In April of 1954, John Najjar, then head of Lincoln’s pre-production studios, sketched a series of five futuristic concept cars. While none of Najjar’s original designs would make it to the clay model phase, one of his suggestions, the Mandalay, was reworked into a Mercury concept called the XM Turnpike Cruiser. Remarkably, this car would see production (in slightly altered form), but it would also help to prematurely end the career of Ford “Whiz Kid” Francis C. “Jack” Reith.
As explained by Jim and Cheryl Farrell in Ford Design Department Concept & Show Cars 1932-1961, Najjar’s Mandalay concept was to be “A four-passenger cross-country turnpike cruiser with exhaust ports exiting behind the front wheels. An air-conditioning saddle covered the upper area of the body, and tailfins held aircraft-type taillights. Chromed rear tubes on each side of the car carried pint-sized JATO (jet-assisted take off) bottles for extra power in case of emergency.”
Fanciful, perhaps, but no more or less so than other concepts of the day, which boasted (but didn’t deliver) features like nuclear power, gyroscopic stabilization and even autonomous operation on the “highways of tomorrow.” While many design motifs on the Mandalay were canned, the “Turnpike Cruiser” name stuck, as did the car’s four-seat accommodations, quad tailfins and body-exit exhaust.
Najjar was partnered with Elwood Engel, and the pair was tasked with producing a full-size clay model of the concept. Upping the stakes, the team was in competition with a second group (Gene Bordinat and Don DeLaRossa), also assigned to create a full-scale clay model. Ultimately, only one model would be given the green light for production.
Najjar and Engel worked with other studio designers (including Larry Shinoda, then a new hire) to develop the theme and final design of the Turnpike Cruiser concept, often spending long days and late nights on the project. In autumn 1954, Jack Reith, fresh from a successful European stint, began to spend time in the Design Department, and took an interest in the Turnpike Cruiser project. Though not a designer himself, Reith was a respected “car guy” in the Ford organization, and his suggestions for alterations and changes were backed up by reason and facts.
The clay sculpted by Najjar and Engel was selected to proceed, and Italy’s Ghia was chosen to build the concept. Supplied with a 1954 Mercury convertible chassis and a 312-cu.in. Mercury V-8 driveline, Ghia’s staff worked from a plaster model cast from the 3/8 scale clay. As was often the case, Ghia’s interpretations were not necessarily what Ford’s designers had in mind, and the XM Turnpike Cruiser delivered sported a significantly revised windshield and no specified vent windows. As a result, future projects assigned to Ghia received much tighter scrutiny from Ford employees.
The Ghia-built Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser was measured just 52.4 inches high, so to facilitate entry a “butterfly top” was employed. When the doors were opened (by handles hidden in the door’s top channel), Plexiglass roof panels would automatically tilt upward to allow easier entry. A period brochure praised the concept’s “compound wraparound” windshield, which improved outward visibility while giving the illusion “that the top is floating on air.”
Described by Mercury as “a full-scale, fully operative automotive styling laboratory,” the Cruiser concept wore fluted channels that sported twin fins on each side, a “bookend” design that originated with Shinoda. Up front, the parking lights and turn signals were housed in chromed “jet pods,” while at the rear the exhaust exited though chrome surrounds in each quarter panel.
Inside, instruments were carried in four chrome-trimmed pods, and passengers enjoyed leather-wrapped seating for four. Even the glovebox was lined in leather, and the radio’s speakers were cleverly contained within the headliner. Ford debuted a new feature on the Cruiser, one that’s now become an expected standard on new cars; when the ignition was turned off, the headlamps would remain illuminated for an additional 30 to 40 seconds, providing pathway lighting for driver and passengers.
The Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser, hauled in a dedicated see-through trailer, debuted at the January 1956 Cleveland Auto Show. By that time, Reith had risen to the position of general manager for the Mercury division, and with the promotion came certain expectations of sales volume increases. Reith had championed the Turnpike Cruiser nearly from its inception, and one of his first acts as head of Mercury was to green-light the car for production.
