After having had a presence in Viet Nam since the eighteenth century, France was forced to watch its hold over its Indochinese colonial dependencies start to crumble. The Viet Minh communist insurgency was gathering steam and preparing for the culminating battle at France’s Dien Bien Phu fortified air strip. Curiously, the French High Command welcomed this confrontation as an opportunity to crush the Viet Minh once and for all. Unknown to the French, the Viet Minh commander, General Giap had spent months preparing his assault by secretly moving heavy artillery into concealed positions from which they could rain down shells on the French garrison.
On March 31 the heavy assault began and by May 7 the French had been overrun and surrendered – not only the battle had been lost, but so was the war. The French artillery commander who had so seriously underestimated Viet Minh strength committed suicide. French possessions in North Africa were also coming under pressure for independence. Nationalist terrorists pillaged and burned French property in Algeria and murdered several French citizens. Tunisia and Morocco were as well suffering violent protest.
The Cold War continued to get chillier, and the US was getting more paranoid about Communist predation. As the famous quote declared “ … sometimes you’re paranoid and sometimes they really are out to get you.” Stalin had died in March, 1953 and those of his former colleagues as still survived were jockeying for position. This all made the USSR more unstable and dangerous as each leadership contender tried to prove how ruthless and tough he was. It seemed everywhere you turned the Communist International was up to no good: East Berlin; Eastern Europe; Indochina; Korea still wasn’t settled; Chinese and Taiwanese artillery were dueling across the Formosa Straits;
The Rosenberg spy trial had ended with their execution; J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the American A-Bomb, was being investigated as a spy; and Senator Joseph McCarthy continued to whip up anti-communist frenzy at home, accusing everybody from the Army to Harry Truman of collaboration.
Things were not going smoothly for the British empire either. In April, over 700 Mau-Mau terrorists were put on trial in Nairobi. The Mau-Mau were Kikuyu tribesmen protesting European ownership of farmland, by killing European farmers and other Kikuyu who didn’t support them.
After talks for their surrender failed, the British military responded harshly, stamping out the rebellion but leaving the resentment. After 72 years the British end their occupation of the Suez Canal, turning it over to Egypt and setting the stage for more mischief in a few years.
Ed Sullivan’s new TV show, “The Toast of the Town” debuted on CBS, while Steve Allen took over “The Tonight Show” to critical acclaim. Other shows returning this year were “I Love Lucy”’,
“Dragnet”, “Topper” and “Ozzie & Harriet”. “Lassie” had puppies and became more popular than ever.
To watch this entertainment cornucopia, Westinghouse introduced its new 12.5 inch color TV at a discounted price of $1,110. In today’s dollars this is about $9,000 – nearly half the price of a new car.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy, “Lord of the Rings”, was published in December, creating a lifetime passion for university students everywhere. Joe DiMaggio marries Marilyn Monroe on January 14 in San Francisco. Marilyn had just starred in a new film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, with Jane Russell.
The movie contained several rather risqué bust line references. Frank Sinatra received a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for his role in “From Here to Eternity”.
Elvis Presley celebrated his 19th birthday on January 8 by paying $4 to record two singles, “Casual Love” and “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way”, at Sun Records in Memphis. Neither song went anywhere, but Sam Phillips was impressed enough to invite Elvis back.
He recorded a number of other tracks for Sun in 1954, and although none reached the charts Phillips had found his Holy Grail – a white kid who sounded like a Negro.
In the evolution of American Pop Music, 1954 was a definitive transition year. By 1954 the electric guitar was starting to replace the piano or saxophone as the lead instrument. The beat was basic rhythm and blues with a snare drum back beat. A traditional grouping is a lead guitar, rhythm guitar and bass guitar, all electric, and a drum set. Bill Haley and his Comets continued to use a stand-up bass. Rock and roll came to have a significant impact on societal mores, fashion, slang and many other aspects of daily life. Leather motorcycle jackets, ducktail haircuts and jet boots all had their genesis in our desire to look like Gene Vincent and his colleagues. Musical groups, whether amateur or professional tended to wear the same “uniform”, tending to colorful sartorial splendor usually including tie, sport jacket or suit, shiny black shoes with “clickers” on the heels and white socks – and the more buckles, chains and belts, the better.
