Every decade has its own characteristics and reasons why it’s remembered, but perhaps none are as fondly recalled as the “Fabulous Fifties” – especially by the Boomers. To perpetuate a moth-eaten, banal cliché, life seemed more uncomplicated, more congenial. Perhaps that’s because psychologists tell us we tend to remember positive experiences more vividly – does this mean our memories are all a grand illusion?
Or perhaps on a more mundane level it’s because we could escape the telephone once in awhile – we didn’t suffer from information overload – we didn’t have to interact with the world through a handy portable electronic device we hadn’t a clue how to use properly. We weren’t “available” 24-7. We actually knew how to set up and run our own TV’s – even right down to erecting a massive antenna on the roof. Do you remember your dad up on the roof shouting “Now … now …?” as he slowly turned the contraption to find the sweet spot for TV reception – your job was to stand in the front door, watching the screen and answering back, “A bit more … bit more … There!!!”
Never mind the station only broadcast from 6PM to 11PM each day – we thought it was a miracle. Some fortunate folk actually had color TV which consisted of a square of cellophane overlaid on the picture tube: the top third was blue, the middle third red and the bottom third green and … Voila!!
At any rate, the “Fifties were drawing to a close, although I don’t think they metaphorically ended until November, 1963 with the tragic assassination of President Kennedy. In February, 1964, the fate of the “Fifties” was sealed when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and changed the North American pop music scene forever. Fallen from favor were the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Fabian and all their contemporaries, along with the music and innocence they represented. Sure, they were still around but none would ever regain any measure of the success they once enjoyed.
Back in 1959, the emerging career of rock star Buddy Holly was snuffed out the early morning of February 3, when he was killed in a heartbreaking small plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, along with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Perhaps their death symbolically foretold the end of the decade.
In January, 1959 Fidel Castro’s rebel army overthrew the Batista regime in Cuba. In the beginning Castro promised to restore suspended civil rights, heal Cuba’s economy, refurbish its democracy, and oppose dictatorship in Latin America. It didn’t take long for his true inclinations to emerge and all his noble pledges were forgotten. North Viet Nam invaded Laos with a guerilla army in August, finally announcing in a very graphic way, Ho Chi Minh’s intention to ignore the Indochina Peace Treaty of 1954.
Thus began the bitter Viet Nam War which didn’t end until 1973. Communism was spreading its evil tentacles. For those who didn’t live through the era it’s hard to imagine how much the Cold War preoccupied and defined our lives. It was much more than paranoid McCarthyite excesses although Hollywood would have us believe otherwise. We perceived the Soviet Union as a clear and present danger, and the USA as the solitary bulwark that stood between us and a life spent goose-stepping up and down Main Street singing the “Internationale”.
Over at Ford, Ben Mills had taken over as executive in charge of the Mercury Edsel Lincoln Division in the fall of 1958. He was forced to operate with a severely restricted budget, and all three brands were suffering with dismal sales figures. Lincoln’s design plans were cast in bronze right up to the planned introduction of a new styling and technological concept in 1961. The writing was clearly on the wall for Edsel – its imminent demise was an open secret. Mercury’s plans for the next two years were also pretty solid. Circumstances strictly curtailed Mills’ opportunities for exercising any real fiscal magic.
On November 14, 1958 Mercury’s 20th Anniversary offerings were announced. The Big M continued to enjoy its own body shell, not being forced to share with its stable mates, and thereby enjoyed a distinction not available to competing makes in its price class. This factor generated some dubious highbrow bragging rights, but was more than compensated for by increased tooling and engineering costs.
