Longer, lower – wilder.
During the early years of the 1950’s, the American auto industry was blossoming into previously unknown avenues, at times ambitious and in certain cases, downright arresting. Springtime 1954 saw head of Lincoln’s pre-production studio, John Najjar sketch five concept cars, only one making it past the papyrus stage. Known internally as Mandalay, the sketch pupated into the XM Turnpike Cruiser, “a four passenger cross country car for tomorrow.” XM denoting eXperimental Mercury.
Outré perhaps, even in the jet age, the design caught the attention of future Ford whiz-kid Francis ‘Jack’ Reith. Pushing the top brass for backing, an internal competition set the partnership of Najjar and Elwood Engel over that of Gene Bordinat and Don DeLaRossa. Both teams presented full size clay models (around 18 feet in length) knowing full well only one would be green lighted. Reith took an instant shine to the Najjar design, justifying tweaks and alterations, gaining approval that autumn.
Ford then shipped over a 1954 F250 truck chassis with a 292 cubic inch V8 to the Ghia studios along with the build fee of $80,000. Ghia’s staff worked from a three eighth scale plaster cast and maybe lost a little in translation. What returned from Italy was not what the designers had in mind – the windshield no longer had the notch nor any specified vent window. Future projects headed to Ghia arrived with stricter instructions.
Consider some of the ideas manufacturers bandied about at the time, such as autonomous flow along the highways of tomorrow, gyroscopes for ultimate stability along with nuclear power, the XMTC was a true concept inspiring change. Billed by Mercury as an ‘ideas car’, measuring just 52.4 inches high, owing to the chassis having approximately 4 inches removed from the footwell areas. Causing weakness, the addition of frame rails closer to the drive line counteracted this.
The compound and wraparound ‘Skylight’ windshield provided “new viewing horizons for all four occupants,” allowing for a true floating roof. The transparent plastic ‘butterfly’ openings gently tilted to ease in and egress. A micro switch in the door jamb energised a motor placed in the rear roof corner. A gimmick? Of course but neatly executed and perfect for a concept.
The XMTC featured a comprehensive list of goodies. Two tone, “glove maker-soft” leather. Allowing you time and lighting the way to your front door, delayed action headlights for 30-40 seconds. Deeply fluted side body channels that blended into V-shaped tail lights. Mercury called the semi-quartic steering wheel ‘full vision’. A steel dash with brushed chrome inserts generously covered in leather qualified as safety conscious. Chrome edged circular dials housed the tachometer, speedometer and computer clock.
To the front end: a sculptured grille featuring twin jet pods, or JATO – Jet Assisted Take Off surrounded by chrome nacelles injecting some much needed weaponised looks and quadri-beam lamps. This author’s favourite XMTC party piece being the chromed dual exhaust stacks, emitting from the hindmost quarters on both sides. Creating those spent gases, the 275bhp Y-Block V8 with 10:1 compression along with twin, four barrel carburettors. The car’s transmission was the equally theatrically named Merc-O-Matic, precisely the same as that from parent, Ford.
Adding to the 1956 razzmatazz, the XMTC was given top billing with its own dedicated 20 foot long picture windowed semi trailer, itself costing $50,000. Entitled the Big M Van-O-Rama, the Ford engined, Mercury branded truck hauled the glazed red and cream trailer across the States to shows and dealerships. Once parked, the trailer unfolded into a show wagon complete with steps and aluminium walkways. The car sat on an electrically operated turntable, moving ninety degrees to allow public access around and importantly, inside the vehicle; you could even pick up a glossy four page brochure explaining the car’s features.
Mercury offered the ‘the tomorrow look’ which proved apt as the XMTC allowed the green light to shine, albeit with inevitable changes. In the two years that followed the cars inception, Jack Reith had become General Manager of the Mercury Division. From such grand heights and grandiose products, high sales volumes were expected. The national tour generated much wanted interest, enough to force Reith to release the Turnpike Cruiser less than a year after its 1956 Chicago show reveal. It even made it to the races – the XMTC honouring the 1957 Daytona Beach Grand National as pace car, with the production TC doing similar honours at that year’s Indy 500.
At public launch, several changes had occurred. Oval shaped external roof intakes kept the driver smiling, while the ‘Breezeway Ventilation’ kept the cabin aired. Why did manufacturers desist from using such vivid phrases for describing new technology? The rear screen lowered electrically for a through flow of fresh air. The gear selector was revised from a lever to a robust push button affair. Turn the ignition key, then press the NS button to start, with L for low gear. Cost options included power seats that remembered your favourite position, push button radio, safety seat belts and air conditioning.
Come purchasing time however, the public thought otherwise of the TC. Just 24,247 units were sold, noticeably without the butterfly roof panels, clipping Reith’s wings. No longer deemed the whiz-kid of just thirty six months earlier, he was banished to Ford of Canada, but chose instead to resign.
The TC lasted a mere twelve months before becoming part of the Montclair line-up. Meanwhile, the Concept’s fate became something of a cold harbour. The national tour over, both car and trailer were left disconsolately in a Ford parking lot with the now vandalised car outside, exposed to the elements. The Vice President of Dearborn Tube and Steel, Jim White took pity on the car, handing over a paltry $300. Stored again outside for some time followed by subsequent owners who simply allowed the vehicle to rot, the XMTC ended up in California, before being purchased by notable Minnesota based car rescuer, Tom Maruska in 2018.
Six thousand (or so) hours of toil later has revived this former rust bucket into a Persimmon and white butterfly once more. Should you fancy a flutter, the car is being auctioned by Mecum this month. The new owner will certainly make a statement.
Sincere gratitude to Tom Maruska for the accurate details. Check out his website for a thoroughly detailed restoration analysis.
 The 312 cubic inch mill wasn’t available at this time but advertised as such as it looked identical.
 Currently the XMTC sports a single four barrel carburettor. The original 2×4 intake, carburettors, air cleaner and valve covers were stolen at some point in the vehicle’s formerly decaying state.
 The production Turnpike Cruiser was offered with both a two-door and four-door hardtop body.