In 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act authorized construction of 41,000 miles of new super-highway, thus making it a lot easier to quickly get to places a lot farther afield than had to this point been possible. The accessibility of the automobile made development of suburbia possible, and gave birth to the daily commute, a phenomenon we continue to enjoy today.
The new turnpikes engendered the almost astronomic expansion of facilities in which travelers could eat and sleep. Such well known names as Holiday Inn and McDonald’s appeared and proliferated. Former milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc bought out California restaurateurs Dick and Maurice McDonald and thereby transformed the whole dining out experience.
Of course the meteoric rise of the car had many other profound but less salutary societal effects which couldn’t have been foreseen. Air pollution and the decline of the railway are two. During the decade of the 50’s, traffic accidents killed more Americans than died in World War II. As we shall see, safety features weren’t at all a significant factor in the public’s buying decision.
Although having recorded several rockabilly pieces at the famous Sun Recording Studios in Memphis, Elvis Presley first hits the charts on February 26 with “Hound Dog” which would soon become the number 4 song for the year.
Elvis would eventually go on to warble 6 of the year’s top 25 songs. His scandalous hips are best remembered for their appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in September, but they actually first mortified audiences on the “Milton Berle Show” in June.
A number of other Sun Studios country songsters followed him on to the charts and became rock stars in their own right – Carl Perkins, (originator of “Blue Suede Shoes”), Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison to name a few.
Meanwhile, black artists continued to compete with white singers covering their work. Little Richard was starting to outshine Pat Boone, and Fats Domino, Frankie Lymon, Mickey & Sylvia, ( I still think Sylvia was the most beautiful early rocker),
Ivory Joe Hunter, and LaVerne Baker all placed songs in the top 20 during the year. The color barrier was finally starting to crumble. The #1 song for the year, “Singin’ the Blues”, came courtesy of Guy Mitchell, a Mitch Miller protégé – white singers didn’t need to give up quite yet. It went on to become the top song of the decade and some sources say it was the top single of all time. Personally, I think Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” still takes that one.
The Soviet Union of course didn’t remain silent during 1956. They held their 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February, during which Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced the excesses of the Stalinist era and indeed condemned the veneration of Stalin as a “cult of personality”. Stalin’s embalmed corpse was accordingly removed from its display case in Red Square and buried. Ensuing riots in Stalin’s home republic of Georgia were brutally suppressed by the Red Army.
Vyacheslav Molotov, (of cocktail fame) had been the on-again, off-again Premier of the USSR since the 30’s and by 1956 was Foreign Minister. His devotion to Stalin and his part in a bungled attempt to oust Khrushchev led to a fall from favor
– he was sent to Mongolia as ambassador – he’s lucky that’s all that happened. Molotov died in his bed at the ripe old age of 96, which is a lot more than can be said of most of Stalin’s contemporaries.
In what became known as the “Hungarian Revolution”, Hungary attempted to leave the Warsaw Pact in October and was invaded by Russia for its efforts. Without Western support the end game was inevitable and the Hungarians surrendered after less than a month, leaving thousands dead and injured. Another quarter million fled the country.
Shortly after becoming President of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized theSuez Canal and promptly blocked it to traffic. In response Israel invaded the Sinai and pushed Egyptian troops back to the Suez while France and the UK commenced a bombing campaign to force the Canal’s re-opening. Under pressure from the UN, the USA and the Soviet Union the invaders withdrew, but not before Britain went under petrol rationing and Egypt became a Soviet client state.
In the world of sport the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series – Yankee pitcher Don Larsen threw the first and only perfect game in World Series history.
Norma Jean Mortenson changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and married playwright Arthur Miller. Grace Kelly gave up her movie career to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. Washington state was so taken by the event, they renamed their highest mountain peak, (although to this day pronouncing Mt. Rainier incorrectly).
When Ford reminisces about 1956, it will be remembered as the year they tried to sell safety and found the public wasn’t interested. As well, this was the year Ford became a public company and its stock first traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Mercury’s 1956 offerings debuting on September 25, 1955, basically embodied a minor facelift from the previous year. Since 1955 had already incorporated sweeping changes and was the most successful sales year in Mercury history, more major change was obviously not in the cards. Another factor mitigating against messing with success was that 1956 was Mercury’s first year of operation as a separate Division, headed by Jack Reith.
