Straight Out of Tomorrow – 1957 Mercury

In late 1956, all eyes were on the future. Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” sat atop the charts and Elvis’ first film, of the same name, premiered in New York City the  day Mercury’s 1957 offerings were introduced – November 12, 1956. “The Price Is Right” debuted on television and Judy Garland’s “Wizard of Oz” was televised for the first time. The national mood was buoyant as memories of World War II and the Korean War were starting to recede, yet the economy was still enjoying the post-war boom – many automotive marques set sales records as recently as 1955. Although the much-loved Dwight Eisenhower had just been re-elected President, the USSR still continued its mischievous tricks and the Cold War was in full swing. Soviet Russia had invaded Hungary when that country tried to escape Communist tyranny, and the USSR further flexed its muscles with an atmospheric nuclear test.

Ford Motor Company’s hopes were high for building on the successful 1955 and 1956 model years and much of their confidence rested on the recently formed Mercury Division. At Mercury, the 1957 year saw the fourth major restyling since entry of the new 1949 cars- the Division claimed it was “America’s most changed car”. The new Merc was further touted by company advertising folks as a “dream car brought to the showroom”- its styling cues were clearly inspired by the 1956 XM  Turnpike Cruiser concept car.

XM Turnpike Cruiser

The new Mercury Division was enjoying the height of success in its so far short life, and was hoping the total styling and technical revamping of Mercury for 1957 would stir the  public into a frenzy of car-buying enthusiasm and thus recapture the glory days of 1955.

April 15, 1955 had seen the former Lincoln-Mercury Division split into three new independent entities: Lincoln, Mercury and a Special Products Division, (this division was code for the Edsel project). The new Mercury Division was headed by the well-qualified and highly respected Francis C. “Jack” Reith whose track record entitled him to free creative rein.

The 1957 Mercury received cutting edge styling under the direction of a new, young designer, Don de la Rossa. Several technological advances were tried out for the first time and enabled a state-of-the-art frame, suspension, engines, glass and of course sheet metal. Every possible innovative technique was enlisted in truly pushing the frontiers of automotive design, production and assembly technology. Mercury was further distanced from its Ford brethren through a completely new and separate line of bodies, and although a family resemblance was retained it was no longer just a “Fancy Ford”.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, Mercury’s dimensions expanded in all directions except height where it shrunk by four inches, (without loss of interior room!), achieved in part by employing new smaller 14 inch wheels. Also contributing to the lower, more streamlined profile, the new frame format allowed recessed floor pans so that passengers stepped down into the car, and sat closer to the road. Steering effort was improved with the first introduction of recirculating ball technology. This allowed a smaller steering wheel, (flattened on top), which further improved interior room. A softer ride was afforded by air bags mounted at the front end of rear leaf springs. The all-new frame allowed a lower center of gravity, the’swept back” ball joint front suspension was new, as were increased brake lining area, longer more flexible front coil springs, a one-piece front stabilizer bar, step-on parking brake control with finger release and a larger 20-gallon gas tank.

What really captured the imagination however, was the new space-age styling. The car really looked like it would be right at home in the 25th Century with Buck Rogers at the wheel. Front and rear bumpers were both themed with large oval intake/exhaust ports similar to those on jet fighters. Those at the front were separated by a gold-anodized “M”; those at the rear were adorned with a simulated grille to which extra-cost red reflectors could be added. Boasting several thin concave vertical bars into which turn signals were incorporated, the grille was a lot simpler than the massive affairs of earlier years. The single headlights were mounted in serrated barrels at the front of each fender and atop the grille. As with their Ford stable-mates, Mercury introduced forward hinged hoods in 1957. These afforded mechanics a lot more room to work, but also were sold on the basis of their obvious safety – drivers no longer had to worry about the hood suddenly becoming unmoored and flying up at 60 mph. I have in fact never heard of this actually happening, but if this salutary feature allowed some members of the motoring public to rest easier at night, who am I to comment.

The hood flows gracefully into a huge wraparound windshield containing one of the few attributes contemporary critics found to complain about. The wrap around feature of the windshield created a dog leg projecting into the doorway area on which passengers were said to be prone to bang their knees. Personally, I’m always willing to make small sacrifices in aid of stylistic splendor – I never understood all the fuss. The roof overhangs the front windshield and rear backlite a bit to accommodate faux-louvers along the top edge. Both the roof and rear deck employed a shallow longitudinal channel, emphasizing the louvers’ effect.

Where other cars of the era sported fins of various shapes and size, Mercury carried a unique concave cove in the shape of a projectile. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize a rocket ending in a fiery tail where the V-shaped taillight is located. The inside of the cove was either painted a contrasting color or covered in gold-anodized aluminum trim. Viewed from the rear, the taillights wrapped around from the side to form an angled “V” which was highly visible from both side and rear. There was no chrome molding where the rear backlite meets the rear deck – instead the inside package tray seemed to flow smoothly into the rear deck and become an extension of it.

