Mercury was launched in 1938 as a result of Edsel Ford’s determination to fill the large gap between the economic Ford V8 offering and their higher-priced Lincoln-Zephyr. Ford had stylists led by E.T. Gregorie create a model to fill that gap and to prevent customers from looking at other car makes like Dodge. The first prewar Mercury 8 did not share paneling with the existing Fords or Lincolns, but in essence was similar to the existing Ford models, although it had a more powerful engine and extra space in the passenger area. Most of the differences were in style, but it still looked like a Ford.
The Mercury 8 did not change drastically from year to year until 1949, when suddenly, the Mercury 8 became a brand new car, unlike many ever seen before. Ford had set up the now separate Lincoln-Mercury Division in 1947, most likely accounting for some of the changes that set the 1949 Mercury 8 apart, and in a sense even predicting the shift in design. The 1949 Mercury 8 was the make’s first new post-war model. The styling looked far more like a Lincoln, with a long sleek body that completely stood apart from the boxier Fords and other American models available at that point. In fact, it actually shared a few body panels with some of the smaller Lincoln models. It was released unusually early, in April of 1948. The car featured a 118-inch wheelbase and was powered by Ford’s Flathead V8 engine, which developed 110 hp.
This change had a marked effect on the Ford and Mercury lineup. The Mercury 8 exploded into popularity, and sales that year broke records for both Ford and Mercury, although this might be partially because of the much longer sales year. Production reached 301,307, and as a result, the model did not change much between 1949 and 1951. The car filled the gap for those looking for an “entry-level” luxury vehicle, and was meant to appeal to anyone who was not quite able to reach for the high-priced Lincoln models. This potentially accounts for some of the popularity of the vehicle, as well as the longer- than-normal sales year.
However, there is possibly another reason for the 1949 Mercury’s popularity. Almost immediately, the car became an eagerly sought-after model for customization. One of the more famous examples was the 1949 Mercury chopped by Sam Barris. It became the first of the “lead sleds,” customized mid-size American cars focusing on style rather than speed, as opposed to the hot rods that were very often made from Ford’s V8. The Mercury 8 became the signature model to chop into a “lead sled.”
As a result of the new image created by these customized versions, the car made its most notable appearance in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean drove a customized 1949 Mercury in his role as Jim Stark, cementing the image of the Mercury as a “cool” car, optimal for those looking for something to chop. This was quite different from the idea that Ford had in mind when it created the Mercury to be an affordable family car, but it helped preserve the popularity of the 1949 Mercury, and in fact it is still a model sought after by car collectors today.
The 1949 Mercury! – New…All New!: Mercury: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Mercury Range, 1946-1951, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed., The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile; Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1010-1011.
Postcard for 1949 Mercury Sport Sedan, Pictorials Series: Mercury: Postcards, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Vance, Bill. “Family Car Became a Hollywood Hit.” National Post. October 6, 2000
Annalise Berdini is a Summer Intern for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.