not to be up to freeway driving, so with customary diligence the Japanese went to work developing a car suitable for the American motoring environment. The result was introduced in 1965 and Consumer Reports soon began to gush with enthusiasm over their economy and practicality. By 1958 import cars already accounted for 8% of North American sales, but these were mostly Volkswagens and Mercedes. We of the automotive cognoscenti found these Japanese offerings laughable and joked about finding them in popcorn boxes. Hubris is never a good thing …
Over at Ford they were having troubles of their own. By late August, 1957, the full sales results for that year’s Mercury were becoming apparent and Henry Ford II was not happy. Total automobile sales for Ford Motor Company for 1957 were virtually identical to 1956, and for one of the few years in history the Ford make itself had captured the number one spot from Chevrolet, and by over 200,000 units. On the other hand, Mercury sales were down by 40,000 cars and seventh spot had been surrendered to Dodge.
The results weren’t catastrophic, but since the “Eisenhower Recession” as it eventually came to be called, didn’t really start to bite until August, 1957, the poor economy couldn’t be entirely blamed for the Merc’s dismal showing. To add insult to injury, Mercury came dead last in loyalty rankings. What in fact had actually happened was as yet unknown to Ford executive. The motoring public was in the midst of one of their periodic inexplicable changes of taste, and had become interested in “thrift” and “economy” of all things. In fact, when the 1958 sales results were in, it was discovered Rambler, the very embodiment of economy, had vaulted into sixth spot, and Mercury had slid to ninth.
The explanation as Ford saw it at the time however, was a failure of leadership and direction over at Mercury – they felt the consumer had not been ready for the radical changes in styling and technology embodied in the Big M’s 1957 offerings,
So they did what management has always done in such situations – they fired someone. That someone was Jack Reith who was reassigned to a new position as Henry Ford’s executive personal assistant. Reith had championed not only the Mercury redesign, he had also been the head of the recently formed Mercury Division of Ford Motor Company. The short-lived Mercury Division was folded into a newly created Lincoln-Mercury Division under another recently hired executive, James J. Nance. Nance had previously been President of Packard and Studebaker-Packard, and we all know how that turned out. Packard’s last year of existence was 1958, and its offerings at the end were basically re-badged Studebakers. Nance was known as a cost-cutter, and it’s interesting to note that even advertising felt his economy spree. After the number and extravagance of the 1957 sales brochures, those for 1958 seemed positively parsimonious by comparison. There were only two themes: one for cars and one for station wagons. Any variety beyond that comprised brochures with more or fewer pages, folders vs booklets or small vs large formats, but content and pictures were identical in each case, except where there were more pages. There were also fewer versions of TV ads. Interestingly, the automotive press, including Consumer Report, seemed less interested in the Big M’s 1958 offerings than they were in those for 1957, and this shows in the number of articles printed. This is despite the major power train upgrades for 1958.
To complicate all this corporate political turmoil, Ford had the introduction of the Edsel on the front burner. This all new member of the Ford family was unveiled for the automotive press on August 27, 1957 in what was probably to this point, the most extravagant product launch in the history of American marketing. Editors were invited to come and see the new Edsel, and their wives were treated to a fashion show at the famous Ford Rotunda, all followed up with a glamorous evening of dinner and dancing. Jack Reith was a class act from start to finish – smilingly attending all festivities with Mrs. Reith, as if nothing was amiss, although his resignation had been accepted, many of his friends had lost their jobs in the Mercury purge and his beloved Mercury Division would soon be no more.
In the 1950’s, automotive brand loyalty played a huge role in the buying decision – one stayed loyal to one’s chosen marque through thick and thin, much as one stood by a favored professional sports team, brand of cigarette, political party or one’s
family. Indeed, in many cases a beloved car came to be regarded as a member of the family. Similarly, one didn’t abandon the Red Wings if they had a poor season – you shared in their embarrassment then defended their honor with all your intellectual vigor, (and in extreme cases with your fists). One’s own personality and self-respect became identified with a particular make of car, much more so than today.
So it was that in the early 1950’s Ford became worried there was no easy or obvious transition from Ford on to Mercury for the upwardly mobile young executive seeking to enjoy greater automotive prestige and excellence, not to mention a way to display his success to the neighbors – the price difference was just too great. The professional on the move might have to graduate through Pontiac or Desoto and thereby leave the Ford family, perhaps never to return.
