North America continued to enjoy the post-war economic glow and everyone seemed to have caught the optimism bug. Although it cost an unheard of $17 million, Disneyland seemed like a miracle when it opened in Anaheim in 1955.
I can remember thinking I had as much chance of seeing it as visiting the far side of the moon. I was 8 years old at the time and my travel experiences revolved around four kids plus two adults piling into my dad’s 1953 Vauxhall every summer to visit my grandparents 650 miles away. It seemed like Moses crossing the Sinai. No air conditioning in those days, and somebody was always car sick. Highways were often dusty gravel, so open windows were not permitted – the roads plus the heat and cigarette smoke seemed designed to provoke maximum nausea. The highlight of any day was waiting to see if that night’s motel had a swimming pool or one of those TV’s you stuck a quarter into to get an hour’s worth of mediocre reception. My dad seemed to think foregoing these modern luxuries was character building, because given the choice of a motel with or without a TV he’d invariably choose the latter. One way, it took about 5 days to complete the journey.
My grandmother bought me a Disneyland tour book with plastic covered paper punch out phonograph records on one of these trips. I was ecstatic and could hardly wait to try them out, but my dad said they’d wreck his record player so that was that.
Disney was active in other spheres as well – Davy Crockett was everywhere – TV, Hit Parade, books, movies, clothing. A coonskin cap was the essential fashion accessory. The Mickey Mouse Club continued to be the club every kid wanted to join and Annette was the girl everyone had a crush on.
“Gunsmoke”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, The Honeymooners”, “The Lawrence Welk Show”, and the scandal ridden “$64,000 Question” all debuted on TV this year.
While there continued to be several “charts” tracking hit songs, and all purporting to be the definitive authority, they all eventually devolved into Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1958. Up until 1955 these industry statistician’s followed white artists almost exclusively. Black musicians and singers had their own chart, “Top R&B Singles”, as well as radio stations that catered to a black audience. Respectable white kids did not admit to their parents listening to these stations , but many of course did, on the sly.
What came to be known as Rock ‘n’ Roll had its roots in Rhythm & Blues, and in 1955 R&B hits first started to cross over to the white charts. This new sound, (at least new to white mainstream ears), collided head on with the “crooners” who had dominated the pop scene to this point, and appealed directly to a rebellious younger demographic. The Hot 100 was still monopolized by white singers offering antiseptic lullabies – Nat King Cole was the highest ranked black artist, bringing in “A Blossom Fell” at number 20 – but Nat King Cole was still pretty syrupy mainstream and certainly not rock ‘n’ roll.
Another interesting phenomenon was starting to become widespread. Everyone acknowledged the raw, sweaty magnetism of R&B music, so as soon as a good raunchy song appeared on the black charts, a white artist would clean it up, cover it and turn it into a hit. Pat Boone was by far the biggest benefactor of this nefarious activity. He took Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” to number 12 for the year, while the Fat Man’s version came in at 75.
There are several other examples. Unfortunately, the mass audience had little idea where these sanitized hits came from. Only the few who listened to radio shows like Allan Freed’s on WJW Cleveland (850 AM) knew the truth. Under the alias “Moondog” he spun R&B exclusively.
Many white artists also covered each other’s songs so it was not uncommon to see several versions of the same song all charting, and playing on the radio, together – “Ballad of Davy Crockett” is a good example – there were three renditions on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1955.
The number 1 song for the year was “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Cuban band leader, Perez Prado who owed his eminence to the contemporary mambo craze. The top rock and roll song was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets at number 3, while the highest charted rock offering by a black artist was Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”, coming in at number 40. Chuck Berry was probably the single artist most responsible for making R&B respectable and opening the door to conventional gentility for black music.
Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was the theme song for the movie “Blackboard Jungle”, a story about “juvenile delinquents” and other disaffected youth – a hot topic in the day. Parents were mightily concerned their offspring were turning into unmanageable rebels and blamed it all on the influence of rock & roll, which was in turn influenced by rhythm and blues which was itself directed by some secretive satanic force – perhaps communism even! Not to worry – a new and powerful parental ally appeared on the scene to dispense supportive advice and sage counsel – Ann Landers launched her syndicated column in the Chicago Sun-Times. If you haven’t seen the movie “Pleasantville”, you should – it’s a great metaphor for how North American society came of age in the mid 50’s. In my humble view, 1955 offered one of rock’s most legendary songs to posterity, which was also one of the best examples of white singers appropriating a song from black artists and making it a bigger hit. The Penguins “Earth Angel” released in October, 1954, peaked at #8 on Billboard in February, 1955, and ended the year as the #65 song. The Crew-Cuts version of “Earth Angel” also peaked in February, but at #5, (#29 for the year). Another white rendition of “Earth Angel” was released in November, 1954, by Gloria Mann, which ended 1955 at #143. The Penguins song spent many weeks at #1 on the R&B charts, but what’s really remarkable is that it cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1955.
Meanwhile over at Ford, 1955 saw Mercury’s third major restyling since the introduction of the 1949 cars, (maybe fourth depending on whether you think 1954 was an evolution of the 1952-53 design). This year also represented a giant step forward toward the styling philosophy prevalent in the mid to late 50’s.
Ostentation seemed to be the watchword. Everywhere you looked you saw “excess”, and we loved it. People ogle behemoths from this era at car shows today, and marvel at their beauty and individuality – how you can actually tell one make and model year from another. The comment, “… they sure don’t make cars like they used to …” is frequently heard. That’s true and is probably a good thing. With the common human propensity to view the past through rose-colored glasses, we forget cars from this era were on their best behavior only when going in a straight line on a smooth road. We forget 15 miles per gallon was considered good mileage.
This state of affairs wasn’t entirely the fault of the automobile manufacturers. The North American car buying public demanded newer, more dramatic styling concepts with each succeeding year – strains on designers were palpable – almost to the point where good taste became irrelevant – more, gaudier and bigger substituted for innovation. Although we eagerly crowded automotive showrooms, breathlessly awaiting the arrival of each year’s new cars, the industry was leaving itself open to a charge of planned obsolescence. Sure enough, in February, 1959 the US Department of Justice opened an investigation into General Motors’ apparent manipulation of the public taste to its own financial benefit.
Consumers Report was ecstatic – as custodian of the public well-being they wouldn’t rest until we were all wearing tweed sports jackets, smoking pipes, (yes, that was acceptable), voting Democrat and driving Ramblers.
But my prejudices and personal inclinations are showing – I obviously love every compound curve, the massive grilles and larger than life bumpers, every acre of glass, inch of height in the fins and ounce of chrome – especially the chrome.
Glitz got started rather tastefully in 1954 and hit its zenith in 1959 or 60 depending on the make. Although some diehards carried on another year, (Chrysler, Imperial, Cadillac), this fulsome festival of exorbitant exuberance ended suddenly in 1960. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Since assuming stewardship of Ford Motor Company in 1945, Henry Ford II had been fascinated with the General Motors’ business model and had been busily, but so far unsuccessfully, trying to remake Ford in that image. The idea was to introduce and foster “division versus division” competition between Ford and GM. To that end, several former GM executives had been brought on board together with a number of modern finance and logistics experts.
These newcomers were busily and informally organizing themselves into two disparate and conflicting camps. One group included Robert S. McNamara who would eventually go on to become Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. This tightly knit cadre, christened the “Whiz Kids”, had served in the US military together during World War II as experts in the emerging science of systems strategies. Their main goal at Ford was to reconstruct its tumultuous and erratic administrative structure. Existing Ford number two man,
Executive Vice President Ernest R. Breech, formed a tight bond with McNamara almost immediately and took the whole group under his auspices. They cared little for automotive design, engineering and technological niceties, except in relation to how these factors affected their ultimate objective of producing a saleable automobile as economically and efficiently as possible.
The second group preferred to concentrate on cutting edge styling and design concepts, and turning them into real life products. They were led by the Ford Division head, Lewis D. Crusoe, a former GM executive, and Francis “Jack” Reith, one of the original “Whiz Kids”. It was inevitable the two groups would clash – the first confrontation brewed over the venerable Ford V8 engine.
Breech, encouraged by McNamara, became possessed of the idea production costs could be reduced without any sacrifice in sales if the V8’s in Ford cars were replaced with in-line Sixes, a la Chevrolet. After all, Chevrolet consistently outsold Ford, and savings in the range of $100 per car could be anticipated. Both Crusoe and Reith were horrified. They went to work on Breech, citing Ford’s long tradition with the V8 and their belief customers would happily pay the extra $100. A short reprieve was granted to allow them to back up their case. Studies showed the actual incremental cost of a V8 turned out to be $16. The V8 stayed and Reith was hailed as a conquering hero.