“Billboard’s Top Hits” continued to be dominated by the white crooners such as Perry Como, Eddie Fisher and Patti Page. Perry Como’s top hit in 1954 was “Wanted” which was charted for 22 weeks of which it spent 8 weeks at #1, and was a genuine million-seller, which in these days was no mean feat.
The top song for the year was “Little Things Mean a Lot” by Kitty Kallen. It was on the charts for 26 weeks, 9 of which were at #1.
The #2 hit was “Sh-Boom”, offered by the Crew Cuts. It has the distinction of being the very first #1 charted rock & roll song. Bing Crosby’s last ever song on the hit parade was his legendary “White Christmas”, which came in at #23 in December. This song was first recorded in 1942 from the movie “Holiday Inn” and is the biggest selling single of all time. The only black singer with a consistent presence on the so called “white” charts was Nat ‘King’ Cole. His big hit for 1954 was “Answer Me My Love”, which peaked at #6 in February. Kay Starr was singled out by no less a personality than Billie Holiday as “… the only white woman who could sing the blues”. Apparently Billie didn’t realize Kay was 75% Iroquois. Asked to characterize her own personal style, Kay Starr replied she was a jazz singer.
“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets was originally released in May but only hit #23. It became a monster hit when released again a year later as the soundtrack for the movie “Blackboard Jungle”, going on to become a strong influence on the entire genre.
In August the group released “Shake, Rattle & Roll” which became a million seller. Interestingly, this song had been released on the R&B Charts in May, by Joe Turner & His Blues Kings where it hit #1, and by August had crossed over to the Billboard Charts. “Honey Love” by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters was another R&B single to hit #1, and later crossed over. Black artists did not fare as well on Billboard, but at least there was now some cross-pollination.
There was no doubt that R&B remained the progenitor and incubator for rock & roll. The year’s top R&B hit by far was “The Things That I Used to Do” by Guitar Slim, accompanied on the piano by Ray Charles – it crossed over at #22.
Guitar Slim was a revolutionary guitar player who influenced many who came after, including Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Unfortunately, his star faded, Guitar Slim died an alcoholic at age 32.
In 1954, there was little doubt the American car was master of the highway, (by 1957 there was even a Mercury named after the quintessential American highway – the Turnpike Cruiser). In deliberating over what sold cars in North America,
the manufacturers settled on three main factors: styling, simplicity of use and horsepower. Economy, roominess and safety took a back seat, so to speak. Chrysler still wouldn’t figure out for a few years yet that frumpy practical cars wouldn’t sell.
As the new year dawned Ford Motor Company had every reason to be optimistic about the future. They had celebrated their 50th anniversary with dash and flair in 1953, including a huge increase in production and sales. Active (key word being “Active”) hostilities in the Korean War had
ended in July, 1953, allowing the country to lift wartime constraints on raw materials and production facilities, which then allowed these to be reassigned to normal manufacturing activities including automobiles.
This good news was partially offset by the effects of a post-Korean War recession. By 1954 a lot of the pent up demand the industry had experienced following World War II had petered out. With profit margins starting to suffer, some of the major independent manufacturers began to fall by the side of the road. The Hudson Motor Car Company merged with Nash Kelvinator to become American Motors Corporation on May 1.
On October 1 Packard and Studebaker combined as Studebaker-Packard Corporation. By 1958 the venerable Packard disappeared altogether, its glory days and reputation long since gone.