A total of 16 models were available, 6 fewer than the previous year. Gone were the low-end no-name sedans, (which incidentally had accounted for 14% of Mercury’s sales despite their mid-year introduction). Monterey was now the price leader, and offered a complete line of body styles – 2- and 4-door sedans, 2- and 4-door hardtops and a convertible. All hardtops were badged as “Cruiser” – the “Phaeton” designation was dropped for 1959. Next up was Montclair carrying a 4-door sedan and 2- and 4-door hardtops. Station wagons still played a major part in Mercury’s 1959 plans, although the variety was scaled back. All had pillarless hardtop
styling and wore a “Country Cruiser” designation. The Commuter bore equivalent trim to Monterey and came as a 2-door six passenger wagon or as a 4-door 9 passenger model. Voyager and ColonyPark both came equipped like a Montclair and were offered only as 4-door 9 passenger cars. Colony Park was the premier wagon, and sported faux walnut grained side panels trimmed with ash, (although it was really fiberglass).
Introduced as the top of the line series in 1958, Park Lane returned for 1959 although there had been some discussion about dropping it to save costs. Development costs were already sunk so would have been a total loss if the line failed to go ahead. The decision was made to continue for these reasons as well as to avoid the negative publicity flowing from cancellation. It could be purchased as a 2- or 4-door Cruiser hardtop or as a convertible.
Monterey and Montclair as well as all the wagons sat on a 126 inch wheelbase and measured out to a total length of 217.8 inches, (the wagons were slightly longer with a total length of 218.2 inches). Sedans and hardtops were 55.8 inches in height with wagons 2 inches more to provide greater headroom. Park Lane mounted a 128 inch wheelbase and was 223 inches from end-to-end – most of the extra length was in the trunk. They were also slightly taller than regular Cruisers. These were the BIGGEST Mercury’s ever made, (almost 3 inches longer than their 1958 counterparts – most of this extra length is in the cabin), and today are among the rarest.
If I had to describe the looks of the ’59 Mercs, I would say they were more subdued versions of their immediate predecessors, although larger in every way. Their shape is less angular and geometric; the lines seem to flow more aerodynamically. Sitting in the drivers’ seat is an exhilarating experience. The instrument panel is mounted in a pod protruding from the rest of the dash (padded) which almost seems to fall directly away from the bottom of the windshield. In addition to being 60% larger than the previous year and the largest ever installed in an American production car, the huge windshield is raked another 9 degrees, allowing much more leg and knee room and heightening the impression of spaciousness.
The speedometer is of the red ribbon variety, progressing across its face as speed increases. Gauges are provided for temperature and fuel, along with warning lights for oil pressure and generator problems. Controls for heating and air conditioning as well as power seats are located in the instrument cluster, right and left of the steering wheel respectively. Power window controls, (and power station wagon tail gate controls), are grouped on the dash pad to the left of the driver below the A-pillar.
The huge windshield wraps around from the sides and over the top into the roof. The overall impression is sort of like sitting in a bubble, looking out over the vast hood in front of you – 2 ½ inches lower than the previous year – the overall effect is quite pleasing. Consumers Report felt it incumbent to observe the large windshield let in an inordinate amount of light and therefore heat. Everyone else liked it. The Cruisers had an equally large semi-fastback styled rear windshield, 46% larger than its 1958 equivalent, and presumably prone to the same heat and light problem. Sedans cured this with thin C-Pillars supporting an
extremely exaggerated overhang protecting the rear backlight from the sun’s direct ray – I think this was the year’s one major styling failure. If you use your imagination I suppose you could see an evolution of the 1958 Park Lane rear windshield treatment, but to me it looks quite ungainly, especially in comparison to the elegance of the Cruisers. General Motors did this much more effectively with the “flat top” look for their 4-door hardtops.
Models differ only superficially, becoming slightly more ostentatious as you move up the price and prestige ladder. A quad headlight arrangement was retained – this was the last year headlights sat atop outboard ends of the grille, rather than being incorporated into the grille itself. The grille comprises four rows of small, open stylized rectangles, raked forward, giving a horizontal theme and emphasizing the car’s width.
A substantial bumper sits below the grille, and houses rectangular running/turn signal lights. A small lip runs around the top of the bumper with a hump in the middle for the license plate. This was the first year since 1951 in which the grille and bumper were not integral units.
