Sometimes it pays to be left in the dust. Take the Mercury Monterey two-door sedan as an example. In 1951, the Monterey was one of the dustiest new cars on a showroom floor at a time when nearly every other car manufacturer was offering the two-door hardtop convertible — the latest, greatest, raciest and most romantic body style awaiting optimistic postwar American new car shoppers.
A hardtop history
The hardtop sensation began in 1949 when General Motors added a steel top to 1949 Cadillac and big Oldsmobile and Buick convertibles en masse, then to Chevrolets and Pontiacs for 1950. The new body style was dubbed the “hardtop convertible” and, along with the public, Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co. took notice, although the body style was not new to either manufacturer.
Among domestic manufacturers, Ford was probably first to the hardtop with the 1938 Lincoln Model K Coupe de Voyage, a one-of-a-kind fastback custom built by Judkins. With little doubt, Judkins borrowed the Coupe de Voyage’s fastback hardtop design from French coachbuilder Letourneur et Marchand, which installed the body style on a handful of contemporary Delahaye and Delages.
Chrysler Corp.’s early effort came just after World War II, when it fit hardtop roofs to seven Town and Country convertibles to create its own hardtop, also with pillarless side windows.
However, GM’s effort dedicated two things to the hardtop body style that neither Chrysler or Ford had provided with their earlier efforts: quantity and publicity. After GM debuted the 1949 Cadillac Coupe deVille, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Holiday, almost every domestic manufacturer except Mercury and Lincoln had added a hardtop to their lineup by 1951; Plymouth, Ford, Rambler, Packard and Hudson included.
To hardtop or not: Ford’s answers
In 1950, Ford answered the hardtop craze with the stop-gap Crestliner, a specially appointed mid-year model based on the Tudor. Swooping side trim, unique hubcaps and a vinyl roof covering were the Crestliner two-door sedan’s most identifiable features, all of which continued on the 1951 Crestliner. In 1951, Ford also offered its first hardtop — the Victoria, a convertible with a fixed steel top and pillarless side windows — and put an end to the fancy Crestliner two-door sedan by the end of 1951.
Although Ford Motor Co. offered the Ford Victoria in 1951, the company refrained from adding hardtops to the Lincoln and Mercury convertibles until 1952. The exact reasoning may never be known, but perhaps it boils down to one thing: it knew a good thing when it created it, and it left it alone.
When the “Big Three” unveiled their first postwar automobile redesigns in 1949, the Mercury was among the coolest. Car-crazed gearheads with an eye for design and a knack for cutting immediately saw more potential from 1949-’51 Mercury two-door sedans and began customizing them. While new 1949-’51 Mercurys were still on showroom floors, Sam Barris and the Ayala Brothers were chopping the tops of Merc coupes and creating magazine cover cars. Just a few years later, too-cool actor James Dean appeared in “Rebel Without a Cause” behind the wheel of a mildly customized ’50 Mercury coupe and the 1949-’51 Merc became a cult figure with legions of followers.
Flashier than a Frigidaire
The completely-new-for-1949 Mercurys were handsome cars out of the box. From the assembly line, the sleek and smooth Mercury featured fenders that melded into the body, a low and cozy roofline, a hood and trunk that flowed into the flanks and an electric razor grille that all made the car look flashier than a Frigidaire, and that’s not something all 1949 cars could claim. During the first new postwar Mercury’s three-year run from 1949-’51, the body choices were limited to two- and four-door sedans, a convertible coupe and a station wagon. All were powered by a 255.4-cid flathead V-8 with a two-barrel carburetor good for 100 hp in 1949 and ’50 and 112 hp in 1951.
With Mercury a mid-scale make competing against upper Studebakers and Dodges, as well as Hudsons, Oldsmobiles and De Sotos, Ford Motor Co. had to answer the two-door hardtop threat. The answer for Mercury came on June 20, 1950, with the Type 72C Monterey. Essentially a dressed-up Model 72B Club Coupe (six-passenger, two-door sedan), the Model 72C Monterey two-door sedan’s most obvious ploy to distract eyes from the pillar between the coupe’s side windows was a vinyl roof covering like that used on the Ford Crestliner. However, there was more to the Monterey than a shiny roof covering.
Luxurious appointments gave the Monterey coupe an added richness, from the gold-winged hood ornament to bright drip moldings to chrome-plated garnish moldings to a two-tone interior to an artificial leather headliner. By adding $10 to the 1950 Monterey’s $2,146 base price, an all-leather interior substituted the standard bedford cloth and leather upholstery combination. Colors were limited to black with a yellow vinyl roof, Contaro Red Metallic with a black top and turquoise blue with a dark blue roof.
Mercurys had undergone little more than trim changes from 1949 to 1950, and although the 1951 had more drastic updates to the 1949 body, the Monterey returned. The rear fenders of all 1951 Mercury cars now extended beyond the rear deck lid and held vertical tail lamps in the ends, the rear window was enlarged and wrapped around the rear of the roof, and the electric razor grille grew to a sharp point and ran the full width of the car.
