Story and photos by John Lee
Bob Hubbard clearly remembers the night he fell in love — with a 1951 Mercury!
He and his steady, Jo, along with two other couples, were all high school students in Watertown, S.D. The Watertown High School basketball team was playing at Aberdeen, and they wanted to drive up to see the game. But Bob’s coupe wouldn’t accommodate a crowd of six.
Bob’s father owned the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Watertown, and “I grew up working in the shop.” His dad had just taken a 1951 Mercury four-door sedan in on trade on a new 1955 Chrysler. Bob had cleaned it up and it was on the used car lot.
Well, Bob knew his way around the dealership, so after hours he snuck the Mercury’s keys from the key board and off the three couples went to the ball game. “I fell in love with that ’51 Mercury!” Bob exclaimed. “It was big and comfortable, with plenty of power and overdrive, and I just loved it.”
More than 60 years later, Bob remains convinced he got away with the “joyride.” If his dad knew about it, he never mentioned it.
“I started driving when I was 14,” Bob related. “In South Dakota at that time, when you were 15, you just drove. You didn’t have to have a license. I saved up money to buy a car, and I had $300 when I turned 15.”
He was all set to put his money down on a 1946 Ford V-8 when Dad stepped in. Being the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer, he reasoned, “I can’t have my son driving a Ford.”
Instead, he took Bob into the back room of the garage. “He’d picked out a ’41 Plymouth business coupe for me,” said Bob. “A rural mail carrier had traded it in. I asked, ‘How much?’ He said, “Three-hundred dollars.’”
So the Plymouth business coupe became Bob’s first car, and he made some improvements on it, such as Port-A-Wall whitewalls, to make it more acceptable on the street and in the high school parking lot.
Bob and Jo married when they were 20, two years out of high school. Their first child was born a year later. “Time and life went on,” he said. He eventually found his niche in the business of selling trucks and heavy equipment, and three more children joined the family.
But he never got over his first love. “About the time our fourth child went off to college, in 1996, I started looking for a ’51 Mercury,” Bob related. The Hubbards had moved to Lincoln, Neb., some years before and a ’51 Merc turned up for sale in Grand Island, less than 100 miles away.
“We were just ready to leave for a trip to Europe,” he said. He called the number in the ad, made his genuine interest known and explained the situation. “The owner agreed to hold onto the Mercury until we got back.”
Bob remembers that “all I could think about while we were in Europe was the Mercury. Someone asked when we got back if we’d seen the Eiffel Tower. I was like, ‘Eiffel Tower? What was that?’”
Back home, he went to look over the Mercury and it turned out to be just what he hoped it would be: almost all original and well kept with repairs and work done as needed through the years. The original 112-hp Flathead V-8 ran fine, and although nearly one-third of 1951 Mercurys were delivered with the new Merc-O-Matic transmission, the three-speed manual with overdrive in this one was what Bob preferred.
This had been an all-black car, but the previous owner chose to have it two-toned with dark red on the top and down the deck lid when he’d had it completely repainted.
“Jo drove me out to Grand Island to bring the Mercury home,” said Bob. “She told me that all the way back she could see me in the rearview mirror with a big smile on my face!”
Soon a few minor changes were made to give the Merc the character he would have wanted if he had bought the one he “borrowed” from his dad’s used car lot 40 years earlier. He installed two-inch lowering blocks on the rear springs and chrome flipper bar full wheel covers on the red-painted front wheels. Both the wheel covers and lowering blocks came from Speedway Motors, the local Lincoln, Neb., speed shop. Incidentally, Speedway Motors was started the year after this Merc was new and continues to this day as one of the nation’s largest suppliers of speed and racing equipment.
A local muffler shop custom-made a dual exhaust system for the Mercury featuring “Smitty” straight-through mufflers and chrome pencil-tip extensions. The previous owner had added such accessories as a spotlight, outside rearview mirror, an intimidating Mercury-issue grille guard and an aftermarket sun visor and complementary traffic light viewer perched atop the dashboard.
“When I bought the car,” Bob noted, “all the pot metal was black, so I’ve had everything rechromed over time.”
The nostalgic Mercury ushered in a new family tradition. In the fall, Bob and Jo pack up the car and head out for some pre-determined destination, shunning the interstate and driving almost exclusively on two-lane highways. “When we started making these trips, I was still working so they were usually long weekends, four or five days,” Bob explained.
Two of the longer trips took the couple to Milwaukee and also Mountain Home, Ark. Meandering along the Mississippi River around Hannibal, Mo., was one of the most memorable drives.
“The Mercury doesn’t have air conditioning, so we go in the fall when it’s not so hot, and we love seeing the fall colors,” said Bob. “We’d take our time. There is so much to see that you never see on the interstate.”
They have been determined to avoid driving at night, particularly because of the threat of hitting a deer on the two-lane roads. But once, in Wisconsin, behind schedule to get to their bed-and-breakfast destination for the night, they did drive into the dark. “I told Jo to watch the edge of the road on her side and I would watch on mine. Sure enough, Jo yelled, ‘Deer!’ I hit the brakes — and the deer turned back into the woods. Whew!”
Taking to the open road in a mostly original 60-some-year-old car also calls for being prepared. Bob carries along a fuel pump, headlight bulb, points and a coil, and other just-in-case replacement parts in the trunk — even a spare 6-volt battery. “We’re always glad to get home safely,” he said. “The one time the fuel pump failed, it was at home in the garage.”
No doubt the Hubbards are enjoying their 1951 Mercury more now than they would have if Bob had bought the first one he drove back in 1955.
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