Mercury’s XM-Turnpike Cruiser may have been a flop, but it was an influential one, foreshadowing the division’s 1957-1959 production cars. Let’s circle back for a second look.
Originally called the Mandalay, the XM-Turnpike Cruiser was conceived in the spring of 1954 by John Najjar and staff in the Lincoln-Mercury advanced design studios. There, the flamboyant design caught the eye of executive Francis “Jack” Reith, one of the original Ford whiz kids and a rising star in the company poised to become head of the Mercury brand. With backing from Reith and others, the Cruiser became reality, with a single prototype constructed by Ghia of Italy at a reported cost of $80,000. In the meantime, plans were also laid to produce a production version of the Cruiser for the 1957 model year.
The Cruiser was loaded full of novel features, including transparent roof panels that raised and lowered with the doors via electric actuators. The rear window could also be operated electrically, a handy gimmick that would later appear on Mercury production cars. Four torpedo-like nacelles in the dash housed the speedo, tach, and engine instruments, while the four bucket seats were upholstered in contrasting two-tone leather.
“XM-Turnpike Cruiser is not merely a ‘dream’ car,” Mercury boasted. “It is a full-scale, fully operative automotive styling laboratory.” The working drivetrain included a 312 CID Y-Block V8 with twin four-barrel carburetors and a Merc-O-Matic transmission. The dual exhausts exited through racy rear fender outlets, and overall height was only 52.4 inches, nearly five inches shorter than a production model. The XM stood for “experimental Mercury,” one may safely guess.
To transport the Cruiser to its appearances, Mercury created the custom semi rig above with a see-through trailer pulled by a snub-nose Ford tractor (wearing Mercury badges, perhaps). The showboat made its debut at the ’56 Chicago Auto Show, then did a full circuit of auto show and dealership events over the year. With opening sides and an extending floor, the trailer reportedly doubled as a stage at open-air showings.
In the photo below, a pair of models with a passing resemblance to Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn try out the Cruiser’s roomy trunk. The spacy, far-out design was well-received on the car show circuit, and much of its look was applied to the 1957-59 Mercury production cars. (That included the distinctive tail lamps, though in considerably smaller form.) There, the styling was less of a hit, and the production Turnpike Cruiser, a gadget-laden premium model slotted in at the top of the Mercury line, was not a great seller, either. It sold well below expectations and lasted only two model years.
As sales stumbled, Reith was moved from general manager of the Mercury division to head of Ford of Canada. Rejecting the apparent demotion, the former whiz kid moved on to lead AVCO’s Crosley electronics division. The XM-Turnpike Cruiser show car is still in existence, though in rough shape at last report, and currently resides in California awaiting restoration.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage