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The Mercury Eight 1939-1951

The Mercury Eight was the debut model of the new Mercury division of Ford in 1939. Slotted between Ford and Lincoln, it aimed to offer Ford customers a more upscale motoring experience without the expense of their top-level Lincoln models. Created by Edsel Ford and Ford sales manager Jack Davis, it was the only model offered by Mercury until 1952, when it was renamed the Mercury Custom. The Mercury name, that of the fleet-footed Roman messenger of the gods, was chosen by Edsel Ford.

First Generation 1939-1940

The prewar version of the¬†Eight, model¬†99A¬†in 1939 and¬†09A¬†in 1940, was ‚ÄúThe car that truly dares to ask ‚ÄėWhy‚Äô ” in advertising literature, challenging the idea that a big car could not also be economical. Its 95 HP version of the¬†Ford¬†flathead V8 was indeed economical for the time, returning 20 MPG with a 3-speed manual transmission and prompting¬†Mercury¬†sales literature to claim that “Few cars of any size can equal such economy.” Priced at roughly a thousand dollars depending upon model and options, it was slotted in between the V8-equipped¬†Ford¬†at several hundred dollars less and a V-12¬†Lincoln-Zephyr, which cost several hundred dollars more, and was in the same ballpark as an upper range Oldsmobile, Dodge, Hudson or a lower-range¬†Buick¬†or¬†DeSoto¬†as an entry-level luxury car.¬†Ford‚Äôs marketing strategy at the time was to have buyers see the new¬†Mercury¬†as a lower-priced¬†Lincoln¬†rather than a higher-priced¬†Ford.¬†Ford¬†hoped that customers would trade in those models for the new¬†Mercury, and indeed claimed that 150,000 owners did just that by the end of 1940.¬†

It boasted all-new styling reminiscent of the¬†Zephyr, but it did not share bodywork with any¬†Ford¬†or¬†Lincoln. The 196-inch long car rode on a 116-inch wheelbase, with standard 12-inch hydraulic drum brakes on all four wheels and was available in two-door coupe, sedan and convertible models as well as four-door sedans and convertibles. Features included a cigarette lighter, electric clock, locking glove compartment, armrests on both front doors, a foot control for the headlamps with an indicator for high-beams on the dash and a dimmer control for the instrument panel. We take all these features for granted today, except for the floor switch for headlights that has moved to a stalk on the steering column, but were only reserved for luxury cars in the 1940s. One could ask why the¬†Ford Motor Company¬†hadn’t introduced the¬†Mercury¬†line sooner, but the answer was that Edsel Ford had taken a long time to convince his father Henry to build the¬†Eight.

Although the “Eight‚ÄĚ script logo would not be on the hood until 1941, all sales literature prominently referred to the car as the “Mercury Eight‚ÄĚ right from the start. Henry Ford did not initially believe that a new brand was needed, but with more than 65,000 units sold in the first year with no impact on regular¬†Ford¬†sales he was convinced that the new nameplate could work. He did stipulate, however, that the new¬†Mercury¬†was to have many of the styling cues of the rest of the Ford and Lincoln lines despite its unique body.¬†

 Second Generation 1941-1948

In 1941 the¬†Eight¬†got all-new styling and engineering upgrades. It now shared its body with the new¬†Ford Super Deluxe, probably as a cost-saving measure, and the wheelbase was expanded two inches to 118. Suspension refinements included improved spring lengths and rates with improved shocks and shackles, but the old-fashioned traverse springs remained. The door bottoms now flared out over the running boards, allowing wider seats and interiors, with 2 inches more headroom to boot. The fenders were now two-piece affairs, with parking lights atop the front ones for more visibility, and the upper body had more glass area, with thinner front pillars and a widened, deepened and more steeply angled windshield. Rear quarter-windows opened out while new hand-cranked front vent wings allowed air into the car without rolling down larger windows. The script “Eight‚ÄĚ logo moved to the rear of the hood from the front.

The four-door convertible was gone, replaced by a four-door station wagon option, while the two-door coupe and convertible remained alongside the four-door sedan. The woodie station wagon’s body behind the engine cowl was identical to the¬†Ford Super Deluxe¬†wagon, and was produced in the company’s Iron Mountain plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The sleek bullet parking lights were replaced with rectangular ones inboard of the headlights in 1942, and the running boards were now completely concealed under the flared door bottoms. Two circles containing the speedometer and a clock graced the instrument panel, with other gauges to the left and a glove compartment to the right. The grill now resembled ones on the¬†Lincoln-Zephyr¬†and¬†Continental. The¬†Eight¬†lost its script logo, replaced by an “8‚ÄĚ at the top of the center of the grill.¬†Ford‘s flathead V8 also got a 6 HP bump to 101 in the new model.

The big news was the introduction of¬†Ford‘s new “Liquamatic‚ÄĚ semi-automatic transmission, a first for the brand, however it did not meet with much success. The public would have to wait another nine years for the first actual automatic Ford transmission. Production was cut short at 1,902 units as Detroit’s auto plants geared up for war production and stopped making automobiles for the public.

In 1945 Mercury, which had been up to this time an entirely separate company, was merged with Lincoln to become Lincoln-Mercury. While Mercury was a brand-new company created by Ford, Lincoln was purchased by Henry Ford 23 years earlier in 1922.

After the war in 1946 the most noticeable difference was a new grill with thin vertical bars surrounded by a body-colored trim piece and the return of the “Eight‚ÄĚ script, running down its center. The unpopular¬†Liquamatic¬†transmission was no longer an option, buyers had to make do with a three-speed manual. The new¬†Sportsman¬†two-door convertible was introduced with wood body panels, but it too was unpopular with buyers and only 205 were produced.¬†Mercury Eight¬†sales totaled 86,603.

