During World War II, car-starved America dined on a steady diet of futuristic new designs not unlike that of the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, cars that presumably would appear as soon as peace returned. Cooked up by artists and writers for numerous magazine articles, they promised "Buck Rogers" styling, transparent roofs, and mysterious new sources of power. Some might even fly. Above all, the postwar car would be loaded with wonders derived from wartime technology. But for the most part, these dreams never came true. They were too costly and impractical for the real world, and there was simply no need for anything radically different once the booming postwar seller's market became apparent.
With the Fifties dawned the space age, which only whetted buyers' appetites for gadgets, glitter, and go. Detroit responded in part with an annual crop of fascinating, futuristic show cars. Bristling with new concepts being considered for production, they served the very important purpose of gauging public reaction to those ideas. Eventually, some of their styling and engineering features did make it to the showroom. But though the street models were more down-to-earth, they were, by and large, pretty ghastly. Perhaps the worst of these mid-century spaceboats was the one actually trumpeted as a "Dream-Car Design": Mercury's Turnpike Cruiser.
The story begins in 1955, when Ford Motor Company decided to split Lincoln and Mercury into separate divisions. Named to head the latter was Francis C. "Jack" Reith, one of the 10 original "Whiz Kids" recruited in the Forties by then-new company president Henry Ford II. Up to now, Mercury had been simply a deluxe Ford -- except for 1949-1951, when it was a sort of "junior Lincoln." Reith rightly reasoned that Dearborn needed a third bodyshell for a new group of cars to compete with GM's medium- and upper-medium-price models. Based on his recommendations, it was decided to give Mercury its own distinct structure for 1957. This would then be given suitably different outer sheet-metal for the upper-crust offerings in the new Edsel line being planned for 1958.
In essence, the new "Big M" was a less extreme version of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser hardtop coupe, a square-lined 1956 showmobile. Featured were "concave side channel" rear fenders, canted V-shaped taillamps, "compound wraparound" windshield (curved at the top as well as the sides), near-flat hoodline, and a modest grille set above a split bumper. Though some of these elements were exaggerated and the twin "butterfly" plastic roof panels merely fanciful, the XM was a remarkably accurate preview of the forthcoming 1957s, especially the production Turnpike Cruiser.
On the next page, learn about the design for the futuristic Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.
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1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser Design
Supporting the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser's jazzy body were a frame and suspension much like the 1957 Ford's. Wheelbase stretched by four inches on wagons and three inches on other models to 122 inches (versus Ford's 116/118). Overall height was reduced four inches from 1956, thanks in part to the new chassis and its lower floorpan, which also increased interior room. Front suspension was Ford's new 1957 ball-joint design with "swept back" lower control arms. Rear-end geometry was also similar, with longer leaf springs pinned outboard of the frame in front, a redesigned hypoid axle placed further back than before, and a new tapered driveshaft.
One suspension element was unique to Mercury wagons and other models with the optional 368 V-8 except convertibles. That was the pneumatic "doughnuts" that replaced the rear springs' normal front shackles. Theoretically, they were supposed to improve ride comfort and prevent bottoming; in practice, they were neither better nor worse than the regular shackles. However, they did prove extremely durable. Some have been known to last a quarter-century.
Mercury retained a four-series lineup for 1957. The previous year's low-end Medalist and Custom were canceled, while wagons were now a separate model group, as was Turnpike Cruiser. Monterey, mid-level Montclair, and equivalent wagons came with the 312-cubic-inch V-8 introduced for 1956 (bore and stroke: 3.80 x 3.44 inches). Higher, 9.75:1 compression boosted horsepower from 210-235 to 255, with 340 Ibs/ft torque peaking at 2,600 rpm.
Standard for Turnpike Cruiser and optional elsewhere was the four-barrel ECU 368 V-8 with dual exhausts. This was essentially the 1956-1957 Lincoln and Continental Mark II powerplant with a quarter-point compression drop (to 9.75:1) and a few other modifications that yielded 290 horsepower at 4,600 rpm. Peak torque was 405 Ibs/ft at 2,800 rpm. There was also a high-performance M-335 version built mainly for racing, named for its horsepower with twin four-barrel carbs and tighter compression.
While lesser 1957 Mercurys were seen as strictly middle-price cars, the Turnpike Cruiser was intended to vie with the likes of Olds 98, Buick Super, DeSoto Fireflite, and Chrysler New Yorker. Model offerings were initially limited to two- and four-door hard-tops priced at $3,758 and $3,849, respectively. The latter came in $532 more than the equivalent Montclair, $419 above the Montclair convertible, and $172 higher than the posh Colony Park wagon. A Cruiser convertible arrived later in the season at $4,013, and was selected pace car for the 1957 Indianapolis 500.
On the next page, read about the gear you'd find on a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.
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1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser Equipment
Mercury's 1957 Turnpike Cruiser equipment was predictably lavish and heavy on gadgetry. Besides the big V-8 you got Merc-O-Matic transmission with trendy "Keyboard Control" pushbuttons a la Chrysler, plus power steering and brakes, a special steering-wheel flattened at the top for a better view of the road, quad headlamps (where legal), plus a "Monitor Control Panel" with tachometer and "Average-Speed Computer Clock." And, oh yes: a map showing all U.S. turnpikes as of 1957.