Overall, Ford enjoyed a big increase in production during 1953, a success in which Mercury shared. Sales increased 64% over 1952 and Mercury pulled into sixth place in sales, just barely surpassing Oldsmobile and enjoying its second best year ever. By 1954 all the majors had suffered sales losses although Ford declined by only 8.3%. GM was down 10.4% and Chrysler a whopping 37.2%. For one of the few times in history, the Ford make itself outsold Chevrolet.
In fact despite the onset of a buyers’ market, the entire American car industry after taking a breath, was just entering a halcyon period in which newly increased production availability and capacity combined with a war-weary public’s desire to spoil themselves a bit. The result was a tremendous opportunity for those able to create and fulfill dreams. Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, obsessed with all things modern were seeking a way to express their sophistication, up-to-the-minute tastes and prosperity, and weren’t shy about spending cash to do so.
Often a new car was the most ostentatious and effective means to so demonstrate, and flamboyance was quickly becoming synonymous with refinement and style. The industry reacted by coming up with a vast array of new mechanical innovations, comfort and convenience features, and colorful new styling options. Wisely, Mercury management gave lots of free rein to their design and technical staff.
Ford’s future indeed looked bright and the company was poised to demolish sales records in 1955. In addition, Mercury led its price class in resale value.
A total of 259,305 Mercurys were produced for 1954 and the brand had fallen back to seventh spot, having been overtaken by Oldsmobile. This was 15% less than 1953, but an 8-week strike at a major plant had curtailed production by about 17,000 cars.
Unveiled on December 10, 1953, the 1954 Mercury certainly bore more than a passing family resemblance to its immediate predecessors, but its looks had been freshened and modernized.
The front end featured a contemporary massive grille and bumper assembly set off by two “Dagmar” bumper guards, (as an aside you may often read of automotive styling touches nicknamed “Dagmars”.
The reference is to bullet shaped bumper guards christened after a contemporary actress named Dagmar, – she was known by one name, like Dion or Liberace or Mantovani – and was a frequent guest on several early 50’s TV variety shows.
She possessed certain prominent architectural assets of which she was obviously and rightly very proud). Wrap around parking lamps were also new.
A faux air scoop is molded into the hood, with its leading edge heavily encased in a chrome highlight centred by a rocket-like ornament.
The hood fascia carries a large single piece molding incorporating a badge and nameplate. Red-centred wheel covers were also new this year.
A chrome spear runs the length of the side emphasizing a longer, lower silhouette. Three shorter spears accent a slight bulge where the rear fenders would be. The rear end treatment showcases a wrap around bumper with large wrap around taillights in replacement of the rather small and much less prominent ones of prior years and those of competing makes. The bumper is stamped with “Mercury” in script.
In addition to new styling, the year also saw a number of technical innovations putting Mercury on a par with Lincoln. Most prominent among these was a suspension improvement pioneered by Earle S. MacPherson who originally had come to Ford via their British subsidiary. He invented the famous MacPherson strut for smaller European cars which was then adapted to their larger, heavier American counterpart.
The king-pin arrangement revolutionized front end suspension and consisted of wheel spindles held in place by upper and lower A-arms, which were in turn joined by a single coil spring with a hydraulic shock absorber in its centre. Steering control, stability, ruggedness and ride were all vastly improved over the king-pin setup that had been the norm for many years. A massive new hood lock support reduced front end vibration to nil, and an additional steering column support greatly diminished road vibration up through the steering wheel.
New this year as well was Mercury’s first overhead valve V8, replacing the now antiquated flathead which had been in service since 1939. This engine had been under development and testing since 1948, so it was well ready for its timely introduction. While the 1953 flathead displaced 255 cubic inches, advertised horsepower was 125 at 3,800 rpm.
In contrast the 1954 overhead valve engine displaced 256 cubic inches, but put out 161 horsepower! Initial development objectives included reduction of internal friction and weight, so that less power was wasted in moving the engine’s various parts. Use of new alloys and forging methods accomplished the weight reduction part of the equation, while new and more efficient methods of providing lubrication to moving parts reduced friction. The engine’s shorter stroke also contributes to reduced inherent resistance.
