Saturday, July 16, 2011
1954 Mercury Monterey Sun Valley
The Sky's the Limit
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
By the late-30s, Ford Motor Company found itself with a $500 price gap between its most expensive Ford and its cheapest Lincoln. There was a medium price market to fill and Mercury was the one to do it. Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Dodge, DeSoto, Hudson, and Studebaker already had entries in this market. In Roman mythology, Mercury was the swift messenger of the gods as well as the god of commerce and travel. His powers included the ability to change anything to gold; FoMoCo hoped their new Mercury would prove to be a golden opportunity for the company. The decision was a good one; approximately 150,000 of the inaugural 1939-40 models were sold. Sales went up from there in the forties and fifties.
During the fifties, stylists were quite adventurous with their ideas; a “sky is the limit” attitude prevailed. Bubble top designs were often seen in their sketches and show cars – especially at Ford. The bubbletop idea led to two new FoMoCo models for 1954 – the Ford Crestline Skyliner and the Mercury Monterey Sun Valley. Neither model was tremendously successful in terms on production for Ford Motor Company, but they served their purpose by creating publicity and bringing traffic into the showrooms. Ford’s Skyliner brought 13,344 sales while the more expensive Mercury Sun Valley received only 9,761 orders.
The Sun Valley models are uncommon finds today which makes them a standout at car shows, but other than having a plexiglass roof insert, they are the same as other two-door hardtop models in the Mercury line-up which were sold in greater numbers. Unfortunately for restorers, many components were not shared between the Ford and Mercury of the 1952-54 period, plus further complicating matters is that the 1954s had several one year only components. Being different means getting noticed, but it also brings some extra challenges.
EXTERNAL PARTS INTERCHANGE
Most of the ‘54 Mercury body panels are not an area of great difficulty for the restorer. The front fenders are alike on ‘53 and ‘54 models. If fenders are needed, be sure to check for rust in the head light area. Many cars of the ‘50s were prone to rust formation in this region and the Mercury is no exception. (The rockers, floors, and quarter panels need to be inspected, too.) The doors and quarters interchange on like models without much alteration needed on the 52-54 Mercs. There are trim variations, thus holes may need to be drilled or filled as required. The most significant problem on the ‘54 body involves the quarter panels which incorporated unique tail lights. Should an entire panel from a ‘52 or ‘53 be used as a replacement, the rearmost portion of a 1954 panel would need to be grafted in place. (One bit of luck for the restorer is that the tail and backup light lenses are reproduced for these cars.) The hoods on the ‘52, ‘53, and ‘54 Mercs are all different in some way, so each of these is unique panels. The air deflector (the panel above the grille where the hood latch is mounted) does not interchange either. If a prospective restoration project needs body panel replacements it will make for a very expensive restoration. Cutting, welding, hammering, and stretching sheet metal is time consuming and, if farmed out to a professional, expensive. Fit and finish on the 1952-54s was not as good as on subsequent Mercurys, thus more time is needed for panel straightening and aligning panels.
The Sun Valley does not share its plexiglass panel with any of the 54-56 Ford Skyliners, or the 1955 Sun Valley. The plexiglass crazes under long term exposure to ultraviolet light, therefore, for the best appearance it must be replaced during a restoration. The problem with this is that these are not reproduced for the ‘54s and new obsolete stock must be found; if one is going for a 100 point restoration this is the only choice. At least the plexiglass inserts can still be found with some patient hunting.
Other unique exterior parts include the bumpers, some side moldings, and emblems. None of the moldings is reproduced.
The sole powerplant for the 1954 Mercurys was a the new Y-block with a displacement of 256 cubic inches; no six cylinders engines were offered. Ford’s version of the Y-block measured 239 cubic inches. (Incidentally, the Y-block name resulted from the frontal cross sectional view which has a Y shape.) The old flathead V-8 powered the 1952-53 Mercs. The change to the updated engine brought with it several other alterations including a new radiator and core support.
Also adding difficulty to a restoration is that many 256 V-8s tended to wear out a bit early. Many were replaced with a more powerful and improved 272, 292, or 312. These were bored out Y-blocks first used in Fords between from 1955 to 1957; the 292 was employed in passenger cars through 1962, and on trucks through 1964. If one locates a project car, chances are it will have one of these engines. When one looks at the situation from the perspective of the late-50s or early-60s, it makes sense that a 1954 Mercury owner would select an easier to obtain and more powerful replacement; in the case of a 312, as much as eighty extra horses could be had. If a 256 is still in place, finding overhaul parts will be more difficult than is typical for other Y-blocks. As if there is not already enough complicating matters, there is the issue of single and dual exhausts on the 256. A single exhaust was standard and the most common on these, but duals were offered at extra cost. When duals were ordered, a different mounting bracket for the neutral start switch was installed to make room for the left side exhaust manifold. (Single exhaust cars employed another type of left side manifold which presented no clearance problem.) This fact must also be considered if an engine swap is to be performed since the larger Y-blocks had larger exhaust manifolds. Even though the 256 was part of the Y-block family it did not share many components with its later variants. The most obvious external differences are the crankshaft pulley (which had no vibration damper due to its short stroke), fuel pump, thermostat housing, water pump, timing cover, and water bypass tube and hose. The lack of a vibration damper means a spacing difference for the fan pulley as compared to those later engines that have the damper; the 1954 generator and power steering brackets do not align on the newer, longer stroke Y-blocks. An upgrade to a later engine will necessitate the use of all the accessory drive components for that engine instead of those on the 256.
