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Predicting the (near) future – Mercury’s 1956 XM Turnpike Cruiser concept

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Mercury’s 1956 XM Turnpike Cruiser concept. Images courtesy The Old Car Manual Project.

In April of 1954, John Najjar, then head of Lincoln’s pre-production studios, sketched a series of five futuristic concept cars. While none of Najjar’s original designs would make it to the clay model phase, one of his suggestions, the Mandalay, was reworked into a Mercury concept called the XM Turnpike Cruiser. Remarkably, this car would see production (in slightly altered form), but it would also help to prematurely end the career of Ford “Whiz Kid” Francis C. “Jack” Reith.

As explained by Jim and Cheryl Farrell in Ford Design Department Concept & Show Cars 1932-1961, Najjar’s Mandalay concept was to be “A four-passenger cross-country turnpike cruiser with exhaust ports exiting behind the front wheels. An air-conditioning saddle covered the upper area of the body, and tailfins held aircraft-type taillights. Chromed rear tubes on each side of the car carried pint-sized JATO (jet-assisted take off) bottles for extra power in case of emergency.”

1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser

Fanciful, perhaps, but no more or less so than other concepts of the day, which boasted (but didn’t deliver) features like nuclear power, gyroscopic stabilization and even autonomous operation on the “highways of tomorrow.” While many design motifs on the Mandalay were canned, the “Turnpike Cruiser” name stuck, as did the car’s four-seat accommodations, quad tailfins and body-exit exhaust.

Najjar was partnered with Elwood Engel, and the pair was tasked with producing a full-size clay model of the concept. Upping the stakes, the team was in competition with a second group (Gene Bordinat and Don DeLaRossa), also assigned to create a full-scale clay model. Ultimately, only one model would be given the green light for production.

1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser

Najjar and Engel worked with other studio designers (including Larry Shinoda, then a new hire) to develop the theme and final design of the Turnpike Cruiser concept, often spending long days and late nights on the project. In autumn 1954, Jack Reith, fresh from a successful European stint, began to spend time in the Design Department, and took an interest in the Turnpike Cruiser project. Though not a designer himself, Reith was a respected “car guy” in the Ford organization, and his suggestions for alterations and changes were backed up by reason and facts.

The clay sculpted by Najjar and Engel was selected to proceed, and Italy’s Ghia was chosen to build the concept. Supplied with a 1954 Mercury convertible chassis and a Mercury V-8 driveline, Ghia’s staff worked from a plaster model cast from the 3/8 scale clay. As was often the case, Ghia’s interpretations were not necessarily what Ford’s designers had in mind, and the XM Turnpike Cruiser delivered sported a significantly revised windshield and no specified vent windows. As a result, future projects assigned to Ghia received much tighter scrutiny from Ford employees.

1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser

The Ghia-built Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser was measured just 52.4 inches high, so to facilitate entry a “butterfly top” was employed. When the doors were opened (by handles hidden in the door’s top channel), Plexiglass roof panels would automatically tilt upward to allow easier entry. A period brochure praised the concept’s “compound wraparound” windshield, which improved outward visibility while giving the illusion “that the top is floating on air.”

Described by Mercury as “a full-scale, fully operative automotive styling laboratory,” the Cruiser concept wore fluted channels that sported twin fins on each side, a “bookend” design that originated with Shinoda. Up front, the parking lights and turn signals were housed in chromed “jet pods,” while at the rear the exhaust exited though chrome surrounds in each quarter panel.

1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser in production form, from its dedicated brochure. Images courtesy The Old Car Manual Project.

Inside, instruments were carried in four chrome-trimmed pods, and passengers enjoyed leather-wrapped seating for four. Even the glovebox was lined in leather, and the radio’s speakers were cleverly contained within the headliner. Ford debuted a new feature on the Cruiser, one that’s now become an expected standard on new cars; when the ignition was turned off, the headlamps would remain illuminated for an additional 30 to 40 seconds, providing pathway lighting for driver and passengers.

The Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser, hauled in a dedicated see-through trailer, debuted at the January 1956 Cleveland Auto Show. By that time, Reith had risen to the position of general manager for the Mercury division, and with the promotion came certain expectations of sales volume increases. Reith had championed the Turnpike Cruiser nearly from its inception, and one of his first acts as head of Mercury was to green-light the car for production.

1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser 1956 Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser

Less than a year after the concept debuted, the production Turnpike Cruiser (without butterfly roof panels) hit Mercury showrooms. Reith even arranged for the car to pace the 1957 Indianapolis 500, but consumers weren’t enamored with the design, purchasing just 24,247 examples. The one time “Whiz Kid” had upped Mercury’s sales numbers by as much as 21-percent in the first half of 1957, but senior management expected better return on its investment. Removed as head of Mercury, Reith was tasked with heading Ford Canada, but opted to resign from the company instead.

The Turnpike Cruiser was discontinued as a separate model for 1958, when it became part of the Montclair lineup. The XM Turnpike Cruiser concept and its custom one-off trailer reportedly languished in a Ford parking lot until 1958, when the car was sold to Jim White, vice president of Dearborn Tube and Steel, for the sum of $300.

In the fall of 1982, after passing through a few more owners, the Cruiser concept was sold through the pages of Hemmings Motor News. As of 1999, the most recent information we could dig up, the car was still under private ownership, awaiting restoration.