Whenever I read Letters to the editor in some magazines, people complain about the relevance of the Lamborghinis, the Enzo Ferraris and the SLR McLarens: no-one can drive these things quickly, so what’s the point of having them?
The 1949 to 1951 Mercury is probably the world’s most iconic custom car. When enthusiasts think of a custom (or kustom), the first one they generally think of is the classic chopped Merc. Although it isn’t always the case, the most recognizable Mercs tend to be chopped and modified.
The totally restyled 1949 Mercury was a radical departure from the boxy 1948 models that were essentially mildly updated 1942 models. The new Mercurys had greatly improved chassis with independent front suspension and open drivelines. The engine was still the flathead design, but it was improved, larger, and more powerful. The Mercury versions had a small power advantage over the Fords, which is why so many hot rods boasted of having a Merc flathead.
Mercury sales were very good, topping 900,000 units for the three years (301,307; 293,658; and 310,397 respectively), but those numbers paled in comparison to the 3,338,860 Fords sold during the same period.
Telling Them Apart
1949 marked a major restyle for both Ford and Mercury products. The bodies were much more rounded, and there were no traces of running boards or separate rear fenders. The rear fenders were integral with the rear quarter panels. The overall look was smoother and more sophisticated.
The three years are quite similar looking, especially the 1949 and 1950 models. The two most readily spotted differences are in the rear window and the grille. The 1949 rear window is a three-part unit with two vertical chrome bars separating the sections. The 1950 rear glass is a single piece. The grilles are similar, except the 1950 Merc has large parking lights at each end. Hood and trunk emblems differ between the two years.
The easiest way to tell a 1951 Mercury is from the rear. It’s less rounded, and the fenders stand out from the trunk. This makes the 1951 look longer. The taillights are vertical, compared to the earlier horizontal lights. The rear window is noticeably larger, and it’s no longer a big oval. The bottom of the glass goes straight to the area in front of the trunk. The 1951 grille is wider and wraps around the edges of the fenders. There are two openings in the grille that match up with the large bumper guards.
All three years are very popular, but the 1951 has a slight edge that’s boosted by its one-year-only styling.
Chopped Tops, Custom Cars, and Rebels
Customizing cars was very popular in the post-war years. Builders thrived on the challenge of transforming boxy, awkward stock cars into sleek customs. Customizing allowed an average Joe to own a coach built car. When new models appeared, there was a push to see which custom shop would be the first to modify them. This was a little risky, since these were expensive new cars. The professional shops were the trendsetters, and more people followed their leads after the cars hit the used car market.
Sam Barris, the older brother of customizing legend George, is credited with chopping the first 1949 Mercury. Sam did the work at the already famous Barris Brothers shop. Other shops were also building chopped 1949s, but Sam got his finished first. The car received much media attention, including the cover of the December 1951 Motor Trend magazine. Sam’s Merc featured vertical “B” pillars. His car also had fade away fenders, which means he removed the distinctive “hump” in the door, making the styling line straight and smooth. The car was nosed and decked (dechromed), lowered, had its drip rails removed, and sported Cadillac wheel covers and twin Appleton spotlights. All these tricks became custom Merc standards.
A young Bob Hirohata was so impressed with Sam Barris’ Merc that he commissioned the shop to chop and customize his 1951 Mercury. That car became the most iconic custom of all time, and almost 60 years later it’s still known as the Hirohata Merc. Bob’s 1951 was chopped three inches in front and five inches in back. In lieu of straight or slanted “B” pillars, his car was made into a hardtop, with curved, custom-fitted side glass. The car was two-toned, using the classic 1952/53 Buick side trim. This gracefully arched side trim is the best known of all side trim swaps.
The Barris Brothers and countless other customizers had already established the 1949-1951 Mercury as the car to customize long before the movie Rebel Without a Cause debuted in 1955. The drama starred James Dean as a troubled teen (along with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo). His car was a mildly customized 1949 Mercury coupe. The movie’s success and Dean’s untimely death in a car accident one month before the movie opened help cement Dean’s legend. Dean’s charisma rubbed off on the Mercury, and along with the already notable custom Mercs, helped the car’s status as a rebel machine and hot rod/custom icon.
The “hoods” in American Graffiti also drove a chopped Merc, which reinforced the “bad boy” Merc image to a later generation of moviegoers.