Monterey-specific features from 1950 were mostly carried over into 1951. The vinyl roofs and short list of colors were carried over, but the special Custom steering wheel was deleted from the standard list and a Mercury coat of arms next to the “Monterey” emblem on the doors replaced the bust of the god Mercury used in 1950.
The price for the 1951 Monterey rose to $2,314, putting it $66 below the price of a convertible and $367 more than the two-door Sport Coupe upon which the Monterey was based.
Monterey of the day
Many “bath tub” Merc fans buy a 1949-’51 stocker and turn it into a custom. Roy Berg of Aitkin, Minn., went the other way, and sold a custom ’51 Merc to make way for the original, 65,000-mile 1951 Mercury Monterey featured here.
“I like all [1949-’51 Mercurys], but if I had my druthers, it would have been a ’49,” Berg said. “What sold me on this one was that it was the Monterey.
“The vinyl top, the interior is rolled and pleated leather, it says ‘Monterey’ on the doors and it has a little emblem on the doors, the hood wings are gold and they are separate from the base,” Berg pointed out. To purchase the rarer Monterey around 1991, his custom Merc went off into the sunset, but Berg hasn’t looked back.
He first spied the unrestored 1951 Monterey more than 20 years ago. The coupe was buried under bolts of leather in an upholsterer’s shop, where it had already been gathering dust for more than 10 years. Berg, a street rodder at heart, was in the shop to have work done on his big-block-powered 1940 Ford coupe when the unmistakable Merc lines called to him. “The first time I saw it, you could hardly see it under the leather,” Berg said. “It was a storage rack.
“I liked the car and I asked [the upholsterer] if he would sell it and he said no,” Berg recalled. “A couple years later, he said he was ready to sell it, so he sold it at the price we agreed it was worth.”
After Berg purchased the Monterey, its path wasn’t clear and it almost followed the “lower, leaner, louder” custom pattern of thousands of Merc coupes before it.
“In the early days, we were going to modify it, re-upholster it,” Berg said. “The customizing would have kept the same look on the outside, but it would have had modern brakes and air conditioning.”
Before any modifications were undertaken, Berg had a chance to drive the Monterey to a few shows and enjoy it in its stock configuration. Then, a house project came along in the later 1990s and the Monterey began collecting dust again. During those years it sat, Berg was barraged with opinions of what to do with his coupe.
“I caught grief over [potentially] modifying it. People said, ‘Don’t do that to that car,’” Berg said. One opinion in particular swayed him to keep the Merc a fine unrestored original.
“I took it into Frank’s American Motors — I couldn’t make up my mind to paint it or not — and he said, ‘If you’re going to paint it, get it out of my shop.’”
While Berg may be accustomed to trophy-winning jaw-droppers with spotless engines and mirror paint, he also appreciates a good original. Before the Monterey, one of Berg’s rides was a well-preserved 50,000-mile 1935 Ford Standard Tudor. He decided to keep the Merc largely original down to the paint, upholstery and vinyl top. However, he has been improving the trim to maximize the car’s wow factor.
“The big thing was the buffing out of the car and all the stainless — that’s a nightmare,” Berg said. Frank’s American Motors also buffed and waxed the original paint while the dings in the stainless were removed from the trim.
Other cosmetic improvements include a replated rear bumper and guards in place of the dented original bumper and replating the rear trunk emblem to match, an NOS trim piece on the passenger front fender and better rear tail lamp trim. The cracked original plastic exterior emblems have also been replaced with new pieces.
To keep the car reliable, a new fuel tank, brakes and brake lines were installed by Frank’s American Motors, as well as a new fuel pump and water pumps on the flathead V-8.
When new and now, Mercury Montereys are rare. In the 20 years Berg has owned his Contaro Red Metallic 1951 Monterey coupe, his appreciation for the car’s uniqueness has only grown.
“There are no production figures on the Monterey,” Berg said. “I can find production figures for [Club Coupes], of which the Monterey was part. They say somewhere between one-quarter and one-eighth of Club Coupes were Montereys.”
Mercury built 142,166 Club Coupes in 1951, and if an eighth of them were Montereys, that would put production at around 17,771 cars; at a quarter, it’s about 35,542 cars. That may seem like a lot of cars, but many Montereys may have had their identities masked during the custom treatment.
Perhaps because of the popularity of Merc customs, many people don’t know what to make of the vinyl-roofed Monterey.
During the Minnesota Street Rod Association’s 2011 Back to the 50’s event, Berg repeatedly heard the same surprising comment from spectators:
“The biggest comment I heard at Back to the 50’s was, ‘Why did they ruin that car by putting a vinyl top on that thing?’ People hadn’t seen it before,” he said. “Then there was one gentleman from California that had one. I was sitting in the chair and he said, ‘I haven’t seen another in a long time and this is in nice shape.’”
While the Monterey’s original paint shows some pits and other patina from its 60 years in Minnesota, Berg seems content to leave the paint and the remainder of the car largely original.
“It’s a toss-up,” he said. “I think if you want trophies, you have to paint it. I got enough trophies in the garage.”
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