The result was more power from the same cubic inch displacement. A further innovative plus was the interchangeability of some engine parts with Ford and Lincoln.
Carburetion was redesigned and the first 4-barrel carburetor introduced. Two barrels were in constant use, while the other two kicked in to provide extra help when the engine came under load such as in sudden acceleration. The carburetor was also positioned up away from the manifold so that the common Ford “vapor lock” problem was resolved. Gasoline was kept cooler and in liquid form until the carburetor was ready for it.
The cylinder shape was redesigned to allow more thorough “mixing” of air and gasoline just prior to ignition, and thus provide a little extra oomph during the power part of the cycle. Additionally a higher capacity fuel pump was mounted lower on the engine to permit easier sipping from the fuel tank. Other technical design innovations included a new starter fail safe that stopped its operation once the engine caught, a low cut-in generator, (the low cut in nature of the generator means that it will produce 40 amps at a lower RPM so that cars with extra lights and power needs at idle will have the power needed),
heat shielded spark plug wires, a larger cooling system powered by a higher adequacy water pump improved thermal efficiency, the latter accompanying a larger four-bladed fan and an oil bath air cleaner. Enlarged exhaust manifolds and tail pipes improved combustion gas removal, reduced back pressure and made for a much sexier rumble.
Most of these technical improvements were ready to go for Ford’s 50th anniversary model year, but government war-time production and raw material restrictions had not yet been lifted, so they were delayed until 1954. Some of these innovations had already been introduced on 1952 Lincolns where durability and practicality had been proven by Lincoln’s first place finishes in the Carrera Panamericana road races of 1952 , 1953 and 1954. This race, considered the world’s most dangerous during its 5-year run from 1950 to 54, was from border to border in Mexico. In the 1952 race a vulture shattered the windscreen of a Mercedes SL and knocked the navigator unconscious. The bird was said to weigh as much as “five fattened geese”.
The new more powerful engine could be mated with a choice of two transmissions. The base offering was a three speed standard which could be combined with Touch-o-Matic overdrive for an additional $89. The Merc-o-Matic automatic had been introduced in 1951, but proved no match for 1954’s stronger engine. Accordingly the former “FX” Merc-o-Matic was beefed up and designated the “MX”.
A significantly larger proportion of cars were delivered with automatics than in previous years even with the $190 additional price tag, while the overdrive was waning in popularity despite its proven gas saving attributes. Although the public said they were interested in economy, their cheque-books sang a different tune. I’m a bit mystified by this, as a power-hungry public must surely have realized the overdrive would deliver a higher top speed, along with attendant bragging rights. Final drive ratio for overdrive was 0.7 to 1.
Introduced in 1953, power steering and brakes were also increasing in popularity. Other optional equipment included 4-way power seats, electric windows and curb buffers. In addition, one could order at extra cost, a remote control outside mirror, (incorporating a spotlight if you wished), door edge guards, safety door locks, a tissue dispenser and arctic wiper blades. Other items listed as options were full wheel covers and bumper guards, but nobody’s ever seen a car equipped without them. Stainless rocker panel moldings were extra-cost possibilities on the Monterey.
Rear fender skirts were standard on Monterey only, (including station wagons), optional on other models.
Although all models were technically members of the Custom series, the price leading base Custom series consisted of 2- and 4-door sedans and a 2-door “Sport Coupe” hardtop. All are identified by stainless “Mercury” script above the chrome spear on the rear fenders.
All came equipped with a pleasant woven plastic seat insert in a vertical ladder pattern. Next up the line is the “Monterey” which was offered as a 4-door sedan, a 2-door “Custom Sport Coupe” hardtop, a convertible, a faux wood-trimmed station wagon and the talk of the automotive year, the Sun Valley 2-door hardtop. The Monterey Sport Coupe was Mercury’s most popular offering for 1954. The Monterey series was identified by the name in script on the rear fenders, while in addition, the Sun Valley had its designation in gold-colored script on the front fenders.
