To understand the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, one must understand the times in which it was conceived. 1950s America was experiencing growth and wealth like no other time in history. The automobile industry responded accordingly. Cars got bigger. Features were added. Power rose as well, although most of the latter was applied to lugging around additional bulk caused by the formers. To give visual movement to all that mass, designers took inspiration from the premier technologies of the day, rockets and jets. It started innocently enough, a fin here, a spear there. Soon, fenders and bumpers were sprouting wings and thrusters. The Jet Age was upon us. One after another, new cars seemed to burst from the pages of a science fiction comic book, each more opulent and outrageous than the one before. It was a chrome encrusted orgy of SciFi bling.
But the cars of the mid-fifties were more fiction than science. For while they were getting bigger and wilder looking, and they did more stuff than ever before, they weren’t really any better. Handling didn’t improve. Stopping distances didn’t shorten. They certainly weren’t more efficient. Innovation in Detroit seemed defined only by the different ways in which sheet metal could be stretched, glass curved and chrome applied. What passed for advanced technology came now in the form of gadgets. It was all a show, a spaceship to Mars parked in every suburban driveway. Perhaps no other car embodied this age of excess better than the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.
Since its inception, Mercury had occupied the ample space above the mainstream Ford and the upper-crust Lincoln. Comfortable in this range, Mercury sold upwards of a quarter-million cars a year consistently, while competing with Dodge, DeSoto and Pontiac. All that changed in the mid-1950s as the Ford Motor Company embarked on a brand binge that got out of hand. First, the suits in Dearborn separated Lincoln-Mercury into two distinct divisions, each with its own engineering and design staffs. Then they added an uber-luxury Continental division above even Lincoln in the status-sphere. These decisions made some sense. Ford had its namesake volume make, plus the near-luxury Mercury, luxury Lincoln and now the uber-lux Continental, making for substantial coverage of a broad market. They should have stopped there.
But they didn’t. Arch-rivals, General Motors and Chrysler each had five brands. Ford still had only four. In the one-upmanship world of Detroit, the claim of “mine’s bigger” would not abide. So, in what would turn out to be one of the most ridiculed moves in the history of the automobile industry, they added a fifth automotive division called Edsel. The result, as we know, wasn’t pretty.
The story of Edsel has been well chronicled, including by this author. In summary, it involved two powerful factions within the Ford Motor Company who wanted to take the firm in very different directions. The obsession of one was to have their own 5thautomotive division like their Detroit neighbors. Another nearly as powerful group wanted to par divisions and proceeded with alternative plans. The first faction won… kind of. A new Edsel Division was shoehorned between the Ford brand and Mercury, in an utterly half-assed way (not surprising with only half the company behind it) The result was five automotive butts fighting for space on a 4-cushin sofa. Mercury got squeezed, and Edsel, in the end, was crushed.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To make room for the upstart Edsel, Mercury was pushed uptown. It’s 1957 cars were 5 inches longer, 4 inches lower and 3 inches wider than the previous year. Even so, designers found themselves boxed in by the huge Lincoln and the still pretty big Edsel. They would have to employ unique styling and advanced technology to make the big new Mercurys stand out. The most unique, most advanced, and biggest of the Big M Mercs would be the Turnpike Cruiser. The results were, how shall we say, mixed.
Stylists employed what they called a “horizontal plane” theme. In fact, the long, flat hood must have looked quite enticing to low flying planes. Like the big Oldsmobiles and Buicks it was now competing against, the Turnpike Cruiser looked pretty impressive. It was big and bold and had lots of bling fastened to most every available surface. You noticed it. The trouble was, you also noticed how old fashioned it looked next the graceful and flowing Chrysler Saratoga and DeSoto FireFlight, which were also new for 1957. Instead of making a styling splash, the Big M landed with a visual thud.
The other realm where the new Mercurys were to stand apart was technology. The Turnpike Cruiser would have the latest and greatest tech the fifties had to offer. Among the more dubious innovations unique to the Turnpike Cruiser was the “Monitor Control Panel”. This was the industry’s first crude attempt at a trip computer. The device calculated the car’s average speed on a journey. But the programing process was complicated. Often the fussy system failed before owners were even able to learn how to use it.
Then there was the “Seat-O-Matic” memory power seat; another industry first. This system automatically pushed the front seat back and down for easier exits and returned them to their original position when the car was started again. It was very cool... unless of course the seat belt was engaged before starting the car. In that case, the driver would get to have the fascinating experience of what it feels like to be a boa constrictor’s prey.
Another more practical innovation was the Turnpike Cruiser’s “Breezeway” system. This included dual air intakes at the top of the “Skylight Dual Curve” windshield (the glass was curved at the top as well as sides…yet another of the TC’s firsts) At the other end of the breezeway was an electrically retractable rear window. The vents worked quite well letting fresh air flow through the cabin. Unfortunately, the windshield vents also let in water to puddle in hidden crevices. We can guess how that story ends.
Say what you will about the 1957 Mercury’s looks and its tech, but it was no slouch. Base Mercurys came with a “Safety-Surge” 255hp V8 engine. The flagship was equipped with “Turnpike Cruiser” 368 cu in V8 with hydraulic valve lifters that was good for 290hp. A Turnpike Cruiser paced the 1957 Indy 500.
To sum up the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser: It was a symbol of an era...and that era had come to an end. At the same time the TC was hitting the market, author John Keats was putting the finishing touches on what would be a best-selling-book called Insolent Chariots. In it, Keats roasts the industry for its overpriced, over weight, over chromed beasts. The big Merc had become a poster child for American excess.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson
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