Changes for 1947 were limited to a chrome-plated border around the grill, new hubcaps, new trunk trim and more chrome on the interior with new dash dial face. The¬†Mercury¬†name was placed on the side of the hood, while the “Eight‚ÄĚ script remained in the center of the grill. The convertible and station wagon now boasted leather upholstery while other body styles used fabric. The slow-selling selling¬†Sportsman¬†convertible with its wood body panels was dropped, but overall sales were down a bit to 86,363. Sales in 1948 dropped a dramatically to 50,268, probably because the ‚Äė48 model was nearly identical to the ‚Äė47.

Third Generation 1949-1951

Mercury¬†introduced its first true postwar model, an updated¬†Eight, in 1949. Sporting an integrated¬†Lincoln¬†body instead of a¬†Ford¬†body, the 118-inch wheelbase¬†Eight¬†was sized between the¬†Ford¬†and¬†Lincoln¬†models. The new integrated bodies across the¬†Ford Motor Company¬†lineup gave the cars a more modern appearance than the old prewar models.¬†Mercury¬†adopted a “pontoon‚ÄĚ body with separate fenders and no running boards for a sleeker look. Despite some deriding it as looking much like a bathtub, the shift to the¬†Lincoln¬†body was a successful one, differentiating it from the¬†Ford¬†model and breaking sales records in 1949 as buyers grew tired of the warmed-over prewar models for sale.¬†The 101 HP 239 cubic inch flathead V8 was initially carried over from the previous generation and produced more power than its¬†Ford¬†cousin. Later in the year, an updated 255 cubic inch version that produced 9 more HP but 20 more ft. lb. of torque, 200, was introduced.

In 1950 Mercury introduced a high-end two-door coupe Eight, the Monterey, which was similar to the Ford Crestliner and Lincoln Lido. This was meant to compete against the two-door hardtop coupes introduced by General Motors in 1949 and utilized an independent front suspension with stabilizer bars. Two years later, the Monterey would become a model in its own right.

The four-door station wagon was replaced by a two-door model, and the body was now made entirely of steel; the wood element was now limited to body paneling. A new overdrive system for the transmission was activated by an under-dash handle.

Mercury¬†upped the HP of the 255 V8 to 112 in 1951 and sales soared to 310,387 despite the body being nearly identical to the ‚Äė50. The new¬†Eight¬†came with full instrumentation and an optional 8 tube AM radio. The first fully automatic transmission in a¬†Mercury, the three-speed¬†Merc-O-Matic, was also introduced this year and operated much more smoothly than the unloved Liquamatic semi-automatic gearbox introduced in the previous generation and probably accounted for at least some of the increased sales.

This generation of¬†Mercury Eight¬†makes notable appearances in three films: 1955’s¬†Rebel Without a Cause¬†starring James Dean, 1973’s¬†Badlands¬†starring Martin Sheen and 1986’s¬†Cobra¬†starring Sylvester Stallone, and was also the car driven by the Pharaohs gang in the 1973 ‚Äė50s nostalgia film¬†American Graffiti.

The two-door coupe version of this generation of¬†Eight¬†became an integral part of hot-rod culture. Chopping, channeling, lowering and otherwise modifying a ‚Äú49¬†Mercury,” be it a ‚Äė49, ‚Äė50 or ‚Äė51, has long been a hot-rod staple, earning the car an almost cult-like status.

In 1949 Sam Barris was the first to customize a ‚Äė49¬†Mercury Eight¬†into what we now call a “Lead Sled” and fiberglass replica bodies inspired by Barris’ creation are still in production and popular with custom car and hot-rod enthusiasts. The name “Lead Sled‚ÄĚ comes from the lead used to fill in spaces left by the removal of exterior molding pieces, although¬†Bondo¬†was used in later modifications.

These customized cars emphasized style over speed, unlike their hot-rod counterpart the ‚Äė32¬†Ford Model B¬†“Deuce‚ÄĚ that was all about going fast. Those who preferred the Deuce Coupe tended to look down on those more concerned with style like the modified ‚Äė49¬†Mercurys, and the term “Lead Sled‚ÄĚ was used as an insult by Deuce lovers.¬†

In the early ‚Äė50s the¬†Ford¬†flathead V8 was the hot-rodder’s mill of choice, including the 225 cubic inch unit in the¬†Eight. As the ‚Äė50s wore on, all manner of more powerful overhead-valve V8s from¬†Ford,¬†GM¬†and¬†Chrysler¬†began to supplant the venerable Ford¬†flathead in hot-rod culture and make their way into the “LeadSleds.” Oldsmobile and¬†Cadillac¬†developed the first high-compression OHV engines in 1949; and many found their way into customized third-generation¬†Mercury Eights. A slightly customized ‚Äė49¬†Mercury¬†was used as the¬†Batmobile¬†in the 1950s¬†Batman and Robin¬†movie serials.

This classic body style beloved by collectors and hot-rodders alike lasted only three years, with the Monterey becoming its own model in 1952 and the Mercury Eight being re-named the Mercury Custom with entirely new sheetmetal.

I’ve seen a few customized¬†Eights over the years, but a few months ago I happened across an unmodified (except for side pipes), four-door 1950 model that was for sale. I dug the suicide doors and would have loved to have bought it, but I don’t have the cash and at 17 feet long it would take up a considerable amount of room in my garage. Plus, I don’t think my wife would appreciate her car being kicked out to the driveway in favor of a car that we’d only drive a few times a month.¬†‚ú™

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