Less than a year after the concept debuted, the production Turnpike Cruiser (without butterfly roof panels) hit Mercury showrooms. Reith even arranged for the car to pace the 1957 Indianapolis 500, but consumers weren’t enamored with the design, purchasing just 24,247 examples. The one time “Whiz Kid” had upped Mercury’s sales numbers by as much as 21-percent in the first half of 1957, but senior management expected better return on its investment. Removed as head of Mercury, Reith was tasked with heading Ford Canada, but opted to resign from the company instead.
The Turnpike Cruiser was discontinued as a separate model for 1958, when it became part of the Montclair lineup. The XM Turnpike Cruiser concept and its custom one-off trailer reportedly languished in a Ford parking lot until 1958, when the car was sold to Jim White, vice president of Dearborn Tube and Steel, for the sum of $300.
In the fall of 1982, after passing through a few more owners, the Cruiser concept was sold through the pages of Hemmings Motor News. As of 1999, the most recent information we could dig up, the car was still under private ownership, awaiting restoration.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.
Arriving late to the pony car party, four-plus months behind the Chevrolet Camaro and the Mercury Cougar, Pontiac’s Firebird faced the potential of an identity crisis. To ensure that the Firebird remained memorable to performance-oriented consumers, Pontiac offered five distinct versions, including the range-topping (for 1967 ½) Firebird 400, available with the optional Ram Air induction package. In 1968, Pontiac improved the performance of this package, introducing the L-67 Ram Air II as a mid-year option. Now a sought-after collectible, a 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 Ram Air II with a four-owner history and less than 63,000 miles on the odometer will cross the block on November 19, at Mecum’s Anaheim, California, sale.
When Pontiac rolled out the Ram Air package for the first-year Firebird, it was rated at 325 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque. Astute Pontiac devotees will point out that a same-year GTO ordered with the 400-cu.in. Ram Air engine received a rating of 350 horsepower from the same engine. Was the Firebird just deliberately under-rated?
Not exactly. Thanks to a GM corporate edict that restricted weight and horsepower to a 10:1 ratio, the 3,250-pound Firebird couldn’t produce more than 325 horsepower, while the 3,600-pound GTO was allowed 360. Both Ram Air 400 engines were largely the same, except that the Firebird’s throttle linkage contained a tab that restricted movement, allowing the carburetor’s secondaries to open no more than 90-percent. Changing the linkage, or cutting off the tab, resulted in a net gain of roughly 35 horsepower, a trick that didn’t take long for buyers to learn.
For 1968, Pontiac improved the Ram Air package by revising the cylinder heads with round exhaust ports; adding new exhaust manifolds; installing a hotter cam (in four-speed cars); stiffening the valve springs; enlarging the pushrods; adding forged pistons and a stronger crankshaft; and modifying the distributor curve. Debuting in June 1968, the Ram Air II package increased rated output to 340 horsepower and 430 pound-feet of torque. As with previous-year cars, a few minutes with a cutting wheel would result in a higher output, this time reaching 366 horsepower.
Most Firebird 400s, particularly those with the four-speed Muncie M21 transmission, were ordered with bucket seats. Savvy shoppers knew that the front bench weighed a few pounds less, so the hot setup was to order the bench with the highest-output engine. As Tom DeMauro explained in an April 2015 Hemmings Muscle Machines article, those preferring the automatic for drag racing also chose the column-mounted shifter, as it was lighter than the console version. Deleting the radio saved a further nine pounds.
The 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 Ram Air II to be sold in Anaheim, VIN 223378L107568, was said to have been extensively restored (including removal of the subframe) in 2004, and has been driven a mere 600 miles since (though it isn’t clear how many of these miles were added in 1/4 mile increments). The car is said to retain its original L-67 V-8, Code 96 cylinder heads and exhaust manifolds, while the Safe-T-Track differential with 3.90:1 gearing is said to be correct for the car.
Mecum isn’t providing a pre-auction estimate for the Firebird, but the auction house handled the car the last time it traded hands in 2014. At that year’s Indianapolis sale, the rare Ram Air II Pontiac was sold for a hammer price of $150,000 ($162,000 with buyer’s fees), against a pre-auction estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. We’d expect at least a similar performance this time around.
Mecum’s Anaheim sale will take place from November 17-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center. For additional information, visit Mecum.com.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.