In the world of Hollywood, there is probably no more of a mysterious and memorable legend from the 1950's than James Dean. In nearly all his movies cars were a part of his role, including his most famous ride, the 1949 Mercury sedan from "Rebel Without A Cause". While Dean's game of chicken in Rebel is considered a masterpiece by film buffs around the world, the car he drove is considered a masterpiece in many automotive circles.
Most have been customized
The generation that grew up with these is passing
In June 1948, the all new postwar Mercury for 1949 debuted. Ever since its introduction a decade earlier, many people considered this upscale marque to be little more than a gussied up Ford. In reality there was little shared between the two makes, but the design of the car was part of the family look that Ford's chief stylist E.T. Bob Gregorie was going for.
Hoping to get a jump on the rest of the industry's new designs, Ford had been working on a massive design change for the entire company's passenger car products. Interestingly, what eventually became the 1949 Mercury had originally been slated to be the full-size Ford. However, those who saw this big bulbous creation didn't think it fit the bill as an economy type vehicle, so in late 1946, a crash program was launched to find a new design, which would eventually become the slab-sided 1949 models.
Work of the original design initially got underway prior to the start of World War II. During the war, all civilian designs were officially on hold, but in their off time designers were exploring new styles and features, and how to apply them to the modern motorcar.
Young Henry Ford II had hoped to get the new designs into production by late 1947 as 1948 models, but the last-minute Ford change had delayed those plans for all passenger cars.
When the debut date came, Ford rented out the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where all their new products were showcased. Even the strongest Ford critics had to now admit that Mercury had finally come into its own as a separate marque.
Since its introduction in 1939, there had been no real series designations, all models were sold as the Mercury Eight, signifying the exclusive use of V8 power under the hood. For 1949, there was no change to this policy. Using a slightly larger displacement version of the famous flathead V8 found in Fords, the 255 cubic inch mill generated an advertised 110 horses, one of the highest rated engines in the medium-priced field.
Four basic body styles were found with the 1949 Mercury line, four-door sedan, a two-door sedan, often referred to as a sport coupe, a convertible and a two-door combination wood and metal bodied station wagon. Riding on a 118" wheelbase, the long flowing body measured just under 207" from bumper to bumper. Prices started at $1,979 for the two-door sedan, and rose to $2,716 for the wagon. In comparison to a Ford Custom 2-dr sedan, there was about a $390 difference, while the Ford wagon could be purchased for about $450 less.
One of the most unique design features of the 1949 Mercury was the accent line that started on the front fender, and gently curved down to a lower body trim line on the rear quarters. According to Gregorie in an interview done shortly before his passing in 2002, he likened this line back to his first love, the design of yachts.
"Imagine the bow of a mighty ship cutting through the glassy smooth water of a lake." Gregorie said, "That line represents the churning wake that is brought up as the vessel moves forward."
The Merc featured a toothy vertical grille divided in the middle with a chrome ornament stating "Eight". Flanking either side of the grille were the combination park-turn signal lamps, with brand name spelled out in chrome block letter along the front of the hood. To the rear, unique taillights and deck-lid trim finished off the exterior design. An expansive stamped metal dashboard spanned the width of the interior and with a full compliment of gauges in circular mountings adorned the instrument cluster.
A total of 301,302 Mercurys were produced for the 1949 model year, which was nearly 80,000 more units than the previous three model years combined!
With only a mild face-lift for 1950, the Mercury Eight models returned with a new "club" coupe added to the line-up. The park-turn signal pods at the end of the grille had grown a little larger, and there were revisions to the hood and deck lid ornamentation. Inside, a new sweep-style speedometer graced the instrument cluster, and the gauges were all incorporated into rectangular cut-outs, presenting a more modern and cleaner appearance. Among some of the accessories offered for the 1950 Mercury were radio, heater, a rear window wiper, power seats and power windows, which were standard equipment in the convertible.
