1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser
1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

During the Second World War, craft magazines like Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Science bombarded us with renditions of Buck Rogers-type “Cars of the Future” that would come at war’s end. These were invariably long, low and garish, inspired by spaceships and rockets.

The reality proved different. Instead of flash and dash, established manufacturers offered eager buyers warmed-over pre-war designs. Although some independents like Studebaker and Hudson were quicker, it wasn’t until 1949 that all carmakers had their post-war models ready.

Then in the 1950s things began to change. New, powerful, overhead valve V-8 engines spawned a horsepower race. Cheap gasoline and new four-lane highways promised automotive nirvana. This ostentatious decade reached its ornate pinnacle, or nadir, depending on your viewpoint, with the high-finned 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. The Ford Motor Co. was not immune, and the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser was one of its most outstanding contributions to this flashy era.

The Mercury had been born in 1939 to plug the price gap between Lincoln and Ford, enabling the Ford Motor Company to better compete with General Motors. The Mercury was little more than a “senior Ford” until 1949, when it got a body shell that was distinctive from Ford, although it was shared with Lincoln. Through the 1950s Mercury pretty well retained its own identity, and got more ornate as the decade progressed.

The XM-Turnpike Cruiser “dream car” was previewed by Ford in 1955. These concept cars were built to test consumer reaction to new ideas, and while most didn’t reach production, the Turnpike Cruiser did, although with some changes.

The XM’s 1,331 mm (52.4 in.) height gave it a very low silhouette, so to facilitate entry and exit, a kind of early T-roof was fitted with see-through plastic panels hinged near the middle of the roof. When a door was opened these panels popped up.

From a point just aft of the front doors the rear fenders were deeply sculpted, and ended with the slanted taillights folded into them. The exhaust pipes exited through the fenders just ahead of the bumpers. To aid cabin airflow an early example of flow-through ventilation was achieved by lowering the middle section of the three-part rear window.

When the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser arrived (it was also sold as a Monarch in Canada) it was not that different from the XM show car. The flip-up T-roof panels were gone, as were the fender-mounted exhausts. But the sculpted rear fenders, although not quite as radical, survived with their slanted tail-lamps. And the flow-through rear window remained.

Another Turnpike Cruiser feature was its quad headlights, one of the first applications. It also had very futuristic air intake vents mounted on the upper corners of the windshield. These had small fake horizontal antennas projecting forward out of them. While they added a certain styling panache, these vents were prone to water leakage.

In addition to its massive, futuristic styling, the Turnpike Cruiser had many novel, but standard, interior features. One was the memory power seat that could be pre-programmed. When the ignition was turned off it sank to its lowest and rearmost position for easier entry and exit. Activating the key returned it to the previous setting.

Another gadget was a computer clock which calculated average trip speed. A tachometer was even provided, and the automatic “Merc-O-Matic” transmission selections were made with dash-mounted push buttons a la Chrysler’s cars, and some others.

The Cruiser was motivated by a 6.0 litre (368 cu in.) overhead valve V-8 developing 290 horsepower. For 1958 this would increase to 6.3 litres (383 cu in.) and 330 horsepower. It also had many safety features, which Ford was trying to sell at that time, such as padded instrument panel and sun visors, and a deep-dish steering wheel; seatbelts were optional.

The Turnpike Cruiser came in three body styles: two- and four-door hardtops, and a two-door convertible. It was a big, bold, chrome-laden machine, fully in keeping with the styling trends of the 1950s.

Unfortunately the Cruiser met several obstacles in the marketplace. The economy was heading into recession, causing buyers to become more economy minded. Lower segment cars such as Ford and Chevrolet were growing larger, squeezing mid-range cars. And there were rumours of excessive troubles with all the Cruiser’s fancy gadgets. The result was the sale of just 16,861 1957 Turnpike Cruisers.

Things got worse for 1958. No longer a separate model, the Turnpike Cruiser became part of the Mercury Montclair series and came in only two-and four-door hardtops. Even with its three-tone paint job, the conservative public bought only 6,407 Cruisers.

The Turnpike Cruiser was quietly discontinued with the 1958 model, an example of a car caught with its styling going one way, and public taste going the other. But it was a wonderful example of those war-time predictions of rocket-inspired styling and garish land yachts.

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