1951 Mercury Custom Convertible

Chassis number: 51LA39108M

The 1949–51 Mercury is considered by many enthusiasts to be the defi nitive custom car. Its somewhat bulbous stock shape and semi-slab sides were the perfect canvas for a legion of talented California customizers, led by Sam and George Barris, and joined by Gil and Al Ayala, Gene Winfi eld and countless others.

Designer Harry Bradley, writing in the January 1991 issue of Rod & Custom, noted that the original ’49 Mercury design “was a tentative combination of old and new that was not as fresh as its sister cars from Ford or Lincoln, or its competition from General Motors.” He cited the Mercury’s long roof, “short, slumping deck,” two-piece windshield, “thick lower body proportions and old-style fadeaway fenders.”

“Ironically,” Harry Bradley opined, “the styling fl aws that made Mercury less than new in the showroom were exactly what made the car so appealing to customizers. Virtually every line and shape was familiar to the Los Angeles custom shops that had been working with the 1940–48 Fords and Mercs for nearly a decade… When chopped,” Bradley noted, “the [Mercury’s] small windows and thick pillars had the familiar, sinister custom look. The long, fl owing Mercury roof could be given the same fl owing sweep into the rounded deck as the earlier cars had… To the customizer,” Bradley concluded, “the ’49 Merc was the perfect car, just waiting for the torch.”

Bradley created a 10-car signature list that he called “The Original Radical Custom Mercs.” Two of these cars, the Bettancourt ’49 coupe, and a ’50 coupe owned by Wally Welch, were originally done by the Ayala Brothers, and later re-styled or repainted by Sam and George Barris. There were only two Barrisbuilt convertibles out of these 10 seminal cars: a 1950 model built for Ralph Testa in 1951, and our feature car, a 1951 convertible, done for Fred Rowe in 1953.

Fred Rowe’s Mercury convertible graced the August 1953 cover of Rod & Custom and was featured inside as the “Mercury of the Month.” Barris chopped the windshield and door glass four inches; and this car, tastefully de-chromed, was lowered four inches in front and six inches in the rear. The engine remained the stock-displacement 255-ci fl athead V8, but the block was ported and relieved, and it was fi tted with Edelbrock finned highcompression heads, an Edelbrock dual intake manifold, Fenton headers and dual exhaust.

Barris fabricated a custom singlebar grille that incorporated the stock parking lights. The front portion of the hood was fl ared out to complement the revised grille opening, and the headlights were frenched. A pair of 1950 Chrysler taillights were mounted in a much lower position in the rear fenders than the stock Mercury lights. Twin exhaust extensions ran through the rear bumper.

Glen Houser’s famed Carson Top Shop in Los Angeles built a non-folding custom padded top for this car, and the shop also created a rolled-and-pleated interior in gray and white leatherette. When the top was removed, a custom tonneau cover hid the rear seat. Appleton spotlights and flared fender skirts finished things off. The Mercury was finished in multiple coats of Burgundy Mist lacquer.

In the 1950s, Rod & Custom, Hop Up, Car Craft and Hot Rod Magazine spread the customizing gospel all over the country. George Barris, who often served as his own photographer and writer, was featured all over the magazines. Owning a Barris-built car, complete with crest medallions on the fenders, was as good as it got.

Enthusiasts also saw customized Mercurys in a host of “B” movies that featured rods, customs and the California lifestyle. One of the most notorious of these quick and cheaply produced fi lms was “Running Wild,” which featured the Bob Hirohata Mercury hard top and this car, the Fred Rowe chopped Merc convertible.

Eventually, all too many customs, including several of the “signature 10 radical customs,” were junked or lost. Fortunately, the ex-Fred Rowe Mercury has survived. Bill Layman found it listed in Hemmings Motor News and restored it. It starred on the cover of Rod & Custom once again in February 1991.

Well-known dealer/entrepreneur Kirk F. White bought the Mercury from Bill in the early 1990s for $75,000. “This car was really well done,” White says. “It was restored like a Duesenberg.”

White showed the ex-Fred Rowe Mercury at the Burn Foundation Concours in 1991, where it won a major award. Kirk took it to the Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland, where it received the Best Custom Award.

The Milhous brothers bought the Mercury for about $90,000 at a post-block sale at Barrett-Jackson. They subsequently showed the car at the Amelia Island Concours in a feature class of Mercury customs.