In the hallowed and highly decorated halls of the custom world, chopped Mercury coupes have and always will reign supreme. Whether the car in question belonged to Bob Hirohata, Sam Barris, or even the "Pharos" car club from American Graffiti, highly customized Mercs carved the path for all customs to follow from their post-war heyday all the up to modern times. A much more rare breed, however, is a chopped convertible custom. Sam Barris and his brother George built a few back in the good 'ol days, and back in the '50s a young car nut named Gene Olson pined for a super smooth custom ragtop like the ones he saw cruising the boulevard and gracing the pages of his favorite magazines. Years later Gene's dreams would come true, thanks to the hard work and vision of the Pete Chapouris and his crew at the So-Cal Speed Shop.
Back in those "chop-it-on-Sunday, drive-it-on-Monday" days, Gene's car would have been described as a full custom because of the chopped roof. Today, it might be considered a mild custom because of the restraint shown. However, don't let the lack of frenched headlights fool you; the list of subtle modifications is extensive. For example, while the grille looks stock, it was completely hand-fabricated by Roy Schmidt from bar stock, and it took eight weeks of sweat and swearing to hammer it out.
Let's back up a bit though. Did Sam make the first cut? Our research indicates that while Sam was one of the first to chop a coupe, he wasn't the first to chop a Mercury, and he certainly wasn't the first to chop a convertible. Across town in Cudahy, a suburb of Los Angeles, northeast of Barris' Lynwood shop, Bill Gaylord, even before Sam, hacked away at a '49 convertible.
"I was called up for the army around January 1950. I had just enough time to finish chopping my '49 Merc convertible, but of course, my stint in the army meant that Sam's car got all the glory," Bill stated in an interview. "I didn't even get to enjoy the car because, while I was away, I told my first wife to sell it. Well, this soldier persuaded her to give him the pink slip saying he needed it to secure a loan. She never saw him, or the Merc, again."
Back in the early '50s, most of the convertibles that were chopped by George and Sam Barris, or by Gaylord--and there were quite a few for guys like Mandy Holder, Bob Lund, Fred Rowe, and Ralph Testa--were fitted with Carson-style tops. The use of a removable but non-folding padded hardtop eliminated the need to chop the top mechanism. It was a simple solution to a complicated conundrum, and the passage of time hasn't made it any easier. So when enthusiast Gene Olson approached Pete Chapouris of So-Cal to build him a finely detailed, chopped convertible '51 Merc and have it all work as original, a new approach was necessary.
"Money wasn't the object," Pete says, "the object was to figure out a way to have the power-assisted top operate exactly as original and yet still retain those classic lines of the '51 along with the power-operated windows. The first problem, however, was to find a suitable canvass upon which to work. And '51 convertibles are rare.
"Our friend Frank Streff, at So-Cal Arizona, found the car in Scottsdale, Arizona, where a gentleman named Patrick had owned it since 1954. He was only the second owner. Externally, the car looked cherry, but as with most of us that are 50-plus years old, it needed more than a little nip and a tuck. Nevertheless, it was a great base upon which to build.
"As with all projects of this complexity, we spent a lot of time just looking at the car before it was even touched," said Chapouris. "We also had designer Thom Taylor render up the concept, which came pleasantly close to the finished car. In a case like this, where the customer knows what he wants but doesn't know what he wants--in terms of how to reach that goal--I spent a lot of time with Gene working out the details."
Meanwhile, the crew at So-Cal tore into the car only to find a tin moth-eaten floor. "It looked like somebody had discharged a pump-action in there, there were that many holes," said Chapouris. Unplanned work now included a complete re-floor, new bulkhead, new inner fenders, etc., etc., etc. In designing the chassis to give it the stance, ride, and braking capability desired, without the use of hydraulics or airbags, a rear-steer (the steering box is located behind the axle centerline) front clip from a '68-72 Nova, complete with disc brakes, was spliced onto the Merc back half by Jim Sleeper with some help from Gregg Petersen. In the rear, the original parallel leaf springs were replaced with Detroit Eatons, assisted by Monroe air shocks. The whole assembly was moved in-board of the frame and raised 4 inches to lower the car. At that point a Currie 9-inch Ford with 3.25:1 gears was installed along with a huge antisway bar. The frame was also boxed and plated where necessary.
While the chassis was being developed, a GM Performance Parts ZZ502 short-block crate motor was obtained along with a pair of rectangular-port aluminum Holley Systemax heads. With heads in place the chassis was sent to John West of John West Fabrications, Costa Mesa, California, where John fabricated a set of custom headers to fit the engine bay's tight confines.
Upon its return, the motor was shipped out to Mike Johnson of Johnson Machine in Monrovia, California, where Mike balanced and blueprinted the stock internals. The cam, a Lunati hydraulic roller complete with Lunati lifters and springs completed the valvetrain. As part of So-Cal's development work for Holley, Shane Weckerly, who was So-Cal's shop foreman and oversaw this project through the majority of its gestation, installed a Holley multiport electronic fuel injection (MPFI) system complete with a Commander 950 engine control unit (ECU). Behind the engine is a stock converter and a 4L80E transmission supplied by The Toy Shop in Pomona, California. Because the engine produces 575 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm, Steve "Rocket Scientist" Sbelgio tweaked one of his Jet Performance Products Eclipse controllers to elicit the optimum response from the tranny.
Roy, meanwhile, had his hands full with the grille of his dreams. He completely hand-fabricated a new grille that looks stock to the casual observer--the parking lights are tucked behind the grille at the very ends. The front and rear bumpers were also reworked.
In keeping with the top chop, the seats were cut down 3 inches before being sent out to Gabe's Auto Interiors in Bloomington, California, where Gabe stitched up a traditional Gaylord saddle/horseshoe-style tuck 'n' roll interior in blue and oyster white leather. Gabe also stitched up the top. Mick Jenkins, So-Cal's new shop foreman, handled the paint and was assisted by Craig Graeler and Paco Alvarez. There are more than 800 hours in the prep and paint alone, which is '98 Ford Atlantic Blue Pearl Metallic.
The original plan for this car was hatched in the fall of 1997, with further scheming going on at the L.A. Roadster Show in 1998. The following year Gene gave Pete the official okay to start looking for a car. Within two years the finished product was complete and the stunning blue drop-top took home the Most Outstanding Custom award at the Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland. Unfortunately, Gene passed away in April 2002, but not before he had the opportunity to flog the whee out of his dream car. We couldn't possibly think of a better way to leave this earth than behind the wheel of your very own slice of blue heaven.