All three models from 1955 returned, plus one new low-cost addition. Buyers could choose from 15 colors barring some model restrictions, with which 60 two-tone combinations including 28 Flo-tone applications could be created.
Your new Merc’s conventional two-tone scheme was the roof one color and the rest of the car another – you could also get your new car one boring single color, but I can’t recall ever seeing one. In 1956 two-tone was all the rage. Flo-tone paint schemes were introduced amid much fanfare as an extra cost option, consisting of a two-tone application in which the roof and body below a lightning flash chrome molding running the length of the car, were one color while the upper body, hood and trunk lid were another. Montclair’s saddle trim was always painted the roof color.
The “lower silhouette” introduced on the Montclair in 1955 was now extended to all 2-door hardtops and 4-door phaetons. These cars were 58.6 and 58.8 inches tall, respectively; while other sedans stood at 60.8 inches. All passenger cars sat on a 119 inch wheelbase and were 206 inches in overall length. These low silhouette Mercs really radiated attitude, which of course readily transferred to the driver. Let’s not forget that while he was killed in a Porsche, the car most identified with James Dean was a Mercury.
The side trim wrapped around the front of the car forming a chrome molding covering the hood lip, interrupted only by a small medallion near the headlights. The lightning bolt’s single “jag” formed a horizontally ribbed cap for the leading edge of the rear fender bulge, retained from 1955. Series name was displayed on the front fenders in script. A stylized gold colored “Big ‘M'” incorporating a Mercury head replaced 1955’s plastic “coat of arms” ornament in the middle of the hood fascia.
An essentially unchanged jet plane hood ornament returned. MERCURY was stamped in black capitals into the rear bumper while it showed up on the front bumper in raised caps; the grille and bumper were little changed except the bullet shaped “Dagmar” bumper guards were replaced by more practical and muted versions, and the fretwork on the upper grille was of a finer texture.
Taillights looked similar to those from the previous year – although they were slightly modified and displayed heavier chrome trim, you’d almost need two years’ examples side by side to notice the difference. Other than a redesigned rectangular winged emblem and the taillights, the rear end remained basically unchanged.
All the 1955 series returned for 1956, plus one new edition – the Medalist. This was a bare bones car which attempted to make the jump from Ford to Mercury even more financially manageable and represented Mercury’s first full-on assault on the high volume lower price range – at the time it was the lowest cost Mercury ever offered. At the beginning of the year it came only as a 2-door sedan subset of the Custom series, without bumper guards, and significantly toned down side trim and moldings.
It could be ordered in only single colors. Hubcaps were resurrected from 1952. On February 1, three more models were added to the Medalist line – a 4-door sedan and 2- and 4-door hardtops. At the same time the line received the full lightning flash side treatment, (like that on the Custom), including the Flo-tone paint option, and was promoted to become its own series.
Custom offered 2- and 4-door sedans, a 2-door hardtop, a convertible and two 4-door station wagons. The latter came in 6 or 8 passenger versions. On January 2, 1956 Custom introduced a 4-door hardtop called a “Phaeton”, and which was so designated on the sail panels in gold script. A phaeton was originally a large open touring car with a folding roof, but Mercury liked the word’s classic “feel” and so employed it to mean a 4-door hardtop.
At the same time the former 8 passenger capacity wagons were formally increased to 9 passenger. It’s not clear whether this was just a new description for the same car, or whether the third seat had been rejigged, or whether passengers had to be downsized or what exactly was the reason for this happy occurrence. A two-tone paint treatment of sorts was available for Custom wagons – side and tailgate window frames could be had in a contrasting shade. Late in the year Mercury began calling these low-priced wagons Custom Commuter.
Monterey models included a 2-door hardtop, a station wagon and two 4-door sedans. One sedan was the conventional style while the second was the sportier low profile edition first introduced in 1955. Chrome side moldings were more prominent on the Monterey. In January a 4-door hardtop Monterey Phaeton debuted and the flashier 4-door sedan was dropped, having served its purpose. The Monterey wagon still wore the faux wood paneling and trim including the side window frames and tailgate – rear quarter windows “slid” open for rear ventilation. As the year wore on, Mercury decided to start calling these cars Monterey Voyager.
