Ken Gross remembers watching the coolest guy at Salem High School drive down the street, all James Dean with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in his sleeve, at the wheel of his customized, chopped-top ’51 Mercury. Looking at that ride, with its flipper hubcaps catching the light, its rumbling exhausts, and a customized body all sleek and mean, Gross thought, “Man, I’d love to be that guy.”
More than half a century later, Gross – now a celebrated automotive historian, museum curator and author, as well as a Selection Committee Member and a Chief Class Judge for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – has made it his mission to bring a measure of cool this year to the 18th Fairway of Pebble Beach Golf Links. Gross has put together the first-ever postwar class of Mercury Customs to be shown at the Concours, which takes place Sunday, August 16.
By the late 1940s, Detroit automakers had retooled after World War II and were once again producing civilian cars, but the offerings were often less than inspired. The 1949-51 Mercury was the epitome of what mid-century automotive writer Ken Purdy called “a turgid, jelly-bodied clunker.” But with imagination and the right tools, it could be transformed into a dreamboat.
In search of a more expensive-looking, sleeker silhouette, individuals began to customize these cars, lowering rooflines (chopping), dropping bodies over frames (channeling), Frenching headlights (tunneling them into fenders), and removing ornamentation and trim to create an almost sinister kind of cool.
“Customs of the ’50s were not about speed,” Gross said. “They were about looking good, going slow, and getting the girls. I’m dating myself with this stereotype, but chicks didn’t want to be scared out of their wits and have their hair messed up. They’d much rather look cool in a custom car and cruise the main drag.”
It all began with Sam Barris, who bought a nearly new 1949 Mercury coupe and started deconstructing and modifying the vehicle until he had customized its way to the cover of Motor Trend.
“People were blown away by how good the car looked,” Gross said. “These custom cars were something special in their era. Part of it was the skill it took to build a really good car, and when someone got it really right, like Barris, the car became absolutely elegant.”
One of the most eye-catching Barris Kustoms (Sam and his brother George soon began spelling their shop, and their creations, with a K) was an arresting lime-green ’51 Merc, customized for Bob Hirohata, which was used in the B movie Running Wild, with screen siren Mamie van Doren. One of the most recognizable was the mildly customized ’49 Mercury coupe James Dean drove in the 1955 Warner Bros. film, Rebel Without a Cause.
“When people think of custom Mercurys,” Gross said, “they often think of the James Dean coupe, which truly romanticized the car. This was in an era when many men and women wore hats, but that just wasn’t possible with lowered rooflines, so these young people were making a fashion statement of their own.”
A full class of these chopped and lowered beauties will be displayed at the 65th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. For more information, see the concours website.