Fifties Dream Car Incarnate: The Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

James Kraus

1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.

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.

Turnpike Cruiser in optional Flo-Tone two-colour paint scheme of Classic White over Persimmon.

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.

Together with the front roof-level air intakes, the electrically lowering rear window provided Breezeway Ventilation. Just aft of the rear window was the industry’s only standup rear deck ornament.

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.

Roof-level air intakes, compound-curved Skylight windshield and Full-Vision steering wheel.

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.

Roof-level air intakes above tinted Skylight windshield.

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.

Monitor Control instrument panel with Full-Vision flat-top steering wheel. On the left is the Keyboard Control for the Merc-O-Matic transmission; on the upper right is the black and white dial for storing and recalling memory settings for the Seat-O-Matic power seat.

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.

Standard tachometer and clock incorporating an average speed calculator.

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.

JK - 1 (31)

Side running lights, presaging America’s 1970s infatuation with Opera Lamps.

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.

430 cubic inch 400 hp Super Marauder V8

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.

R.I.P.

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2 thoughts on “Fifties Dream Car Incarnate: The Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

  1. While what you say about the ’57 Chevy is true for the most part, the key point you’ve seemed to have left out. Chevy did loose the sales crown to Ford, and it was by a VERY slim margin. And it’s true the Mopars for ’57 had that elegantly styled pillars and lower overall stance. The fact remains, ’62 years later, the ’57 Chevy was the most enduring design and today is both more desirable and valuable. The irony being it was a facelift of the already facelifted ’56 Chevy!!

    • It’s true the ’57 (and the other Tri-Five Chevrolets) are far more popular today; but I think that popularity grew over the years more from the Small Block V8 under the hood than the exterior styling. The SBC took over almost immediately from the flathead Ford as the hotrodder’s favourite with massive aftermarket performance parts support, especially compared with the short-lived Ford Y-Block.

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