1954 Mercury Monterey XM-800 Dream Car
The ‘XM’ stood for eXperimental Mercury and like many dream cars of its time, its fate was shrouded in mystery until a resourceful young man found it parked behind a barn, sunk in mud… Words: James Maxwell.
It was on February 20, 1954, and at the famed Detroit Auto Show, that the Mercury Monterey XM-800 Dream Car made its public debut. Promoted in factory literature as being low, long and clean, it was said to be an experimental model that featured many plausible and possible advantages for the not-too-distant future. The car was designed in 1952 (in the Mercury Pre-Production Studio) and at one time the early clay mock-up was called the Javelin prior to it being given the XM-800 identification.
A major emphasis of the car’s appearance as designed was that of having a fresh, new and smooth-looking presentation, along with a low centre of gravity and futuristic overall styling. Because the car was created strictly as a show vehicle, the decision was made to construct the body with hand-laminated fibreglass, a new method for building cars for the Ford Motor Company at the time.
Using a then-current production Mercury chassis (stretched one inch longer in wheelbase, now measuring 119 inches) and with a mockup V8 engine (appearing as the new-for-1954 256cu in powerplant) and gutted-out automatic transmission, the vehicle was a ‘push car’ in that it was rolled in and out of the display areas where it was shown to the public.
In addition to the body itself being made from fibreglass, the front and rear bumpers were also fibreglass, plated in chrome. The inside of the cabin of this one-off show car saw the use of four individual bucket seats, along with front and rear centre consoles, complete with controls for the power seats and windows. A unique feature of the interior was the fluted-type steering column. The interior was a true glimpse into the future. The XM-800 was presented in a two-tone paint treatment, Pearlescent White with a Pearlescent Copper metallic-coloured roof, which was set off with matching interior motif using the combination of copper and white vinyl. This XM-800 experimental model signalled the future of American car-making, as it had the four-place ‘personal luxury car’ design which would show up in later years.
After completion of its use at national car show events, the XM-800 was gifted to the University of Michigan’s Automotive Engineering Lab in 1957. The intended reason for Ford Motor Company’s donation of the car was that it be used for technical training purposes, along with promoting general automotive inspiration to the students. After its time at the university, it is believed that the car was reportedly sold at auction around 1960, with the exact further details lost through the years to follow. However, the story then picks up circa 1982 when a young car lover, 17-year-old Dan Brooks, somehow stumbled on to a farm located near Manchester, Michigan, where he saw a complete, albeit somewhat neglected, white and copper-hued old car sunk down in the mud behind the barn. What a find!
Legend has it that the farmer agreed to sell the then-unknown relic for the sum of $100. Dan and the farmer pulled it out of the mud with a tractor and, surprisingly, the tyres were still inflated. One detail which Brooks spotted on the car as it rolled out was that bolted to the frame were heavy steel rails, which proved to be the first hint that this was a very rare item – a one-of-a-kind ‘barn find’, long before that now well-worn phrase came into fashion. He later found out that these unusual steel railings beneath the car were to secure it to rotating turntables at the major auto shows across the US. After some research, young Brooks soon learnt that the car he had found was actually a long-forgotten factory ‘design study’ that toured the country to measure public interest – yes, the XM-800.
Because the body of the XM-800 was made from fibreglass, when it was pulled out of the mud after being embedded for a number of years of being exposed to the elements, there was no rust and the entire vehicle had held up surprisingly well, all things considered. The car remained in its original paint, still had its special emblems and side glass. However, the roof had suffered some damage as a result of the weight of snow over the years. Brooks had every intention of giving the car a full restoration, which would have been a huge chore and, luckily, much care was given to the car after he obtained it.
Somewhere around 1985, he ended up changing his mind regarding tackling such an immense project and decided to put it up for sale in the Hemmings Motor News. However, he had no takers for the price he was after − $30,000. Three years later, it did find a new home with noted concept car collector Joe Bortz. Then fast-forward to 2008 on eBay, when it was purchased at an undisclosed price by car builder/restorer Tom Maruska of Duluth, Minnesota. Expertly restored to its former glory, the spectacular XM-800 was sold at auction in January 2010 for the top winning bid of $429,000. Some believe the car never was considered for production because at the time there was a huge company effort to develop the Edsel. Today the historical Mercury is part of the Richard H Driehaus Collection in Chicago, Illinois, and restored to what it was in 1954. People who see the car marvel at the creative lines and unique styling.
When the editors of Motor Trend Magazine first reviewed the XM-800, they wrote that the car had a “futuristic grille” and quipped: “Mercury’s XM-800 was designed for down-to- earth use, not space travel.” They went on to say that this hardtop show car was designed to see actual production if the public liked it. And, as a follow-up to that, they closed the report with this: “Since the decision on production depends on you, why don’t you take the time to jot down your comments and send them in? Address your letter to Joseph E Bayne, General Sales Manager, Lincoln-Mercury, Detroit 32, Mich.” While the vast majority of the car magazines of the day gave positive ink on the XM-800, the UK-based The Motor Magazine wasn’t exactly giddy about the vehicle. Here’s what was written about the car in that overseas publication: “A sharply contoured, overhung monster which seemed to be Ford’s nightmare answer to the General Motors’ Dream Cars.” It goes without saying that in the Fifties, American automotive styling tastes differed greatly from the austere British.
