Anybody Who’s Anybody Makes the Scene at the Fresno Autorama
Not all concept cars are intended for public eyes; Ford built this as a rolling research project, and it's spent much of its life hidden away. But what D-528 reveals about 1950s design is fascinating.
You’re not meant to have seen this. It’s not one of those concept cars that was destined for stardom from the outset and then revisited every decade or so, either to prove how clever its designer was or to provide a laugh at the naivety of a past age.
Instead, the Mercury D-528 was a Ford company project intended for Ford company use only, but its influence was far-reaching and, ironically, it went on to feature in several movies and TV shows. Now it dwells in the legendary ‘Vault’ at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, once more hidden from public view. Until now, at least…
The 1950s were a time of great change in America’s booming automotive industry, and manufacturers were bold enough to experiment with quite radical ideas. Mercury was Ford’s entry-level luxury car brand, and the D-528 (so-named because it was the 528th design project) would be the platform for all manner of engineering experiments, with less effort put into its exterior styling.
Funny that, because as it emerges from the Vault into the Californian sunshine D-528 looks strikingly better than ‘not particularly attractive’, which is how designer Gil Spear described it. Spear, who died aged 93 in June 2008, was one of the unsung heroes of 1940/’50s car design, the man behind (for example) the distinctive front ends of the 1939 Chrysler New Yorker and the 1941 Plymouth, although for years a significant proportion of his work was behind the scenes on 3/8-scale concept car styling models. As a selfpublicist he was hopeless but, to his great embarrassment, he was described by Ford chief engineer Earl S McPherson as a man who ‘thought like an engineer – unlike the rest of the designers’. When you look at Spear’s achievements the accolade rings true.
D-528 was intended as a ‘research project on wheels’, the goal being to experiment with improved front impact protection, seating, passenger entry and exit, air-conditioning and bodywork construction, but the ever-inventive Spear threw in a few extra twists and wildcard ideas to make the project his own. It’s irrelevant that many of the ideas came to a dead-end; the fascination is in seeing how the designers of the era were thinking.
It’s not immediately obvious that there’s much experimental about D-528 at all on first glance. The underpinnings are conventional enough, though the front frame was specially designed to provide extra crash protection for the passengers, and the engine is an early experimental version of the then-new overhead-valve Ford Y-block V8 that replaced the old flathead.
But consider the age of D-528: design studies started in late 1953, progressing through clay models and then moulds to produce the fiberglass body. So where are the typically tall, slab sides, the tail-fins, the chrome-fest adornments? D-528 predicts the more rakish, subtle styles of the cars of a decade later. But what’s going on with those odd humps on the back wings?
We have to investigate: turns out that each hump unfastens and hinges forward, one to reveal the spare wheel, the other the fuel tank. This was to free up the luggage compartment because Ford had correctly predicted that air-con would quickly become more of a must-have option, and the air-con evaporators of the time were so large they tended to eat up much of the luggage space.
So far, so unexciting. But here we see the Spear experimentation come in: he made thefiberglassroof section hollow, so that the cooled air could be blown up through the rear pillars and out through holes in the perforated headlining, the holes getting larger towards the front of the car to even out the flow. No unsightly, space-eating ducts, no vents to mess up the interior styling.
Of course, what Ford had failed to predict was the speed with which air-con units would be shrunk in size over the following years, allowing them to relocate to the engine bay… Shame, really.
But Spear wasn’t finished there. He’d previously produced a 3/8-scale clay styling model with a reverse rake rear window, which MacPherson had strongly approved of, and he applied the same treatment to D-528, using wind-down glass. This feature appears on later Mercurys, while in the UK the reverse rake was aped on the rather more prosaic Anglia 105E and Ford Consul Classic. But Spear also wanted to add a high-level brake light and even a prismatic Plexiglass rear screen to enable the rear-view mirror to be placed in the most convenient, unobstructive position, the prism bending the light to compensate. Sadly, the prism idea was dropped.
