It was a car that captivated movie audiences, inspired kustomizers, and tempted hot rodders. Batman arrived at crime scenes in one in a 1949 serial by Columbia Pictures. James Dean cruised through the Los Angeles streets in one in “Rebel Without a Cause.” And Sam Barris customized one for Bob Hirohata that turned out to be one of the most famous lead sleds of all time. It was called the “Mercury Eight” and it was the first Mercury to boast a model name instead of just the marque. Before the Eight debuted in 1949, Mercury cars were simply identified by the brand name. Within a few years of the Eight’s release, Mercury was synonymous with street style, quickly becoming every customizer’s object of desire.
It’s not a Ford. It’s not a Lincoln. It’s a Mercury!
The Mercury marque, a Ford brand, was born in 1939 and suffered a serious identity crisis for its first decade. Edsel Ford hoped that pricing the Mercury between Ford and Lincoln would put it on par with Buicks and Oldsmobiles but many felt that Mercury simply couldn’t decide what it wanted. In his June article for The New York Times, “Mercury: A Brand Without a Cause,” Jerry Garrett wrote: “Ford itself never seemed completely sure of the concept. At various times, Mercury was pushed as dressed-up Ford; other times, it was marketed as a bargain Lincoln.” In 1945, Mercury ceased to be its own marque, joining forces with Lincoln to create the Lincoln-Mercury division. That same year, the Mercury Eight went into development and executives crossed their fingers that the buying public would finally associate the confused marque with Lincoln instead of Ford.
Make Way for the Mercury Eight
From the big wigs to the critics to the car buyers themselves, Lincoln-Mercury’s first brand new model, the Mercury Eight, exceeded everyone’s expectations. The Eight emerged after World War II when the buying public was eager to drive home in new models after a four year wartime dry spell. Ultimately, not only did the Eight help Mercury distinguish itself from Ford, for a few golden years it even outshined the superbrand, coming in sixth in national sales in 1949 and again in 1951, selling more than 301,000 units in its first year alone.
What made the Eight such an instant sensation? To start, Lincoln-Mercury pumped more power into the Eight’s flathead 361 cubic inch V-8 engine than what was coming off the regular Ford assembly line. It topped off at 110 horsepower and could go from zero to 60 in 10.2 seconds, showing up every car in the Ford arsenal. The Eight’s full size body was longer, lower, and wider than other cars of the time. And for a “Junior Lincoln,” the Mercury was affordable, starting at just under $2000 and maxing out at $2735 for those who wanted all the frills. Ford’s “inverted bathtub,” as drivers coined the main brand’s new design, was no match for the luscious curves of the Mercury Eight, which customizers soon discovered was also perfect for performance enhancement.
“Kross Kountry In a Kustom”
Sam Barris first turned the Mercury Eight into a lead sled that any car lover would be proud to trot around town in 1949, revealing how nicely the car lent itself to modification. Barris’ Mercury masterpiece rid the term “lead sled” of its prior stigma, paving the way for a new era in the auto industry when kustom was king. “It wasn’t until the 1950s,” Garrett explained, “that the brand’s identity began to pull away and establish itself with unique features and models.” That the Mercury was so easily customizable was the most attractive feature to Fifties drivers, though most preferred the ’49 model, despite attempts to improve upon the design in 1950 and 1951. Impressive chrome detailing and an optional Merc-o-Matic three speed automatic transmission weren’t enough to knock the ’49 Mercury Eight off its pedestal.
Perhaps pop culture had a bit to do with the ’49 Eight’s surge in popularity. Not only did Robert Lowery drive a factory-stock Mercury Eight for 15 chapters of Columbia Pictures’ Batman and Robin serial, but James Dean held the keys to one in the 1955 film, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Warner Bros. released the film over six years after the Mercury Eight’s debut when manufacturers were tempting car buyers with tricks like new and improved power plants and tubeless tires. But movie fans were far more taken with the Cool Guy’s ride, which, paired with a leather jacket and slicked back hair, was still the epitome of cruising in style. Mattel Hot Wheels paid tribute to the car in 1990 with its chopped “Purple Passion” model, which is nearly as collectible today as the car to which it nods.
Despite the ’49′s overarching popularity compared to other Eight models, it was a ’51 Club Coupe that Barris Kustoms customized for Bob Hirohata in 1953. Sam Barris and his father, George, completely modified the Hirohata Merc, as it is known today, chopping the roof, extending the rear fenders, rounding the trunk corners, and fashioning a new grille. They replaced the engine with a Cadillac overhead valve V-8 before sending the “Mercillac’ (as Hirohata deemed it) for naugahyde upholstery and a sea foam and organic green paint job. By the time Hirohata and his Merc finished their cross country trip on Route 66, the car hwas the recipient of 180+ trophies. Over 50 years later, the Hirohata Merc is still heralded as one of the most koveted kustoms of all time.
The Lead Sled Lives On
Lincoln-Mercury ceased production on the Mercury Eight in 1951, several years before the car truly hit its peak. But you can still buy a fiberglass replica of the legend today and turn it into a lead sled of your very own. Whether you’re big on kustom kulture, keen on re-living your greaser days or simply sweet on style, the Mercury Eight is a car unlike any other. Just listen to the lyrics of Alan Jackson’s 1993 hit, “Mercury Blues”: Well, if I had money / Tell you what I’d do / I’d go downtown and buy a Mercury or two / Crazy ‘bout a Mercury / Lord I’m crazy ’bout a Mercury / I’m gonna buy me a Mercury / And cruise it up and down the road.
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