The variety of building styles is well illustrated in the photos accompanying this article. The kustom lead sled has always been and still is the most popular style. A chopped top is the signature modification. Chops are lower in the back. Variations focus on the “B” pillar (vertical, slanted, and hardtop style) and the rear window. Sometimes, the 1950 oval rear window is inserted in 1951 Mercs. A fourth roof style is to convert a coupe to a convertible with a lift-off Carson-style padded top.
Dechroming is a must. Rounded door, hood, and trunk corners are common. Many Mercs are smooth-sided, but just as many use some type of side trim. Almost any fifties make or model side trim has been adapted to a 1949-1951 Mercury. The most popular is the 1952/53 Buick trim. 1955 Pontiac trim is another popular choice.
Grille swaps are standard operating procedure. The most popular grilles are the various DeSoto grilles from 1951 to 1955. Corvette (1956-57), Chevrolet (1953-54) and 1954 Pontiac grilles are often used.
A low stance is a must. The rear of the car should just clear the pavement. Fender skirts accentuate the low-in-back look.
White wall tires and wheel covers are standards. The wheel covers come from a variety of Fifties cars, including Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Dodges, and Packards.
Another building style is the stock height roof Mercury. This look has more of a contemporary street rod appeal. The body mods are minimal, and the rear wheel wells are usually open. The stance is low, but with a slight forward rake.
Drivetrains aren’t a big deal with most custom Merc builders. The small-block Chevy V-8 is a common choice. The more historic cars favor hopped up flatheads or vintage Fifties engines such as Cadillac and Oldsmobile V-8s.
Finding an uncut 1949-51 Mercury can be a challenge. So many of them have been modified and/or scrapped over the years that good originals are getting increasingly scarce. The cars are still out there, but it’s the old supply and demand formula.
Previously modified cars can either be a good deal or a nightmare depending on the quality of the workmanship. Salvaging a poorly chopped Merc is more trouble and expense than starting with an uncut body.
There are several fiberglass reproduction bodies in coupe and convertible iterations. These bodies are more complex than a 1932 Ford roadster and thus more expensive, but they’re a good alternative to a rust bucket. These repro bodies are already chopped. There are complete reproduction chassis, too.
The best deals tend to fall at the extremes of the price spectrum. Some stunning, high-dollar custom Mercs can be bought for far less than their construction costs. The key to buying a top-notch custom Merc is to be sure that is was built in a traditional style. A classically styled Merc will retain its value much better than a car that deviates too far from the accepted norms.
At the lower end of the price scale are cars that have a well-executed top chop, but maybe aren’t complete in other areas. The cost of chopping the top (pay particular attention the glass work and door fit) can equal the price of the car. Interior, final paint, and engine upgrades can be done as time and resources permit.
Four-door Mercury sedans have very poor resale value and aren’t recommended. Mercury convertibles are super expensive, as are the highly desirable woodie wagons.
Low and smooth – that’s what custom Mercs are all about. The chopped top, frenched headlights, rounded hood corners, shaved hood and door handles, fender skirts, ground-hugging stance, and flawless paint job all exemplify smoothness.
This classically styled 1951 Mercury belonging to Dave Sauvageau uses two very popular Buick items – the graceful 1952 side trim and 1953 headlights. The smoothed bumper with hidden mounting bolts is a nice touch. A modified 1949 Mercury grille has the large center section removed. Notice how the peaked grille matches the hood shape.
This rear ¾ view illustrates how perfectly the 1952 Buick trim fits the Merc. Notice the similarity between the arch of the trim and the shape of the rear side windows and roofline. The frenched taillights are 1954 Mercury units, and the fender skirts are 1951 Merc items. Even though this is a 1951 Merc, it has the rounded rear window from a 1950 model.
Here is a trick for builders who can’t find the elusive 1952 Buick side trim – duplicate the shape with paint, as seen on Dave Kreg’s two-tone 1951 Merc. The front fenders have been extended and the headlights were frenched.
A chopped Merc doesn’t need fancy paint to be cool. Primer or semi-gloss black paint works great with the tough demeanor of these rolling rebels. The classic grille is a 1955 DeSoto unit minus the two oversized “teeth.” The front of the side pipes were molded to the body.
There are still some excellent deals available on 1949-1951 Mercs. This nicely chopped 1950 was spotted at a recent Goodguys event with an asking price of $20,000 or trade. A person could spend a good portion of the price on just the custom bodywork. Notice that the grille has the frequently removed centerpiece.
