Crazy ‘Bout Those Hot Rod Mercurys: A History of Ford’s Mean Brother

In today’s consciousness, the name “Mercury” might lead some to think of the element found in thermometers, the planet closest to the sun, or the Roman god from mythology. For others, the late rock superstar Freddie Mercury might come to mind.  Ford enthusiasts, however, remember Mercury as Ford’s mean little brother which still has an influence on hot rodding today.

Born in the minds of Ford’s marketing team in 1937, the Mercury automobile was created for more affluent buyers. This was similar to what General Motors did in developing other brands, such as Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick, which lead from the entry-level Chevrolet up to Cadillac, which was at the top of the food-chain.

Left: Following WWII, Henry Ford II merged the Mercury and Lincoln divisions to form the upscale Lincoln-Mercury group. The Mercury Eight, such as this 1946 convertible, became a favorite among hot rodders after being featured in numerous feature movies. Right: With its streamlined styling. the 1949-51 Mercury was a huge hit among hot rodders. Chopped tops, shaved trim, frenched headlights and a ’52 DeSoto grille has become standard fare for this iconic bodystyle 70 years later. Stan Hall exhibited that look on his Pro Modified during an NMCA event at Bowling Green.

With a longer footprint, roomier body, and richer appointments, customers approved when four different Mercury models began appearing in dealership showrooms in late 1938. Magazine reviews were also overwhelmingly positive. Prior to the start of World War II, Mercury’s marketing department claimed that 150,000 vehicle buyers had changed car brands in just a few short years.

Yet, just as nice girls seldom make history (while bad girls do), those earliest Merc’s live on because they were considered as “bad” cars to have by hot rodders, especially after the war. At that time, pre-war Fords and Mercs were relatively cheap, with the Mercury Eight was seen as the most desirable of the “Big M” cars. The 1942 Mercury had more compression and more power than Ford’s flathead V8 while still accepting nearly all of the latter engine’s aftermarket performance parts.

The 1960 Monterey was the last of the big 126-inch wheelbase cars as Mercury went to a smaller wheelbase the following year to be more in line with the Ford Galaxie. The 312-cubic inch Y-block V8, which peaked as a high-performance engine in 1957, disappeared from production Mercurys at the end of this model year.

The 1949-1951 model years represented the high-water mark for Mercury as the public saw the first completely redesigned post-WWII car. Longer, lower, wider, and more powerful, the Sports Coupe was the least expensive Merc offered that year as well as the most attractive. The public as well as hot rodders immediately embraced the look, which led to record sales.

Left: Prior to Mercury pulling out of stock car racing in 1964, Parnelli Jones ran this 1963 Mercury Marauder for team owner Bill Stroppe. Jones won the 1963 Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb as well as the USAC Stock Car championship with this 427-powered stocker. Center: With a 427 hi-riser and four-on-the-floor in 1964, Dyno Don Nicholson found success with a Comet wagon before switching to a Caliente coupe later that year. “Fast” Eddie Schartman would continue to campaign the car through 1965 before both went to flip-top funny cars. Right: In 1965, Mercury’s drag team was made up of four factory lightweight Comets that went to Don Nicholson, Eddie Schartman, Arnie Beswick, and Hayden Proffitt. Originally raced with carburetors on a stock wheelbase, Proffitt soon went to Hilborn injection and moved the rear axle forward in order to compete against the Dodge and Plymouth AWB cars. This car recently sold for $154,000 at a Mecum auction.

Mercury’s reputation as a hot rod was polished even more, however, when Indianapolis 500 winners Troy Ruttman and Clay Smith took a Merc off a used-car lot, modified it, entered the Carrera Panamericana road race, and finished fourth overall in 1952. In that event, known then as the most dangerous race of any type in the world, the low-budget team finished a surprising fourth behind a high dollar Hemi-powered Chrysler and a pair of Ferraris.

Kurt Neighbor, one of the nation’s leading 427 SOHC experts, won a NMCA Nostalgia Super Stock championship in this wild injected Cammer. When photographed, the car was running off of a 9.50 class index.

Actor James Dean, in the iconic movie Rebel Without A Cause, helped make the souped-up Mercury an even greater symbol for America’s youth in 19955. Along the growing availability of aftermarket parts for the flathead Ford V8, these cars did much to help spawn the hot rod industry as we know it today.

What Mercury had with the 1949-1951 model years, however, disappeared throughout the rest of that decade as the nameplate became associated more with turnpike cruisers. Sales were still good, bolstered in part by the new Ford Y-block V8 which replaced the venerable flathead engine, but the brand was hard-hit by a slow economy towards the end of the decade.

Mercury never enjoyed a great share of the automotive market, but pulled out all the stops to turn its drag racing sponsorships into more car sales as shown by this ad from 1966. The Cyclone Spoiler II and Cobra Jet would later represent the high-water mark for these cars in 1969.

