Monday, May 30, 2011

1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

Space Age Design for Earth Travel
Text and Photos by David W. Temple
Tom McCahill could not say in a sentence or two just how different the Turnpike Cruiser was from the previous cars to come from the Mercury Division of Ford Motor Company. His road test report in the January 1957 Mechanix Illustrated devoted significant space trying to describe his reaction to the new ride: “This is a car with no nostalgic qualities and it won’t have any for at least another 25 years. Beyond a question of doubt, the 1957 Mercurys are the most different cars of the year…
In fact, the easiest was to describe this car is to state that it is a totally new automobile going under the name ‘Mercury’… For those who’ve been shouting against the warmed-over hash and crying, ‘Give us something new!’, the answer is simple: This is it – a Space Age design for earth travel.” Evidently, Tom McCahill was impressed with the new Mercury line as were the editors of Motor Life who reported in August 1957 that, “You don’t have spend much time behind the oddly-shaped steering wheel of a Mercury Turnpike Cruiser to learn this is something more than just a distinctively styled car. Equipped with all the pushbutton and power-operated gadgets you could ask for, this middling big car offers plenty of comfort, luxury, and performance in town and on the highway.”
Model year 1957 brought major changes for Mercury. The nearly twenty-year old division of Ford was moved into the upper-medium priced market to compete with cars like Chrysler’s New Yorker, Buick’s Super, and Oldsmobile’s Ninety-Eight, plus the cars were dramatically restyled so they bore no resemblance to anything they marketed in the past. The public liked the new look, but the attempt to compete in a higher market was ill-timed and therefore, not seen as successful, even though Mercury did gain a little market share and their station wagon models sold very well.
This 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser showcases the flamboyance of the late 1950s with its wild Sunset Orchid and Tuxedo Black "Flo-Tone" paint scheme, anodized gold trim, and a ton of chrome.
In 1955, Francis “Jack” Reith (a member of the group who became collectively known as the “whiz kids” hired after the end of World War II by Henry Ford II) persuaded the executive committee to split the Lincoln-Mercury division and move Mercury up-market for ’57. Reith was then appointed head of the Mercury Division. This same committee had already given the go-ahead for the Edsel, which was set for debut for ’58. This really made the move upward necessary since Edsel was to be marketed above Ford. To help make the point that Mercury had moved up-market, it no longer shared its body with Ford. The decision to not share bodies with Ford gave Mercury more individuality, which of course, was meant to help it compete in the upper-medium priced market.
Another move to place Mercury into this arena was producing a gadget-laden, top-of-the-line model called the Turnpike Cruiser, which was largely based on a one-of-a-kind show car dubbed XM Turnpike Cruiser. The show car foretold the styling direction for Mercury and it looked like its inspiration came from the pages of science fiction. It featured concave, side-channel rear fenders that terminated into canted V-shaped tail lamps; compound curved, wraparound front windshield; three-piece wraparound rear windshield whose center section could be lowered; a flat roof lacking C-pillars; flip-up, transparent plastic roof panels and lots of bright trim. Inside the radical car were instruments clustered in pods, four bucket-like seats and a full-length console. A dual-quad 312 powered the XM Turnpike Cruiser.
The production Turnpike Cruiser was very much like the XM show car version, but lacked the unconventional roof treatment, the individual seating and console, plus had a more conventional, though unique, dashboard. The Lincoln 368 V-8 with a small compression drop provided the power to move the 4,450 pound car. The Turnpike Cruiser debuted in December 1956, in two versions – a two-door hardtop and a four-door hardtop. A convertible was added to the line the following February after negotiations with Indy racing officials resulted in its selection as the pace car for that year’s Indianapolis 500 race. All the Turnpike Cruiser convertibles sold were pace car replicas (although many never had the pace car lettering applied by the dealer).
Among the features of the 1957 Turnpike Cruiser were the 290hp 368 V-8, pushbutton-controlled "Merc-O-Matic" automatic transmission, the optional "Seat-O-Matic" memory seat, and the "Breezeway Ventilation" retractable rear windshield.