The real wowie items were "Seat-O-Matic" memory seat, an electrically retractable rear window for "Breeze-way Ventilation," and twin air intakes at the top corners of the "Skylight Dual-Curve" windshield, each housing a small, horizontal radio antenna.
With all this, the Turnpike Cruiser came about as close to the fully automated "car of tomorrow" as Fifties technology allowed, and some of its features have electronic counterparts today. Trouble was, this dream car was something of a nightmare. Take the roof-level air intakes. Contrived to hide a structural break necessitated by the curvature of that huge windshield, they leaked water even when closed and likely caused many a head cold.
Still, with the side windows up and the backlight cracked open an inch, this bizarre setup was excellent, an early example of the flow-through ventilation we now take for granted. In some ways, it was even better than the optional air conditioning, which was barely up to the task.
More amusing was "Seat-O-Matic," which allowed you to preset a desired front seat position via a pair of dials in a dash-mounted pod. Select fore/aft location from "1" to "7," height from "A" to "E." Switch off the ignition and the seat automatically sank all the way down and back to facilitate entry/exit. Twist the key and the seat would assume the programmed setting.
But you had to remember one thing: never buckle up before the seat completed its adagio dance or the belt could squeeze you to death. The "Computer Clock" required a real genius to figure out. If you could, it would calculate your average trip speed. It also housed a trip odometer, an item most Detroit cars forgot in the Fifties.
Less publicized than the gadgets were a number of standard safety features: padded sunvisors and dash, rubber housings for tach and clock, a deep-dish steering wheel, and the wrapped "V-angle" taillights that functioned like today's government-required side marker lamps. Seatbelts were optional, as was a child's pullover safety harness, and the sliding interior door locks were less injurious as well as less accessible for thieves. But all this praiseworthy stuff was negated by the extensive use of chrome and stainless steel that made the inside of a Cruiser as dazzling as the outside.
Continue to the next page to find out what reviewers thought about the 1957 Turnpike Cruiser's performance.
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1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser Performance and Reviews
Appearing at the height of the "horsepower race," the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser naturally had good performance. At close to two tons, though, it was no neck-snapper: 0-60 mph acceleration was around 10 seconds, and top speed approached 110 mph. Handling was about average for the era, ride unusually soft. In fact, Motor Trend magazine described its pair of 1957 Mercurys as "two of the smoothest and quietest riding cars we ever tested."
Surprisingly, the Cruiser tended to oversteer somewhat but, in typical Fifties fashion, if cornered poorly and wallowed a lot. Not surprising were the marked nosedive in panic stops and brakes that started to fade on the second hard application. By contrast, gas mileage was relatively good. MT reported 14.5 mpg at a steady 60 mph and averaged 14.2 mpg over 439 miles.
As the editors observed: "It is interesting that the 290 hp engine gave better fuel economy as well as better performance than the 312. This is best explained by the fact that this engine doesn't work as hard as the smaller one." Still, if you've ever driven a 1957 Ford, Thunderbird, or Lincoln, the Cruiser will disappoint. It's very much in the late-Fifties tradition of style over substance.
Even so, veteran tester Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine liked the Cruiser from quad headlamps to dual exhausts. Calling it a "Space Age Design for Earth Travel," he reported that "[the car] I tested had all the roadability of a rubber-soled gazelle and could handle drifts and slides with the sureness of a competition sports car." Was "Uncle Tom" kidding? No, but perceptions do change and McCahill wasn't a tough critic.
Yet the more hard-nosed Art Railton of Popular Mechanics concurred: "The engineers have done wonders with the suspension. Greatly improved springing and damping have given the 1957 Mercury an amazingly comfortable ride on the boulevard, yet an amazingly firm suspension on the corners...A combination of factors...give control on the big bumps as well as on the undulating boulevard. You just can't bottom the car at high speed. Of course, the fatter [and smaller new] 14-inch tires help..."
Find out how Mercury updated the Turnpike Cruiser for 1958 on the next page.
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1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser
The 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruisers netted some glowing reviews, but the kudos must have gone unheeded, for the Cruiser was a sales dud. Model year 1957 production was a pathetic 16,861 units, including a mere 1,265 convertibles. Poor workmanship and all those troublesome electrical gadgets were partly to blame, but a more important factor was the national economy, which was going nowhere but down by the time the 1958s appeared.
Mercury retrenched. The Cruiser convertible was dropped and the hardtop coupe and sedan were demoted to the Montclair series at prices cut to $3,498 and $3,577, respectively. Taking over at the top of the line was the posh Park Lane, offering the same three body styles on a new 125-inch wheelbase, while the Medalist returned as the budget line in response to the fast-sinking demand for medium-price cars. All models were mildly facelifted with a bolder grille, quad headlamps, and little chrome rockets in the rear fender scallops. The Cruiser's standup rear deck medallion was moved inside and now lighted up at night.
