Mercury XM-800 Returns to the Chicago Auto Show 58 Years Later

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What could have been. Public response to Mercury’s 1954 XM-800 show car was so positive that Benson Ford, who ran the Lincoln-Mercury division in the 1950s, wanted to put it into production, giving the brand some distinctive styling. Instead FoMoCo decided to start the Edsel division. Perhaps Ford management would have been better off listening to Benson. The XM-800, designed under John Najjar’s leadership, would go on to influence Ford designs with its forward slanted A pillars and wraparound windshields. The XM-800’s headlight styling can also be seen in a much less radical form in the mid-’50s Fords and Mercurys. I think the XM-800’s front end, with the hooded headlights and large Dagmar-like bumper extensions, influenced the Plymouth Plainsman concept over at Chrysler. I also think that Najjar’s team borrowed most of the XM-800’s rear styling from the ’53 Studebaker coupe that Bob Bourke drew while working for Raymond Loewy’s studio.

Mercury XM-800 concept car at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show

The XM-800 was also a historically significant car, featuring an experimental version of Ford’s then new Y Block V8, which replaced the flathead Ford. It also has movie provenance, having appeared in 20th Century Fox’s Woman’s World. In that film the XM-800 co-starred with Clifton Webb, Van Heflin, Cornell Wilde, Fred MacMurray, June Allyson and Lauren Bacall.

A few years back Tom Maruska found the XM-800 and restored it to the condition it was in when it was on the show circuit in 1954 and in 2010 it sold for $429,000 at a RM auction. One of the XM-800’s stops on the 1954 show circuit was the Chicago Auto Show. At the 2012 Chicago Auto Show, the Classic Car Club of America had the XM-800, currently part of the Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage collection, on display, where we took these photos, probably the only 3D photos of the XM-800 that exist.

RM Auctions press release after the jump.

1954 Mercury XM 800 Concept

After the end of World War II, Ford Motor Company was in serious financial trouble. Despite being the leading automotive manufacturer during the 1920s and offering the only low-priced cars available with a real V8 engine in the 1930s, as well as some of the best looking cars on the market, the lack of a sound business plan by its founder, the indomitable Henry Ford, Sr., had left the company bleeding red ink. When the founder’s grandson, Henry Ford II, took over the reigns of the company, he realized the family business was in deep trouble. Surrounding himself with the top businessmen he could find, mainly from outside the company walls, he had turned Ford around from a loser to a winner within a few short years. And the best was yet to come! Taking a cue from his father, Edsel Bryant Ford, the young Henry not only surrounded himself with those who knew and understood business, but he also looked to the brightest and the best in terms of styling and engineering. When the all-new 1949 Ford hit the market, it was a winner in every respect. It is considered by many historians to be the car that truly saved the company and set the industry as a whole on the road to world domination in the field of automotive technology and production.

As was the case with every other major car maker in America, Ford realized that it had to keep coming up with something new and exciting to keep the customers coming back every couple years. While the Model T had served the motoring public well for nearly 20 years, the turn-over for new designs now lasted an average of only three years. In order to gauge just what the public wanted and desired, concept cars, often referred to as Dream Machines, were produced to test new ideas. For 1954, Ford Motor Company fielded two new entries in the show circuit, a sporty little two-seater called Thunderbird and a stunning full-size two-door hardtop produced under the Mercury banner and presented as the XM-800. Ford’s head of design, George Walker, sent this project to the Mercury Pre-Production Design Studios which was headed up by John Najjar. As with many of the projects to come out of this top secret facility, the public’s reaction to this vehicle would weigh heavily on the decision to either get this car ready for production or to send it off, into oblivion.

Initial designs for the XM-800 used smooth and sweeping lines to present a streamlined profile with lavish use of contoured chrome trim badges and a great deal of decorative gingerbread. That was until an up and coming designer by the name of Elwood Engle stepped in and lent his hand to the project. He suggested a more subdued and toned-down use of chrome, softening the lines to provide a graceful, clean and elegant look.

When the final design work was completed, Ford contracted with a leader in the building of prototype and special one-off cars, Creative Industries of Detroit. Even with record profits rolling into Dearborn, costs were still a major factor, so it was decided that the XM-800 would be based on a standard production Mercury Monterey chassis. To keep with the newest of trends, all of the body panels would be constructed of fiberglass. This conserved not only financial resources, but also timing as the entire project was completed in just a matter of months. When the XM-800 made its debut at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show, it was an instant success with the press. It was hailed for its wide open use of glass in the greenhouse area, offering drivers and passengers alike an almost 360-degree panoramic view of scenery and traffic. So impressive was the final product, that Benson Ford, who headed up the Lincoln-Mercury Division at the time, pushed for the XM-800’s basic design to be added to the Mercury line-up and prompted literature of the day to note that this car had been “engineered for full volume production.” However, at about the same time as the XM-800 was being revealed to the public the company had formed a committee to investigate new products for the company, and they decided that an entire new line should be produced. This new line eventually became the Edsel.

