Story and photo by Bill Vance

1955 Mercury Montclair
1955 Mercury Montclair. Click image to enlarge

The Ford Motor Company introduced the Mercury in 1939 to bridge the gap between the high-priced Lincoln and the popular priced Ford. In so doing it was intended to compete with such cars as the Oldsmobile and Buick from general Motors, and Dodge and DeSoto from the Chrysler Corp.

Ford had begun the process of filling in its line in 1936 with the introduction of a more affordable Lincoln, the Zephyr V-12, but Ford still had a big void in the market.

Early Mercurys were really like deluxe Fords, and it wasn’t until the big corporate restyling took place in 1949 that the Mercury got its own distinctive Lincoln-like lines.

The process of pulling the Mercury away from its Ford heritage had begun in 1945 with the formation of the Lincoln-Mercury Division. It is not surprising, then, that the Mercury would begin to take on more of the Lincoln persona when new-model time came around.

Although Lincoln and Mercury were corporate siblings, they were establishing reputations at opposite ends of the automotive spectrum: Lincoln in racing, and Mercury in fuel economy. Lincoln ruled the big car class in the famous Carrera PanAmericana, popularly known as the Mexican Road Race. They swept the first four places in 1952 and ’53, and the first two in ’54. Mercury, on the other hand, won the Mobilgas Economy Run in 1950 and ’52. It should be noted, however, that Mercurys were no slouches at racing either; a ’48 coupe bought off a used car lot came in fourth in the 1951 Mexican race.

The 1950s was an era when the popularly priced cars began to move up-market and encroach on what had traditionally been luxury car territory. In this evolution the Mercury became more luxurious, and by mid-decade was virtually what the Lincoln had been a few years earlier.

The 1955 Mercury is an excellent example. Maybe, in fact, it was seen as getting a little too close; the Lincoln and Mercury Division split in 1955.

The 1955 Mercury was “big, bold and beautiful,” as the advertisers liked to say in those days, taking many of its styling cues from the “Mexican Lincolns.” The car’s wheelbase had been stretched to 3,922 mm (119 in.), 89 mm (3.5 in.) more than Ford’s, although the station wagon stayed at 2,997 (118). And at 5,240 mm (206.3 in.), it was almost 203 mm (8 in.) longer than the Ford.

Even though there was still some Ford in the Mercury, it had finally thrown off the appearance of its Ford heritage in favour of its upscale Lincoln sibling.

A dominant styling feature of the ’55 Mercury was its grille. It was so massive in appearance that it really looked like two big bumpers, one mounted above the other connected by a few vertical bars and sturdy looking bumper guards.

It also had the corporation’s first wraparound windshield, and this, and the hooded headlamps, gave the front end a heavy, luxurious air. Generous chrome spears on the sides, and stretched fenders to house the large vertical tail lamps, finished up the rugged character of the styling.

Power for the Mercury came from the corporate overhead valve V-8 engines that had been introduced a year earlier. They came in 4.2 and 4.8 litre sizes, with various horsepower ratings depending on tune and transmission.

A three-speed manual transmission was standard, with an overdrive manual, or “Merc-O-Matic” automatic, optional, with the exception of the top-of-the-line Montclair in which automatic was standard.

The automatic transmission was now modified to start in low gear if one fully depressed the accelerator; previously it had started in second, a la Mercedes-Benz. This meant the hot dogs didn’t have to shift manually to get maximum pick-up in stoplight contests.

Mercury offered a full line of vehicles for 1955, including station wagons and convertibles, in three series: Custom, Monterey and Montclair. As would be expected, Mercurys could be had with extensive power equipment, even air conditioning for the first time. It was, however, an awkward unit with the evaporator mounted in the trunk and clear plastic tubes carrying the cooling air into the cabin. Few were sold.

The Mercury’s performance could be termed average for its day. Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine tested a Montclair with its 198 horsepower engine and automatic, and got a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 12.8 seconds, and a top speed of 171 to 174 km/h (106 to 108 mph).

As was Tom’s inclination at the time, he bemoaned the fact that no manual transmission was available with the top engine, estimating that with it he could likely have dropped his zero to 96 (60) time to 11 seconds.

In a boom year in which the North American auto industry sold some eight million cars, Mercury sold almost 330,000, well up from the 259,305 in 1954, and a new record for Ford’s “in-between” car. A lot of buyers liked the idea of the “poor man’s Lincoln,” and seemed to agree with McCahill’s assessment that the ’55 Merc was “…a mink coat at a Muskrat price.”

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