The dashboard and instrument panel were straight out of the contemporary conception of a spaceship. The speedometer is a horizontal red bar that increases in length as speed increases. Other gauges and controls are housed in two pods on either side of the speedometer. Controls for air resemble aircraft levers and in the same theme, all gauges except fuel and engine temperature were replaced with warning lights.

Exotic power equipment options were the order of the day, but the Seat-o-matic had to be the most impressive of all. It looked remotely like a clock with a knob in the middle, sitting in a little pod on top of the dash beside the speedometer. It could be preset for height and seat proximity to the dash and would automatically move the seat to the selected setting when the engine was turned on. When the engine was turned off, it went to its lowest, farthest back position for ease of entry and exit. Amazing! Stainless wheel opening and rocker moldings could be had on all models at extra cost.

Mercury offered 14 models at the start of the model year and followed up with 3 more later. The previous year Medalist and Custom series were axed and Monterey was demoted to become the lowest priced line, containing  2 and 4-door sedans, 2 and 4-door hardtops and a convertible. Next up the scale with more chrome and sumptuous interior appointments was the Montclair in a 4-door sedan, 2 and 4-door hardtops and a convertible. Montclair had stainless body side moldings, where Monterey did not. Other standard equipment which was optional on the Monterey were dual exhaust, Keyboard Control Merc-o-Matic, exterior gold-colored trim on the C-Pillars and perforated vinyl headliners. Mercury was emphasizing the “hardtop” look such that even the sedans looked like hardtops. This was achieved by having both styles use the same “hardtop’ roof stampings and disguising the sedans by changing the shape of the B-Pillars and chrome plating them. In 1956, the term “Phaeton” was introduced to refer to 4-door hardtops – in 1957, it was extended to include 2-door hardtops. All 4-door Phaetons carried wider C-Pillars to compensate for the inherent deterioration in structural integrity resulting from absence of a B-Pillar. All convertibles had a zip-out wrap-around rear window replicating the effect of the Turnpike Cruiser’s C-Pillar design. Station Wagons were available in three series all available in pillarless hardtop format – this concept too was brand new. The Mercury wagons featured wraparound rear-quarter windows, and forward sloping tailgates with retractable backlites. The new flat-laying tail gate was 3 inches lower than its ancestors and had protective ribs between it and the bumper.  Lowest priced was the Commuter, equivalent to Monterey, in a 2-door, 6 passenger configuration or a 4-door 6, or 9-passenger version. Next came a new series, the Voyager, appointed like a Montclair, available as a 2-door, six passenger, or as a 4-door, 9-passenger wagon. At the top of the pile sat the 4-door, 9-passenger Colony Park, gorgeous in faux wood-panelling. All had power rear windows which disappeared into the tailgate.

The American Automobile Industry discovered color about 1955 and by 1957 was taking full advantage by offering every hue and pastel imaginable. Mercury was as pretentiously extravagant as anyone, and offered 18 colors in a bewildering array of solid or two-tone combinations. Your basic two-tone had the body one color with the roof and cove a second. The “Flo-Tone” scheme had the upper body one color, and the roof, cove and body below the belt-line a second color. Convertible tops were available in four solid colors as well as black and white, and Montclair tops could be ordered in a solid color trimmed with a contrasting accent.

Interior colors accented and highlighted the exterior. Bolsters consisted of various vinyl grains and patterns, getting richer as you moved up the model ladder. Inserts Were comprised of variously patterned nylon cloths again getting more sumptuous with the more expensive models. Convertibles and station wagons sported all vinyl interiors.

Hopes were high for another record-breaking sales year a la 1955, but despite all the initial publicity, technical advances and fresh, futuristic look, it soon became apparent sales projections were not going to materialize. The economy was starting to feel the first pangs of the coming recession which would hit in a few months. Despite disappointment over failed sales projections, Mercury went ahead with plans to introduce the Turnpike Cruiser model in January, 1957. It was initially offered as a 2 or 4-door hardtop. In February the line was expanded to include a convertible.

This new car truly looked revolutionary, like the Space Age had suddenly arrived on the nation’s highways. The A-Pillars carried  fresh-air ducts each containing a simulated horizontal forward-pointing radio antenna. No they didn’t actually function, but they looked great. The three-piece vertical backlite resided in a reverse slanted C-Pillar. The power operated center section could be lowered to create a “breezeway” effect theoretically working together with the air vents perched in the corners of the front windshield to provide a pleasant “fresh air” experience. This effect however, became more pronounced when the side windows were lowered – the resulting cyclonic turbulence proved some things work better in theory. But the overall concept was like nothing ever seen before and enthralled one’s imagination. The windshield not only wrapped around the sides but also wrapped into the roof. The rear deck sported a free-standing medallion you could enjoy looking at in your rear-view mirror. There was certainly no mistaking a Turnpike Cruiser when you encountered one on the highway. In addition to its styling individuality the car had exclusive wheel covers, special opulent interior fabrics, and unique script exclusive to this model, (you couldn’t already tell this car was something out of the ordinary?). In addition to a tachometer so you could keep track of engine revolutions, (and thus imply you were familiar with the arcane mysteries of drive-train performance), instrumentation also boasted a “Computerized Clock” which was in fact one of the earliest trip computers, as if your mind wasn’t already boggled enough by all this innovation.

