1949 Mercury. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The Ford Motor Company was established in 1903, and once it got its fabulously successful Model T launched in 1908, Henry Ford was content to have Ford remain a one-model company. It did for 15 years until 1922 when at the insistence of Ford president Edsel Ford, Henry’s only son, Ford bought the Lincoln Motor Company, a failed luxury car maker.
This added an offering at the other end of the spectrum from the spartan Model T, but there was still a big hole in the middle. This was alleviated somewhat in 1936 with the introduction of the Lincoln Zephyr, a lower priced Lincoln to compensate for the shrinking market for its large, expensive K-series V12.
Satisfied that Ford was on the right track, but aware that it still wasn’t going model-for-model with General Motors and Chrysler, Edsel added the Mercury nameplate in 1939. It was really a “senior Ford,” but it rounded out the company’s line-up nicely and became a sales success.
Following the Second World War’s interruption in car production, which lasted from 1942 to ’45, the post-war Mercury was, like others, a re-run of the pre-war design. It was still seen as a plusher Ford, but that would change with the introduction of the new post-war 1949 models.
For 1949 the Mercury made a clean break from its early heritage, and became a “junior Lincoln” rather than a senior Ford. Its styling was clearly distinctive from its sibling Ford.
Like other company models it was finally able to throw off the outmoded transverse leaf springs that traced their lineage back to the Model T. At the rear, it received parallel semi-elliptic springs, and at the front, conventional coil springs and A-arms replaced the archaic solid axle.
Plans to move the Mercury closer to the Lincoln had been predicted in 1947 with the creation of the Lincoln-Mercury Division. This was clearly confirmed when the 1949 Mercury appeared with the same body as the standard, restyled Lincoln from the cowl back. For the Canadian market there was also a corporate clone called the Monarch, identified by a different grille,
Unlike the squared up, horizontal lines of the new 1949 Ford, the Mercurys and Lincolns were softer and less angular. With its wide, rounded, vertical-bar grille, the Mercury actually looked more attractive than the Lincoln with its slanted, down-in-the-mouth grille, and the sad-eyed look of its sunken headlamps.
The Mercury stretched 5,253 mm (206.8 in) overall, and had a 2,997 mm (118 in.) wheelbase, 102 mm (4 in.) more than the Ford, and only 76 mm (3 in.) less than the standard Lincoln. Body lines that tapered nicely to the rear, an almost full length side-spear chrome strip, and full wheel skirts gave it had a long, low appearance.
It came in two- and four-door sedans, a convertible, and a two-door woody wagon that was a Ford from the cowl rearward. The sedan’s rear doors were still hinged at the rear, commonly referred to as “suicide doors.”
Under the hood was a 4.2-litre (255.4 cu in.) side valve V8, the Ford engine with a 6.3 mm (1/4 in.) cylinder bore increase. It developed 110 horsepower, compared with the Ford’s 100. A significant improvement for service technicians was the relocation of the ignition distributor from low on the front of the engine to a position at the front of the right cylinder head.
The transmission was a column shifted three-speed, with overdrive optional. Although the competition from General Motors offered automatic transmissions, Mercury wouldn’t get its “Merc-O-Matic” automatic until 1951.
The 1949 Mercury, and evolutionary ’50 and ’51 models, would receive belated and unexpected recognition when a customized ’49 was driven by the legendary, brooding James Dean in the 1955 movie, “Rebel Without A Cause.” It made those Mercurys the darling of the amateur and professional custom car set.
Mercurys were chopped (removing a section of the upper body) and lowered on their springs, and of course dual exhausts with “Hollywood” mufflers were de rigueur. Among the many appearance
modifications were the smoothing of body seams with lead, earning these customized Mercurys the nickname “Lead Sleds.” They were finished off with brilliant paint jobs and white-wall tires.
This was far from the more staid image that Ford planned for the Mercury. It was seen as catering to prosperous middle-class buyers in the 35 to 45 year age group who wanted a little more prestige than the Ford offered, but were not yet quite able to move up to a Lincoln. But it was good publicity just the same.