In the Spring of 1950, Mercury introduced a slightly more dressed-up version of the two-door sedan. The stylish Monterey featured upgraded interior fabrics, full wheelcovers, gold-anodized trim and the first use of a vinyl-clad roof for the marque. This new option package tacked on another $271 over the base model's starting point. Still, the most expensive model was the wagon, which actually saw a reduction in base price this year to $2,561.
Several milestones in the Mercury time-line occurred this year, with the most significant being the selection of a convertible to be the official Pace car for the Indianapolis 500. Unlike today, no special commemorative edition of this car was ever released. Also making another bit of news was when a 1950 four-door sedan was designated the 1,000,000th Mercury automobile produced. Technically, production of the 1950 Mercury dropped, posting 293,658 units, but when compared to 1949, which actually spanned over 18 months, the 1950 models were coming off the assembly line at a much higher rate that the first season.
For 1951 there were several major styling changes. Up front the horizontal grille that had been encircles by the car's front-end sheet metal, was now overflowing with chrome, wrapping around the fenders and incorporation the park and turn signal lights. To the rear of the car, the quarter panels had grown fin-like protrusions, in which were found the taillights encased with chapel-like chrome bezels. All four basic models were back, plus the new upscale Monterey two-door.
Under the hood, the engine was tweaked slightly and boosted to 112 hp, while prices increased about four percent. The base coupe now cost $1947, while the station wagons went to $2,530. Despite the changes to the body styling, the overall dimensions remained unchanged from the 1949 figures.
Production surged to a record level of 310,387 units for the 1951 model year, and this was with a few production restrictions (due to the Korean War) applied to the auto industry towards the end of the model year.
However, the 1949 to 1951 Mercury story doesn't end there. In the early 1950s, two brothers from Lynwood, California, are credited with starting a craze that continues today: chopping the top of a Mercury two-door. Soon, it seemed that this trend was copied by every classic body shop in America. Today, one of the most popular post-war cars to hot rod and customize is the big Mercury Eight.
Because of the strong early interest in customizing these Mercurys, a number of these cars that might have been scrapped were saved and brought back to life. Despite a good number of these cars out there, the supply always seems to fall a little short of the demand. While it may sound good that so many of these car exist, the down-side for purists is that everyone wanted to nose, deck, chop, channel, french and drop these cars, turning them into what are known as "lead-sleds" because of the old body shop practice of using lead filler.
Finding a 1949 to 1951 Mercury in pure stock form is more difficult that finding one that has been modified, but they are out there. Both convertibles and woodies are relatively rare simply because they were produced in the fewest numbers. Due to the aforementioned rod situation, stock two-door models may be the most difficult find, with the Monterey edition (estimates run to less than 5,000 produced) harder still.
In basic stock form, the three model years seem to be about equal in value. One collector might like the gauge package or another might be more moved by the larger parking lights of the 1950 models, while a third just loves the 1951's rear quarter extensions.
Basically, the top-dollars for these models go to the stock convertible models, with the most recent activity posting results heading very close to the $80,000 level. Station wagons from all three years run a close second with recent sales looking to have solid examples trading in the low $60,000 range. 2019 Update: Values have eased back from these levels in recent years, but not as much as most models from this period.
Two-door coupes in original condition have been fetching upwards of $25,000 to $30,000 for solid, complete cars. If you don't mind have an extra pair of doors, which are center latched, reverse hinged back doors, the four-door sedan is almost economical with decent examples trading for well under $10,000. And the good news is that the car maintains its flowing lines in the 4-door version. 2019 Update: Values have risen for both these body styles, with nice coupes in the $30-50,000 range and good sedans hitting $20k or so. A high percentage of these continue to be customized, limiting the supply of stock models.
As for trying to determine the value of those hundreds of chop-top lead-sleds, there are too many factors, from engine, the type of car used as a base, workmanship and technical innovation.
One thing if for sure. The 1949, 1950 and 1951 Mercurys were hot when they were new, and remain a must have for any serious collection.
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review. (C) Copyright 2003- VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide.