Though it would be hard to prove, we're willing to wager that there are more chopped '49-51 Mercurys today than there ever were in the '50s. In fact, we're pretty sure chopped versions now outnumber those with stock lids, and sometimes wonder if any original examples survive.
A few Merc coupes must have avoided the chopping block, because Tom Kowalski's '51 was one of them until a couple years ago. From the history Tom has uncovered, it sounds like his Merc was destined for the knife several times. It just never got there. "Apparently the car was purchased new by a Korean war veteran with his Army separation pay," Tom says. "Marriage and family sidetracked his plans for the car, and it was eventually sold to a traveling salesman who hoped to one day customize it like the Barris-style cars of the time. Years passed and the car was sold in a divorce settlement.
"The Merc passed through a couple more owners until a Baptist minister acquired it from the estate of one of his congregation," Tom continues. "The minister advertised it for sale to pay for a new roof on the church. So that's how I got the car, for a re-roof on a Baptist church. I thought: This car has passed through so many owners, all with dreams for it that never materialized. Why not try to build it the way they would have if they could?"
Tom had more self-serving motives too--he's wanted a custom Merc since the '50s. "If you grew up in that era, you just had to get one eventually," Tom says. "For years I've been looking for an unmolested Merc from one end of the country to the other." Fuzzy dice and Fiesta hubcaps were the car's only non-stock parts when Tom got it. Not for long. Tom wasted little time carting the Merc from his Colorado home to Hot Rods by Dean in Phoenix. It was a bold shop selection and Tom says he spent a lot of time "explaining to people that a relatively new shop run by a 35-year-old kid could make a [traditional] project like this come to life." Seeing Dean's previous work gave Tom all the assurance he needed.
Another factor in Tom's favor was his own good taste and design sense. The modifications he requested included a host of classic treatments, starting with a tasteful top chop--2 inches in front, 3 in back, plus an additional inch in the crown--with leaned B-pillars and '50 rear glass. The headlights were frenched using '54 Merc rings, while the molded grille opening was filled with '53 DeSoto teeth. Rounded front and rear hood corners and a reshaped '53 DeSoto bumper completed the forward appearance.
Moving back, the signature Mercury "humps" were removed from the doors, leaving straight, graceful fadeaway fender lines. These were complemented with '53 Buick side trim capped with small rocker panel lights in handmade housings. Rounded door corners, molded quarter-panels, and flush-fit fender skirts smoothed things out further. The aft appearance was refined using frenched '54 Merc taillights and a bumper built from two '53 DeSoto units. That bumper, and all other brightwork, was plated at Finishing Touch in Chicago. When Dean's shop was done with the bodywork, Doug Jerger at Squeeg's Kustoms loaded his gun with custom-mixed PPG bone white and candy red hues to lay down the fantastic finish.
While sparks and paint were flying in Arizona, Earl Floyd Engines in Portland, Oregon, was freshening up the 276ci Merc Flathead with new bearings and rings. The little mill was topped with Offy heads, finned aluminum accessories, Fenton headers, and three Stromberg 97s on an Offy intake before being delivered to Dean's for paint and detailing. Earl also rebuilt the original three-speed overdrive transmission.
Most of the car stayed true to '50s form, but a few chassis updates were made for safety and comfort. Dean's crew installed a Jamco ball joint conversion kit, disc brakes, and sway bar, along with custom upper control arms. The frame was C-notched before another Jamco sway bar and de-arched leaf springs were installed in back. Tru Design built custom front wheels to accept Cadillac hubcaps, and Diamondback Classic whitewall radials were used all around.Stitch master Lance Troupe was called upon to finish the Merc with period-style upholstery, and delivered by wrapping the stock front seat and custom rear in supple, cream-colored leather. Even the inside of the firewall got the rolled and pleated treatment, contrasting nicely with the body-color dash. An American Autowire harness sparked things to life.
After waiting a half-century to scratch his chopped Merc itch, Tom relished watching his candy-and-cream custom reach completion in just 18 months. "As a kid, the only way I could afford a car was to work on it myself," Tom says. "Now I'm lucky enough to have the car built the way it would have been, back in the day." He's well aware that the preservation efforts of the car's previous owners helped make this project possible. "If they were here to see it," Tom says, "I'd like to think they would be smiling."