Long-hidden 1956 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser concept finally receiving overdue restoration (part 1)
Photos by Steve Isola
Tom Maruska of Duluth, Minn., sold four beautifully restored cars at the January 2018 Barrett-Jackson auction in exchange for one rusty, incomplete 1956 Mercury. It’s not just any old Mercury, though — it’s the one-of-a-kind XM-Turnpike Cruiser concept car. And he almost walked away from the opportunity to buy it over a broken windshield.
“Back when I was restoring the Mercury XM-800 (concept car in 2008), the guy who owned the XM-Turnpike Cruiser contacted me and we talked about him selling it. He didn’t want to sell it back then, but we kept in touch over the years and finally when I talked to him last July (2017), I asked him if he was ready to sell it and he was.”
Maruska flew out to California and looked at the car, but it was much rougher in person than the two 20-year-old pictures Maruska had seen online portrayed it to be. Previous owners had kept the car hidden and were reluctant to even share photos of it. Even though Maruska has brought many cars back from the dead, including the 1954 Mercury XM-800 and 1963 Ford Thunderbird Italien concept cars as well as several production cars, the one-off XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s rust and its unique but deteriorated components clearly made it more of a challenge.
“One of the neat things on the car is the windshield, but it’s [shattered],” Maruska said.
“I went out there in August and I came home actually thinking I didn’t want to do the restoration. I contacted a few people that I know that I thought might be interested in buying it and was going to let them go and buy it. One of them is Dan Brooks; he’s the guy who, as a young kid, first found the XM-800 outside a barn in Michigan. During the restoration of the XM-800 I became friends with him and we keep in touch. So I contacted him and sent him the pictures that I had taken and gave him Ray’s contact info and he was vacillating on the deal for a couple months.”
In the meantime, Maruska went to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas with the XM-Turnpike Cruiser on his mind. All the while Maruska was walking the aisles, he was looking at tools that might help him restore the car.
Broken windows caused the XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s unique four-bucket-seat interior and the entire floor and trunk pan to deteriorate. The decklid is rusty, and someone removed the original hood and replaced it with a heavily modified production hood that is ill-fitting. Thieves also removed a few engine parts from the concept car during its decades of outdoor storage.
After walking through the SEMA Show and giving the car more consideration, Maruska called the seller, Ray Cosh, and sealed a deal to buy the car.
“I didn’t want to be remaking the entire car,” he said. “I went to SEMA last year and was primarily researching chemical treatments for preserving rusty metal, and after that I decided I could tackle it.”
It also helped that a previous owner of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser had made plaster casts of the unique wraparound windshield when it was still intact. At the SEMA Show, Maruska found a source that could use those molds to remake the windshield at a relatively reasonable cost.
Even though a few parts had been robbed from the car over the decades, the XM-Turnpike Cruiser is largely complete. Cosh had removed most of the trim and placed it in plastic tubs for a future restoration that he was not able to complete. He had also sourced a dual-carburetor intake and four-venturi carburetors to replace those stolen from the car’s 292-cid V-8 engine, but Maruska will have to remake the unique box-type air cleaner, the only part he thinks is altogether missing. An owner previous to Cosh had new tail lamp lenses molded for the car.
Once the XM-Turnpike Cruiser finally arrived at Maruska’s home in July 2018, he was able to better assess its condition and was pleasantly surprised.
“There is still a lot of places where it is rusted through, where metal has to be cut out and replaced, but it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be when I first looked at the car.”
The birth and decline of a dream car
Compared to General Motors and Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. produced relatively few full-size concepts cars during the 1950s. Those it did build were quite memorable, however. The man who deserves credit for many of Ford’s most noteworthy concept cars was John Najjar, who was in charge of the Lincoln pre-production studio at the time of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s inception. Najjar could already claim at least partial credit for design of the Lincoln Futura and 1954 Mercury XM-800 when he presented five new concept car ideas in 1954.
