The Saga of the ‘Hungry Merc’

Old Cars Weekly archive – April 3, 2008 issue

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Adventures around Chicago with a nearly new 1956 Mercury

By Roger King

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The “Hungry Merc,” as it was called, was a Medalist model, which did not have bumper guards and stainless side trim of the higher-priced Mercurys that year. Note that the “gingerbread” has been removed from the upper face bar.

I recently found my long-lost color slides from 50 years ago, and it prompted me to write a story about the subject of those slides with Old Cars Weekly readers.

In the fall of 1957, I was 19 years old with my first full-time job. I lived with my parents on the far south side of Chicago and was driving a really nice 1953 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop with a Powerglide transmission. Now, everyone knows a six-cylinder with a two-speed automatic isn’t the quickest thing away from the stoplight, so I was yearning for a newer V-8 with a stick shift. There was no way I could afford a new Chevy with a Power-Pack at about $2,200, but I could afford about half that amount on a different car.

I scoured the want ads daily and in the evenings and on weekends, I would visit all the car lots of the south side of Chicago from Western Avenue (2400 W) to Stony Island Avenue (1600 E), looking for “that” car. In early November, I found it!

In those days, most of the larger dealerships in Chicago had little jingles played on the radio and on television: Z Frank Chevrolet on the north side; Fohrman Motors on West Madison Street; and Howard Motors De Soto-Plymouth on south Western Avenue at 57th Street. Not to be outdone, Ruby Chevrolet, at 72nd and Stony Island, had a jingle in a sing-songy female tone, a la Carmen Miranda, that went, “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby Chevrolet, come in today.”

That’s where I found my car — on the indoor show floor of Ruby Chevrolet. It was a black 1956 Mercury Medalist two-door sedan showing 13,000 miles on the odometer. The Medalist was the bare-bones “Big M,” as they were advertised at the time, and lacked the large bumper guards up front, the stainless side spears on the front fenders and doors, and the chrome dual exhaust ports located at the outer corners of the rear bumper.

However, the Medalist did have the same 312-cid, four-barrel engine rated at 210 hp and Mercury’s first-year 12-volt electrical system. The car had a single exhaust pipe exiting to the right of center of the car, below the rear bumper. It had a three-speed standard transmission, a Spartan plasticized gray fabric interior, rubber floor mats, dog-dish hubcaps and lacked a radio. The dog-dish hubcaps really didn’t bother me, because at the time, it was fashionable for guys to remove their wheel covers and have their lug nuts exposed as a sign they were ready to race.

After a quick test drive, the car was mine for $1,300, plus three-percent sales tax. My mom bought my 1953 Chevy and co-signed a one-year loan at the Chatham Bank, where she worked, and I re-paid the loan at $60 per month.

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Three Stromberg 97 carburetors fed by red neoprene hoses dress up the top of the 312-cid engine in my ’56 Mercury.

Modyifing the Merc

In short order, I was able to get a dual exhaust kit with glass pack mufflers and Foxcraft flared fender skirts at Warshawsky’s (J. C. Whitney) on 22nd Street; a Sun electric tachometer from a truck repair shop in Roseland; and a Town and Country signal-seeking radio for $50 out of a 1955 Mercury at a salvage yard at 99th and State Street. The 1955 Mercury had a six-volt system, but the radio had a connection on the back of the case that allowed instant conversion to run on 12 volts — good planning on the part of the radio’s engineers.

I worked at Acme Steel, a large, fully integrated steel mill located in Riverdale at 135th and Perry, and was on a large peninsula fashioned by a sharp curve in the Calumet River, known by locals as the “Acme Bend.”

I was a lab technician in the New Products and Improvements Department, located on the top floor of a four-story office complex. The lab was large, neat and bright, plus it was air conditioned and brought me in contact with a lot of engineering-type guys and a bevy of beautiful young secretarial and clerical members of the opposite sex — one of whom later became my wife. The personnel manager had a knack for hiring young attractive females.

I specifically recall two co-workers who helped me with my 1956 Merc. One was Delos Hand, a chemist in his mid 40s who worked in a dark, dingy paint research lab located on the second floor.