All the same, it’s impossible to resist climbing into the cabin to check out the view, and to watch the rear glass glide smoothly up and down at a touch of a still-working button. The steering wheel and four individual instrument dials are pure Jetsons-age, and the dash sweeps neatly into the sculpted doors. This was the work of John Samsen, one of several designs he produced for D-528, the instrument panel inspired by the split-bumper front end of the earlier X-500 Ford concept.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the squashy bench I’ve parked my backside on, though at times in its life D-528 did act as test-bed for seating, including a scheme for interchangeable seats. Headroom is severely limited, so it helps that the interior is otherwise light and airy, and the screen pillars thin.
Originally there were no pillars at all, an attempt at improving visibility and style without the expense of the wraparound screens that were just coming into vogue in the mid-1950s. This made the roof a semi-cantilever construction, a neat roll bar inside the cabin helping to support it, with the windscreen and side windows bearing little of its weight – but it didn’t work quite well enough, and the current A-pillars were added when Ford staff got fed up with the screen popping out or cracking every time the car was moved.
In fact, the roof now weighs significantly less than it used to, because at one point it was fitted with small lift-up panels above each door, each one extending into the roof by about 18in and raised or lowered automatically by electric motors on opening and shutting the doors. The idea was to help access into the car, perhaps prompted by the unusually low height of the roof for the period.
Sadly the roof panels have long since disappeared, but at least they lasted longer than the planned quad headlights, which it’s thought didn’t even make it past clay model stage. They would have been Ford’s first quad headlights, but this did later become a Mercury design feature.
Inevitably, though, the time came when Ford had no further need for D-528, its job done. Spear, who had moved between Ford studios since his work on D-528, returned to the Ford Styling Center to find that the car hadn’t been scrapped as he’d expected; instead it had been shunted around between storage units, regularly revisited for further design and engineering experiments.
But eventually there really wasn’t anything more that could be done with D-528. Around that time, Hollywood film industry customiser George Barris cleverly persuaded Ford that its obsolete concept cars could still serve useful promotional lives as TV and film props; in late 1962 or early 1963 D-528 was delivered to Barris as part of a package of vehicles that also included the 1955 Lincoln Futura that was to become the first Batmobile.
D-528’s film debut came in the 1964 Jerry Lewis movie The Patsy. D-528 had been repainted in cherry red with a black roof and a multi-coloured front grille, with its fictious model name ‘Beldone’ spelled out in gold lettering along the base of each front wing and leading edges of the doors. Barris had kitted it out with a remote control system to open and close the doors, the boot and the bonnet in various scenes.
When filming for The Patsy finished, D-528 was stored on site at Paramount Pictures, to be dug out occasionally for further productions, including the 1960s TV shows The Outer Limits and The Duplicate Man, and even a fleeting appearance in the first Back to the Future movie in 1985.
Barris bought D-528 back from Paramount at around the time of Back to the Future and then sold it on to Bob Butts, another supplier of vehicles to the film industry. Butts started to research the car’s history – documentation described it as an experimental 1953 Mercury Monterey – and eventually confirmed that it had been a Ford concept car. He repainted D-528 in light green with a cream roof (period correct but unflattering) before it passed to a group of Canadian investors, who had it restored by the Guild of Automotive Restorers to its original black over gold.
When, in 2005, D-528 was offered at auction, it was snapped up by Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum but consigned to the Vault awaiting a final spruce-up and a good excuse for a public airing. Octane’s visit provided one such excuse; the second had just arrived, with the Fantasies in Fiberglass exhibition running until October 2010.
1953 Mercury D-528
Engine: 239ci Y-block V8, cast-iron head and block, OHV, two valves per cylinder, two-barrel carburettor Power: 130bhp @ 4200rpm Transmission: Two-speed automatic with overdrive, rear-wheel drive Suspension: Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers. Brakes: Drums all round Weight: 1600kg (est) Performance: Top speed 90mph0-60mph 14sec (est)
Thanks to the Petersen Museum, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, USA, +1 323 930-CARS (2277), www.petersen.org.