When the average Joe thinks about American cars most characteristic of the 1950s, three suspects usually come to mind; the ’59 Cadillac, the ’57 Chevrolet and the Edsel. With the exception of its jukebox-like front and rear grills and preposterous tailfins, the Cadillac was actually a fairly conservative design, and rather lacking in extraneous gadgets. The ’57 Chevrolet with its tall and short profile was woefully behind the times in the style department; so much so that it lost the first-place sales crown to Ford for the first time since before World War II.
The Edsel fell closest to the mark, but only lasted a year before becoming a Ford with different sheet metal, losing even its distinctive instrument panel.
The real ultimate 1950s phantasmagorical dream machine was the 1957-1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. The fifties promised space age gadgets, pushbutton convenience, large windows suggesting bubbletop visibility, powerful engines and plenty of visual extravagance. The big Mercury delivered.
Beyond the actual features of the Turnpike Cruiser, it likely led the industry for catchy nouns and adjectives encompassing Merc-O-Matic Drive with Keyboard Control, Full-Cushion shock absorbers, Skylight Dual-Curve windshield, Full-Vision steering wheel, Seat-O-Matic memory power seat, Travel-Tuner radio, Breezeway Ventilation, Merco-Therm heater and Climate-Master air conditioning.
Based on the XM concept car of 1956, the ’57 Mercurys were designed to be closer in size and price to Lincolns, and the Turnpike Cruiser was the top of the line. The new Cruiser was touted for its “Big M” Dream-Car Design from its Quadri-Beam headlamps and Jet-Flo bumper to its V-Angle tail-lights.
While its tailfins were modest in scale, they were bestowed added visual punch by virtue of their concave Projectile Themed surfaces being covered with gold-anodised aluminium.
Above the A-pillars were jet-styled cabin air intakes with faux pitot tubes extending forward, mimicking the noses of a pair of supersonic F-102 Interceptors.
The interior was awash in electrical gadgets including a very rare in America tachometer, and an Average Speed Computer Clock that foreshadowed trip computers by two decades.
For 1958, the Turnpike Cruiser was usurped by the new top-line Park Lane Series, but still carried a few new tricks up its sleeve. The exterior now featured red C-pillar-mounted Side Running Lights.
The original Turnpike Cruiser had a 368 cubic inch V8 with 290 hp, but the new ’58 was available with two versions of a 430 cubic inch seven-litre behemoth (the largest passenger car engine available at the time) producing up to 400 horsepower when fed though a trio of dual-throat carburettors.
The Turnpike Cruiser was the perfect swansong for the decade of vehicular excess. As the Ford Motor Company was finalizing elegantly refined designs for their upcoming ’60 Galaxie, ’61 Lincoln and ’61 Thunderbird; the glitzy and flamboyant Turnpike Cruiser was quietly laid to rest.