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Mercury’s XM-Turnpike Cruiser unearthed, headed into restoration

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Photos courtesy Tom Maruska.

When Jack Reith’s vision for a newly prominent and profitable Mercury division — led by the fantastic Ghia-built XM-Turnpike Cruiser — collapsed almost as soon as it launched, the show car suffered for it as much as Reith did. Now, more than 60 years later, the show car has re-emerged and is headed toward restoration, providing an opportunity to re-examine Reith’s legacy.

Two seemingly unrelated events took place around the end of World War II that would lead to the XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s creation. First, Ford executives decided to combine both Lincoln and Mercury into one division, largely as a marketing ploy to nudge Mercury upscale, a move that eventually led to the sharing of bodyshells between the two brands. Second, Henry Ford II hired Tex Thornton’s Whiz Kids, a group of Army Air Force statisticians that included Francis “Jack” Reith.

By the early 1950s, Reith — who specialized in budgeting — had worked his way up to the presidency of Ford’s struggling French operations, which he whipped into shape enough to sell it off to Simca at a profit. As a reward, Ford recalled him to Dearborn and put him in charge of Mercury in late 1954.

As Jim and Cheryl Farrell noted in their book Ford Design Department Concepts and Showcars, 1932-1961, Reith “was the only one of the original ‘Whiz Kids’ who was a true car guy and, after he returned from Europe, he started dropping by the Design Department after his duties at the office were finished.” There he encountered the car that inspired his grand vision for Mercury.

Or, at least, the clay model of a car. According to the Farrells, the design emerged from a series of five renderings that stylist John Najjar completed earlier that year, one of which incorporated JATO bottles on both sides of the car “for extra power in case of emergency.” Elwood Engel, enamored with the JATO bottle feature, stepped in to help Najjar develop the concept into a clay model.

By the time Reith spotted the clay, Engel had named it the Turnpike Cruiser. While the JATOs had fallen by the wayside as the concept evolved, it retained its overall jet aircraft inspiration with a mostly clear plastic canopy, a quartet of pods hung from the front bumper, and coves trailing from the doors straight back atop the quarter panels that resembled the exhaust plume of a rocket engine in flight (the latter penned by Larry Shinoda).

Reith believed in the concept’s ability to dominate the mid-priced market so much that he proposed not just building the Turnpike Cruiser as a full-scale show car and putting a toned-down version of the Turnpike Cruiser into production ASAP as Mercury’s prestige car (and as Mercury’s first car body not shared with any other FoMoCo brand), but also splitting Mercury off from Lincoln as a standalone division — with Reith in charge of the division, of course.

In quick succession, Ford executives agreed to all three of Reith’s proposals. The Mercury Division formed in the spring of 1955, Reith sent Engel and Najjar’s clay model over to the production Mercury styling studio to get reworked into the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, and a plaster based on Engel and Najjar’s clay model flew off to Ghia.

Accompanying the plaster was a 1954 Mercury convertible chassis that Ford engineers boxed, reinforced, and extended by 2 feet behind the rear axle as well as a Mercury V-8 engine with dual four-barrel carburetors and a Merc-O-Matic transmission.

The show car, dubbed the XM-Turnpike Cruiser, debuted in January 1956 at the Cleveland Auto Show, toted around by a Ford COE and a special-built trailer with windows in the sides and a mechanism for bumping out one side and rotating the car 90 degrees. Along with the styling elements mentioned above, the XM-Turnpike Cruiser also boasted butterfly panels above each door that opened for ease of entrance and exit, power windows, headlamps that automatically turned off 30 seconds after the ignition was turned off, and exhaust outlets through the lower quarter panel, under the massive canted taillamps.

The production 1957 Mercurys, which debuted in November 1956, adopted the canted taillamps and Shinoda’s rocket-exhaust fins, and the production Turnpike Cruiser hardtops even added a gadget not seen in the show car: a backlite that lowered into the car. Sales, however, lagged Reith’s expectations, with production down 12.74 percent from 1956’s total.

In Reith’s defense, mid-priced car sales dropped nearly across the board in 1957 (Buick production dropped nearly 30 percent; Oldsmobile more than 20 percent) while low-priced car sales generally increased. That’s likely due to the fact that the 1958 recession technically began in August 1957 and followed a few years of lagging auto sales in general. Not the best year for a mid-priced brand to drop its less-expensive lines, as Mercury did with its Medalist and custom lines to make room for the upcoming Edsels.

Still, the drop in sales reflected poorly on Reith. The Farrells wrote that Ford removed him from the head of the Mercury Division and offered instead to install him as the head of Ford of Canada, but he “was too proud to take it” and instead resigned. He later ran AVCO’s Crosley division before committing suicide in July 1960. Ford folded Mercury into the new Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division in 1958. The XM-Turnpike Cruiser “as Reith’s car… became an outcast,” the Farrells wrote.

After storing it outside for a year, during which time vandals broke the glass and stole the dual-quad intake off the 312, Ford sold the XM-Turnpike Cruiser for $300 to Jim White of Dearborn Tube and Steel. Ford reportedly sold off the custom trailer to a Detroit radio station, which used it as a mobile broadcasting unit, but any trace of it has long since disappeared.

White, in turn, stored the XM-Turnpike Cruiser in a field in Flatrock, Michigan, for more than a decade before selling it for $500. Subsequent owners either continued to neglect it or, at best, kept it in storage intending to restore it. By the early 1980s, it ended up in the collection of Ray Cosh of Ojai, California, who also intended to restore it.

Cosh, however, took notice when Tom Maruska — who had already restored the Thunderbird Italien show car — began to restore the Mercury XM-800 concept car, another Engel and Najjar design that preceded the XM-Turnpike Cruiser.

“At the time, he still wanted to restore it,” Maruska said. “But about a year ago I gave him a call and asked if he wanted to restore it. After he said yes, I went out to take a look at it.”

What Maruska found likely wouldn’t have merited a restoration were it any production car. “It’s rough, very rough,” he said. “But it isn’t as difficult as it looks from the pictures. It is complete.” Sans the intake, carburetors, air cleaner, and glass, that is.

Aside from the chassis and drivetrain, the XM-Turnpike Cruiser shares nothing but looks with the production version. So the toughest part, Maruska said, will be reskinning the hood and the trunk, both of which received amateur cobble-jobs sometime after Ford sold off the car.

Maruska figures the restoration will take a couple years, after which he’ll sell it off. “Once you’re done with them, what do you do with them?” he asked. “I just enjoy finding them and restoring them.”

As for the custom-built trailer, Maruska researched it for a while, but has written off any attempts to find it. “I just don’t have the facilities to do a trailer,” he said. “I’ll let the next guy do that.”