The concave rocket shaped scallops outlined by chrome moldings continued to highlight the car’s side treatment, but were much more pronounced and flared this year, starting directly beneath the A-Pillars. These side projectiles were further decorated with three vertical chrome bands near the tail light end for the Monterey, four bands for the Montclair, and a stylized chrome rocket for the Park Lane.
The Park Lane also displayed a brushed aluminum panel in front of the front wheel wells, a large ridged chrome panel covering the quarter panels and chrome moldings surrounding the wheel well lips and covering the outward offset rocker panels. The chrome molding for the rear wheel wells carries on and provides an upper border for the quarter panel molding. In addition, Park Lane has chrome sail panels integrated into the C-Pillar on the 4-door Cruisers, and a chrome strip molding originating at the top of the C-Pillar and following the roof contour around to the windshield. The backlight is separated from the rear deck by a chrome molding, versus the previous two years when the package shelf seemed to flow uninterrupted into the rear cowl.
The series name appears on the front fenders; Monterey and Montclair and all the wagons have single centre hood ornaments while Park Lane has two fender mounted gunsite ornaments. Monterey and Montclair exhibit a toned down version of the chrome fender flash in front of the wheel wells.
As with the two prior years the hood is hinged at the front and this was also the last year the hood had a frontal vertical aspect – a major design evolution. Fifties styling was well and truly ending. Individual chrome letters ran across the front of the hood, spelling MERCURY, above a chrome molding accenting the hood’s leading edge.
At the rear, delta shaped taillights continued from previous incarnations, but were much more exaggerated for 1959.
Chrome surrounds for the taillights were the extension of the moldings outlining the concave projectile coves. Reflectors were perched on the outboard edges of the taillights in a less flamboyment rendition of the “outrigger” lights from 1958. The rear bumper mirrored the front, but a further chrome molding creates an enclosure above the bumper, painted body color in Monterey and Montclair, but covered by a chrome panel decorated with a black cross-hatch pattern in the Park Lane. The outboard ends of this enclosure house the back-up lights. You could order additional lights and reflectors placed in two pods integral with the back-up lights in the foregoing enclosure as an optional extra cost item. In truth these look like sets of Edsel tail lights bolted on as an after thought. Remember those 3-in-1 AMT and Jo-Han model car kits from the same era? They came with an assortment of extra lights, decals and add-ons so you could customize the model to suit your own artistic inclinations. Prevailing wisdom dictated that you hadn’t done a proper job unless you used every part in the kit – the same sort of mind-set seems to apply here – more equals better.
All models used identical, stylish finned wheel covers and came with 14 inch wheels – somewhat unusual for a car of this size.
Under the hood, things remained mostly unchanged from the previous year. Mercury’s advertising boasted that each engine and transmission mating was especially and specifically engineered to what owners of its various models would need and want. This is the polite way of saying, ”more money buys more power”.
The 312 cid, 210 horsepower “Y-block” originally resurrected from 1956 to power the entry-level no-name cars for 1958 continued as the engine standard on the Monterey.
This was married to a three speed manual transmission to complete the base power train. A three speed automatic was available at extra cost, (you had your choice of a regular Merco-o-Matic or Multi-range Merc-o-Matic which allowed you to choose whether to start in first or second gear). Touch-o-Matic overdrive was dropped for 1959 as was Keyboard push button automatic transmission selection – the gear selector was now a more conventional lever on the steering wheel shaft.
If the 312 didn’t provide enough oomph to satisfy your Monterey, you could order the 383 cid “M-E-L” V8 rated at 280 horsepower and 400 ft lbs of torque. This could also be combined with the three speed standard, the two position Merc-o-Matic or the three position Multi-Drive Merc-o-Matic; the latter two at extra cost. This engine was standard on the Commuter wagon, with either of the two automatics, the Multi-Drive being an extra cost option.
Standard on the Montclair, Voyager and Colony Park was a 322 horsepower version of the “383” producing 420 ft lbs of torque. The increase came as a result of fitting a 4-bbl carburetor. The base price included a two position Merc-o-Matic as standard with Multi Drive available. This engine was another possible extra-cost option for the Monterey and Commuter.
