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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.