What’s a Mercury? For the past 30 years or so, the Mercury badge has generally meant a re-trimmed Ford product with slightly different styling and features, offered mostly to give Lincoln-Mercury dealers something to keep them alive between Navigator and Town Car sales. Other than the “electric shaver” grille treatment of recent cars (reminiscent of the 1967 Mercury Cougar), there’s little of substance to differentiate a Mercury from its Ford sibling. Throughout Mercury’s roller-coaster 68-year history, however, FoMoCo has made periodic stabs at giving its ill-starred middle-class division a unique product to sell — like the 1963-1968 Mercury Breezeway sedans.
For all former chairman Alfred P. Sloan’s rhetoric about cars for every price and purpose, the main reason General Motors long had a surplus of middle-class brands is that it started out that way. General Motors was originally formed as a conglomerate of other existing automakers: Buick, Oldsmobile, Oakland (the predecessor of Pontiac), Chevrolet, and Cadillac were all independent automakers before becoming part of GM. The same was true of Chrysler’s Dodge Division; the Dodge Brothers were selling cars long before the formation of the Chrysler Corporation.
While Ford’s Lincoln division was originally a separate company that Henry Ford had acquired in the early twenties, Mercury was created out of whole cloth in the late thirties. It was founded at the urging of Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s only son, who had been concerned for several years about the vast price gap between the most expensive Ford and the cheapest Lincoln. Henry Ford, whose interests lay almost entirely in the low-price field, wasn’t particularly concerned, but Edsel recognized that the company was losing a lot of middle-class buyers. Customers who wanted something bigger or fancier than a Ford, but who couldn’t afford a Lincoln, were simply leaving for Pontiac, DeSoto, or other middle-priced rivals.
Development of the first middle-class Ford began in July 1937, led by engineer Larry Sheldrick and Ford design director Bob Gregorie. It was in almost every respect a bigger version of the standard Ford; its chassis, suspension, and running gear were nearly identical and it used a bored-out version of Ford’s familiar flathead V8. Edsel even wanted to call the new model the Ford-Mercury, but Gregorie and the Ford sales organization eventually convinced him that it was better to brand the new model as a separate entity.
The first Mercury bowed in October 1938 as a 1939 model. Although its obvious Ford origins earned it some derision, it was reasonably popular, selling about 69,000 its first year, more than 81,000 in 1940. Its bigger engine, with about 10 more horsepower (7.5 kW) more than the regular Ford V8, made it particularly popular with hot-rodders, and postwar Mercurys became a favorite of customizers. By 1949, Mercury had topped 300,000 sales a year.
MERCURY TURNPIKE CRUISER
Mercury sold well through the mid-fifties, but Ford still wanted a bigger slice of the mid-priced market. After a lot of debate, the company decided to separate Mercury from Lincoln add a new mid-price division, Edsel, positioned more or less between Ford and Mercury. Mercury, meanwhile, was supposed to move upscale, filling the gap betwen Ford’s existing mid-price cars and Lincoln.
In 1957, Mercury received a new image-leader model, the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. The Turnpike Cruiser had originated as a 1956 show car called the XM-Cruiser, styled by Don DeLaRossa under Mercury studio chief Elwood P. Engel. Its most novel feature was an unusual roof treatment Mercury dubbed “Breezeway.” Possibly inspired by the contemporary Packard Predictor show car, it had reverse-slant C-pillars with a rear window that could be opened for ventilation.
The Breezeway roof was subsequently adopted for the production Turnpike Cruiser, giving it a unique silhouette and allowed both excellent ventilation and fine headroom for rear-seat passengers. The Turnpike Cruiser was not a sales success, but a similar roofline was applied to the 1958 Lincoln Continental line.
Unfortunately, both the Edsel and Mercury’s move upscale proved to be ill-timed, arriving at the same time as the 1957-1958 Eisenhower Recession. Even if the public had loved their styling and features, which they evidently did not, all mid-price brands were hit hard by the economic downturn. Mercury’s sales fell from almost 328,000 in 1956 to 153,271 in 1958 and fewer than 150,000 for 1959.
By 1961, Edsel was dead, Mercury and Lincoln had been reunited, and Mercury was back in its traditional role of selling redecorated, slightly plusher Fords.
THE MERCURY BREEZEWAY MARK TWO
The Mercury line was all-new in 1963, although it still shared the body shell of the big Ford. For reasons now obscure, Mercury stylists decided to revive the Breezeway roof. We’re not sure why, since neither the Turnpike Cruiser nor the 1958-1960 Continentals had been particularly successful.
It appears that the styling of the 1963 Mercurys was originally intended for the 1964 Fords, so it’s possible that the designers intended to use the Breezeway roof on the full-size Ford line, creating a styling ‘trickle-down’ effect. For whatever reason, the Breezeway ended up a Mercury exclusive. It was offered in four variations: two- and four-door pillared sedans and two- and four-door pillared hardtops.