Finally, the 345 horsepower, 430 cid Marauder behemoth was exclusive to the Park Lane where it was standard. The Marauder could not be ordered for any other model, even as an option, although it was shared with both Thunderbird and Lincoln. Note that all engines carried over from 1958 were detuned to produce incrementally lower horsepower ratings for 1959 thanks mainly to installation of 2-bbl carburetors and a reduction in compression. The horsepower race, if not dead, was at least slowing down – in this vein, the fire-breathing Super Marauder was dropped. One obvious result was a marked improvement in gas mileage – 12 mpg in the city, 15 mpg on the highway for a Montclair 383 – these were actually pretty impressive statistics for 1959.
One of the most significant criticisms of Mercury for 1957-58 concerned body integrity – the cars shook and complained noisily when subjected to any degree of washboard. The automotive press waxed eloquent over their delight in the new Merc’s roadability, control and ride. Its behavior and handling were always stable, predictable and forgiving. You likely wouldn’t win the Le Mans with it, but then you weren’t supposed to.
Advertising economies were carried over from 1958; there were once again only two basic brochures, although new this year was the “New Car Buyers Guide”. This booklet made direct point-by-point comparisons with Mercury’s main competitors such as Buick Lesabre, Oldsmobile 88, Dodge Coronet and Pontiac Catalina. Where Mercury proved more expensive, the additional cost was fully explained and justified. This sort of information had been produced in earlier years but had ordinarily only been available to sales people to assist in persuading potential buyers.
You could purchase your new Mercury in one of a total of 16 colors, many of which could be combined to create one of three two-tone schemes, (the Flo-Tone arrangement had been dropped for 1959). The first consisted of a main body color and a complementary roof shade for a total of 56 possible combinations. The second configuration had the roof and projectile scallop the same color with the rest of the body another. Style #3 had the roof and body one color and the projectile scallop a different but complementary color. Interestingly, none of the advertising shows two-tone designs as in 2 & 3 foregoing.
Mercury continued to profess great pride in the sumptuous magnificence of its interiors. Reality was a bit less majestic. While still quite imposing in the top models, the cost cutter’s influence was nonetheless in evidence. Gone were the imaginative and luxuriant patterns of 1957 and 1958. Monterey interior treatments were decidedly homely and hardly fitting for an automobile with Mercury’s aspirations. To make luxury claims for these frumpy lowbrow offerings was a bit much to expect the motoring public to happily embrace.
The interiors I’ve seen are mostly drab shades of gray or brown, with the odd green or blue example. On the other hand the Monterey accounted for almost 60% of the Big M’s sales, so apparently buyers were in fact willing to countenance this sartorial modesty. Utilitarian seats were comprised of vinyl bolsters and simple woven cloth inserts. Door panel patterns were embossed rather than stitched, and armrests were simple bolt-ons. Advertising claimed this was “Luxury without opulence …”, perhaps the understatement of the year.
Montclair upholstery was of considerably increased splendor. It came with vinyl bolsters in two complementary colors and designs, stitched in a more imaginative and engaging pattern. Inserts were of a “Box Weave” nylon cloth interlaced with silver thread. Door panels were of vinyl in contrasting patterns embossed with chrome “mylar” cloth. Armrests were still bolted on, but sat in chrome supports.
Park Lane interiors were really very attractive, consisting of vinyl bolsters horizontally embossed and nylon weave “Rose Cloth” inserts. In this context “Rose” refers to the pattern, not the color. Both front and rear seat backs had four large decorative buttons and fold down upholstered armrests. Door panels sported chrome moldings separating differently patterned and embossed vinyl patterns. Armrests were still bolted on, but in addition to chrome supports the padded portion was sheathed in vinyl in which several rows of small chrome “points” were embedded. This is an interesting and agreeable effect but unusual in that the theme thus established is not repeated elsewhere – it looks sort of lonely and out of place. But never mind, in the late Fifties excess equals elegance and did not need to be explained or justified. Steering wheels were 3-spoke with 270 degree horn ring.