Wagons were decidedly “boxy” looking as designers tried to compromise Merc’s styling cues with station wagon lines in a “sedan-type” format. The result was not an unqualified success. So much for shortcomings. Wagons made up for their homeliness with better than average load capacity, excellent performance with the more powerful engine option, good handling and riding attributes, (although a higher centre of gravity somewhat detracted), luxurious upholstery and interior fittings and more prestige. At the time, trade-in value was considered higher than average. The tailgate assembly still opened like horizontal double doors, into a lift gate and transom arrangement, making for lots of bumped heads, banged knees and new words for the kids to enjoy. This was finally cured with the 1957 models, but the kids continued to enjoy the cool additions to their vocabulary.
Montclair continued as Mercury’s top line and consisted of a 2-door hardtop, convertible and the dressed up version of the 4-door sedan which was deleted when the new 4-door hardtop Phaeton came on stage. Montclair kept the belt line saddle trim strip under the side windows.
Monterey and Montclair interiors were truly luxurious examples of the upholsterer’s art. Crafted from sumptuous cloths and leather-like vinyl, the interiors were colorful, luxurious and practical. Custom employed a less posh choice of materials, but stayed with the same design format. Convertibles, station wagons and some 2-door hardtops could be ordered with all-vinyl interiors in various stitching and embossing patterns but remaining true to the overall styling template. Medalist interiors came only in all-vinyl shades of grey, and indeed used left over material from prior years.
Speaking of luxury, Packard closed its Detroit manufacturing plant in 1956, and the engineers thus left unemployed made a mass exodus to Mercury, a factor which would leave an indelible legacy for years to come.
The instrument panel bore the same fan-shaped design as 1955, but was somewhat simplified with chrome applied in a more aesthetically pleasing layout. Gauges for oil pressure and generator replaced “idiot lights”. Instrument panel knobs were redesigned, the radio speaker grille was reworked, and the series name in script was added to the glove box door. A special white “platinum” steering wheel with a 360 degree horn ring was optionally available. Other convenience options include power steering, brakes, seats and windows,
multi luber power lubrication, tinted windows, white sidewalls, a heater-defroster unit and air conditioning, all of which were starting to increase in popularity. The public was losing interest in the standard transmission overdrive option – somewhat curious as it’s final drive ratio was 0.72:1, theoretically affording a higher top speed.
For 1956, Ford promoted several new safety features, just in case anyone was interested. These included concave cone-shaped energy absorbing steering wheels to prevent anyone becoming squashed by the hub, padded dash and sun visors, improved door locking mechanisms and a shatter-proof rear view mirror. Additionally, both seats and seat cushions were more securely anchored. Seat belts had been introduced in 1955 and continued to be available in 1956, at no extra cost. I remember my grandfather remarking that it was a well known fact a seat belt would tear you in two in a collision, and who wants that? Mind you, this is the same fellow who solemnly pronounced mag wheels were impractical because they let too much dirt into the brake drums. He drove a pink Rambler
so I came to suspect he’d taken many Consumer Reports too seriously. I learned it’s not a good idea to listen to those who portray themselves as experts when they actually know nothing – if you repeat wisdom so received, your personal credibility takes a serious hit. As it turned out few buyers were in fact motivated by safety features, (excepting Consumer Reports of course). What they really wanted was style and power. Mercury delivered in both departments.
Consumers’ Reports sniffed condescendingly at Mercury’s attempts to improve the car’s safety profile. Instead of commenting favorably on those steps actually taken, these guardians of public welfare searched ever farther afield for issues about which to complain – sometimes even crossing the line into unintentioned humor. They noted that rear seat interior door handles were positioned such that a passenger’s knee could accidentally open the door. Further, the hood ornament seemed designed to impale pedestrians unfortunate enough to be run over. I have never actually heard of either calamitous occurrence. I would venture to suggest that any strollers hapless enough to collide with a moving vehicle would likely have more to worry about than the shape of the hood ornament.
