Story and photos by Brian Earnest
After the wild first ride she had in the car, you couldn’t blame Jewell Zieliecke if she wanted to get rid of her 1954 Mercury Sun Valley hardtop coupe as soon as she could. Instead, the opposite is true. It’s the car she will probably never part with.
“My [late] husband saw it advertised and we went and looked at and bought it, and we decided to tow it home,” recalls Zieliecke, a resident of Campbellsport, Wis. “He had me behind the wheel when he was towing it, and something let loose and he turned the corner and and I went straight! It had brakes, so I stopped and he came back and got me and towed me home. It was quite a first ride.”
That was back in the early 1980s, and the Zielieckes still have the gorgeous black Mercury. After all the time they spent restoring it and all the sentimental attachment the family has to it, the title isn’t likely to change hands anytime soon.
“It was my husband’s baby. His absolute favorite car,” Jewell says. “In fact, its on his headstone.
“It took him and my son five years to restore it. They got all the parts and he rebuilt it. It was a basket case. He did all the work himself, except the interior. And I had the steering wheel fixed [later].”
John Zieliecke says he wasn’t thinking about working on any family treasures or heirlooms when he was lingering around the garage helping his father put the Sun Valley back together. He had his own motives at the time. “I was younger and I was just hanging out with Dad,” he remembers. “He was always busy with work, too, so he’d fit it in whenever he could… I had to help him with his car so we could work on one of my projects [laughs]. He was just finishing up this and I had drug a car in myself to work on. I helped him so he could help me on mine.
“It was bought originally around Oostburg, Wis. The guy who had it originally owned a restaurant. He drove it and it was his car. When we bought it was an original car and had original paint and everything. [The owner] was elderly and couldn’t keep up with it, or whatever. That’s the story he told us, anyways.”
Adds Jewell: “It needed to be towed. It needed a lot of work, but everything was there. It had to be all redone… We had almost all the parts, and if they weren’t there, we walked around [the Iola Car Show] year by year and bought’ em. Five years later it was done.”
John recalls some of those parts chasing excursions. He learned a lot about fixing up an old car in those days, and how much time and patience were often required. Perhaps the biggest thing the Mercury had going for it, he says, in addition to the fact that most of the parts were in tact, was that the engine work had already been taken care of it. “Mechanically, it had just had the engine rebuilt before we bought it,” he says. “So the only thing Dad did was switch it out from the original four-barrel to a two-barrel that’s more reliable on the road. The four-barrels on the road in ’54, the experience my dad had with them [was bad]. The hardest part I’d say was the bodywork. The paint was fairly simple. The original paint job was done by my dad, yeah, but we took it to a body shop after it got hail damage.”
John says the Mercury has actually been hailed on twice in the last 30-plus years. The last time was about five years ago, “but it was about due for a repaint anyways,” John noted. “Some of the paint was starting to chip and stuff.”
“It was a Wisconsin car so a lot of stuff needed [fixing], and they don’t make stuff for this car, so there was a lot of swap meet searching for new old stock parts or good usable parts. That was a lot of the battle, just finding parts for it. And once in a while you just need to upgrade something as it wears out.”
A SUNNY DISPOSITION
If you have a hard time placing the Mercury Sun Valley or haven’t gotten to know one up close and personal, don’t feel bad. They were scarce when they were new, and downright rare these days. The Sun Valley was a two-year experiment that Mercury tried on its Monterey beginning in 1954, and the idea of a glass-top coupe never caught fire with Merc buyers — or Ford buyers, either, who didn’t go crazy for the Sun Valley’s sibling, the Crestline Skyliner. Less than 9,800 new Sun Valleys found owners in 1954, and a paltry 1,787 were bought new for 1955 — when it was moved from the Monterey to the Montclair series — before the model was yanked from the menu. Estimates are perhaps 90 percent of them are long gone today, which makes them a unique prize for collectors.
The Sun Valley’s most recognizable personality trait was certainly its green-tinted plexiglass roof section. Designers hoped the increased visibility and view of the sky would be a big selling point, but the green glass resulted in an odd tint to the light coming in through the roof and the cars got a reputation for getting hot to ride in back in the days before air conditioning was commonplace — although A/C was available in the Sun Valleys.
In an interesting choice of colors, the Sun Valley came in only mint green or yellow either exterior with yellow or dark green vinyl upholstery. Plenty of the cars changed exterior colors over the years, including the Zielieckes’ car, which they repainted black.
The plexiglass panel might have been an acquired taste, but it was hard not to like almost everything else about the Sun Valleys. They certainly carried Mercury’s polished, classy personality, with a clean, understated lines, just enough chrome to provide some flash, and finishing touches like integrated vertical tail lights, curved rear glass, sleek badging and a prominent yet not overdone one-bar grilled that all seemingly flowed effortlessly together.
Inside, few cars had a more unique instrument panel than the Monterey, with its two-tone paint scheme and the levers mounted on a horizontal panel above the steering column that controlled the lights, heater and air vents. The Sun Valleys were also equipped with snap-on interior shades for drivers and passengers who didn’t enjoy star gazing.
The endearing and enduring “flathead” V-8 was gone for ’54. Power was instead supplied by a new 256-cid, oversquare, overhead-valve V-8 with a new vacuum-inlet four-barrel carburetor that was rated at 161 hp. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but the Merc-O-Matic with overdrive was a popular choice. The Sun Valleys rode on independent coil springs in front and leaf springs in the rear with drum brakes doing all the stopping.
All that came at a price of $2,562 which, while not exorbitant, put the Sun Valley on par with cars like the Buick Century, Olds 98 and Chrysler New Yorker.
A FLEET OF ‘54S
The Zieliekes became big fans of the 1954 Mercury over the years, and they wound up bringing home a lot of them in various states of disrepair. Sometimes they went looking for other ‘54s in their shiny black Sun Valley. “If he saw one, no matter where, we jumped in the truck and grabbed the trailer and we went. We went to Iowa, out of state, wherever,” Jewell says.
“We have a lot of cars, especially ’54 Mercurys,” John adds. “ Between parts cars and project cars, there must be eight of them sitting in the shed.”
Jewell noted they did plenty of pleasure trips, too. The black Sun Valley has been to lots of shows and been a big part of many happy road trips, too. “We cruised around and went to a lot of local shows — Missouri, Michigan — we just drove it everywhere. He always drove, but that was fine with me. There is no power steering or power brakes. I like it, and it’s got the overdrive, so I had to make sure I learned to kick that in. It was always a very nice car that drove good and you always got a lot of people that waved at you.
“i drive it once in a while, not too often. I park it at the back of any parking lot I’m at,” Jewell adds. “I don’t let anybody near it. Everyone knows I'm very careful where I take it and and what I do with it.
Since John put plenty of time into helping restore the car, he also gets some driving privileges. “Mostly, I keep it clean and keep it running, and if I find something, Merc parts, I buy them,” he says. “But yeah, I get to drive it, as long as it’s nice out and she approves!”
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