Under the hood of the XM-800, an experimental version of the new overhead valve Y-block V8 was installed, reported to displace 312 cubic inches, capable of nearly 270 horsepower and backed up by a Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission. A number of promotional items were produced, including key-chain fobs and even a toy car offered as a premium in Post brand cereals, which are considered quite collectable today. During the 1954 model year and into early 1955, the XM-800 was highly promoted, making appearances at major car shows and special exhibitions across the country. During the year it was loaned out to the movie studios and had a featured role in the 20th Century Fox production Woman’s World, starring Clifton Webb, Van Heflin, Cornell Wilde, Fred Mac Murray, June Allyson and Lauren Bacall. A copy of this film comes with the car.

As one looks over the XM-800, one can pick out many styling cues seen in later production Fords and even competitors’ vehicles. The forward slant of the front pillars and wraparound windshield were both seen on Mercury, Ford and Edsel models, while the forward canted headlight treatment was used in production Mercury cars for 1955 and 1956.

In 1957, after the XM-800’s service to Ford Motor Company had come to an end, it was gifted to the University of Michigan’s Automotive Engineering Lab to be used for training and serve as inspiration for future designers. In the 1960s, having decided that its contributions to further education had run their course, the University sold the car at auction to a private individual. Unfortunately, the owner of the car has been lost to history as he took the vehicle to a farm in central Michigan and stored it in a barn where he rented space for one year. Needing the room for more important things, the XM-800 was pushed outside by the farmer and left to sit in the elements until the mid-1970s. At that point this unique car caught the eye of a young car enthusiast who was able to purchase it from the farmer.

The initial hope was to restore the XM-800 and he therefore proceeded to disassemble it. While his plans did not come to fruition, his actions did preserve the car from further deterioration, and it eventually ended up in one of the largest collections of concept cars – still unrestored – for the next 20-plus years. The car was then sold to the current owner who was able to complete the dream of a masterful frame off, nut-and-bolt restoration. A consummate perfectionist, he set about researching the original drawings, photographs and details. When the finished product was unveiled, it was once again hailed as being one of the most beautifully crafted automobiles to ever come from Ford Motor Company. Today, the interior of the XM-800 is just as stunning as the exterior, with its fully restored instrument panel and individual seating for four.

As the body was made of fiberglass, rust was not a major issue of concern. The chassis was also solid as it was estimated it had less than five or six miles on it from new. But the goal was more than to just bring it back to its 1954 show car status, but rather to make this an operational vehicle as well. It is interesting to note that the chrome trim on the car, including the Dagmar front bumpers, is actually fiberglass that was chrome plated.

As a show car, several electric devices were originally installed in the car, such as the gauges and radio, but they had never been hooked up or used. The automatic openers for the hood and deck lid are operational, just as they were on the original show car. Powered by 6-volt motors and a 115-volt timer mounted in the trunk during the exhibitions, they are now controlled by switches on the dashboard.

A number of styling cues on the XM-800 were predictions of just where future products were going. The greenhouse of the car has a streamlined contour with a rakish wrap around windshield featuring forward canted A-pillars that would be seen in many of the company’s 1957 model year products. Headlights were “Frenched” into the fender (a process that customizers of the day were discovering) with canted housings which would appear just the next season on the medium priced Mercury line. Even the hood reflected new innovations with a functional hood scoop to allow for freer breathing carburetors, as well as adding another element of style. Aerodynamic touches were applied to the wheel openings, cutting down on atmospheric drag through the use of skirted front fenders and removable shields to the rear.

Since its completion, the XM-800 has been invited to a limited number of the most prestigious automotive exhibitions in the country, and other invitations are still being received. Considered by many to be one of the most significant concept or “dream” cars ever produced by the automotive industry, this is a one-of-a-kind hardtop of tremendous historical importance.

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6 Responses to Mercury XM-800 Returns to the Chicago Auto Show 58 Years Later

  1. Marty Densch says:

    I had been doing some research on the XM-800 for a piece that I was planning for this site, too. I would encourage readers to click the Tom Maruska link that Ronnie included as the site has a wealth of information regarding the car, its history and its restoration. Some nuggets: • While the PR materials at the time said that the car had a 318 cid engine, Maruska says that it was actually 256 cid Y-block; • Although it had a functional engine, the transmission was an empty casing so it was a non-driveable pusher (Maruska added a functional trannie); • a photo of an early clay model shows the name “Javelin” on the rear flank.

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