The Monterey also had a chrome encased “Mercury head” medallion near the front on the side spear. The Monterey sedan was the year’s second best selling model and carried a Mercury-head badge on the C-Pillar.
The Sun Valley was truly revolutionary, (as well as its Ford equivalent, the Skyliner). The front half of the roof consisted of a specially developed, see-through, green-tinted, half-inch thick, space-age plastic panel, fixed in place, mounted flush and trimmed with stainless. Predating the moonroof by two decades the model had a second chrome molding starting at the windshield header and following the drip rail around to the C-Pillar.
You could relax in the front seat and enjoy an outdoorsy feel from inside a coupe. Mercury’s own tests of the cabin temperature of a Sun Valley versus an ordinary Monterey hardtop indicated a 5 degree Fahrenheit temperature difference – which is actually quite a lot when you think about it.
In any case if all that sunlight or lack of privacy proved too much for your sensibilities, you had a zip-in reflective liner you could use. The Sun Valley might have been a trifle gimmicky, but it certainly generated lots of buzz, and this was probably its primary purpose anyway. You couldn’t get much more space age than the Sun Valley and advertising copy emphasized this aspect. Unsurprisingly total sales amounted to only 9,761 units – but try and find one today!
By 1954 the buying public was looking for something bold in the way of exterior colors that made a statement about the owner’s adventurous taste and sophistication. Gone were the days when Henry Ford said you could have any color as long as it’s black.
Mercury offered 14 discrete solid or metallic colors which could be had solely or combined into a total of 22 two-toned offerings. Only certain colors were available for the Sun Valley, as the thinking was not everything would look good with the green tinted plexiglass – most cars I’ve seen had a dark (Glenoaks) green roof and (Yosemite) yellow body with a similarly hued interior.
Continuing a trend started in late 1953, actual wood trim and paneling were no longer used on the Monterey station wagon. The real thing was proving very expensive to engineer and install, making the wagons the costliest model offered. Additionally, it represented a significant investment in time and effort by the owner to keep the wood properly maintained and reconditioned.
Frame rails were now fashioned from fiberglass and finished to resemble blonde maple, with the paneling consisting of a look-alike mahogany plastic sheet. The Monterey script was carried low on the rear fenders, below the stainless spear and in front of the wheel openings.
Several different and tasteful interior options were available, with the emphasis on striking audacity moderated by the bounds of cultivated refinement. Interior changes included a new hooded, flush mounted instrument panel and two-spoke steering wheel with a Mercury head and red centre, plus more sumptuous appointments. Base level models featured a black steering wheel, while Monterey’s were white.
The push button starter was replaced with a key operated unit. Heater controls were modernized while the rest of the dash was carried over from 1953. Public tastes were changing. While we wanted to appear adventurous we didn’t want to seem at all low-brow or out of the fashion loop.
Up to this point it was not all that unusual to see color combinations that would later be considered somewhat weird and unsightly, especially on the sportier body styles. For example a blue car with a red and white interior or similar, was certainly not impossible to find.
The number and variety of interior offerings was truly staggering. The Monterey sedan presented a choice of six color options in nylon, vinyl or broadcloth weaves. The Monterey Special Custom Coupe and Sun Valley made available vinyl, leather and broadcloth weaves in 15 distinctive colors for the former and 6 for the latter. Station wagons displayed carpeted floor for the first time this year, along with two-tone combinations of white with either red or turquoise. The Monterey Special Custom convertible was available in 13 different combinations of vinyl, leather and basket weave in six color possibilities.
You could order black with red or bittersweet, or ivory with red, bittersweet, turquoise or blue. Each model featured distinguishing patterns. Convertible roofs came in black, tan or green. Interior designers could not afford to ignore the tides of style, and Mercury was certainly in the vanguard of chic.