Damn good thing too – Chevrolet introduced a V8 in 1955 and the public went crazy – imagine what would have happened if Ford had gone to 6 cylinders at exactly the same time. The automotive press gushed over the 1955 Chevrolet, proclaiming it would be the most popular car of the year. Sure enough … it was … you can’t swing a blown gasket at today’s vintage show and shines without hitting a ’55 Chev. That’s a bit unfortunate as the Merc handily beat it in looks and horsepower, the very characteristics the public seemingly wanted.
Reith was promptly bundled off to France to rescue Ford’s ailing operation there, a task he again successfully completed. His stock was riding very high indeed.
Upon his return, Reith set about his next project. Together with Crusoe he proposed a redesign of Ford’s corporate architecture which would see each make become a separate Division – in other words five separate automobile divisions, each with considerable autonomy. Since this was a step along the road to emulating General Motors, Henry Ford II was delighted and gave the green light.
Messrs Breech and McNamara were more skeptical, although both received promotions under the new plan.
The new Division heads were given the title “Vice-President and General Manager’, and McNamara received Ford, including passenger cars, trucks and commercial vehicles. Jack Reith got Mercury and Lewis Crusoe was named Executive Vice-President with only Breech and Henry Ford II above him. The other Divisions were Lincoln, Continental Mark II, (which at this time was still under development), and “Special Products” which evolved into Edsel.
Reith’s first order of business was to promote the Mercury as a totally new automobile.
Mercury’s offerings for 1955 were longer, lower, wider and more powerful. They came in a profusion of new colors and models to delight the eye and arouse envy in the neighbors.
The entry level Mercury was the Custom which came in four body types: 2-door sedan, 4-door sedan, 2-door hardtop and 4-door station wagon. The Custom wagon was the first Mercury with an all-steel body not adorned with wood trim, not even the faux wood paneling gracing more senior wagons. The next level up was the Monterey offering a 2-door hardtop, 4-door sedan and 4-door, 8-passenger station wagon, which did indeed sport imitation wood trim.
Top of the line was held by the Montclair and consisted of a 2-door hardtop, convertible and the plexiglas-roofed Sun Valley 2-door hardtop.
Power was provided by one of two versions of the “Super-Torque” 292 cid V8. To equip your car with the stronger 195 horsepower engine you first had to order the Merc-o-Matic automatic transmission. This engine then became standard on the Montclair and optional at extra cost on Custom and Monterey.
Otherwise, you received the 185 horsepower motor mated to a standard or overdrive transmission. This powerplant was base for Custom and Monterey. The difference between the two engines was solely compression ratios, (8.5 and 7.6 respectively).
A new transmission feature this year was the ability to start in “Low” even though the selector was in “Drive” – you did this of course, by flooring the accelerator at which point the automatic would kick down one gear. Some 87% of total Mercury production for the year opted for the automatic transmission.
Fuel mileage was better in 1955 too, due to a higher, (lower numerically), rear end ratio. This also allowed for a higher top speed – performance remained unaffected because engines were more powerful and the transmission more efficient in torque multiplication.
Cars were all mounted on a 119 inch wheelbase, while station wagons sat on a 118 inch wheelbase. Total length was 206.3 inches and 201.8 inches respectively. Custom and Monterey are 61.2 inches high, while the Montclair slinks in at 58.6 inches. Interestingly, station wagon sheet metal from the windshield back was shared with Ford, but was shrewdly disguised with a few deft styling touches.
The grille and bumper were one massive integrated unit. The bumper portion was fairly conventional and wrapped around to the front wheel well. A pronounced chrome bar sat parallel to, and above it, protruding slightly, and serrated on top. This cross bar sat on three equally spaced, vertical chrome supports between it and the bumper, and connected to both. This chrome bar also wrapped around both ends, joining the bumper in front of the wheel wells. Two large “Dagmar” style bumper guards sat outboard of the vertical supports. Heavily hooded headlights were placed in the front fenders above the grille and bullet-shaped bumper guards. MERCURY was spelled out in individual chrome letters across the hood fascia, just below a chrome-bordered plastic insignia in the centre. The chrome hood ornament shaped like a futuristic jet was placed above this emblem.