One day, I asked ol’ Delos if he could provide me with a quick-drying, free-flowing black paint for my fender skirts. By Friday, he gave me a quart of something he was able to whip up that he thought met my criteria. And did it ever!

On Saturday morning, I laid the skirts out on my garage floor and, with a two-inch brush, applied the blackest finish that flowed without any brush strokes and dried exceptionally fast to rival the factory finish on my Merc.

The second was Pete McHenry, a married 20-something who owned his own house in the far south suburban Park Forest. He was also a Ford aficionado and a virtual wizard when it came to modifying Ford flathead or overhead-valve carburetion and ignition systems. I was 20 by this time, and one cold and blustery February Saturday, I drove out to Pete’s house and we proceeded to remove the four-barrel carburetor and distributor from my engine in his driveway for modifications.

He went to work and disassembled the four barrel, neatly placing the various floats, needles and jets on newspaper spread out on his wife’s kitchen table. He then began to drill holes in the carburetor base and plug vacuum chambers. Finally, he added a small nut and bolt in the linkage on the carburetor to mechanically open the secondaries and override the vacuum function. He then re-assembled the carburetor with replacement jets, etc., that he said would enhance performance.

Next, he went to work on the distributor, removing the advance weights, and using a template he had previously fashioned, he altered the weights on a bench grinder to change the advance curve. We got everything back on the engine and, with a little priming and timing adjustment, it roared back to life, ready to scout out some 1955 and ’56 Chevys.

My penchant for speed was accelerating, and I heard about a complete three two-barrel setup on an aluminum intake manifold. The carburetors were chrome-plated Stromberg 97’s with a mechanical linkage and red neoprene gas lines the size of heater hoses running from a chrome-plated fuel block. I purchased the entire setup, which included three chrome air cleaners, for $55 and quickly installed it with the fuel block mounted on the driver’s side wheel well. Not only did my car’s performance improve, my squeaky-clean engine compartment was the envy of all my Metal Tailors Car Club buddies who hung out at Harry’s Shell Service at 95th and University.

Later in the spring, my co-worker Pete was telling me about the merits of the E-code, dual-quad 1957 Thunderbird engine. He proceeded to give me the part numbers for the high-performance cam and distributor used in this engine. I started calling Ford dealers on the south side to try to locate these parts. Finally, I found them at a Ford dealer at 69th and Vincennes. According to my old Chiltons book, the cam cost $32, plus about $8 for tubular push rods and $30.30 for the distributor. Although I had never done anything like removing a camshaft, I single-handedly removed the radiator, plus the front and top of the engine, and had the new cam and distributor back in and operating over a weekend. (I did have the help of my dad’s new Motors Auto Repair Manual.)

I was proud of my accomplishment and my dad was, too — a chip off the old block. Pete had told me to adjust the rocker arms for the solid lifters at .035 inches, which was almost double the recommended clearance, to allow higher revolutions, but it sure was noisy. I now had the ultimate low-cost street racer, in my opinion, as I was able to get away from the stop lights up and down Halsted Street between 103rd and 127th Street quicker than most others in late-night street races.

The highest tribute my car ever received was given by another co-worker, John Alberts. Occasionally, we would go out for lunch together in my car. We would stop on a desolate section of 134th Street to test the acceleration of the Merc en route to Lou-Art’s Drive-in at 138th and Halsted Street, where we would have an Italian sausage sandwich and ogle the carhops.

He would undoubtedly say, “King, your car is the greatest. No other car gives me that queasy feeling in my stomach as my back is pushed against the seat when we take off.” However, all those quick shifts would routinely take their toll on the weakest part in the shift mechanism, and the little plastic grommets in the shift levers on the side of the transmission would almost weekly break. I would have to go to the Cunnea Ford Agency on Lincoln Avenue in Dolton to get replacements.

About this time, I decided to make the front-end appearance even more austere by removing the three-piece gingerbread stone deflector above and the three vertical bars below the upper face bar, giving the car a mean look. My buddies called it “hungry,” and the “Hungry Merc” name stuck, looking to devour those dreaded Chevys.