At the beginning of the sixties, the economy-oriented Comet became an increasingly popular Merc to hot rod, even though it was not “officially” a Mercury until 1962. Most of the attention was initially centered on the larger Meteor with its “Police Interceptor” 390-cubic inch V8, rated at 300 horsepower. Things began to heat up in 1963 with the Mercury 427 Super-Marauder S-55 hardtop while a rare, 406 FE big-block option rated at 385 horsepower appeared on the special order sheets for some cars. Mercury indirectly supported a number of teams with the Super Marauder. With Parnelli Jones winning the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb twice, it was becoming clear that racing was helping sell cars.

Left: NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore campaigned a pair of Mercury Cougars in NASCAR’s Grand American Series for pony cars. Lund, in car No. 16, is seen here with Swede Savage at Rockingham. Lund won the inaugural championship in 1969 after claiming 9 wins in 19 events. Right: Priced at just under $4,700 with an automatic transmission, Traction-Lok rear disc brakes, and more, the 1968 ½ Cyclone 428 Cobra Jet fastback wasn’t cheap, but it was one of the better intermediate supercars. Out-of-the-box, the car reportedly ran 14.30s in the quarter at nearly 3,900 pounds, but could dip well into the 13-second zone with some basic mods.

Yet, it was the 427-powered Comet Caliente, which was lighter than Ford’s Thunderbolt, that really put Mercury on the map with hot rodders as Dyno Don Nicholson, Sox & Martin, Jack Chrisman, and others won drag events and grabbed headlines throughout 1964 and 1965. Sales boomed even further with a redesign of the Comet the following year.

The hits just kept on coming as some of the most iconic Mercury muscle cars were bred during the golden age of drag racing in the mid-sixties. The new 1966 Comet Cyclone became one of the best-known Mercury muscle cars when it was chosen to pace the Indy 500. Super Stock & Drag Illustrated proclaimed the Cyclone GT as the “Performance Car of the Year.” Even so, the Cyclone’s sales success paled in comparison to its competitors despite numerous redesigns and engines choices before it was finally cancelled.

Top left: Between 1972 and 1979, David Pearson won 43 races for the famous Wood Brothers racing team in NASCAR. Pearson won three times in a row at Riverside as seen here in a 1976 Mercury Montego. Top right: Originally built in 1979, Animal Jim Feuer’s Mercury Zephyr was seen running in Top Sportsman at Bristol Dragway during 1989. Powered by a Jon Kasse built 672-cublic inch on nitrous, this became one of the all-time favorite Mercurys and is still match raced occasionally today. Bottom left: Kenny Bernstein, Tom Anderson, and Jim Wemett all ran Mercury LN7 bodies on their funny cars in the early eighties. Unfortunately, the small four-cylinder two-seater never sold well and was dropped after the 1982-1983 production years. Bottom right: Roy Hill’s Mercury Capri ran in both IHRA and NHRA Pro Stock between 1983 and 1984, running as quick as a 7.73 at 181 mph. Hill would later switch to a Mercury Topaz for a short while.

In the 1970’s, Mercury as well as many of the other American automakers distanced themselves from muscle cars to other market segments, thanks in part to gas shortages and high insurance premiums. The first-generation German-made Capri, which focused on European-style performance when introduced, was cancelled after a few short years and then brought back as a made-over Mustang in 1979. In the eighties, Mercury once again looked to Germany for its performance cars with the Merkur. Following Ford’s success with the 1979-1993 Mustang, the Fox-body Capri was eventually sold with a 5.0-liter engine, but then cancelled again in 1986 in favor of an Australian import, which became the third-generation Capri.

Left: In the early 1990s, Ronnie Sox revived memories of his 1964 A/FX Mercury Comet when he raced this Pro Modified in IHRA. Running a second-hand mountain motor Pro Stock 707-cubic inch engine converted to nitrous, Sox finished second in the IHRA championship in 1990. The car eventually ran a best of 6.789 seconds in early 1993 before it was retired. Center: Mercury was also well represented in production sports car racing. Pete Halsmer ran this Merkur XR4Ti for Roush Racing along with teammate Scott Pruett, who won the SCCA Trans-Am driver’s championship in 1987. Right: Later model body styles, such as Tony Mangrum’s 2002 Cougar, are still seen occasionally in sportsman ranks. With a 690-cubic inch engine, Mangrum holds the national record in B/Altered and has run as quick as 6.50 seconds at 215 mph.

Sales continued to struggle for years as its market share continued to decline, despite Mercury’s token involvement in professional motorsports. For hot rodders, the four-door Marauder name was briefly revived from 2003-2004 following the success of Chevrolet’s Impala SS, but only 11,052 were sold during its lifespan.

In early January 2011, the last Mercury rolled off the production line. While the nameplate ended in a whimper, the “Big M’s” impact on hot rodding is still alive and kicking today.

About the author

Rod Short

With thirty-seven years of experience as a part-time photojournalist, columnist and editor, Rod Short’s byline has appeared in over three dozen media outlets. Now retired, he looks to help further the sport of hot rodding and drag racing.
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