And so the Edsel was conceived. It was intended to provide this stepping-stone. Sounds good, but for whatever reason this was another one of those ideas better in theory than in implementation. Edsel seemed to suffer what the military call “mission creep”- it became much grander than originally contemplated, such that it actually, model for model, went into direct competition with Mercury. The only Mercury which didn’t have an Edsel counterpart was the new Park Lane. It should have been obvious one would suffer, but in the end they both did.
Anyway, Edsel was unleashed on the world September 4, 1957 – “E-Day”. This was followed up with a special TV show, “The Edsel Show”, devoted to this remarkable new automobile. The public had been primed to expect a marvelous new car of historic ground-breaking technological innovation and stylistic opulence, and so flocked to the showrooms to see this transportation miracle for themselves. They came away scratching their heads – this was just another Ford, and kind of an odd looking one at that. Descriptions of the vertical grille ran from the humorous, (Oldsmobile sucking a lemon), to the vulgar. To be charitable, the grille was meant to recall design cues from automotive styling’s golden age – the 30’s. But charity doesn’t sell cars or influence public taste.
The man in the street not only had trouble visualizing himself in the driver’s seat of an Edsel, he was puzzled as to whether the Edsel’s pricing implied it was a step above or below Mercury.
It soon became clear Ford had a monumental disaster on its hands, but in the meantime Mercury’s 1958 introduction had been seriously upstaged, sabotaged and overshadowed. In fact, none of the automotive literature or Google searches are able to enlighten us as to the date the 1958 Mercury’s were introduced – it’s lost to history. Ford Motor Company couldn’t have done a better hatchet job if they had planned it. To compound the injury and further distract everyone from the business at hand, Ford’s all-new four-seater Thunderbird was waiting in the wings for its January, 1959 introduction.
Whispers of Mercury’s imminent demise had become murmurs and the seemingly impossible prospect was now spoken of openly.
Where Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln and Continental had all been free-standing independent Divisions within Ford Motor Company, by January, 1958 they had all been retrenched and consolidated into the new Mercury Edsel Lincoln Division under James Nance.
With the stage thus set, Mercury’s 1958 models made their debut. At first glance there appeared little obvious difference to the landmark 1957 offerings, but upon closer inspection a number of mechanical and styling refinements became evident.
As the year began, Mercury’s model line-up was similar to 1957. Monterey remained the lowest priced line, offering 2- and 4-door sedans, 2- and 4-door hardtops and a convertible. The Turnpike Cruiser was demoted and became a model in theMontclair line, which otherwise stayed the same. The Turnpike thus became cheaper to buy, (and make), than its 1957 counterpart. Gone were standard power steering and brakes, a unique engine and transmission, and a special instrument panel. Interior appointments were downgraded as well. New C-Pillar badging incorporated red running lights and a Cruiser convertible was not available. The station wagon roster remained as in 1957.
The big news was introduction of a new super-luxurious premium model, thePark Lane, intended to compete with the Oldsmobile 98 and Buick Roadmaster. This new car had originally been the brain-child of the now disgraced Jack Reith, and would likely not have come to fruition had plans not been so far advanced they could not be practically cancelled. ThePark Lane came as a 2- or 4-door hardtop, (Phaeton Coupe or Phaeton Sedan in the parlance of the day), or a convertible. In addition to all the other accoutrements denoting its exceptional status, thePark Lane sat on a 125 inch wheelbase, 3 inches longer than other Mercury’s. As well, its total length was 220.2 inches versus 213.2 inches for the rest of the line-up – most of the extra length was in the trunk.
Promoted as possessing “sports car spirit with limousine ride” and “18 feet of quiet comfort”, the Park Lane had various other distinguishing stylistic characteristics to set it apart. The hardtop roof-line was of a unique wrap-around design including a larger rear window under a very severe roof overhang, complete with special chrome treatment for the C-Pillar. The projectile “coves” were retained from 1957 but the Park Lane’s were mildly flared, foreshadowing 1959’s design. While taillights shared the same delta shape with other Mercury’s, the Park Lane replaced the red running lights with clear back-up lenses.