If the restorer is faced with the restoration of one of these Mercurys then a choice regarding the engine will likely need to be made regarding originality or practicality. Based on the above information, choosing originality will be the more difficult and, therefore, the most expensive route. Substituting a later Y-block will be simpler, but of course not quite authentic. The latter option, however, is not a bad one since only an expert will be able to detect the alteration due to the simple fact that a 256 is a Y-block, too. Only subtle differences are present and few will ever notice them. For instance, the fan will be about a half-inch closer to the radiator due to the presence of the vibration damper. Unless the restorer is a hard-core perfectionist, then do not let authenticity be a major concern if engine replacement is needed. Of course if the restorer is lucky enough to find a car with a good 256 there is no reason to do an engine swap.
If an engine switch is the route selected then another choice must be made – 272, 292, or 312. The 272 and 292 will be a little easier in terms of parts hunting and a bit less costly while the 312 offers more horsepower (the 1957 version offers the best performance). There are two problems associated with the 312 in terms of parts availability. A rope seal will need to be used for the rear seal because no one yet reproduces the original equipment rubber split-lip seal – a two-piece component. The main bearings are not the same as on the smaller Y-blocks and are much more expensive than those for the 272 and 292. Another consideration is that there were passenger car and truck versions of the Y-block. The most notable variation between the two involves the heads; compression and valve sizes differ. Truck engines had a lower compression ratio and smaller valves, thus lower horsepower. If the restorer is faced with needing heads, make sure the casting numbers on each head match. Simply put, make certain a matched pair is obtained. Matching parts is actually good advice for the entire drivetrain. For instance, if, for example, a 1955 model 272 is to be installed, use a 1955 or newer torque converter and bell housing in the case of an automatic equipped car. The ‘54 torque converter and bell housing are smaller than subsequent versions. Simply stated, the ‘54 engine has significant unique characteristics and if using the original engine, don’t mix components from newer models. The reverse is true as well; don’t use ‘54 components on a newer Y-block. This applies to the distributor, too. The 1954-56 distributors have an all vacuum advance while the ‘57 and up employed a combination vacuum/mechanical advance. The combination of a ‘57 carb and ‘54 distributor would provide for poor performance. If a 1957 model carb is used then install a ‘57-’62 distributor. (A bit of trivia that could prove useful is that the distributor from a Lincoln/Mercury 368 V-8 fits the Y-block although the drive gear does not interchange between the two.) For further information on rebuilding a Y-block engine see the resources section for publications on the subject.
An automatic transmission was an extra-cost option even on the more upscale Mercury; standard issue was the three-speed, column shifted manual. The Ford-O-Matic and Merc-O-Matic were virtually identical for the ‘54 models, but for 1955, the flywheel and torque converter were changed. Incidentally, the rear axles on the Ford and Mercury were shared components.
For ‘54, Mercury as well as Ford adopted ball joints for the front suspension. Lincoln made the switch two years earlier. Again this complicates matters for the restorer. The switch to ball joints necessitated a change to the frame from the firewall forward and forced the use of modified inner fenders which represents one more case of 1954-only pieces. The Lincoln, Mercury, and Ford parts are different from one another, too. The restorer does get a break here, though – the newer 1955-56 Ford front suspension and brakes can be adapted to fit. Using the spindles, backing plates, drums, wheel cylinders, wheel bearings, and brake shoes from the ‘55-’56 Fords is an easy switch and provides improved braking. The change is not easily seen either which is an advantage to those concerned with car show competition.
The electrical systems for the 52-54 Mercurys are not alike; therefore, instrumentation does not interchange. (Furthermore the dashes are different making instrument interchange impossible anyway.) A switch from the stock 6-volt system to a 12-volt arrangement is strongly recommended. Starting is easier and 12-volt batteries are much more common. If the change is made then it will be necessary to use a resistor on the gages to drop the voltage from twelve to six. Also, the ammeter will read backward with a 12-volt setup unless the wire is run through the metal supporting loops in the opposite direction. A new wiring harness is recommended as well since the originals used rubber for insulation; after more than four decades the rubber will very likely be rotted. Short circuits have accounted for the destruction of many cars over the years including vintage ones. Better safe than sorry. New wiring harnesses employ more durable vinyl insulation.
As already mentioned, the dash on the ‘54 Mercury is unique. The steering wheel usually cracked over time and most likely will require restoration. A do-it-yourself kit is available through Eastwood Company. The kit includes a two part PC-7 epoxy and a 20-page booklet detailing the steps involved. Professional services can be employed, too, but expect to pay plenty. Check listings in magazines such as Hemmings Motor News for information on this.
Upholstery for these cars was originally produced by U.S. Rubber (now Uniroyal). The headliner and door panel material for these cars was also used by General Motors in ‘55 and ‘56, and at least for some colors, is currently reproduced. The seat material, though, is not. The grain for the seat vinyl is different than that on the door panels. One must settle for something that is a close match, or seek NOS material.
THE FEATURE CAR
The feature car was owned by a resident of Mineral Wells, Texas at the time it was photographed by the author. As of that time, this Sun Valley had undergone two partial restorations – the first in 1983, and the latest in 1998.
The history of this Mercury is unknown up until about 1983, when a dealer in Cleburne, Texas, purchased it. The car sat in long-term, indoor storage without being driven, however, which led to some cosmetic decay of the vehicle. The paint cracked and the chrome deteriorated. However, the Merc-O-Matic transmission survived the long storage surprisingly well; no new seals were required.
Much work was still necessary, however. The car was repainted, the bumpers replated, weatherstrip around the doors was replaced, all hoses were replaced including those for the brakes, the gas tank cleaned and sealed, exhaust system replaced, new tires installed, carb, radiator, and main bearings replaced, power window motors received new gears (same as those on the Ford), and upholstery for the front seat was replaced with a close match.