CCotW: Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser (1956)

23 March 2018 | by Karl Smith

1957. That was to be the breakout year for Ford’s Mercury division. Founded in 1938 as a special project of Edsel Ford, Mercury had for years languished in the shadow of the premium division, Lincoln, and even its all-American cousin Ford.

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Mercury had a reputation for uninspired design. Jack Reith was determined to change that

But a new era was dawning. The division’s leader, Francis ‘Jack’ Reith had big plans to create a generation of cars that would launch Mercury into the 1960s as a design and performance leader in the American car market.

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Pretty in Pink? Actually the Turnpike Cruiser was persimmon-coloured

The future of Mercury began in 1954 with a proposal by the head of Lincoln advanced design, John Najjar. He had designed five concept cars for a future Mercury lineup. Typical of Ford’s obsession with alliteration (then and now), the proposals were all given ‘M’ names – Malibu, Monte Carlo, Mystair, Mandalay and Montauk.

The proposals were rendered at full scale and a brochure was printed that articulated their imaginary briefs, along with additional drawings. Jack Reith was fascinated with the proposals and, in particular, the Mandalay. Its brief described it as follows: “A four-passenger cross-country turnpike cruiser with exhaust ports exiting behind the front wheels. An air-conditioning saddle covered the upper area of the body, and tailfins held aircraft-type taillights. Chromed rear tubes on each side of the car carried pint-sized JATO (jet-assisted take off) bottles for extra power in case of emergencies.”

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The Turnpike Cruiser was a ‘Preview of the Future‘ of Mercury

Jack Reith ordered a competition to develop the Mandalay design up to a full-scale clay model. Two teams were chosen: Ellwood Engel, an experienced designer on assignment to Lincoln/Mercury, along with John Najjar – a fifteen year veteran of Ford by this time – and a brand new hire, a young Larry Shinoda, fresh from being kicked out of Art Center in California, would square off against Gene Bordinat, lead designer for Lincoln, and Don DeLarussa, lead designer for Mercury.

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Brochure images – the black and white photography helped tone down the Turnpike Cruiser’s design flaws

After considerable redesign work Najjar’s initial Mandalay concept reached the full clay stage and, not surprisingly, his team won. It was then that everyone came on board to translate the clay into the design of a concept car for Mercury.

Jack Reith had been hanging around the studio, watching the development of the proposals, and now he would take an active part in the design of the forthcoming concept. Najjar had written ‘Turnpike’ on one of his development sketches, and this set off a discussion about the name. The word ‘Cruiser’ was eventually chosen to complete it.

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From above, and in black and white, the Turnpike Cruiser looks a bit better. The Audrey Hepburn little black dresses help

 It captured the national zeitgeist. President Eisenhower had proposed a national system of autobahn-like highways that eventually become the Interstate system. Before these came online, improved highways like the Pennsylvania Turnpike were models of the highway of tomorrow: high-speed roads traveling through the verdant countryside with convenient access to nearby towns and great cities. The Turnpike Cruiser would be perfect for these roads of tomorrow. The ‘XM’ was added to the name to make the car seem more exotic. It stood for ‘Experimental Mercury’.

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The Turnpike Cruiser brochure outlined the brief and features of Mercury’s Dream Car

Reith’s presence during the design process was alternately wonderful and horrible for the designers. Reith was relentless in pushing for innovation and new ideas, and contributed many himself. He would argue tirelessly for funding for design and engineering for Mercury. But he was also an obsessive busybody, micromanaging things like the shape of headlights, knobs and door pulls. Much of the extra funding that was acquired for Mercury projects was spent fleshing out Reith’s latest (daily) idea rather than developing cars headed for production.

When at last the design was complete a 3/8 scale model was built, and it, along with various drawings and a Mercury convertible chassis and engine, were sent to Ghia in Turin, Italy for the final concept car build. Even this process wasn't smooth – Ghia craftsmen took a few liberties with interpreting the model into full scale, and Ford would maintain a tighter control over the process in future years.

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The Turnpike Cruiser had its own carrier that converted into a stage

But generally the car was built per the specifications, and prepared to go out on the show circuit in 1956. Ford had even authorized funds for a bespoke glass enclosed car carrier to transport the Turnpike Cruiser cross-country. The trailer of this carrier could be converted into a stage for exhibits at state fairs, local car events, and of course Lincoln Mercury dealerships.

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The interior – jet age imagery everywhere. The butterfly roof opened with the door

Reaction to the concept was generally good, although the Ford concepts of those years were completely overshadowed by General Motors’ Motorama show cars, which were more sophisticated in design and better marketed. The science fiction/jet age symbols were all over the car – nacelles and jet imagery were found from bumper to roof, and all along the interior, particularly in the instrumentation and on the dashboard.

