Story and photos by Michael Petti
There’s a good reason Tom Austin’s gorgeous 1953 Mercury Monterey hardtop wears “45 rpm” personalized collector license plates.
Those license tags bring back memories of the 1950s for many. Maybe it was spinning a 45-rpm on a Webco record player, or perhaps it was watching the 45-rpm record magically land on the turn table of a Rock-Ola jukebox. Once the needle dropped on the 45, possibly the lyrics belted out were “Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts.”
Those plates are on Austin’s Merc for another reason: The Ramsey, N.J., resident is the drummer who co-wrote the 1958 smash hit “Short Shorts” as a founding member of the Royal Teens band that recorded it.
While the 1952-’54 Mercury was being conceived in 1949, Austin was teaching himself how to play the drums on a set that belonged to his uncle. The drum set was stored at the house of Austin’s parents, and when no one was home, Austin beat away.
Like all 1953 Mercurys, Austin’s car features a mild facelift of the all-new Mercury introduced the model year earlier. The body contour radically differed from the 1949-’51 James Dean Mercurys, and on the successive Mercury, the lower body had become rectangular and slab sided. Atop, the roof had a gracefully curved backlight.
Although it shared the Ford body shell, the 1952-’54 “Big M” had styling cues more associated with Lincoln. As part of its Lincoln influence, the Mercury did away with a traditional grille and employed a double bumper. Out back, the Mercury rear bumper shape was also similar to that of the Lincoln. In essence, the Mercury looked like a baby Lincoln.
At first glance, it was hard to differentiate a 1952 from a ’53 Mercury. The most noticeable 1953 “facelifting” features were “Dagmar” or pointed front bumper guards and full-length body side trim spears.
At the same time buyers were trading in their 1953 Mercury for a 1956 model, the Royal Teens were formed. Austin and Bob Gaudio (later of the Four Seasons) founded the group. They gathered the best musicians they knew and called their band The Royals.
The doo wop vocal group The Three Friends asked The Royals to be their backup band. Record label owner Leo Rogers was so impressed with the Royals that he had them play the music for his other recording artists.
The 1952-’54 Mercury was designed and engineered after the ’52-’54 Ford design was set in stone. The lyrics to “Short Shorts” came after Tom and Gaudio had the beat down for a great rocking sound.
While Austin drove his new 1957 Ford Fairlane two-door hardtop, which was paid for by musical gigs, he and Gaudio spotted two girls coming out of a malt shop wearing cutoff jeans. They coined the term “short shorts” and suddenly had a title for their recording.
After hearing the instrumental at the recording studio, Rogers asked about the lyrics. Tom and Gaudio went out to the men’s room and quickly put together the lyrics. Rogers liked what he heard and the song became a huge seller.
Just as Mercury would change the name of its various model lines throughout the ’50s, The Royals became the Royal Teens. Rogers discovered that another group was called “The Royals,” so he added the word “teen.”
Even though Austin could tell stories of his overnight success that led to 13 appearances on “American Bandstand,” a spread in Life magazine and being featured in a movie, he prefers to talk about old iron. He has restored several Ford pickups from the 1930s and in addition to the Mercury, he owns a 1956 International S-120 4×4.
Austin and his ’53 Mercury go back eight years. As a top-line Monterey, it came with fender skirts, two-tone paint, bright rocker panel trim and bright drip rail moldings as standard. Monterey hardtops and convertibles were also upholstered in leatherette and vinyl. The exterior of Austin’s Monterey is a stunning India Black over Yosemite Yellow with a striking color-coordinated interior that is all original and screams “Fab ’50s.”
In addition to the standard Monterey features, Austin’s car came equipped with the optional driving light/fog light bumper guards. These attractive, extra-cost Mercury items were identical to those of the 1953 Lincoln.
During his ownership, Austin has also added tasteful cosmetic tweaks that teenagers favored in the ’50s, such as 1957 Cadillac wheel covers. Although ’53 Mercurys were not available with dual exhaust, Austin added them. An under-hood enhancement was an alternator disguised to look like the original generator.
Austin especially enjoys the fact that his ’53 Mercury represents the last Big M to have a flathead V-8 for power. The flathead in his car is mated to a manual three-on-the-tree, and Austin enjoys rowing through the gears, hearing the rumble of the “flattie” and listening to the deep tone mufflers wail sweet music from those dual exhaust pipes.
Another detail that makes Austin’s Mercury a feel-good machine are the “tables” on both sides of the instrument pod that house aircraft-type toggle levers. When adjusting the heater and vents, Austin says he feels like a pilot.
After writing the hit song “Short Shorts,” Austin became a realtor and worked in that field for more than 40 years. When he wasn’t selling property, he was restoring and driving old cars, which he continues along with creating paintings of them. His painting “Jersey Boys Theater” shows the first cars owned by the Four Seasons, as well as those owned by the Royal Teens. Five of his nautical works are part of a permanent collection of the United States Coast Guard in Washington, D.C.
However, nothing takes him back to the 1950s when “Short Shorts” was a regular on the radio than his 1953 Mercury.
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