The winds of change brought to fruition some pretty nifty ideas in the gimmick-driven Detroit of the Fifties and Sixties, including the 1963-1968 Mercury Breezeways.
A case in point was the retractable rear window found on certain full-sized 1963-1968 Mercurys. Cars equipped with the feature were known as Breezeways, and it not only provided a novel method of improving interior comfort but -- through 1966 -- also inspired a degree of styling distinction.
Mercury started the 1963 model year with eight Breezeway offerings
and it added a ninth at mid-season. See more pictures of Mercury cars.
The idea of moving fresh air from the cowl vent through the back window
was a good one in the days before air conditioning. Some cars in the
Twenties and Thirties had roll-down rear windows. Then the concept
faded, likely because fastback styling, so popular in the late
Thirties and Forties, did not lend itself to rear windows that rolled
out of the way.
However, the general shift toward “three-box” notchback body styling in America beginning in the late Forties opened up new opportunities for experiments with rear-window ventilation and reverse-slant backlights.
In 1953, Packard unveiled the Balboa-X show car. A hardtop coupe based on the luxurious Caribbean convertible, the Balboa-X featured a roof on which the trailing edge formed a kind of canopy over the backlight, which was slightly tilted so that the top of the window reached further back than did the base.
In a June 1996 Collectible Automobile®
interview, William F. Mitchell, president of the Mitchell-Bentley
Corporation, fabricators of the Balboa-X, said the backlight was
intended to be retractable, and that when Packard decided not to adopt
the feature, his company sold the rights to Ford.
When Nash was designing its 1956 Rambler compact, it considered a reverse-slant backlight with a retractable center section. At least one functional prototype was built.
The first evidence of a reverse-slant backlight in Ford advanced design may be Alex Tremulis’ Wind Brake Car of the mid Fifties. The idea behind this 3/8-scale model was that a deck panel would pop up, performing the same braking function as spoilers in race cars today.
Tremulis also came up with the Scorpion, another reverse-backlight dream creation. There was also the D-524 (later known as the Beldone) dating back to 1954. This was a fully operational spaceship on wheels done by Gil Spear and others. It had Ford’s first reverse backlight with a roll-down rear window.
Then came the Diplomat, a full-size fiberglass Lincoln advanced-design “pushmobile” with a reverse backlight and all kinds of hints of the 1958 Continental. It hung around the styling studios for years and inspired LaGalaxie, a 1958 show car.
Designed by L. David Ash with help from Bud Kaufman, LaGalaxie never ran; it just glowed from within and blinked at show crowds. The reverse backlight was one of its eeriest features.
Then along came Buzz Grisinger, who already had a distinguished auto design background before joining Ford in 1955. Grisinger’s first project as executive stylist in the Mercury Preproduction Studio was a design that came to be known as the “Blue Job.”
This exercise never got further than a full-size fiberglass mock-up with no interior, but it had a beautiful backlight as part of a proposed retractable top. Grisinger went on to create L’Avion, a conceptual small Mercury with a rear treatment that included a radical backlight with an extreme overhang.
Meanwhile, another Mercury concept brought years of dreaming out from backstage and into the spotlight. This was the XM-Turnpike Cruiser, one of Ford’s all-time great show cars. It had its origins in a 1954 proposal from John Najjar. He and Elwood Engel developed the design into a full-size, completely operational car with enough styling and mechanical innovations to fill an aerospace museum.
One of its features was a canopied backlight with a retractable center section -- though the Cruiser’s wraparound rear window did not have a reverse slant.
The XM-Turnpike Cruiser was created after the design theme for the 1957 Mercury was determined, but the show car appeared first -- in 1956 -- to tease the public with a glimpse of the styling and features it could soon expect to find in showrooms.
That lineup of ’57s would include a
new top-of-the-line series called the Turnpike Cruiser offered in
two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, and convertible versions.
The hardtop roof featured rear pillars that narrowed toward their bases and a visored effect over the backlight. As on the show car, the center section of the forward-canted rear window retracted, providing what Mercury called “Breezeway Ventilation.”
Easily the most expensive ’57 Mercs with starting prices in the $3,700-$4,100 range, the gadget-bedecked Cruisers attracted just 16,891 orders. For 1958, the convertible was dropped and the hardtops were folded into the Montclair series -- which allowed for price cuts -- but demand slumped to 6407 cars. With that, the Turnpike Cruiser rode off into the sunset.
Curiously, as the “Breezeway” concept was dying at Mercury, it was finding new life at Lincoln, where an imposing new line was issued for 1958. Styled under Najjar’s direction, the cars featured a roof with rear pillars much like those found on the Turnpike Cruiser.
In an attempt to keep the Continental name alive, the suave -- and expensive -- Mark II hardtop coupe of 1956-57 was discarded for a Mark III in four body styles based on the new Lincolns. For a touch of exclusivity, Continentals were given retractable reverse-slant backlights in place of the fixed wraparound glass on the Lincolns.
“We had to simplify the tooling ...one roof panel had to serve for the Continental and Lincoln,” said Najjar. “But how could we make them different? That’s how we hit on the slanted backlight for the Continental.” Even the Mark III convertible top mimicked the shape of the hardtop roof, and its glass rear window powered down when the top was stowed.
Facelifted Continentals used the same roof/backlight styling through 1960. When the next year brought in a smaller, more elegant Lincoln Continental with a conventional rear window, the Breezeway roof seemed ready to join the roll of discarded Fifties styling novelties. Within a few years, though, it would stage a comeback with the marque where it was born.
Quite frankly, the full-size Mercury needed a boost in the early Sixties. In a 1992 interview, Grisinger, who took over the Mercury Production Studio in 1958 and became Lincoln-Mercury Division chief stylist in 1962, explained Mercury’s identity crisis this way:
were the dark ages. Our [car and truck group vice president] in the
late Fifties was Robert McNamara, and he was a money man. When the
Edsel failed so utterly, McNamara thought that the Mercury problem of
high production cost and disappointing sales could be resolved by
maximizing interchangeability with Ford. We went to one Mercury body
off the Ford to compete from 1961 through 1964.”
After four model years with distinct bodyshells and some unique engineering, Mercurys reverted to being obvious stylistic and mechanical derivatives of concurrent Fords in 1961-62. From 155,000 full-sized Mercurys in 1960, production fell off to 107,009 for 1962.
Mercury attained a production record of 341,366 cars for the ’62 model year, but about 69 percent of them were compact Comets and midsized Meteors, smaller cars with smaller profit margins. Things had to change for the big Mercs, and they did.
Read about the 1963 Mercury Breezeway in the next section.
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