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This Turnpike Cruiser brochure showed a good view of the innovative ‘butterfly’ roof

The roof featured a glass ‘butterfly’ roof – panels that raised when the doors were open to provide easy access to the four seat interior. The sold part of the roof, a kind of delta wing shape, was originally supposed to be an air conditioning unit, held aloft by whisper-thin pillars. The rear windscreen retracted into the trunk to open the interior to the breeze.

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Massive, hideous tailfins with scowling rear lamps made for a ‘memorable’ rear three-quarter view

The exterior was marked by a particularly long and hideous set of quad tailfins, a design feature that was, unbelievably,  penned by Larry Shinoda. These “bookended” (Shinoda’s term) a large flat fascia and squarish rear end that made the car look very heavy from the rear. The front featured large single headlights, as quad headlights were not then legal in some states. These headlights had an automatic delayed shutoff for nighttime parking – it was the first car to feature this convenience. Below the headlights a split bumper held ‘jet pods’ that contained blinkers and running lights.

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The Turnpike Cruiser at a car show. It garnered lots of attention as it was quite a departure from Mercury’s usual, more sedate, offerings

It was quite a departure for staid old Mercury to create such a radical car and there was a curious reception wherever it was shown. Jack Reith, already convinced of the car’s importance, lobbied hard for the resources to produce a new generation of cars like the Turnpike Cruiser, and abandon the products that were already in progress for the 1957 and 1958 model years.

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The production Turnpike Cruiser was a bit more restrained, but hardly a beauty. Shown here is a 1957 model, nicely restored.

Remarkably, Reith’s entreaties were successful and the Turnpike Cruiser would be transitioned into a simplified production form for the 1957 model year. There was no expensive butterfly roof, and much smaller quad fins. Mercury pushed hard with an advertising blitz, but the public was only lukewarm to the ‘revolutionary’ new car.

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To promote the production Turnpike Cruiser, Ford placed it as the pace car for the 1957 Indianapolis 500. Jack Reith was the driver

Sales of Mercury as a whole, and the Turnpike Cruiser in particular, were roughly one-third of that projected.  Quality problems, due to Mercury’s unique new platform were numerous. Production costs soared. At one point it was estimated that Mercury lost $725.00 (About $6,475/£4,800 in today’s money) on every two-door Turnpike Cruiser sold.

Finally, Ford’s management had had enough. The Turnpike Cruiser was folded into the Montclair line for 1958. Jack Reith’s decision-making power was sharply curtailed, and then he was relieved of his position in favour of an advertising executive hired from (horrors!) Studebaker.

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The 1958 Turnpike Cruiser was part of the Montclair line, not a separate model

Reith was devastated. Although immediate higher-ups wanted him dismissed from the company completely, it was ultimately decided to offer him a job as President of Ford of Canada. Despite pleas from friends to take the reduced position and ride out the storm, Reith refused. He considered the job too much of a demotion and accepted a position with Crosley, then a manufacturer of appliances, leaving Detroit and the car business behind him.

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The Mercury Park Lane replaced the Turnpike Cruiser for 1959

The other players in the story fared much better. Ellwood Engel would gain fame for the design of the 1961 Lincoln Continental. Outmanoeuvred for the Vice President for Styling and Chief Designer position by Gene Bordinat, Engel would land a job at Chrysler succeeding Virgil Exner as that company’s design chief.

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The 1961 Lincoln Continental – subtle replaced flamboyant and Ford design was better for it

John Najjar would go on to pen the original design for the Ford Mustang, and spend his entire career designing for Ford. Larry Shinoda would soon jump ship to General Motors and become a favorite of Bill Mitchell, eventually designing the legendary 1963 split-window Corvette.

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The Edsel, another of Jack Reith’s pet projects. Reith was gone before disaster struck

Ford would endure more ignominious times with the debut and collapse of another pet project of Jack Reith’s, the Edsel – another ‘revolutionary’ Ford division. But after the Edsel disaster, Ford began to right the ship for the 1960s. The Lincoln Continental, the humble but popular Ford Falcon – which begat the Mustang – the Thunderbird, which set the standard for personal luxury cars and other products helped salve the deep wounds of the disasters of the late 1950s.

For Jack Reith, however, there would be no comeback. His relocation and new position produced no turnaround success, no professional or personal happiness. He would take his own life in 1960, still mourning the loss of Mercury and his dream car, the Turnpike Cruiser.

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Postscript

The ‘butterfly roof’, the rising glass canopy portion of the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, has seen an unexpected return to the concept car scene in the last year. It has appeared on the Renault Symbioz car, the Aston Martin Lagonda Concept and the Icona Nucleus concept, and in a more gullwing form, the Renault EZ-GO. We doubt any of these will see production, but even some 60 years after the butterfly roof’s debut, these canopies have a cool science fiction air about them and celebrate the act of entering and exiting a dramatic proposal for the car of tomorrow.

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The new Lagonda Concept introduced at Geneva. The Turnpike Cruiser of the 2020s? You decide…