I always thought this feature looked kind of “contrived” or “bolted on”, and found the regular treatment more visually pleasing. Chrome spears, (“outrigger flairlites” in the sales literature), were added to the concave projectile treatment, ending in a tubular red signal light to complement the delta shaped taillights. Each was accented with four consecutive chrome rings surrounding the body of each spear –Park Lane had five. To distinguish it further, winged fender ornaments sat atop its front fenders, and naturally, Park Lane’s interior manifestations were the most sumptuous and included a padded dash.
There was certainly no mistaking 1958’s Mercury was closely related to its 1957 predecessor. Styling changes were in fact quite modest. The two front bumper pods resembled jet aircraft intakes and now comprised the entire grille. The pods contained grille-like inserts consisting of a series of vertical bars, with parking and turn signals residing in the outboard ends. Rear bumper treatment copied the two pods and their inserts – the inserts could be replaced with chrome bordered and channeled red plastic reflectors at extra cost. The cabin roof was revamped and featured a narrower C-pillar with an aggressive rear window overhang and no rear vent windows – this whole set-up claimed to increase side vision and head room.
Quad headlights were standard fare on all models for the first time, but much more laid back and conventional than the previous year. The M-E-R-C-U-R-Y letters were deleted from the concave projectiles as was the free-standing package tray medallion. Montclair and Park Lane carried a series of small parallel chrome bars placed longitudinally near the rear edge of the hood, which remained hinged at the front.
Convertibles continued to carry the wrap around rear window, but the color accented top for the Montclair’s had been dropped. An interesting little quirk is all convertibles plus the Turnpike Cruisers, sported an instrument panel mounted rear view mirror, (a la Chrysler!).
Series identification was placed on the front fender between two parallel chrome strips that converged behind the front door, except for the Montclair and Voyager, where they ran the length of the car and met at the rear where they continued around as one strip to meet their counterpart from the other side. In all cases the area enclosed by the two strips became identified as a “side molding”. Again, Park Lane differs – the name, in gold script, appears on the C-Pillar. The convertible Park Lane instead displays this same script on the front fender. Chrome wheel opening trim and rocker panel moldings were available for all models. Other options include spare wheel carrier, (continental kit), Full Air Cushion Suspension, (deleted at mid-year), Speed Limit Safety Monitor, Climate Dial single unit heating and air conditioning, (forerunner of Climate Control?), and hooded outside rear view mirror. Cruiser skirts were dropped for 1958.
Interiors came in the latest hues highlighting special man-made fibres, weaves and vinyls all fabricated in a unified concert of color, form and style the most imaginative and talented designers of the era could envision. You certainly don’t see anything comparable in today’s cars. Was 1958 the real deal or are those stylistic adventures just gauche, dated relics of the past,
scorned by our now jaded sophistication? I don’t know but I can tell you when people sit in my 1958 Park Lane and run their fingers over the upholstery, their eyes kind of glaze over and they’re momentarily speechless as if transported to a different time and place. Then, when their senses return, they can’s stop talking about its taste and beauty. And these aren’t just fossils from my generation, they’re teenagers driving tuners and even my three-year old granddaughter, (I’m happy to report she’s as car crazy as I am and loves nothing better than sitting on my knee steering the Park Lane as we drive up and down the driveway). An interesting footnote is that I can find no evidence Mercury offered any leather upholstery at all for 1958, although Lincoln did.
You could order your new Mercury in one or a combination of 16 different exterior colors, many of them unique to Mercury and specially formulated for 1958. One could have a solid color, solid color with only the side molding a secondary color, two-tone, (roof and side molding a secondary color), or the return of Flo-Tone, (roof and body below the belt-line a secondary color). The side molding is painted the same color as the lower body.
Midway through the year an anodized aluminum appliqué could be ordered for the projectile scallop. These are quite rare.
For all the similarities to its 1957 forebear, there was lots new internally. The engine line-up for 1958 was completely revamped. A 383 cid V8 led things off and was standard for the Monterey, Montclair and all the wagons. This was one of the famous M-E-L engines so named because development took place under the collective auspices of the Mercury, Edsel and Lincoln Divisions,
although it was never actually installed in any Edsels or Lincolns. In any case, the engine incorporated a number of technological advances; the fuel pump was placed next to the distributor at the front of the engine which contained three separate thermostats to ensure different locations within the engine operated at optimal efficiency. The new powerplant carried a 4-bbl carburetor on the Monterey and Commuter, detuned to produce 312 bhp, The Montclair and rest of the wagons also had a 4-bbl carburetor, but developed 330 bhp. New this year as well, was a 430 cid monster, named the “Marauder”, (actually an over-bored Edsel E-475). It was the largest engine ever available in a Mercury. With a single 4-bbl carb it put out 360 bhp and was standard on the Park Lane, and optional on the Turnpike Cruiser, (as an aside it was also standard on Lincoln, and became optional on Thunderbird in 1959).