If nothing else, the Breezeway roof did serve to differentiate the Mercury line from the big Fords. However, that distinction was muddied midway through the 1963 model year when Mercury added a more conventional-looking Marauder hardtop to the line, sharing the sleek “slantback” roof of the 1963-1/2 big Fords. The slantback roof had been introduced for the benefit of Ford’s NASCAR racers and its appearance on the Marauder was intended to support Mercury’s own return to racing in 1963. As a result, the slantback Marauder was far more heavily featured in advertising than the Mercury Breezeway, even though the latter accounted for the bulk of Mercury’s full-size sales.
Mercury buyers weren’t blown away by the looks of the Breezeway and Mercury’s total 1963 sales were down almost 40,000 units from 1962; the compact and midsize lines outsold the big Mercury Breezeway cars by a significant margin. Sales were little better the face-lifted 1964s, which deleted the four-door hardtop Breezeway in favor of a four-door version of the Marauder hardtop. Business rallied a bit for 1965 and 1966, but model-for-model sales of the full-size cars were depressing; only the four-door sedans broke into the five-figure range.
At various times, Mercury had had a reputation as a fairly hot car, but the Breezeway cars were not particularly fast. A handful of 1963-1964 Mercurys were ordered with Ford’s 427 cu. in. (6,986 cc) V8 in either single-quad (410 hp, 306 kW) or dual-quad (425 hp, 317 kW)) forms, which trimmed the big Merc’s 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to less than 8 seconds and gave it a top speed of over 130 mph (210 km/h), but the 427 was rare, expensive, and finicky. It was definitely a specialist engine: It could only be ordered with the optional four-speed manual and couldn’t be had with power steering, power brakes, or air conditioning — the belts wouldn’t stay on at the 6,000+ rpm engine speeds of which the 427 was capable.
The Mercury Breezeway body style was discontinued after 1966, although Lincoln-Mercury continued to offer a less dramatic version of the retractable rear window on big Mercurys for a few more years. It was obsolete by the late sixties, since the same effect could be achieved with a good flow-through ventilation system — something Ford pioneered in the U.S. on the 1964-1966 Thunderbird. By 1970, Mercury had once again relinquished any distinctive body styles for its mainstream cars.
Since then, Mercury has made occasional stabs at offering unique products, usually “captive imports” like the European Ford Capri, the Nissan-based Villager, and the Australian Capri roadster, seldom with much enthusiasm. Ford seems to lack either the will or the resources to seriously distinguish the division from its Ford mate.
Why Ford keeps Mercury alive is an interesting question. It does not appear that re-badging Fords lets them sell more cars — at this point, any additional prestige the Mercury name might have carried is long gone and it’s unlikely that anyone is buying a Mercury who wouldn’t buy the same thing with a Ford badge. A more significant reason is that Mercury is paired with Lincoln. Having products to sell other than Lincolns helps to keep those dealerships afloat, particularly given the ongoing “die-off” of Lincoln’s traditional buyers. Still, one may question the logic of offering multiple, badge-engineered variations of cars for which buyers seem to have only mild enthusiasm to begin with.
Rumors have been flying for the past few years that Ford CEO Alan Mulally will finally pull the plug on Mercury, but Ford has yet to issue a definitive statement one way or the other. It appears that in the corporate mindset Edsel Ford’s original logic holds true: Mercury may not be a great brand, but it fills a gap they think needs to be filled.
If we must have Mercury, though, maybe a little genuine wackiness wouldn’t hurt.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1963-1968 Mercury Breezeway,” HowStuffWorks.com, 20 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/1963-1968-mercury-breezeway.htm, accessed 23 August 2007, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications, International, 1996); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Michael Lamm and David L. Lewis, “The First Mercury & How It Came to Be,” Special Interest Autos #23 (July-August 1974), Michael Lamm, “Gizmobile,” Special Interest Autos #15 (February-March 1973); and Tim Howley, “1964 Mercury Marauder: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Car,” Special Interest Autos #162 (November-December 1997), all of which are reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mercurys: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); “1963 Mercury Monterey,” Automobile Topics October 1962; Wayne Thoms, “Mercury Road Test,” Motor Trend March 1963; “Mercury 427 Super Marauder S-55,” Car Life April 1963; Jim Wright, “1964 Mercury Road Test,” Motor Trend October 1963; and “Mercury Park Lane and Monterey: A Career Girl Emerges with Manners and Taste,” Car Life January 1965, all of which are reprinted in Mercury Gold Portfolio 1947-1966, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2006).
Further information on the birth of Mercury came from Benson Ford Research Center researcher Dave Crippen’s 1985 interview with Bob Gregorie (“Reminiscences of Eugene T. Gregorie,” 4 February 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd. umich.edu/ Design/Gregorie_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 20 August 2007).