Mercury's big news for 1958 was a brace of Lincoln V-8s dubbed "Marauder." A 383 version (bore and stroke: 4.30 x 3.30 inches) with 330 horsepower at 4,800 rpm was standard for Montclair, including the Cruisers. Standard in Park Lane and optional for others was a stroked, 430-cubic-inch extension (4.30 x 3.70) with a hefty 360 horsepower at 4,600 rpm.
There was also an extra-cost 400-horsepower setup with triple two-barrel carbs and special manifolding, something even Lincoln didn't have. Transmission was now your choice of an improved Merc-O-Matic or new "Multi-Matic." Both were excellent. A pity they were still stuck with pushbutton control, which was more prone to get out of whack than a conventional selector and trickier to use.
This big-block V-8 was a milestone engine for Ford. Though Mercury had it only through 1960, Lincoln offered the 430 (only) all the way through 1965. Notable design features began with wedge-shaped combustion chambers entirely within the block, with the top of each bank cast at a 10-degree angle to cylinder bore, and perfectly flat head bottoms permitting larger valves. The heads were designed so that no two exhaust valves were adjacent, and compression in all cylinders was exactly the same. Also, the rocker-arm assembly was greatly simplified, and spark plugs were much more accessible than on the 312.
Mercury planned on making air suspension available for 1958, but it never materialized. That's probably just as well, considering the lack of success other makers had with their setups. Minor improvements to the standard suspension plus better brakes made roadability all it should have been on the 1957s. Performance was still good, with 0-60 mph in well under 10 seconds, but lower axle ratios kept the bigger 1958 engines from realizing their full potential. Like everyone else in the industry, Mercury was trying to squeeze out all the fuel mileage it could for a market that was suddenly economy-conscious.
Many 1958 Turnpike Cruisers had optional air conditioning that was markedly better than the 1957 system. McCahill described it as "providing enough cold air inside the car to freeze an Eskimo's eyeballs while crossing Death Valley." He summed up all the 1958 Mercurys as "the most different-looking cars on the road...as quiet as a Scotchman when the check is passed."
Despite its bigger engines and flashy three-tone paint jobs, the 1958 Turnpike Cruiser was on a dead-end road. The import invasion was underway, and overblown tanks like this were hardly Detroit's best defense against the sharp recession. From 286,163 units for model year 1957, Mercury production dropped to 153,271 for 1958. Just 6,407 were Turnpike Cruisers.
Reith had been wrong: the public wasn't clamoring for the ultimate Detroit dreamboat. Lincoln and Mercury remerged in mid-1957, and absorbed Edsel Division by year's end. Needless to say, Reith left.
The Turnpike Cruiser has yet to become a hot collector's item, not even the low-volume convertible. But perhaps it deserves to be. As one of the great artifacts from the age of automotive excess, it was the wrong product with the wrong features, built at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons. Yet kitsch has a certain place in our lives, if only to remind us of the fine line between taste and tastelessness. The Turnpike Cruiser crossed that line decisively, as kitschy as a Fifties car ever got. And that's why it will be remembered. That and the moral it teaches: some dreams are best forgotten.
On the next page, learn about the 1956 XM-Turnpike Cruiser show car, which was heavily influenced by the 1957-1958 Turnpike Cruisers.
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The 1956 XM-Turnpike Cruiser: A Sneak Preview of the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser
Show cars influenced much of Ford's production styling in the Fifties, but the 1957 Mercury was an exception. Like the 1956 Lincoln, it was an original. The show car it most resembled, the experimental XM-Turnpike Cruiser of 1956, came after the basic production design had been developed. Interestingly, it was built in late 1955 by Ghia in Italy, thus foreshadowing Ford's acquisition of the famed coachbuilder in the Seventies.
Carted around the country in a semitrailer with big picture windows on each side, the XM-Turnpike Cruiser was described as "not merely a 'dream' car. It is a full-scale, fully operative automotive styling laboratory dedicated to ... pioneering, testing, and perfecting new ideas in design, new features, new safety and new power application."
Its most obvious departure from production 1957 styling was the roof, a sort of early T-top design with a wrapped backlight surmounted by overhanging sections at the C-pillars. Twin plastic "butterfly" roof panels, hinged from the T, flipped up when the doors opened to facilitate entry, a necessity with the low, 52.4-inch overall height. The center portion of the three-section backlight could be lowered for ventilation as on the production Turnpike Cruiser, a feature continued on the 1958-1960 Continentals and the "Breeze-way" Mercurys of 1963-1968.
Other differences included twin, chrome-plated exhausts exiting from the lower rear fenders, near-vertical A-pillars instead of the production models' angled "doglegs," and a blunt front end with chrome half-bumpers, each carrying "twin jet pods." Inside were four leather-covered bucket-type seats and a quartet of "chrome-edged cylinders" housing full instrumentation.
The XM Cruiser became one of Ford's most famous show cars, and rumors persisted for years that it was still around. Ford's policy in those days was to destroy its show cars after it had finished with them. As the story goes, the person sent to demolish this one just didn't have the heart, and instead hid it in the Michigan woods, where it turned up much later. That may be true, but the car's whereabouts remain a mystery.