Like many young lads in the 1950s, Bill Layman fell under the spell of the burgeoning hot rod and custom movement. He may have been hooked harder than most considering his dad's Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, body shop specialized in customs and hot rods. From the time he turned 12 in 1953, Bill spent much of his free time there.
"Since I was too young to drive, my transportation was a 1949 J.C. Higgins bicycle," Bill says. "I can still remember my dad painting it metallic maroon with gray accents from leftover paint on a '51 Merc. I, of course, added accessory lights and a radio antenna with a foxtail. I guess this early exposure stayed with me over the years."
That it did. Bill graduated to a mild custom '55 Ford when he got his license, and then a '57 Pontiac with Tri-power. In the mid-'60s, he bought an Olds-powered '32 Ford five-window coupe from his brother, beginning a string of early Fords he'd own during the next 20 years. The rods were fun, but Bill could never shake the images of cool customs he saw in magazines growing up. "I always liked customs," he says. "There were many I read about, and several I thought I would like to own."
By the early '80s, Bill was doing more than just reminiscing. He built a chopped '54 Chevy hardtop, a near clone of the Moonglow, only with bright blue paint. He also bought the Barris-built '51 Merc convertible that was customized for Fred Rowe in the early '50s, the one that co-starred with the Hirohata Merc in "Running Wild." Bill meticulously restored it, but eventually sold both customs.
Bill tried to give up on rods and customs after that, but soon learned that late-model imports and even a Prowler were poor substitutes. He started daydreaming about customs again, and one in particular kept coming to mind-a '54 Mercury originally owned by Dick "Peep" Jackson. "While working at the Barris shop, Sam Barris chopped Dick's '54 in exchange for Dick helping Sam on one of his personal cars," Bill recalls. "He later sold the car to Ron Dragoo and it appeared in several magazines, but never as a feature car. I tried to locate Ron, but he and the Merc have never surfaced.
"I knew someday I would find the right '54 to customize like the Jackson/Dragoo car," Bill continues. "A friend started to customize his '54 hardtop, but never completed it, and the car sat untouched for 12 years. Eventually I was able to purchase it." Bill's friend had nosed and decked the Merc, removed the side trim, and had the frame and floor stripped and painted dark gray. He had also installed a '54 Cadillac 331ci V-8.
Inside storage had preserved the car well, which made things easier when Bill delivered it to Jeff Little and Jack Gottschalk at Jeff's Custom and Performance in McMurray, Pennsylvania. Still, Bill had them completely disassemble the car and refinish the frame in satin black. The chassis was reassembled with all-new components and hardware, plus custom front coils from Eaton Detroit Spring and POSIES SuperSlide rear leaves.
Meanwhile, Bill hauled the Cad mill over to Brougher's Machine Shop to be stuffed with fresh internals, including Egge pistons and an Isky cam. It was topped off with Edmunds valve covers and a log manifold holding-count 'em-six Stromberg 97s. Bill fabricated the accelerator linkage himself-"It's very busy, but everything works smooth," he says-and helped with the detailing. Jeff Koenig eventually built a dual exhaust with Smithy's glasspacks, while Richard Stape did a Hydro-shift conversion on the '54 Cad Hydra-Matic trans.
The key modification on the Jackson/Dragoo Merc-in fact, the only major body mod-was the top chop, and Jeff executed a near-identical slice (3 inches in front, 3 3/4 inches in back) on Bill's car. He also frenched the headlights, extended the hood scoop, shaved the door handles, and flared the fender skirts. He and Jack dedicated the rest of their efforts to getting the body panels absolutely straight and the gaps uniform before Jeff shot the Sikkens two-stage turquoise paint. Ivory accents were separated using '56 Mercury Montclair trim, which helps highlight the lowered top. A set of 7.10-15 BFGoodrich whitewalls and N.O.S. '56 Merc hubcaps completed the exterior appearance.
The Mercury was approached more like a restoration than a custom in many ways. Bill rewired it using period-correct, cloth-covered wire, while George Yago stitched the turquoise and white vinyl upholstery in stock patterns, using French seams and contrasting-color piping for a little flair. The dash was restored to its original glory, with a bullet on the steering wheel's horn ring as the only modification.
Terms like old school are tossed around pretty casually these days, but this understated Merc is about as authentically traditional as customs come. Photograph it in black and white and it could easily be mistaken for something that rolled out of the Barris shop-or Bill's father's place-in the mid-'50s. That's just how Bill likes it. "It's been one of my favorite cars," Bill says. "Everybody who played a part in it did a first-class job. I love driving the car, and the more I drive it, the more I like it."