This was the first year any manufacturers ventured into quad headlights – they were specifically illegal in several states and all of Canada – but where permitted, Mercury was at the forefront with the “Quadri-Beam”. This was a truly impressive and futuristic set-up. Each set of two headlights was housed in twin chrome cylinders underneath an aggressive brow where the front fenders start. Above the headlights but under the brow, in what at first glance appeared to be a scoop, were nestled the repositioned park lights and turn signals, separated by a chrome vertical bar. The Quadri-Beam layout was first introduced on the Turnpike Cruiser but was soon available to all Mercurys.

In February it was announced a Turnpike Cruiser would be the official Pace Car for that year’s Indianapolis 500 race. In commemoration of this honor, the Turnpike Cruiser convertible was unveiled on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan show. In addition to all the normal accoutrements, the convertible was available in only one color, specially formulated for the occasion – Sun Glitter Gold. The interior was a tri-colored vinyl of yellow, white and black with a commemorative dashboard badge. It also impressed with a standard continental kit, the aforementioned quadri-beam headlights, a crossed flag medallion on the rear-deck, golden wing fender ornaments, inside roof rail moldings, fared-in armrests, and bright lower quarter panel shields. In addition, the prospective owner could order the car decked out in the same artwork and lettering on the side as the original Pace Car. The continental kit’s official name was “Dream Car Spare Tire Carrier, and while it was standard equipment on the Cruiser Convertible, it was an extra-cost option for the rest of the line. Also available were “Bubble Skirts”, (also known as “Cruiser Skirts”). The public was advised availability of these cars was strictly limited and not everybody that wanted one would be lucky enough to get one.

The standard powerplant for all models except the Turnpike Cruiser was a 312 cid, 265 hp V-8. Optional on all models and standard on the Turnpike Cruiser was a Lincoln 368 cid, 290 hp engine, (the 312 was available on a Turnpike Cruiser as a delete). Those cars equipped with this motor carried badging on the front fender announcing the fact. The scarce M-335 option added two 4-barrel carburetors, a high lift cam and ported heads increasing compression to 10.0:1 on the 368, as well as a special intake manifold, low restriction air cleaners,, mechanical lifters, heavy duty valve springs and flywheel, and a manual three-speed transmission with a heavy-duty clutch. It was said this work was done by the Bill Stroppe shop in Long Beach. All cars so equipped were Montereys built at the Los Angeles plant with an eye toward respectability on the NASCAR circuit, (one Turnpike Cruiser was identified as a legitimate recipient of this option). It developed 335 horsepower.

The 1957 model year saw the introduction of Ford’s first attempt at a push-button automatic transmission – the Merc-o-Matic – although a 3-speed manual was standard on all models. Located in a chrome pod to the left of the steering wheel, it became notoriously unreliable and was eventually abandoned after the 1958 model year. Never mind – it looked innovative and seemed to be more effortless in a strange sort of way.

This was long before the advent of that darling of Consumers Report and the practical set, the Japanese car, on the North American auto scene. Even then Consumers Report had few kind words for the typical American cars everyone liked and bought, preferring to lavish their affections on American Motors, consistently drawing unfavorable comparisons between the Big Three and their chosen one.

I remember Consumers Report positively frothing in indignation at all this gimcrackery, employing every adjective for “useless” their Thesaurus could bring to bear. They never did get it. A Rambler American could never provide the pride that came with tooling around in a Mercury, or give your neighbors envious heartburn over your modern good taste and style. Certain sacrifices to practicality have to be made in the interests of cosmopolitan chic. You could fall in love and have a personal intimate relationship with your Mercury. You could appreciate the nuances of her personality, the way she could tease and tantalize you with mysterious pleasures as yet undiscovered. It was like taking Jayne Mansfield to your High School prom. Alas, your beloved could be as fickle as any mistress, and this one was more so than most. The 1957 Mercury suffered from deficiencies in quality and reliability and was not equal to its hyped image nor the reputation of its ancestors. The blow to Mercury’s good name and prestige took years to overcome. You could just hear those insufferable people at Consumers Report saying, “I told you so!” Damn them!!

The whole automotive industry, and Mercury in particular, was blind-sided by two factors that had been completely unforeseen. The first was the economic recession that blossomed in the late summer of 1957 and affected especially the mid-priced car market. The second was the wild success of Chrysler’s “Forward Look” styling – the public was apparently frantic for fins and it showed in Chrysler’s sales success that year, to the detriment of their competitors.

The Power Car Company of Mystic, Connecticut produced a “Junior Mercury” based on the Indianapolis Pace Car.It was powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine and came equipped with a hand brake. Mercury was never involved in actually building the “Junior”, but heavily promoted it and often used one as a promotional aid. An example recently fetched $14,500 at auction.

About Bill

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