Unmodified Mercurys of this era are super rare stateside, as they became the favoured basis on which to build customs back in the day. This one managed to escape that fate and came to these shores only a few short years ago, as Chris Wood discovers…
Words and photography: Chris Wood
This stylish car has hardly changed in more than 70 years. The paintwork, interior and engine of this 1949 Mercury Eight are all original and the car has completed most of its 46,000 miles in the US. One early US owner stored it for some years, then a couple of subsequent owners chose to keep it original and as a result, there are only a handful of period modifications. The car was ordered with a couple of options; an overdrive for the manual transmission and metallic blue paint. The paint has faded slightly over the years and suits the car’s rounded shape. Along with the pointed mascot and shaped chrome bumper at the front, there is a less curved bumper at the rear and chrome side strips, all complemented by well-polished Mercury Eight hub caps.
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The engine which powers the car is the flathead, or side-valve, version of the Ford V8, with a capacity of 255 cubic inches (4.2 litres) developing 110bhp at 3600rpm and a useful 200lb-ft of torque at only 2000rpm. The transmission is a column-mounted three-speed manual, with overdrive optional on second and third gears. Behind the wheel of the Mercury, the low rev torque of that V8 helps you get used to the column gear change. The overdrive activates when you come off the accelerator in third gear at around 50mph. The car is built to cruise, and it does so quietly and comfortably. The steering takes some getting used to, mainly because of the larger wheel and the older cross-ply tyres which follow undulations in the road.
The car does not feel like a 70-year-old vehicle to drive once you adopt a more relaxed and, literally, laid-back approach on the front bench seat; the miles roll past with ease. Unlike many of these third-generation Mercury cars, this one has not been modified to follow the traditional lowrider, or ‘lead sled’ look, made famous by Sam and George Barris, the US brothers who built the famous ‘Hirohata Merc’ based on a 1951 model similar to this two-door sedan. The 1949-51 Mercury models’ popularity increased further when a lightly customised ’49 was driven by troubled teenager Jim Stark, played by James Dean in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. The resulting added-cool factor made Mercurys highly sought after as the base for custom cars, meaning fewer of the original cars survived. Over the years this car became a rare sight in the US, and an even more rare one in the UK; so what’s the story behind this car and why it has remained so original?
This Mercury Eight was originally sold in 1949 in Redmond, Oregon, a high desert area, where the drier climate helped to preserve the bodywork from rust. The initial service sticker is still attached to the door pillar showing that in 1950 the car had covered 3002 miles up to its first check and oil change. In the early Fifties the car’s owner became part of the US forces that fought in the Korean War during 1950-53 and he returned injured, sadly unable to drive his car.
Art Pugsley, a Ford enthusiast from Vancouver, Washington State, takes up the story: “A good friend was a house builder. He was working for a war veteran who had been injured. He knew I was interested in cars and said, ‘You have to see this car!’ Because the owner was unable to drive the Mercury, it had been stored inside for many years. Unfortunately, during that time there had been a break-in and the hub caps had been stolen from the wheels and the tail-lights broken.”
Art saw the potential and bought the car in 1986. “Everything appealed to me about it. It was so unusual to see one of the Mercury cars from this era that had not been modified. I made a favourable purchase and over time replaced the tail lamps with ‘blue dots’ and located some original hub caps. I think I had the car for maybe 15 years. I always looked forward to driving the Mercury… It was a comfortable drive and together with the overdrive, that car will cruise at 70mph for as long as you like.
“I had a friend who had begged and pleaded with me to sell him the car. He was terminally ill, so I gave in and sold it. I requested that if he ever decided to sell the car, he would sell it back to me. After my friend died, however, I discovered that an acquaintance of his had bought the car from the estate and I later saw it with the dummy spotlights and the lakes side-pipes added. I didn’t agree with making changes to the car as I felt it was important to keep it as original as possible.”
A couple of further owners followed before Keith Wolfard from Oregon City, near Portland in western USA, bought the Mercury in 2007.
“We were driving through Canby, just south of where we live, and the Mercury was parked in the main street with a gentleman sitting in the front. It just stood out! I said to my wife, ‘That’s a nice car!’ and a couple of streets later I said, ‘I’m gonna go back and tell that guy what a nice car he has,’ so we turned around. I met Fred Cosper and we had a good conversation about the car. I asked him to let me know if he ever decided to sell it and gave him my number. I’ll be damned if a couple of years later he called and said that he was selling the car. I went over to his place and I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not, but he had a white rug underneath the car in the garage and, when he pulled it out, it was spotless.
“It was a gorgeous car.
“So many of those Mercurys were customised, it was rare to find one so original, inside and out. It had a couple of modifications and the rear had been slightly lowered, but no major changes.”
Keith and his wife, Julie, took the car on several trips, including one to the 2017 Western National Meet in Salem, 50 miles south of Oregon City. The car was awarded the Rouge Plaque in three categories: Original Interior, Original Exterior and Original Running Gear. “That was an unbelievable result, to get number one in all three of those!” exclaims Keith. “I looked after the car and didn’t want to put too many miles on it. It was always kept inside and only driven in the dry. I never had to do much, other than change the oil once in a while and give it a new 6v battery. It drove real good. Only thing with the old tyres is that you had to steer it all the time; if I’d kept it I might have put some newer radial tyres on it.”
With a collection of cars ranging from a 1932 Ford Coupe Victoria to a 1959 Corvette, Keith decided to put the Mercury up for sale in 2021 and the condition and rare originality were what drew Clive McDougall from Worcestershire to the car. ‘Doog’, as Clive was known to his friends, had been a car enthusiast and modifier since his mid-teens and admired hot rod and customised cars around the UK and further afield in the US. His first project was a chopped black Morris Minor, ‘Minor Adjustment’, which was very well known around the Midlands Custom car and cruising scene in the Seventies. With a couple of other friends, Clive started the West County Roadsters car club which met on Monday nights in Stoulton, Worcestershire, not far from the M5 motorway.
Clive bought and modified a selection of classics including a 1958 Chevrolet and a 1961 Ford Zephyr which was radically chopped; ‘Purple Reign’ was a standout car of its era. For almost 30 years, he ran a successful business manufacturing, retailing VW Camper pop-up roof canvases and drive-away awnings, but serious illness slowed business activity 10 years ago.
Clive’s interest in classic American cars never waned and a detailed search of the internet and various forums led him to an advert for his dream car, a 1949 Mercury. He contacted Keith Wolfard to find out more about the car and purchased it in April 2021. With the import process completed, the car arrived in the UK in August 2021. Over the following months Clive made use of the car for local journeys in good weather and took it to several local car shows; however, very sadly he died in the summer of 2022. Clive’s efforts to bring the car to the UK mean that this Mercury Eight is now looking for its next owner to become part of the car’s unique heritage and help continue a transatlantic journey.