By mid-year the Marauder was available throughout the Mercury line, (except the economy no-name model mentioned below), as an extra-cost option. Finally, for those who wanted to be blasted into the back seat when they stepped on the accelerator, there was the dealer-installed “Super Marauder” with 3X2 bbl carburetion and 400 bhp. Despite what you may have heard or read this option was only ever available to Mercury; although the entire model line-up could order it as an option. They were very rare even when new and today, you might see an air cleaner on eBay very occasionally, but they go for $2,000+.
Self-adjusting brakes were also introduced this year, and were celebrated as one of 1958’s major safety innovations. To compensate for brake wear the new brakes adjusted themselves whenever they were applied with the car rolling in reverse.
The base Monterey and Commuter transmission offering was a three-speed manual, but for $189 you could get the optional Touch-o-Matic overdrive giving you four forward gears. Optional in these two models and standard on the Montclair, Voyager and ColonyPark was the 3-speed Merc-o-Matic automatic, activated by the still popular keyboard control. Multi-Drive was a new automatic transmission feature introduced this year. Reportedly you had a choice of “High Performance” motoring or just plain highway “Cruising”. The former was for mopping the floor with Chevy-driving teenagers, the latter for situations where you had a little less
traction such as ice or gravel or wished a more sedate driving experience. In truth the only difference was that in the “High Performance” range you started out in first gear; in “Cruising” range you took off in second. The Cruising Range also prevented the car rolling backward on an incline when the car was in gear with the engine running. In addition there were buttons for “Hill Control” (low), Reverse, Start/Neutral and Parking Brake Release.
Multi-Drive was standard on Park Lane and optional on all other automatic-equipped models.
The recession really took hold in August, 1957 just before the 1958 cars debuted. Sales for the Big M were considered disastrous in 1957, but went into a further tailspin just after the 1958 introduction.
James Nance reacted by announcing two new low priced cars at that year’s January Chicago auto show – a 2-door sedan and a 4-door sedan. These new models were reminiscent of the Medalist from 1956, but that name was never actually used in public – they were always referred to only by their body codes – 64B and 58C respectively.
These no-name cars used dog dish hubcaps, limited brightwork and chrome, painted rather than imitation hardtop door frames, bolted on rather than fared in arm rests, and recycled and left-over vinyl and fabric for upholstery. The 1957 312 cid engine rated at 245 bhp was resurrected from retirement for this project; although it was the first time since 1953 a Mercury had departed the factory with a 2-bbl carburetor.
The standard transmission was the base offering with automatic optional, but this was the only Mercury for 1958 with the automatic transmission selector as a stalk on the steering column.
Where the model name usually appeared on the front fender, these cars displayed “Mercury” script borrowed from the wagons’ tailgate. Advertising was very limited and these models weren’t even offered in Canada, but even so still accounted for 14% of the year’s sales for Mercury. Priced at $2,617, the economy 58C represented a savings of $104 over the comparableMonterey.
Prices had increased around 2.5% across the rest of the model spectrum, primarily because of the larger and more costly engines offered, unfortunately contributing to sales woes just when the buying public was looking for economy.
Another cash flow problem arose when the newly frugal public began turning their back on money-making options such as windshield washers, radios and dual exhaust.
In January, 1958 Mercury, Edsel and Lincoln operations were merged into a new M-E-L Division under Nance, thus increasing his responsibilities and span of control.
Nearing the end of the 1958 model year, rumors were again afoot, predicting the Big M’s imminent demise. The marque had suffered its lowest production year since 1947 and market share sat at a dismal 3.03%. To the Ford bigwigs, somebody had to take the blame. Nance became the fall guy and followed his predecessor onto the unemployment line. He was fired while on summer vacation and was succeeded by Ben D. Mills, Nance’s assistant and a previous head of the Lincoln Division. In accepting the job Mills insisted on at least five years to turn the Division around. Henry Ford II agreed.