Commuter station wagon interiors were roughly equivalent to the Monterey’s except seat inserts were of “Strata-Cloth”. You could also order a more practical all-vinyl interior in red and white or black and white, at extra cost. Padded dash facings and glove box door were painted body color in Monterey and Voyager but in the upscale series were encased in a ridged chrome panel displaying the MERCURY name in script. Where the owner had added the optional clock,
it was located at the far right of the dash, flush with the face. The radio was in the dash immediately to the right of the instrument cluster and exhibited avant garde vertical push buttons and dial display – in this case novelty equals elegance. Location of the ashtray was another complaint voiced by Consumers Report – it’s too far away from the driver to be practical. Of course everybody knows that’s what the vent window is for – don’t these people know anything?
Voyager and Colony Park shared Montclair’s upholstery materials, but in a different pattern. Oddly, none of the station wagons offered 9-passenger seating as standard, but it was available as an option in 4-door versions. The third row of seats faced forward and were accessed by folding forward the second row of seats, (like getting into the back seat of a 2-door hardtop). When not in use, these seats folded into the luggage compartment floor.
Monterey and Park Line convertibles came with all vinyl interiors assembled in more or less the same designs as closed cabin models. Convertible tops were still of the “wrap around” rear window configuration and could be had in black, white, medium blue, turquoise or gold.
Then as now, the sale of extra-cost options played a significant role in profitability. Besides upgraded engine and transmission, the list includes heater/defroster ($91.40), air conditioner, two-tone paint ($17.20), whitewall tires ($41.00), 4-Way Power Seat ($77.40), Seat-o-Matic ($104.35), Power Brakes ($43.75), Power Steering ($107.50), Power Windows ($107.50), Power Tail-gate, Safety Monitor (warns if a pre-set speed is exceeded), Remote Outside Mirror, AM Radio and Clock.
Other laudable features were the double panel construction in doors, hood and trunk lid, strengthened roof architecture and a shallower transmission hump. This latter was no accident but was actually intentionally engineered this way to give the centre passenger more leg room and a softer seat cushion, (you were not sitting directly on the driveline hump covered by only a thin sheet of vinyl), by moving the engine and transmission forward and altering the driveshaft tilt. Unfortunately these attributes didn’t impart much in the way of bragging rights or neighborhood envy and so couldn’t be considered salient selling factors, (“ … say Harry, my transmission hump’s only 8 inches high! What’s yours?”).
By 1959 the economy had largely recovered from the “Eisenhower Recession”, and it showed in the sales successes enjoyed by many makes. Pontiac was the big winner with a production increase of 76.4%, while Buick and Dodge gained 17.9% and 13.4% respectively. Mercury was up 12.3% over 1958, but its share of the overall market had slipped to a heartbreaking 2.8% versus 3% for the prior year. It managed to cling to ninth spot, but only just – the much more expensive Cadillac was gaining fast.
Unfortunately Mercury had placed dead last in the “owner loyalty” pecking order for the 1958 model year. Was it poor quality control and a troublesome reputation? Pontiac was known for brake and electrical issues, the Buick Dynaflow was a nightmare and Dodge had problems with its push-button automatic and assembly line quality. Was it size and was the buying public still looking for small cars? Perhaps, but if that’s the trouble the Big M’s main competitors should all suffer from the same dilemma. Interestingly, Consumer Reports rated Pontiac below equivalent Mercury models in 1958 – their main issue was with body shake on rough roads and this had been largely cured by 1959.
The Mercury driver had no reason to be apologetic. With the possible exceptions of dowdy Monterey interiors and the exorbitantly overwrought sedan roofline, this was a handsome, powerful automobile. How to account for its painful underachievement? It’s a good thing Ben Mills had a five year commitment, but in all honesty for the first two years of his tenure all he could realistically accomplish was to tinker around the edges of the problem.