The futuristic car made its way to the big screen as it was featured in the 20th Century Fox film Woman’s World in 1954, starring Lauren Bacall and Fred Mac Murray. Credit for the overall design of the Monterey XM-800 goes to John Najjar, a Ford Motor Company designer who first started out at Ford as a machinist. The story of his 42-year career goes back to a day when he was working a lathe in the Dearborn factory and was approached by Henry Ford himself. When Henry asked if he enjoyed his work, the answer was: “I’d rather be drawing cars.” That exchange led him to joining the Design Center, and his creative design and drawing talents resulted in numerous Ford, Mercury and Lincoln concepts.
XM-800 in Woman’s World, 1954. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.
This fibreglass-bodied Dream Car rode on a 119-inch wheelbase which was based on a production Mercury frame, stretched one inch. It was longer and wider than the showroom models, and with completely uniquely different styling from those available in Mercury showrooms.
On the outside portions of the front bumper are large ‘Dagmar’ pointed cones, an industry-wide term at the time named after the then-popular TV personality professionally known as Dagmar. She was well known for her voluptuous figure.
As a result of the small size of the front wheel openings, the front fenders were large sheet metal surfaces where the full wheel cover was not exposed. On the rear, fender skirts covered the rear wheels as well.
Side profile shows the forward-facing A-pillars, the low, sweeping roofline and the extent of the wraparound windshield. This car sat 55.6 inches tall, which was dramatically lower than a production 1954 Mercury.
Rear view of the car shows the subtle rear fins on the quarter panels, and centre-mounted radio antenna located on the decklid. Note the flush-type door handles, a sleek styling touch never before seen on a Mercury.
The dashboard layout was said to have a certain aeronautics influence with the clustering of the gauges directly in front of the driver. In addition to the speedometer, water temperature, oil pressure, fuel level and battery gauges, there was a tachometer, and an electric clock was placed to the far right-hand side of the passenger’s side dash.
Power steering was a component on the car and a factory steering wheel centre cap in excellent condition was obtained during the restoration process. It was the same design as used on the car when it was first shown to the public.
The dual exhausts exited from the outward sections of the rear bumper, and the large tail-lights could be viewed from the sides as well as the rear. This was a timeframe before the standard use of white-coloured back-up light lenses.
The large area of rear glass (in the case of this one-off show car, made of Plexiglas) provided for a larger-than-typical package tray, which is the shelf-like surface between the top of the rear seat and the base of the backlight (aka rear window).
The centre of the dash found the radio and speaker, with large volume and tuning knobs mounted high up, flush with the top of the dash surface.
The design included rear bucket seating with a built-in centre armrest for passengers, a new approach to rear seating in 1954.
Below: This is how the car appeared when first shown in all its glory to car show visitors during 1954. Clearly the designers were after a graceful, tasteful appearance with a noted absence of chrome side mouldings. The one single styling cue that was somewhat garish was the wide band of ribbed chrome that wrapped over the rearmost portion of the roof.
Situated between the rear bucket seats were the controls for the rear power windows as well as a sliding covered ashtray.
Proudly displayed rearward on the quarter panels were these artistically designed gold vehicle ID emblems.
New for the 1954 Mercury model year was the all-new overhead valve V8 engine, replacing the dated flathead V8 which was no longer able to match the performance of V8 powerplants from rival car manufacturers. The 256-cube Mercury engine featured a Merc-O-Matic two-speed automatic transmission.
Right: With female model seated behind the two-spoke steering wheel and all power windows in the down position, here it is shown with the 1954 production Mercury cars in the background. The exposed Firestone marking on the left rear whitewall tyre was no accident, as there had been a very long and close relationship between the Ford Motor Company and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
For a preview gathering of visitors to the Richard H Driehaus Collection at Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage showroom, curator Stephen Murphy explains the particulars of the XM-800. www.chicagovintage.com
With the passenger’s side seat reclined, this original publicity shot shows in detail the layout of the dash and the flat-faced steering wheel. Clock located at far right.
This rear-view publicity press photograph does convey the overall low height of the design of the car by virtue of a model standing next to the vehicle’s roof.
Left and below: Some 55 years after the XM-800 was first displayed at the Chicago Auto Show, here’s the car, having been fully restored and in pristine condition, located with new cars of the day. It still had a unique and distinctive shape from all angles, front to rear.
- CHASSIS - The frame is from a 1954 production Mercury. However, for the XM-800 it featured a 119-inch wheelbase, one inch longer than stock. The 256cu in Y-block overhead valve V8 engine is visually identical to the prop engine fitted to the show car.
- PAINT - The body received a new gelcoat in the process of restoration, as well as a repair to the sagging roof, requiring heat lamps to correctly reposition it, which was no small task.
- OUTSIDE - If there’s anyone who is qualified to perform an extensive restoration of a Fifties ‘Dream Car’, it’s this extremely talented resto maestro Tom Maruska. His hard work, experience, dedication, talent and attention to detail came to fruition during the cold winter months in Duluth, Minnesota, in bringing this historical car back to original condition – actually, better than original, as the car is now fitted with a working engine and transmission, unlike the ‘pusher’ status it had when first constructed in October 1953.