1939 Mercury Sedan
1939 Mercury Sedan
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Ford Motor Co. brought out the Mercury as a 1939 model, and it was quite a departure for Ford. Henry Ford (the first) had virtually “owned” the domestic automobile market for many years with his ubiquitous Model T, produced from late 1908 to 1927. This was followed by the Model A in 1928, but by this time many motorists were looking for a little more in the way of luxury and smoothness.

The Model A was still a four-cylinder like the Model T, and when Chevrolet startled the popular-priced field with its overhead-valve six in 1929, Henry said “Build an eight.” The result was the compact yet powerful 1932 Ford V-8.

Ford and Chevrolet struggled through the 1930s Depression pretty well neck and neck in sales. Although after the initial surge of the popular Model A, Chevrolet almost always managed to outsell Ford, a gap that would widen to nearly 100,000 cars by 1939. But there was more to the sales game than just Ford and Chevrolet.

GM’s president, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., had institutionalized both the annual model change and the hierarchy of nameplates. The yearly changes were designed to make motorists dissatisfied enough with their current cars to trade them in on new ones.

Over the longer term, the hierarchy of marques was intended to make it everyone’s ambition to move through GM’s offerings from the low-priced Chevrolet to the prestigious Cadillac. It was a policy that took sales leadership from Ford, and turned GM into the world’s largest motor vehicle manufacturer.

The Ford Motor Co. under Henry had been very much a one-model automaker. But he failed to see, or was too stubborn to accept, that times were changing.

His son Edsel was a perceptive car man who recognized that diversity was needed. He urged his father to buy the financially troubled Lincoln Motor Co., which they did in 1922.

Although Ford now had models at both ends of the spectrum, there was still a huge gap. In an attempt to bridge this, Edsel introduced the lower-priced Lincoln Zephyr in 1936. It was beautifully streamlined, set Ford’s styling tone for more than a decade, and formed the basis for the classic 1940-1948 Lincoln Continental.

Edsel, who was president of Ford, was gradually closing in on GM’s full-range model lineup. His final play would be the 1939 Mercury as a competitor for the Oldsmobile and Buick.

The Mercury could really be called a more luxurious Ford. At 2,946 mm (116 in.), its wheelbase was 102 mm (4.0 in.) longer, which provided a better ride, although it still used Ford’s transverse leaf spring suspension and solid front axle. It also had hydraulic brakes, which Fords started using that year, long after Chrysler and General Motors.

Power came from the corporate side-valve V-8 enlarged from the Ford’s 3.6 litres (221 cu in.) to 3.9 litres (239 cu in.), which increased horsepower from 85 to 95. This gave the Mercury quite sparkling performance.

A British magazine, The Motor, road tested a ’39 Mercury in its March 21, 1939 issue and reported a fast zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 13.3 seconds. Their tester reached a top speed of 145 km/h (90 mph).

On its handling, The Motor quaintly observed “Careful attention has been paid to the question of shock absorbing and the effect upon stability, with the result that it was found possible to take sweeping curves at considerably higher speeds than one would quite reasonably expect to do so, except with a low-built model of the more sporting variety.”

It was hardly the kind of rollicking prose that America’s Tom McCahill would serve up a decade later in Mechanix Illustrated magazine, but it got the point across.

The Mercury’s styling was Fordish, with a little Lincoln Zephyr influence thrown in. The horizontal bar grille was attractive, and the headlamps were completely moulded into the leading edges of the front fenders (sealed beams were still a year away). It had a more luxurious interior than the Ford.

With a good combination of performance, space and fuel economy (up to 20 mpg), and a price that was competitive with such cars as lower level Buick and Chrysler models, the Mercury was an immediate success. It admirably filled the gap between the Ford and Lincoln in Ford’s model lineup.

Like other cars, it had a short pre-Second World War history, production being suspended from 1942 to late 1945. After the war, it became part of the newly formed Lincoln-Mercury Division and in 1949 it threw off its “plush Ford” image and become a model in its own right.

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