The hood lip was decorated with a single narrow chrome molding, which visually continued across the front of the car, around the front fenders and down the side, reaching almost to the back of the front door. The rear quarters are home to a stylized bulge, (a nod to rear fenders of previous years), starting just behind the front doors and extending back to cover the rear fenders. This bulge is shaped to give the impression of speed – its lower leading edge in front of the wheel wells is capped by a forward canted chrome accent. In the Custom series a chrome spear starts behind the front door and runs almost the full length of the rear fenders, ending just in front of the taillights – the front point is capped by a stylized, ribbed chrome flare which also partially covers and accentuates the leading edge of the outcurved rear fenders. This chrome strip is level with the spear on the front fenders.
The Monterey displays a larger chrome flare capping the leading edge of the bulge, and the rear fender spear is offset lower on the car’s side. The front fender carries a chrome surrounded plastic medallion above the stainless strip and directly above the wheel’s leading edge. The Montclair is the same as the Monterey except it has “saddle” trim in which a wide “U-shaped” chrome accent surrounds and outlines a narrow channel of sheet metal directly under the side windows – usually painted the same color as the roof.
In addition, the Montclair’s rocker panels are encased in a chrome panel. Montclair and Monterey display the model name in chrome script on the front fenders immediately behind the side medallion. The Custom script just says “Mercury”. Sun Valley displays its name in chrome script on the rear fenders.
The Merc’s rear end features chrome encircled oblong shaped taillights with the edges recessed – back up lights reside in the bottom quarter of each taillight. A large chrome circle shot horizontally through the middle with a stainless spear surrounds a smaller plastic medallion in the centre of the trunk lid. Two tallish bumper guards are mounted outboard on the rear bumper with chrome tubular extensions running through the middle of each guard, around the side, parallel to the bumper, then down to meet it on both sides. MERCURY is imprinted in black block letters in the middle of the bumper.
The two station wagons are identical to the passenger cars up to the windshield but do not share the rear quarter bulge at all, nor any of the other styling accoutrements mentioned above. The Custom displays an elongated U-shaped chrome molding laying on its side, with the bottom of the “U’ pointing to the front and raked forward, highlighted with a chrome flash and a plastic emblem. “Mercury” is spelled in script between the arms of the “U”.
The roof and all windows are outlined in stainless accents, except below the side windows on coupes, the B-pillars on sedans and B,C and D pillars on station wagons – these are painted the body color on sedans. Custom wagons are painted a contrasting color and Monterey wagons feature faux maple trim made out of fibreglass. The Monterey station wagon carries all the specialized chrome trim mentioned for the Custom wagon, but in addition enhances the look with imitation mahogany paneling trimmed in maple on the sides and the tail gate. Wagon taillights are smaller versions of the oblong shape, designed to fit a Ford opening. This apparently was a bonanza for customizers of the era as the Mercury wagon taillights fit a Ford or a Thunderbird with minimal fuss.
Rooflines throughout the lineup certainly bear a family resemblance but are subtly different. A-pillars and vent window frames are vertical to accommodate the wrap-around windshield. C-pillars are ribbed chrome forward slanting posts with the Monterey adding a medallion. The Montclair C-pillar is thinner and the rear windshield larger. The roof definitely has a ‘chopped” look and the stock, (for Montclair and Monterey, optional for Custom), fender skirts add a “don’t mess with me” attitude.
The new Merc certainly had some interesting styling quirks that don’t particularly complement one another, but they somehow come together in a unified whole as a gorgeous car. I think it’s the sleek roofline and fender skirts that do the trick. Interestingly, Mercury did not carry a 4-door hardtop for 1955, but in February introduced a Montclair 4-door sedan
in an effort to counter new 4-door hardtops from Buick and Oldsmobile. Motor Trend magazine described the new Montclair as the best looking sedan in America.
This year saw the introduction of several stylish pastels to make a total of 18 exterior colors available. These could be put together in 34 combinations if you wanted a two-tone effect. This meant the roof, (and Montclair saddle trim), were one color and the body another.