The rear view of the $20,000 chopped Merc shows the shaved trunk lid and 1950 Lincoln taillights (a popular swap). The fender skirts are from a 1951 Mercury. This rear view shows the more rounded rear fenders of the 1949-1950 models.
This is something of a rarity – a 1950 Mercury sedan with a stock height roof. All the grille and trim items are intact. The characteristic styling dip in the door is evident in this photo. Some customizers removed the dip for a smoother profile.
Paul Wingfield’s 1950 Merc has a more contemporary look due to an essentially original body and trim and a slight forward rake. The super low, but raked suspension and exposed rear wheels provide more of a street rod flavor that the traditional tail-dragging, fender skirt styling. Power comes from a modern Chevy LS2 engine. The 1959 Dodge Lancer wheel covers were detailed with a checkerboard paint scheme.
This sharp 1951 Mercury coupe has extensive, multi-colored ghost flames that come and go depending on the light. The wheels covers are a customizing classic, 1957 Cadillac units. The asking price was $47,500.
The most expensive Mercs are the woodie wagons, like this beautiful 1950 model that belongs to Michael Ratcliffe. The bodies are so valuable that they’re usually restored, but the chassis and running gear have been upgraded with a Chevy 383ci and a Turbo 350 automatic.
Mercury convertibles are very valuable, especially the 1951 models. This example is tired, but quite solid. The rust is mostly the surface variety on this desirable California native.
It wasn’t uncommon for customizers to create their own convertibles by removing the top of a coupe and building a lift-off Carson-style soft top (non-folding). Al Jacobs built this 1950 Merc to resemble the well-known Danbury Mint model car. The front bumper and side trim are both from a 1952 Buick. The grille teeth are from a 1953 DeSoto.
The most common “B” pillar treatments on chopped Mercs are vertical and slanted, but some customizers eliminate the post, as Bill Erickson did on his 1951 Mercury. The custom-formed glass channel effectively turns the body style into a hardtop. The iconic Hirohata 1951 Merc, built by the famous Barris Brothers, popularized this technique.
This front end shot illustrates several classic custom Merc touches: a shaved hood, rounded hood corners, frenched headlights, and a “floating” 1955 DeSoto grille bar.
1951 Mercurys are easiest to tell apart from 1949/1950 models from the rear view, because of their extended fenders. Also, the rear window is much larger. 1949/50 Ford taillights were mounted vertically and frenched into the fenders. The exhaust tips were routed through the bumper ends. The bumper guard/license plate surround is a Kaiser item.
Fender skirts are almost mandatory on lead sled style Mercurys. This popular aftermarket variety is known as a bubble skirt.
This is an original 1950 Mercury flathead V-8 that has been fitted with aftermarket performance equipment, such as finned aluminum Edelbrock cylinder heads, an aluminum intake manifold with a Holley four-barrel carburetor, and an MSD distributor. Modern air conditioning and power steering were also installed.
This 1950 Merc looks pretty traditional with its chopped top, frenched headlights, 1957 Cadillac wheel covers, 1952 DeSoto grille teeth, and twin Appleton spotlights, but its low stance is the result of modern air bags. The wildly flamed, Chevy-powered custom was for sale at $50,000.
Another classic Merc grille treatment is a 1957 Corvette unit with a couple extra teeth. The ribbed bumper is an aftermarket part based on the popular 1949 Plymouth bumper. The chrome reversed wheels with baby moon hubcaps are a Sixties touch.
The huge popularity of 1949-1951 Mercurys has led to the manufacture of several fiberglass bodies, including chopped convertibles and chopped top coupes. Full reproduction frames and rolling chassis are also available.
A car that’s sometimes mistaken for a modified Mercury is the 1949-1951 Lincoln. You can see many similarities on this 1950 Lincoln. Although similar, Lincolns never gained favor with customizers. The base (called Standard) models had two-piece windshields, while the upscale Cosmopolitan had a single piece windshield.
Adapting side trim from other cars is a popular way to break up the side profile of a custom Merc. Sometimes, pieces were flipped upside down or reversed. Pieces could be mixed and matched from different cars, and some customizers made their own unique trim. The stainless trim piece that runs underneath the windows is a factory part.
When the tops are chopped, the rear window ends up being almost flat. The 1949 and 1950 rear windows are rounded, while the 1951 glass straightens out where it meets the rear deck. Some 1951 builders use the one-piece 1950 rear window.