Besides the 290hp 368, the Turnpike Cruiser possessed a long list of other standard equipment such as Merc-O-Matic automatic transmission with push-button controls, power steering, power brakes, unique steering wheel, special wheel covers, tachometer, average speed computer clock, “Breezeway Ventilation” (a retractable rear windshield), padded dash, and sun visors, dual exhausts, and “Skylight Dual-Curve” windshield with twin air scoops at the corners. These scoops could be opened and closed via individual levers inside the car. The scoops also housed the horizontally mounted dummy antennas. The steering wheel was flattened on top to, “provide maximum visibility and greater safety,” claimed by Mercury’s sales literature of the day. The “average speed computer clock” reported average speed at any time during a trip – that is, if one wanted to learn how to operate it. If all this did not give comfort, convenience, and entertainment, one could order a number of other interesting options such as a more economical 255hp version of the 368 (optional at lower cost), power windows, air conditioning, “Seat-O-Matic” power seat, and “Multiluber” chassis lubrication system. The Seat-O-Matic was also known as the memory seat. With it, one could dial in a preferred seat position. When the door was opened to exit the parked vehicle, the seat moved back to facilitate the process. Upon reentering the car, one had to merely turn the key to get the seat to return to its previous position. The Multiluber option provided an easy means of lubricating the chassis with a dash-mounted, push-button activated system. No wonder Tom McCahill exclaimed the Turnpike Cruiser was a car with “space age design for earth travel” and Mercury literature boasted that it had “dream car design!”
The Turnpike Cruiser and the move to the upper-medium price market failed. Mercury did gain market share, but not nearly what Francis Reith had forecasted; he was removed as head of the Mercury Division as a result. Rather than take the offer of becoming head of Ford of Canada, Reith resigned from Ford. Bad timing of the move up-market may be mostly to blame for the lower than expected output. An economic recession was beginning to take effect for ’57, and would get worse the following year. As a result, buyers were increasingly interested in economizing at that time. The decision to change the marketing strategy for Mercury was made well ahead of the recession, though. Ironically, Motor Trend later reported the 1957 Monterey hardtop was among the best selling used cars of 1959.
After disappointing sales results, the Turnpike Cruiser was demoted to the Montclair series for 1958, and the Park Lane took the high road for Mercury. With the end of the 1958 model year, the Turnpike Cruiser quietly faded into the history books. The reasons often cited for its disappointing sales performance include poor workmanship and troublesome electrical systems. Whatever the reasons for its demise, road test reports indicated mostly satisfactory results. The writers for Popular Mechanics surveyed Turnpike Cruiser owners and reported in the August 1957 issue that the majority of them gave generally favorable comments about their distinctive automobile. Styling ranked as the most liked feature while handling ease and riding comfort ranked second and third respectively. Not all was viewed as perfect, though. The most frequent complaint was poor gas mileage (anywhere from 10-13 mpg), but poor workmanship and body rattles were also mentioned by 18.8 percent and 18.3 percent of owners, respectively; balancing these discrepancies is the fact that nearly 22 percent found no faults at all. (Worth noting is Mercury’s early factory air conditioning units for ’57 were troublesome.) Interestingly, these are about the same figures obtained for the ’57 Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Apparently, the upscale Turnpike Cruiser was on par with the competition.
Another aspect of competition was racing. Bill Stroppe was in charge of Mercury’s experimental racing division. One of his specially built Mercurys was the “Mermaid.” The car had numerous modifications designed to decrease weight and air resistance of the Monterey from which it was built. During Speedweeks at Daytona, the experimental Mercury ran a best one-way speed of 159 mph with a 154 mph average. Later, the car ran an unofficial speed of nearly 180 mph, but a radiator hose ruptured making the result invalid. 
The owner of the car pictured here at the time it was photographed by the author was Jim Hollingsworth of Dallas, Texas. When these cars were new, Jim would have much preferred the sales performance predicted by Francis Reith. Mr. Hollingsworth was a Mercury dealer in Beeville, Texas from 1955 to 1958. The Tuxedo Black and Sunset Orchid four-door hardtop was advertised in Hemmings Motor News a number of years ago; Jim went to Colorado to buy the car and later performed a partial restoration of it. This one is equipped with air conditioning, Seat-O-Matic, power windows, radio, power antenna, “Flo-Tone” two-tone paint, and the Multiluber. Hollingsworth has also owned another Turnpike Cruiser (a black two-door hardtop), a Monterey convertible, and a Colony Park four-door hardtop station wagon – all ’57 models. As a former Mercury dealer, Jim knows the faults of these cars very well; regardless of their faults, nostalgia is blind and there is no other car that Tom McCahill proclaimed to have “Space Age design for earth travel.”


  1. i have one like this at home in iceland for sale phone 003548201974

  2. I like the Tuxedo black paint scheme on the car. It makes it all beautiful. I wish i could see more of the Mercury cars in this era.

  3. Check out the dashboard design of the current Jaguar XK. I knew I had seen the basic idea in some 50's car and here it is - not just the TC but all 57-58 Mercurys. The dashboards of both the Jag and the Merc are designed to look like a pod which floats a bit below the base line of the windows and windshield, and the interior side walls appear to wrap around under the windshield. No doubt some Jag designer knew about the Merc or maybe the concept has shown up elsewhere.

    I bet a good TC is worth a lot now!

    1. I meant Jaguar XJ! Just search "Jaguar XJ interior" in Google Images if you want to see what I mean.