This year’s instrument panel is V-shaped, with gauges contained within three semi-circular concentric arcs. The top one holds the generator, fuel, oil and temperature gauges, the middle holds the 120 mph speedometer, and the bottom one the odometer. The rest of the dash houses the heater controls, radio, clock and glove compartment.
Mercury’s interiors were colorful, startling, unconventional and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, (although sales figures for the year would seem to contradict an absence of popularity). Montclair’s seat inserts were trapezoidal shaped and woven of either chromatex or tapestry weave nylon. The former had silver thread running through it. Bolsters were of white or yellow vinyl depending on the insert color.
Top and bottom of the seat and back cushions were horizontally pleated vinyl in a color matching the seat insert. Floors were covered in deep pile carpeting. Door sills were painted the same color as the seat inserts while a wide ribbed chrome panel separated the sill from the rest of the door. Lower door panels featured contrasting vinyl applications matching the two vinyl seat colors. The rear seat featured a pull down armrest in the middle of the seat back which folded into a recess when not in use. A decorative chrome plate sits above this recess and houses a Mercury head which lights up in relief, as a courtesy light -just one of the many little novel gimcracks to delight the eye.
The Monterey wagon carried basic Montclair interior design except for the chrome panel.
Monterey seats were upholstered in a designer weave nylon with the upper portion of the seat backs carrying vertically pleated vinyl in a complementary color and highlighted with silver piping. Door panels were much like the Montclair except the chrome molding was replaced with vinyl and lower portions of the door were covered in horizontally pleated contrasting vinyl.
As we move down the line, interiors become more conventional and less flamboyant. Your Custom upholstery was of a chevron nylon weave and plain vinyl in the same configuration as Monterey – colors available were grey, blue or green.
Tubeless tires were introduced to the industry this year, representing a significant engineering advance. These were billed as “anti-squeal” tires. I’m not sure that was a good idea as half the fun of commanding all that power was lighting up your tires at a red light or in front of your girl friend’s house and blowing gravel all over her dad’s lawn. Passenger cars mounted 7.10×15 tires while convertibles and wagons used 7.60×15, (in today’s lexicon this would translate as 265/50R15 and 275/50R15 respectively).
Blackwalls were standard but anybody with any pride at all would pop for the extra cost whitewalls. Wheels were usually painted red to highlight hubcap centres of the same color. Hubcaps were basically carryovers from 1954 with a few minor modifications.
A host of other additional cost options were offered to enhance the lucky new owner’s motoring pleasure and excite envy among the neighbors. These included sea-tint windows, full-disc hubcaps, chrome curb buffers (those flashes in front of the rear wheel wells), rear fender shields (skirts),
“sport” spare tire carrier, spot lights, power steering and brakes, 4-way power seat, electric window lifts, push-button automatic lubrication system and dual exhaust, (standard on Montclair). Single exhaust systems tried to retain the advantages of dual exhaust by using two exhaust manifolds with the two tailpipes forming a “Y” behind the engine, rather than the usual cross-over pipe connecting the two manifolds. This helped eliminate a lot of back pressure and made the engines more efficient. Other extra cost options included a special steering wheel finished in white and chrome, an exterior visor over the windshield and road lamps housed in the front bumper.
Mercury was able to offer factory installed air conditioning this year, for the first time, albeit a fairly primitive version. The compressor and collector resided under the hood, while the fan, evaporator and cooler were found in the trunk. Extra air intakes were mounted on the body just below the C-pillar. Air conditioning was available as an option across the whole line-up.
Despite a precipitous industry-wide rise in prices during the first few months following introduction of 1955’s new cars, the sector enjoyed its best sales year post-war, and Mercury was no exception. Although less than half the General Motors tally, Ford Motor Company sold 1,808K automobiles of which Mercury comprised 329,808, placing it seventh for the year. The most popular model was Monterey at 151,453 units followed by Montclair with sales of 104,667 cars and Custom selling 73,688. The most popular single model was the Montclair 2-door hardtop followed by the Monterey sedan and hardtop respectively.
Jack Reith and company were very pleased with the Big M’s sales performance in 1955, and looked forward eagerly to the following years. And why not? Records had been set, the public seemed to like the product and the automotive press almost universally waxed effusive about all its aspects from styling to engineering. All hoped this level of quality and acceptance could be maintained