By Brian Earnest
Arthur French has owned his 1951 Mercury convertible for nearly three decades, and sooner or later you have to figure the novelty will wear off a little bit.
So far, though, his love affair with the ’51 Mercs hasn’t cooled a bit.
Actually, though he’s owned it since the early 1980s, the ragtop is the newbie in French’s garage. He also has a ’51 Mercury mild custom coupe as a companion to the convertible, and he’s had that one for 40 years. It’s clear when French starts gushing about his Mercs that his passion for the cars will never die. The Sheffield Green convertible, in particular, has French’s heart racing again these days. After leaving it mostly untouched for all these years, he finally had it repainted and restored this fall.
He got the car back in late November, looking better than ever, and the honeymoon with the Merc began all over again.
“It’s such a sweet car. I just feel very lucky to own such a car,” admits the gregarious French, a resident of Wainscott, N.Y. “The car is just outstanding. There is not a rattle in the car. No noise, nothing, which I cannot figure out to beat the band.”
On top of being a great restored specimen, French’s ragtop is also rare. The ’51 Merc droptops are exceedingly scarce and in demand these days. There were 6,759 examples built for the model year, but only an estimated 50 to 60, depending on who you believe, are known to survive today. “I was just shocked when a guy told me that for the first time,” French said. “He’s got one, and he said there were only 50 left, but I think it’s 60. There’s gotta be a few locked away in barns somewhere … but there’s not many. Yeah, I guess to have something that is not readily available makes me feel special that I’m the one driving it!”
French admits he wasn’t even looking for a 1951 Mercury when he wound up with the car back in the 1980s. He had his black coupe at home and finding another ’51 was not in the plans. He did learn about a ’51 convertible for sale in Pittsburgh, Pa., though, and when he decided to go look at the car, one thing led to another. The car in Pittsburgh didn’t pan out, but before French and a friend headed back home, they found an advertisement for a 1949 Mercury convertible in Ohio. The pair decided to make the six-hour trip to see that car, but passed on that one, too, when they found out it was more of a project than French wanted to take on.
“The owner was kind enough to take us home for lunch, at his home, and he had all kinds of cars,” French said. “Then we saw this ’51 under a car cover, and I asked him about the car. I made him an offer and he said no way, the car wasn’t for sale.”
A couple months later the man changed his mind and called French at home. “He said, ‘Are you still interested in the car?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,' and he said, ‘I’ll have it there tomorrow’ and he delivered the car to me.”
French spent the next 25-plus years sharing happy seat time in both of his Mercurys, but not long ago “some things came up” and he began making plans to sell the convertible. The car was still in splendid original shape at the time. The previous owner had re-done the interior in the original style in about 1974, but the car was otherwise unrestored.
French figured there would be more interest among buyers if he gave the car new paint, however, and he sent the car to Jeff Ludwig in Denver, Pa., for paint and some other small touch-ups. “The only reason I sent it out was to maximize the value of the car with the new paint job,” he said. “That’s the only reason I had anything done. At the time, I thought I had to sell it.”
“[Ludwig] said it would be easier to paint it with the engine out, so we pulled the engine and then we wound up just doing a frame-off [restoration]. We didn’t need to really do anything to it at the time… We had it all soda-blasted down and the soda-blaster said, ‘I usually don’t get cars like this to do.’”
The Chestnut Brown and Autumn Haze two-tone interior was left alone, but the running gear and undercarriage got the full treatment. A crack was also discovered in the block of the flathead engine — “We found some coolant in the crankcase” — so French had to track down another block, which he found in Wisconsin. “It was a ’51 block, too,” he added. “It’s been rebuilt and it’s running smooth. It’s a strong car. The guy who did it just does great work. He did my black car, too. He does everything right. He even sanded down the wheel cylinders and painted those.”
Before French got the car back, however, a few things in his family life changed and he decided he didn’t have to sell the car after all. If he had any regrets about having all the work done to his convertible, they disappeared the moment he saw the finished product.
“When the trucker pulled up with this thing … he got out and says to me, ‘Wait ’till you see what I’ve got for you.’ … I’m telling you, I was stunned when I looked at it. [Ludwig] just does magnificent work. What he did with this car — you have to stand next to it and look at it. Pictures of it don’t do it justice.”
The iconic 1949-51 Mercurys were cool to begin with, and made even cooler when James Dean squinted at movie-goers through the windshield of his 1949 coupe in “Rebel Without A Cause.” The cars went on to become prime fodder for street rodders and thousands were frenched, chopped, decked, flamed, scalloped and turned into led sleds.
More than 400,000 coupes were built between 1949-51, but only 31,865 ragtops were born during that period.
A new grille that was integrated with the signal lights appeared in 1951. Vertical tail lights replaced the horizontal units from the 1949 and 1950 models. The wraparound bumper became even more prominent.
French has had plenty of time to do his homework on the ’51 ragtop over the years and he’s discovered that his car was the fifth example off the line at St. Louis Assembly Plant. It was sold new to a man in Sharonville, Ohio, and came with optional fender skirts, rocker panel moldings, cowl scuff plates, power windows and seat, a radio and automatic transmission. Under the hood was the 255-cid flathead V-8 — the only engine choice — that was rated at 112 hp.
French’s car lived the first three decades of its life in Ohio before finally getting a new home in New York. “I don’t know who [the original owner] sold it to, but what I was told by the guy I bought it off of was the car went back to the dealership and was used in display for about 10 years, or something like that,” French said. “And then he bought the car, but he never titled the car. He did have it, but the title was open … He had to go back and do the paperwork and get me a fresh title from the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles and send it to me.”
Clearly, everybody who has owned French’s convertible has gone out of their way to take care of the car. It has never had any significant bodywork or rust repair done to it, and the odometer shows only 57,000 miles and change. “On that rebuilt engine, it’s only got 125 miles,” he said. “It’s like a brand new car.”
French has made a few concessions to non-originality under the hood. He’s swapped out the original black hoses for chrome plumbing, and he’s dressed up the engine bay elsewhere with chrome acorn nuts atop the head and manifold bolts. The carburetor top and water pump are also chrome. “I wanted to just dress it up a little for car shows,” French said. He has also added headers and dual exhaust. “The manifold and crossover pipe, when it was time to send them out and get them powdercoated, it was just cheaper to put headers on there,” French said. “I still have all the stuff to make it original. It would take a day, or half a day, to put it back to what it was.”
He says he splits time these days rolling around Wainscott in his bookend Mercurys and enjoying every mile. “Sure, I get a little nervous … I don’t park it where people can open a door into it. I’m careful with it,” he said of the convertible. “I don’t speed with it and I’m fully aware of the traffic and everything, and the undercarriage has been all done, so I don’t take it out if there is any moisture on the roads.
“But I drive it, you bet. Believe me, if I had to trailer it and couldn’t drive it, I wouldn’t want it.”
Not long ago, French figured he’d be parting ways with the green convertible. Today he cringes at the thought.
“I feel so fortunate that I own this car. The fact that it’s such a special car,” he says. “I’m going to keep it until they put a tag on my toe. I’ll let my kids worry about it. That’s the truth. I will never sell this car.
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.