Mercurys came powered by one of three new “Safety Surge” versions of the old 292 cid V8, bored and stroked to 312 cid. All carried the same new and improved 4-bbl carburetor – horsepower differences were achieved by varying compression ratios. The basic engine delivered 210 horsepower with an 8.1:1 compression ratio, through a three speed manual with or without Touch-o-matic overdrive. Increasing the compression ratio to 8.4:1 yielded 215 horsepower – this was the standard engine for those ordering the Merc-o-matic automatic transmission, and delivered around 17 miles per gallon at highway speeds.
As long as you ordered the automatic, you could team it up with the 225 horsepower, 9.0:1 compression version at additional cost. The Merc-o-matic could be forced to kick down one gear for faster starts or greater passing acceleration, simply by “flooring it”!
Dual exhaust helped ensure all this horsepower reached the rear wheels efficiently and was standard on Montclairs, Montereys and the Custom wagons and convertible. It was optional on all other models. In the spring of 1956, the M-260 was released. It was a dealer installed option created by Bill Stroppe of stock car racing fame, and consisted of a 2 x 4 bbl carburetor arrangement available to the 225 horsepower motor, as well as a 9.75:1 compression ratio and high-lift cam. It delivered 260 horsepower and was responsible for Mercury taking five Grand National trophies in NASCAR competition. This year saw the introduction of 12-volt electrical systems and electric fuel pumps as standard.
The 1955 Merc already had a reputation as a well-mannered road car, so its springs, shocks and other suspension geometry including steering were little changed. Where it did markedly outperform its ancestors was in brute performance, yet the suspension was more than capable of handling all this new power.
All manufacturers suffered sales declines following the record year in 1955. Ford Motor Company endured the smallest loss, only 1.0% versus 14.4% for General Motors and 15.6% for Chrysler. At 328,943 units, Mercury sales were off only 1,865 vehicles, (0.2%) from 1955, so the Big M continued to hold up its end. Mercury held on to seventh place and while Monterey was the most popular series, the Montclair 2-dr hardtop was the best selling individual model. Rumors of an entirely new Mercury for 1957 probably affected sales a bit – hints of what was in store were provided by a spectacular show car touring the nation – the XM Turnpike Cruiser.
As mentioned earlier, during 1956 the Eisenhower administration announced its intention to sponsor and pay for 90% of a new 41,000 mile interstate super-highway system. Manufacturers, ever-vigilant guardians of the motoring public’s safety, felt that cars of the day, designed for city driving, would not be safe travelling all day at highway speeds. Mercury’s answer to this challenge was the XM Turnpike Cruiser. It truly was awe-inspiring and made contemporary cars appear instantly obsolete.
Whether this was a cynical advertising stunt or a genuine effort to take the automobile to another conceptual level – who can say? The show car did incorporate several safety enhancements. First, the driver was offered a 360 degree field of vision – no blind spots when changing lanes or passing. Next, the Cruiser had huge delta shaped taillights so there’d be no problem seeing it in reduced visibility situations. As well, turn signal lights were moved up to pods in the rear corners of the roof to be more readily noted and heeded by other traffic. This actually offered a solution to a real problem. Academic studies later showed signal lights down low were sometimes visible only with difficulty – the 1961 Dodge Dart is a primary example where styling considerations got in the way of practicality.
The Turnpike Cruisers’ low height at 52 inches and extreme width at 77 inches provided excellent high speed stability, however it also made it difficult to enter and exit. To compensate, the car had “butterfly windows” in the roof that raised up when the door was opened. Voila! The interior provided four individual bucket seats contoured for comfort, including individual ashtrays and cigarette lighters. Talk about modern! Fortunately, the centre portion of the rear windshield could be lowered to provide ventilation for all that smoke.
The XM Turnpike Cruiser toured the nation in its very own covered trailer equipped with display windows. Frank Reith went to some lengths to emphasize the car’s experimental nature, but there’s no mistaking the many styling cues and features that later turned up on the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, designs which would have been finalized long before the show car ever hit the turnpike. One wonders what becomes of these “concept cars”. Unfortunately many are destroyed, a few are taken over by executives of the manufacturer, fewer still end up in private hands and some just disappear. Nobody seems to know what happened to the XM Turnpike Cruiser, but rumor suggests it ended its days in a California junk yard.