By Brian Earnest
Jim Miller knows a fair amount about the history of his unique 1956 Mercury Montclair. And he’s retold the story of the car — at least the parts that he knows about — countless times since he bought the car about six years ago.
Sometimes, though, he’s found it fun to make up fish stories about the car just to see what kind of reaction he can get. Since his car is unique, and causes so many people to start scratching their heads anyway, he can get away with some real whoppers.
“It gets to be fun because people are so curious, and then there are other people that are such experts,” chuckles Miller, a resident of Ventura, Calif. “With some of those guys it’s like fishing — once you get them hooked you can drag them in and tell them anything!
“It’s a hoot, I’ll tell you. When I was down at the Knott’s Berry Farm show, I made up a story that the car was built for Bill Stroppe [a prominent race car builder and performance parts guru] as a present from Ford.” Unfortunately for Miller, Bill Stroppe’s son Willie was also at the show. “I almost got myself in trouble for that! But it’s been fun to make up stories.”
The tale of Miller’s interesting Merc really doesn’t need much embellishing, however. The true story is plenty interesting.
For the most part, the Montclair appears to be pretty much a stock machine. No lake pipes, body mods, hot rod paint schemes or other shenanigans. But something isn’t quite right about the roof. It looks like the roof of a Ford Crown Victoria, the Montclair’s more celebrated stablemate from the 1950s. Somewhere, there may in fact still be a Crown Vic that is missing its “tiara,” because a former owner of the 1956 Merc named Gerald York permanently borrowed one for the Montclair. He also added a few other subtle chrome touches and some custom upholstery colors inside to finish off what he called his “Crown Montclair.”
The moniker certainly seems to fit, and it was enough to trigger Miller’s interest in the car when he heard about it for the first time. “I was at a car wash one day and I was looking through an auto trader,” he recalls. “I had been looking for a car, but I really wasn’t sure what I wanted. I had been looking at Mustangs and some other cars, and then I came across this car and the captions said it was a ‘Mercury Crown Montclair — have you ever seen one?’ So I decided to go look at the car up in Santa Barbara, and I looked at it and I don’t know why, but I fell in love with it. At that time I paid too much for it, but I really loved the car.”
The previous owner of the car had bought it at a Back to the 50s’ auction in Minnesota, then took it to California to re-sell it. Prior to that, Miller isn’t clear on the car’s history, but at some point it belonged to York, who apparently bought the Mercury as a used car and went to work making it different than any other Merc on the road. Plenty of Mercs have undergone radical custom makeovers, of course, but York had something much more subtle in mind. He simply borrowed the crown molding idea from a Ford Crown Vic and made it fit on a Montclair. He also gave the car a sweet coral and gray two-tone paint job.
“I guess he just had this idea of putting the tiara on the Mercury,” Miller said. “He just liked the idea. He felt, and I do, too, that the crown molding on the car looks better on a Mercury than it does on a Ford. I think it flows better.
“Then he came up with the color scheme and used the original upholstery to match the car. He just did an outstanding job on it, I’ll tell ya. And the Ford and Mercury tops are identical. The only thing that is different is the Mercurys were long in the back, and you’ve got that bulge in the rear quarter panel. He had to extend the stainless steal molding on the top of the fender to make it fit. He welded in pieces of that stainless and I’ve had people look at that molding and they swear up and down that it’s a factory car.”
Miller was eventually able to reach York on the phone and learned that his Mercury was the one of four that York had turned into “Crown Montclairs” about four decades ago. “My car was the first one that he did,” Miller noted. “It was some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s when he was doing them.”
By the time Miller got the car in 2006, there were a few parts of the Merc that could use some help, and he wasted no time in adding a few of his own touches, too. A few bad spots in the body were attended to, some flashy Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels were installed and an MSD distributor and electronic ignition were wired in. Perhaps the biggest change, however, was the addition of a vintage Offenhauser tri-power manifold and a trio of Stromberg 97 carburetors on top. “The manifold is one of the original ones … the 97s are the newer ones that aren’t supposed to leak,” Miller noted.
“I found a guy that restores a lot of old Fords [Ed Cook] and we did the whole thing in my garage, except for the painting part. It just kind of mushroomed. When we took something apart, ‘Well, we better do this, we better do that.’ It just kind of snowballed. It was really a pretty hairy project. We did the whole thing in 18 months. I worked right along with Ed. We were pretty much together during the whole thing.”
The pair didn’t try to bring the Mercury back to factory-original spec’s and appearance, but they would have had a fine machine either way. The full-sized Montclairs were in their second year and were the top-of-the-line Mercs in 1956 and more than 90,000 were churned out for the model year, including 50,562 of the popular hardtop coupes. Four-door hardtops, four-door sedans and two-door convertibles were also on the menu.
The coupe carried a base price of $2,765, compared to $2,438 for a Crown Victoria from the same year. The fancy Mercs had a narrow color panel flanked by trim under the side windows and chrome rockers. “Montclair” script was placed on the fenders in front and a round badge was located near the tip of the trim on the side.
Under the hood of all the Montclairs was the 312-cid overhead-valve V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor. With a compression ratio of 8.0:1 the engine produced about 210 hp.
Among the popular options were power brakes, widows and steering, a four-way power seat, air conditioning, whitewall tires (7.60 x 15), radio, padded dash and seat belts.
In addition to their name — nobody was quite of its meaning or where it came from — perhaps the most unique thing about the Montclairs was their heavy use of chrome trim and some fancy two-tone color combinations that were not found on other Mercurys.
The Montclairs had a short run as Mercury’s top-tier line. In 1958, the Turnpike Cruiser joined the family and the Montclairs were dropped a notch on the company ladder. The nameplate lasted another three years before it was dropped for 1961. The Montclair name made a comeback in 1964, again as a full-size semi-luxury machine, before finally bowing out for good in 1968.
Today, the Montclair convertibles from 1955-56 demand a premium price in the old car hobby, but you get the feeling from talking to Miller that he wouldn’t trade his 1956 coupe with the unique lid for any stock Mercs from the same era. After working hard for 18 months to get the car looking like it does these days, he’s pretty attached to his Montclair. “At the time I got it, it was in pretty poor condition. It was running, but somebody had shot a coat of clear coat on it to get it auction ready, but that was about it,” Miller recalled. “I got it home and started to play around with it right away.
“Turned out pretty nice. I left it the original colors that the car was when I bought it — Sunset Coral, which is a Ford color, and Dark Metallic Gray, which is a Mercury color for ’56. Then I added the wire wheels to it. When I got the car it had the ‘flipper hub’ caps.”
“It has a different color combination that is really attractive. A lot of Fords back in the day would have the Coral with the black that was really stark with the contrast. With the Dark Metallic Gray, it’s a very subtle color combination. At car shows it attracts a lot of people."
Miller kept the car’s original 312 mill and its original transmission, a three-speed manual with overdrive. The manual shifting made the Merc a bit unique when it was new — only about 10 percent were not equipped with automatics in 1956. He liked the idea of some period-style engine mods, so he added the Offenhauser manifold and tri-power and finned aluminum valve covers. The dual exhaust, which was standard on the ’56 Montclairs, breathes through Red’s headers.
The engine and transmission were both rebuilt, as were the brakes and suspension. “We did the inner fenders and everything underneath, and whatever we could powdercoat, we powdercoated. Miller also recently added sway bars to both the front and back. “Going around corners with that Continental kit, it would tend to swing out in back and rub on the tires,” he said.
The Deluxe steering wheel was a special order item, but not as special as the coral vinyl that Miller had made to re-do the car’s interior. “The coral color vinyl was made to match a paint chip we sent to SMS Fabrics in Oregon,” he said. “They brewed up the vinyl to match it.”
Other accessories on the loaded Montclair include fog lights, Town and Country Radio, dual spotlights and a facial tissue holder. Perhaps the clincher “option” on the Monclair is another York original touch. He took part of the lettering from the Crown Victoria and combined it with the Merc’s original badging to form a “Crown Montclair” badge that looks very authentic.
After putting so much time and effort into making the Merc look great and run great, Miller hasn’t been shy about using it as transportation. He’s racked up about 10,000 miles on the car so far and is expecting to add plenty to that total. “It’s a nice riding car,” he said. “Cars are meant to be driven, and I like taking it out. I drive it as much as I can.”
That means getting the Merc to car shows under its own power whenever he has a free weekend. He didn’t buy and restore the car to chase trophies, but the Mercury has collected its share. “Yeah, it’s won a lot of trophies,” Miller said. “Probably my favorite ones were when it placed second in the Hot Rod Division at the Santa Barbara Concours last year, and then it got the Memory Lane Award at Good Guys Show in Pleasanton.”
The Montclair’s cool original looks, understated hot rod touches and unique “Crown” have made it one of those rare cars that seems to appeal equally to both the purist and street rod crowds.
“It’s pretty much stock. I call it a period piece hot rod,” Miller said. “It’s fixed up in a way that somebody probably would have done it in the ‘50s.”
Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week“? We want to hear from you! E-mail us and tell us all about it.