According to the book “Ford Design Department: Concept & Show Cars 1932-1961” by Jim and Cheryl Farrell, Najjar proposed the four-passenger Malibu, notable for “twin bombs high on the rear quarter panels;” the Monte Carlo two-door with sliding doors; the Mystair with a floating roof; the Montauk, a convertible with “V” side trim that appeared on other ’50s Ford concepts and production cars; and, finally, the Mandalay, a “four-passenger cross-country turnpike cruiser” with tailfins holding “aircraft-type taillights,” among other features. The Mandalay on paper evolved into the XM-Turnpike Cruiser in metal, but only after much input from other Ford Motor Co. designers and managers.
Najjar was paired with Elwood Engel of the Lincoln-Mercury studio while Gene Bordinat, semi-autonomous manager of the Lincoln-Mercury studios, and Don De La Rossa, Mercury Studio chief designer, partnered on a competing concept, wrote the Farrells. Francis C. “Jack” Reith, an original Ford “Whiz Kid,” took personal interest in the “turnpike cruiser” project and looked over the shoulders of Engel and Najjar as they were hashing out the concept, even adding input despite lacking formal design training.
Other designers offered themes and ideas for the concept, and even famed designer Larry Shinoda provided a few details on the final car, such as the tail fins, according to the Farrells.
Once the final Najjar and Engel concept was approved by management in late 1954, a 3/8-scale model and drawings were sent to Turin, Italy, so that the full-size, fully functional XM-Turnpike Cruiser could be fashioned out of metal by the hands of craftsmen at coachbuilder Ghia. Ford also provided a production Mercury chassis and engine for the new body to be mounted upon. The price of Ghia’s service to build the single body totalled $80,000 — the combined retail price of 30 new top-of-the-line 1956 Mercurys — when the car was delivered to Ford Motor Co. in December 1955.
The concept hit the 1956 auto show circuit almost immediately, and did it in style. Ford Motor Co. built a special tractor and trailer to shuttle the car from show to show. The tractor was based on a 1956 Ford cab-over-engine model pulling a sleek trailer with large Plexiglas panels offering a complete side view of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser inside. The setup was reminiscent of the General Motors Futurliner buses and carried the name “The Big M Van-O-Rama.” Both tractor and trailer were painted white and a reddish color similar to the pearlescent persimmon XM-Turnpike Cruiser.
When the XM-Turnpike Cruiser was displayed from within the Van-O-Rama trailer, one of the trailer’s side panels could be lifted and extended to allow the car to spin as though it were at an indoor venue such as the Chicago Auto Show, where it was also shown.
Those who ogled the XM-Turnpike Cruiser couldn’t take home the car — at least not yet — but they could pick up a four-page brochure that explained many of the car’s advanced features.
“Here’s a Mercury ‘idea’ car that represents another chapter in the saga of the never-ending search by Mercury stylists and engineers to develop innovations keyed to the very-changing trends in modern motoring,” said the brochure. Mercury further pointed out the XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s new plastic “butterfly” top that “gently pops up when the door is opened facilitating passenger entry and exit. A new ‘compound wraparound’ windshield curves back at the top as well as at the sides, providing altogether new viewing horizons for all passengers. This double-curved window flows gracefully back into the low-silhouette top (only 52.4” high) and adds to the illusion that the top is floating in air.”
This floating roof of the long and low XM-Turnpike Cruiser featured rear brake lamps just beneath the roof panel — a feature that would not be commonplace until decades later. Another feature that would become common, although much sooner, was its individual leather bucket seats with consoles front and back. A brochure illustration shows the middle of the back window lowered and, although this would become reality in production Mercurys, the window of the actual concept car didn’t descend.
Mercury’s brochure for the XM-Turnpike Cruiser called the car a “review of the future,” a reflection of “Mercury’s determination to be continually at the forefront in styling and motor car innovations.
“XM-Turnpike Cruiser is not merely a ‘dream’ car. It is a full-scale, fully operative automotive styling laboratory dedicated to the specific task of pioneering, testing, and perfecting new ideas in design, new features, new safety and new power application.”
Indeed, the XM-Turnpike Cruiser would go from dream to reality, at least in part. Most of its features appeared in future Mercurys. While the movable butterfly top “gull wing” panels in the floating roof and four-seat interior with its spacey handles and knobs didn’t make it to production Mercurys, the basic sheet metal did heavily influence Mercurys that began to appear on dealer lots for 1957.
The XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s wild coves in the rear quarter panels leading to V-shaped tail lamp housings appeared on 1957 Mercs, as did the hooded headlamps and the concave grille beneath them. Where the XM-Turnpike Cruiser used a split front bumper housing two giant pods with lamps, the 1957 Mercurys used a single bumper with two large rectangular air intakes. The 1957 Mercury’s front bumper theme was repeated at the back in place of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser’s much simpler, thin vertical-bar bumper. However, the overall profile of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser was used from 1957 through 1959, with the final of those model years being the most closely related to the concept car of 1956.
Of course, even the “Turnpike Cruiser” name was adapted to the Mercury line to represent the top-line 1957 model. For the production Turnpike Cruiser, the “XM” for “Experimental Mercury” was understandably removed, but Mercury actually added a few more gizmos to the car. Of these, the most memorable was probably the production Turnpike Cruiser’s roof air intakes with UFO-like antennae protruding from them.
Jim and Cheryl Farrell stated that it was Reith who sold management on a toned-down XM-Turnpike Cruiser as a production model. So confident was he in the design of the car that Reith convinced his bosses that the production Mercury based upon it would grab a huge market share increase in the mid-price range. Not only was management sold on his pitch, it made Reith general manager of the new Mercury Division. When Mercury’s market share only rose 4 percent in the mid-price range to 21 percent during 1957, Reith was removed from the position and offered a lower post in Ford of Canada. He declined the new position and resigned on Aug. 30, about the time the new 1958 Turnpike Cruisers would be announced.
Meanwhile, the 1956 XM-Turnpike Cruiser was forever connected to Reith and as such, the car was considered an “outcast” by Lincoln-Mercury Division management, according to the Fallers. It and its 1956 Ford hauler and trailer were parked behind the Detroit offices until 1958, when the car was sold to Jim White of Dearborn Steel Tubing for $300. (Dearborn Steel Tubing worked on many low-volume projects for Ford, including some concept cars, but the XM-Turnpike Cruiser was not among them.)
White stored the XM-Turnpike Cruiser outside, behind his parents’ Michigan auto parts store, and the car’s parts began to go missing or vandalized. In 1971, White sold it for $500 to a man named Baker from Ohio who had repeatedly inquired about the car parked behind the parts store. After Baker bought the car, he tried his hand at some metal repair to the hood, eventually reskinning it, but the results were not entirely satisfactory. In 1979, Baker sold it for $3,000 to Ray Sabo and his son, Al, who were 1957 Turnpike Cruiser fans based in Michigan. The Sabos kept the car for three years before selling it for $10,000 to Ray Cosh, the man from whom Maruska purchased it.
“Each owner kept it for a few years and made a few bucks on it when they flipped it,” Maruska said. “They didn’t really do anything with it. Its deterioration started right from the get go when it was parked out in Ford’s parking lot. Vandals stole the intake, carbs and air cleaner off the car, but the car otherwise was complete.
“Once the windows were broken, weather got in the thing and it just started going. No one has ever garaged the thing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Maruska is still going through the multiple bins of parts that came with his purchase of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser and expects he will find all of the pieces but the air cleaner. However, he is sure all the parts he finds will need restoration. While the interior is shot from weather exposure, he says there’s enough material left on the back seat to determine exactly how the rest of the interior should be upholstered. Regardless, he knows that he has his work cut out even though he already has two other Ford Motor Co. concept car restorations under his belt.
“This is far worse [than the XM-800 and Italien],” Maruska said. “The Italien was an all-steel car and that had no rust on it. The XM-800 was all fiberglass and they were both much easier to restore than this thing will be.
“The XM-800 I did over one winter; it took eight or maybe nine months. This one I anticipate taking a full two years.”
Two years may seem like a short amount of time for such a daunting project, but Maruska, a self-taught restorer who’s now retired from the floor covering business, will focus 100 percent of his time on the restoration of the XM-Turnpike Cruiser beginning this fall. Given his background with other Ford Motor Co. concept car restorations, there probably isn’t a better man to restore it.
“I like to do things that are different, not all the ‘me too’ things,” he said. “And I figure somebody built it once and I can do it again.”