On most Sundays during the summer, it was customary to go to “Sokin’ U.S. 30 drag strip,” as it was called on radio ads. U.S. 30 Dragway was located in northwest Indiana and operated by the Northern Indiana Timing Association.

One particularly hot and sunny Sunday, I went to the strip, and between my timed runs, I noticed a very cute and comely girl wandering the pits, looking bored. Probably, her date was more interested in watching the races and talking cars with his friends. After about an hour, I got up the courage to ask her to pose for pictures with my car. She accepted, much to my surprise, and I took two pictures. One of her seated on the hot hood and the other one included with this article. I thanked her, but I was so excited at this point that I never asked her name or where she was from, and she was never to be seen again.

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Old Cars Weekly readers are pretty good at identifying old cars, but can anyone identify the mystery girl? I took this photograph at the U. S. 30 Dragway in the summer of 1958.

The Merc makes impressions

In October, my grandmother died and was waked at the O’Neil Funeral Home on 87th Street, just west of Ashland Avenue. My mother was the eldest of eight children, most married with large, growing families except one, who was a nun and the Registrar at Mount Mary College, an all-girls school in suburban Milwaukee.

Sister Mary Norman was tall and stately, and stood and sat exceptionally straight. In her black habit and black-and-white veil, she looked every bit the part of a Mother Superior in films. To get to the church for the funeral mass, all of the families piled into their respective sedans, and since I was driving my car with my mom and dad as passengers, we had room for another person. Mr. O’Neil asked me if I would chauffeur Sister Norman in my car. What could I say? En route to St. Columbanus Church on 71st Street, west of South Park, we were positioned third, right behind the hearse and flower car, perhaps because my car was black and shiny, or maybe the rank of the occupants. At that point, I started to hear a quirky “pfft, pfft” noise whenever I took my foot off the gas — a bolt holding the left-hand exhaust manifold was starting to loosen.

After the funeral mass, the procession continued on the surface streets, through Jackson Park to the Outer Drive to St. Boniface Cemetery on Lawrence Avenue on the north side. It was about a 15-to-20-mile drive, and the exhaust noise was getting louder by the mile.

Because it was such a somber occasion, not much conversation occurred. It was a good thing, too, because the cacophony of tappets clacking, glass packs cracking and the ever-increasing noise emanating from the loose exhaust manifold would have made conversation next to impossible.

Sister Norman continued to sit in her erect position with her head piece almost touching the headliner of the Merc, causing many passing drivers to gawk or stare in disbelief at a nun riding in a loud hot rod with a dangling car club plaque. You may be laughing now, but it wasn’t funny then! She never let on for a minute that she was embarrassed by the event, but I’m sure she was, and I was even more so.

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The dangling car club plaque is centered and the dual exhausts exit straight out, unlike more expensive Mercurys of the day.

The Merc moves on

Winter was approaching when the car was paid off. A slight altercation on a snow-packed street created a wrinkle in the left front fender, and a late-night skirmish in the parking lot of the Allegro Restaurant and Lounge, at 117th and Halsted Street, after a night of carousing left the side spear on the right rear fender crushed and mis-shapen. In addition, while cleaning the car’s interior, I found an old repair receipt under the front seat from the original owner indicating the correct mileage when I bought the car was about 40,000 miles, not the 13,000 on the odometer — it was time to trade the car. I proceeded to special order a new car.

I removed the Mercury’s three two-barrels and re-installed the original four-barrel, selling the Stromberg setup for more than I paid for it. I also removed the tach for use on my new car, as well as the car club plaque. On my 21st birthday, in late January, I traded the Mercury Medalist on a brand-new 1959 Pontiac Bonneville two-door hardtop from Community Pontiac on West 22nd Street. The car was Sunset Glow with three two-barrels, a heavy-duty standard transmission and positraction. Rare, indeed, and quite a step up for $2,500 and the “Hungry Merc.”

I haven’t lived in Chicago for 44 years, as I married my Acme Steel sweetheart and we moved. But, when we get together with some of our Chicago-area friends, we reminisce and, to entertain and astound them, my wife and I, on occasion, will break into song and sing those car dealer ditties of Z Frank, Howard Motors and “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby Chevrolet, Come in Today.”

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