Mystery Merc: Vintage custom has holes in its history

Patrick Orosco’s channeled ‘39 Mercury features
a pancaked hood, custom grille, molded fender
s and ‘40 Ford headlamps. The top has been
chopped several inches. A Carson-style padded
top was originally fitted, but it’s long gone.

Although custom cars date back before World War II, not much is known about many of the modified cars built in that early period. That’s mainly because there were no magazines dealing with customs until Hot Rod Magazine began publishing in January 1948. But in those early days, true custom aficionados might have found some help in Dan Post’s “Blue Book of Custom Restyling.”

The first edition of this now-rare book was published in 1944; it sold for just $2. Subsequent editions were issued until at least 1953. Post’s handy and well-illustrated volume showcased dozens of early customs of all makes and models, along with tips on how to chop, section, channel and de-chrome your car. But very few of the cars pictured in Post’s book were identified with their owner/builder’s names.

The late Strother MacMinn, who taught automotive design at Art Center School in Pasadena, Calif., liked to cruise around Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, taking black-and-white photographs of interesting Classics and modified cars he saw parked on the street, or offered for sale on used car lots. Although his wonderful pictures have survived, many of the intriguing rods and customs that Mac shot long ago remain unidentified.

Both the late Dean Batchelor’s “The American Hot Rod” and Pat Ganahl’s “American Custom Cars” display photos of early custom cars and introduce readers to pioneers, such as Harry Westergard, Link Paola, Jimmy Summers and Whitey Clayton. But while information on later professional restylers, such as the Barris brothers, Gil and Al Ayala and the Alexander Brothers (funny how this was such a brother act half a century ago), is plentiful, because their cars were often featured in Car Craft, Hop Up, Honk!, Rod & Custom and Hot Rod Magazine, the names of numerous other builders are lost in time. 

Jimmy Summers’ shop, at 7919 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, turned out quite a few cars, the most famous of which was Summers’ own 1939 Mercury. Chopped and channeled, with a sectioned hood and fitted with a custom tubular grille that resembled that of a ’39 Buick, this bottle-green beauty still survives, largely unrestored, in the Pacific Northwest. It has inspired several imitators, including a modern interpretation by Donn Lowe and built a few years ago for John Babcock.
One of Summers’ specialties was fadeaway fenders, not unlike those on 1946-’48 Buicks and XK-120 Jaguars. These add-ons were a popular addition to many early cars, especially fat-fendered Fords, where the sweeping flow of the fade-aways helped extend the lines and improved the side view of these otherwise boxy cars. You could argue that the stepped side reveal on the 1949-’51 Mercury grew out of the fade-away and is a vestigial reminder of that styling cue. Although they look dated today, fade-away fenders were considered cool back in the day.

In the very first issue of Hot Rod Magazine, there’s a small advertisement for Jimmy Summers’ shop. We know he liked to sell and install fade-away fenders. And George Barris told me years ago that his shop did a lot of fade-away fabrication. To save labor and materials, the Barris brothers often used 1946-‘48 Buick replacement fender sections that they purchased from new car dealers or salvaged from wrecking yards.

Every so often, an early custom car from that period surfaces, often with very few clues as to its origins. Little is known about our feature car, Patrick Orosco’s ’39 Mercury convertible, but this much is certain: someone with a torch did some extensive metalwork on this car, and it appears to be professionally done.

“I bought the car from a guy in San Luis Obispo a couple of years ago who had inherited it from his grandfather,” Orosco said. “According to the former owner, the car was started in 1942 at a San Diego body shop. After the war, in ’45, it was sent to a Burbank shop and finished to some degree of completion. The car, thereafter, sat in a used car parking lot until ’68 when his grandfather bought it, together with another Merc that was believed to be a Valley Custom creation.”

Knowledgeable readers will recall that Valley Custom, owned by Neil Emory and Clay Jensen, and located in Burbank, was responsible for many famous customs. Among those customs was “The Polynesian,” a sectioned ’50 Olds hardtop built for Jack Stewart (featured on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine in September 1953), and a sectioned ’50 Ford business coupe built for Ron Dunn (appeared on the February 1953 Hop Up cover). 

“The seller’s grandfather had apparently owned a number of Valley Custom cars during the ’50s and ’60s and he thought this to be one, though he had no way of verifying this to be fact,” Orosco said. “This car probably evolved over time, but didn’t look to be a home-grown job, due to the high quality of workmanship for the time. With Jimmy Summers-style fade-aways, a well-executed chop and hood section, a nicely done firewall, stainless-fused panels on the rear fenders and ‘Dutch’ Darrin-style cutaway at the top of the doors, this car could possibly have been a Harry Westergard or a Coachcraft custom, if it wasn’t done by Valley Custom,” Orosco said.

True to the period, the door solenoids and window hydraulics appear to have been borrowed from a 1942 or ’46 Buick.
“The car originally featured a padded Carson top,” Orosco advises, “but the top was stolen off of the car at some point in time.

“When we got it, we finished some minor body work in my dad’s shop, painted it flat black and fitted it with new upholstery. Upon realizing that the car may have had a significant pedigree, I didn’t go any further with it. I had anticipated a full-blown restoration … to bring it up to show quality.

“But with everything we’re working on now, we’ll never get to it, and Monterey doesn’t have enough sun to be able to enjoy the car on a regular basis,” Orosco said. “I’d like to see it go to someone who has the ability to take it all the way and do the car right.”

Orosco would consider offers in the $50,000-60,000 range. If owning an early custom car is your dream, here’s your chance. And if any readers know more about the origins of this fine example, write to us at Old Cars Weekly.

{Orosco can be reached at
porosco@oroscogroup.com or 831-649-0220.

COMMENT