1959 Mercury Park Lane convertible (top, image by Richard Lentinello); 1960 Buick LeSabre convertible (bottom, image by the author).
Editor’s note: This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a regular basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing, and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.
Convertibles will be a continuing theme of the This or That — Summer Series and in this edition we offer the choice between a 1959 Mercury Park Lane or a 1960 Buick LeSabre. Although Mercury’s Park Lane was a top-tier line, and the LeSabre was Buick’s entry-level series, they were vying for the same general market share as a whole, and both represented their respective trim levels with refined styling. This at a time when the auto industry was recovering from a particularly difficult, late-decade recession. Here are a few details about each car (if you want to read more than we’ve provided, both vehicles were former subject material in our Hemmings Classic Car magazine — just click on the links above).
When one stops to consider the vast amount of resources at the disposal of Mercury, courtesy of Ford Motor Company’s corporate umbrella, it’s hard to believe that the division had been saddled with so much instability through the Fifties. If it wasn’t the constant debate as to whether or not their cars were gussied-up Fords, baby Lincolns, or a true stand-alone line (as one would have expected), it was the constantly shifting model hierarchy. Station wagons excluded — which, by mid-decade, were considered a separate series regardless of which trim level they originated from — the division expanded from one to two trim levels with the 1952 release of the Custom and Monterey, but the name game didn’t ramp up until ’55 when the Montclair was added as the top model. A year later, the Medalist became the base series, pushing the Custom up a rung on the division’s new four-tier ladder. For the ’57 season, Mercury cut the Medalist and Custom lines, but added the new Turnpike Cruiser that — in turn — demoted Monterey and Montclair.
We can’t blame you for needing a spreadsheet by now, and it only got a little more interesting for 1958 when the mid-priced division reintroduced the Medalist as the base model (technically, the “Medalist” script only appeared on the prototypes; it was absent from production models, which were simply known as “Mercury”), as well as the new top-of-the-line Park Lane. While the base Mercury was unceremoniously dropped for ’59, the Park Lane remained within factory promotional literature, offered as a two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, and convertible (as pictured above).
Convertibles, like the rest of the Park Lane line, featured the “new Clean-Dynamic Styling” on model-specific bodies not shared with any lower-line Ford product. A redesigned front bumper and egg-crate grille were complemented by restyled flanks that exhibited only a modest dose of brightwork. The clean appearance, a stark contrast just months after the “year of excess” concluded, still retained some of the attributes from its freshman year on the market, such as the Panoramic Skylight Windshield and scalloped quarter panels that transitioned to canted jet-engine taillamps.
The massaged body, now measuring a Mercury record-breaking 222.8 inches long, was secured to a separate box-section perimeter frame that sported a Park Lane exclusive 128-inch wheelbase. This, too, had been redesigned for 1959, although the basic elements of the front and rear suspension systems — coil springs/semi-elliptic leaf springs, respectively — were retained. The dimensional changes, it was said, allowed engineers to slide the engine forward while simultaneously tipping the powertrain back, thus reducing the size of the transmission hump within the cabin.
Speaking of engines, every Park Lane was furnished with a high-compression 430-cu.in. “Marauder” V-8. Now in its second season of availability, the MEL (Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln) engine, fitted with a single Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor, was rated for 345 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque. The big engine was backed by a column-shifted three-speed Multi-Drive Merc-O-Matic transmission. Other standard features included, but were not limited to, power steering and power drum brakes.
Starting at $4,206, the Park Lane convertible was the most expensive model in the entire 1959 Mercury lineup. Only 1,257 were built; second in rarity only to the 1,051 two-door Commuter Country Cruiser station wagons.
Unlike Mercury, Buick benefited from tremendous stability in terms of both division image and model hierarchy throughout the Fifties. But even here, where consistency was spelled out in long-standing tradition, changes were inevitable. With the oft-documented GM/Fisher Body redesign for 1959 came new model designations for the Flint-based division. The Electra 225 replaced both the Roadmaster and Limited, while the “base” Electra series supplanted the Super. Invicta became the new nomenclature for the ousted Century script, and the the entry-level Special, Buick’s bestselling model, became LeSabre. Each was continued into the new decade. (A footnote to Buick’s new model names provides some automotive trivia opportunity during your next garage night: Electra is Greek for “brilliant,” Invicta is Latin for “unconquerable,” and LeSabre is French for “the sword.” This from a company whose founder was Scottish.)
Focusing on the 1960 LeSabre, it was offered in a wide variety of body styles. Joining our pictured convertible were two- and four-door sedans, two- and four-door hardtops, and both 6- and 9-passenger station wagons that — unlike Mercury — were not considered a separate line. Though the complete revamp of Buick a year prior didn’t smash sales barriers as Flint management had expected, the 1960 model year witnessed a marked improvement thanks in part to many visual refinements. New sheetmetal had been stamped, with the exception of roof panels and the decklid, which were accompanied by a completely new concave grille. Contemporary Ventiports returned, as did an elongated hint of sweepspear styling, and the one-year experiment with canted headlamps had been permanently shelved.
The LeSabre’s 217.9-inch long body was fastened to the division’s box-girder K-frame; its 123-inch wheelbase also supporting a ball joint/coil sprung front suspension, as well as a rear coil sprung arrangement. Buick’s famed 12-inch finned aluminum drum brakes — featuring cast-iron inserts — had been redesigned for better heat dissipation, while the 1960 season marked the final use of the torque tube drive system. Unknown to most is that the frame was tweaked ever-so-slightly by engineers this year, which allowed the floor to be lowered.
That design adjustment didn’t hinder the continued installation of Buick’s venerable 364-cu.in. “Nailhead” V-8. Casual observers were probably unaware that four different versions of the engine were offered to LeSabre customers based upon transmission selection. In base form the line was equipped with a three-speed manual transmission, which mandated the installation of the Wildcat 364 engine: an 8.5:1 compression-ratio unit rated for 210 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. Less than 2 percent of the total LeSabre production came equipped as such. This meant that the standard engine used in conjunction with the optional Twin Turbine automatic (the official name given to the Variable-Pitch Dynaflow starting in 1959) was the Wildcat 384: a high-compression (10.25), two-barrel carburetor configuration that produced 250 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque. A no-cost economy option was the Wildcat 375E that, with a lower 9.0:1 compression ratio, offered 235 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque. The least known option was listed as the “Power Pack” on dealer order forms. Also known as the Wildcat 405-4B, it was a four-barrel 364 with 10.25 compression rated at 300 hp and 405 lb-ft of torque.
Starting at $3,145, the LeSabre convertible witnessed a production run of 13,588 for the 1960 model year.
Not that we’ve discussed some of the more intricate details of each, which of the two would you add to your stable and why?