Photos by Robert Conant.
[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Robert Conant of Bradenton, Florida.]
I was born in January, 1940, and I spent the World War II years on my father’s lap reading the automobile ads in the Saturday Evening Post. As a result, I knew the cars of the 1940s like the back of my hand and developed an eye for style.
I started saving for my first car when I was eight-years old and leaned toward Ford products because that was what my father drove in that period. I truly did like the styles penned by E.T. “Bob” Gregorie and Edsel Ford in that era. The first car my father had that I specifically remember was a 1941 Mercury sedan. After the war, my Dad had a succession of Mercurys including a 1947 four-door, a 1949 four-door and a 1950 two-door decked out with skirts, whitewalls and a neat Fulton shield over the windshield.
It’s not surprising, then, that I developed the hots for a 1949 or ’50 Mercury. I loved the rounded styling of the 1940s Fords and Mercs but only the Mercury carried that into the early 1950s. While dad was pretty strict, he was basically a car guy at heart. One day he came home and said he had seen a decent looking 1949 Mercury convertible in the back row of C.J. Fletcher Ford’s used car lot in Utica, New York. It was cold in November but the next day I hopped on my bike and rode over to see it. The car was in pretty decent condition and looked perfect to me. It was a metallic maroon, almost a brown in color, the interior was brown leather with Bedford cord seat inserts and the top was a faded black. The dash was the usual two-toned gray with a matching steering wheel. I was in love!
The price was $300 for a six-year old used car with about 58,000 miles on it. Not a cheapie but I had saved more than that amount over the past eight years from Christmas money and several part-time jobs. The next weekend, Dad agreed to take me over to the car lot and check out the car. It started and ran well, no smoke or funny noises and the instruments all read in the normal range. Other than an odd smell inside, it looked really good. We talked to the sales person and we made the deal. I couldn’t believe it I had my very own 1949 Mercury convertible! It was bought December 3, 1955 (one of those dates that car guys always remember). I wouldn’t turn 16 for another month but we took it home and I spent a lot of seat time in the garage during that month.
Soon after my 16th birthday, I got a job at a local supermarket so then I had the funds for insurance, gas and a few accessories. I soon determined that the odd smell was brake fluid; not from the brakes but from the hydraulic-electric system to run the convertible top, the power windows and the power seat. If I filled the reservoir with the top and all the windows up and then ran everything down, some of the hydraulic fluid would overflow the reservoir making a puddle on the ground and wafting the smell into the car. I never did get rid of that odor.
I didn’t have the car long before I decided I wanted to customize it. Being an avid reader of Car Craft, Rod & Custom and Motor Trend magazines, my taste ran more to the customs that I saw in the magazines rather than to the hot rods; Mercurys were frequent subjects for the bodyman’s art. My car was in very good condition except for a tiny line of rust along the top edge of both rear fenders. It also had a good-sized dent in the right rocker panel where I misjudged the rocks at the entrance to a buddy’s driveway. The paint was a little dull but all the chrome was good. Altogether, not bad for a car that had weathered a half-dozen New York State winters with their salted roads.
Armed with my car magazines and the ubiquitous J.C. Whitney catalog, I began to imagine what a neat custom would look like that I could put together myself. Out of the Whitney catalog, I bought a solid grille bar, electric solenoids for the doors and trunk and some upholstery coloring products. A friend of my father’s ran a body shop and he was very kind to us teenagers. He volunteered to install my custom parts, do the necessary bodywork to fill holes and to paint the car for a figure that today I know did not make him a profit. One additional item I bought from the local Lincoln-Mercury dealer was a set of new side trim for a 1951 Lincoln. This trim was offered late in the 1951-model year and is fairly rare today. The trim follows the jog in the fender line along the door and is a perfect fit for the Mercury as well. The front piece needed to be shortened a few inches because the Lincoln fender is longer having the frenched headlights.
Completed, the car had the following features: it was nosed and decked with solenoid operated doors and trunk, solid grille bar, Lincoln side trim and was painted a 1955 Plymouth “cherry red” color. The outside buttons for the door solenoids were located in the side trim on the inside of the “jog” and the trunk button was hidden under the gas cap. Inside the cabin, the buttons were located in the ashtray which pulled out under the center of the dash panel. I painted the dash two-tone red and black along with the steering wheel. I gave up on coloring the upholstery (I did finish the door and quarter panels) and had a local Rayco outlet make a set of custom red and black vinyl seat covers. Mechanically the Merc was bone stock but it had the most fantastic set of dual exhausts I have ever heard. Overall, the car was very impressive when it was finished and my day was made one summer cruising with some buddies with the top down when a group of fellows shouted from the sidewalk “Wow! Look at that Merc!”