Imagine this scene: A guy takes delivery on his brand-new '40 Mercury convertible at a dealership in Sacramento, and drives it straight to his local fender beater with instructions to install some fadeaway fenders on it. From the history he's been able to piece together, Jack Walker believes that's how the historic custom he and partner Ed Guffey own came to be.
Jack, somewhat of a custom car archaeologist, owns replicas of two famous Barris customs-the Hirohata Merc and the Blue Danube Buick. He also has custom cars by such luminaries as Harry Bradley and John D'Agostino. When he saw an ad offering a '40 Mercury convertible reputedly built by customizing pioneer Harry Westergard, he couldn't resist pursuing it. Westergard was one of the first to do custom bodywork at his Sacramento body shop, and because he died young in an auto accident, few examples of his craft survive.
Walker immediately called his friend, George Barris, whose first question was, "Does it have fadeaway fenders?" It did. Barris went on to relate how he was working in Westergard's shop in 1940, learning the custom body trade that would later take him to Southern California and his own famed Barris Kustoms business. He told Jack that the original owner, whose name turned out to be Butler Rugard, had owned customized cars before, and he had wanted Westergard to fabricate fadeaway fenders on his new Mercury. If this was indeed that car, Barris advised Walker to buy it.
While bolt-on accessories and speed and performance equipment were on the market in 1940, the day when an average working joe would take his late-model ride to a local shop for a metal reshaping job had not yet arrived. The era when a Duesenberg, Packard, or Cadillac chassis would be sent to a coach-building shop such as LeBaron or Fleetwood to have a body built had pretty much faded into history, although some specialty shops were still building custom cars for well-heeled clients.
Where Rugard got the idea for fadeaway fenders on his Merc is a matter for conjecture. A style in which the front fender line trails back across the door, gradually tapering down until it flows into the rear fender, then kicks up again over the rear wheel, would be a feature of the 1941 Chrysler Newport show car. The '42 Buick Roadmasters and Supers would be the first production cars to feature fadeaway fenders, which Buick termed Airfoil styling.
After pulling in Kansas City buddy Ed Guffey as a partner in the project, Jack completed the purchase from owner Ron Marquardt. The Mercury had been in storage for much of the 30-some years Marquardt owned it. He had bought it from the second registered owners, the Fernandez family. According to the history Walker has assembled, Mrs. Fernandez was apparently the daughter of the original owner, Butler Rugard.
The Merc's custom features evolved over the years, and at some point it suffered damage in an accident. Jack believes Rugard took it back to Westergard later, probably in 1942 or '43, to have the top chopped and the '42 Buick grille installed. He thinks Westergard himself constructed the removable, padded top, which incorporates part of the original top frame and bows into the structure. Customizer Gene Winfield gave Walker a picture of it parked outside a drug store wearing '37 DeSoto ripple bumpers.
When Jack got the car, it had a DeSoto grille, likely installed after an accident sometime in the 1950s that damaged both the front and rear. The sealed beam headlights and '40 Chevy taillights had probably been tunneled in at the same time. A 283 Chevy engine had been installed along the way, and it was rolling on early 1960s-style chrome reversed wheels.
Jack determined he would return the Mercury to its configuration when, as photos attest, it was shown at the very first Sacramento Autorama in 1950. The first order of business was to try to scare up a '42 Buick grille. As luck would have it, someone was advertising parts for just such a car in North Dakota in the same Hemmings Motor News that Jack found the Merc. Jack grabbed the grille even before the Merc arrived from California.
It was sent up to Dave Dolman in Verdon, Nebraska, to have the custom bodywork restored. Dave reset the headlights into the front fenders and '40 Chevrolet taillights into the rear panel as they appeared in 1950. "The body was kind of rough, as you might expect after 50-some years," says Jack. "Dave worked on every panel, straightening the lines, evening it up from side to side. He made Westergard look like a great bodyman!" A prominent feature is the extended and reshaped hood, somewhat on the order of the 1940 "sharknose" Graham, with the hood line continuing all the way to the rear.
The only detail Walker didn't return to the car's 1950 appearance was the Candy Apple Red finish, but that would still be consistent with an update about 1957. The car was originally black or dark maroon. The other finishing touches were the '41 Packard bumpers, teardrop skirts from Night Prowlers, and 16-inch Mercury wheels with Firestone whitewalls, Packard hubcaps, and trim rings.
Uncommon Engineering in Indianapolis built a bored and balanced '51 Merc Flathead for the car with a period-correct three-quarter cam, Offy aluminum heads, and triple carburetors. Sonny Rogers installed it along with the stock three-speed trans. The Merc rides on stock front suspension, while long shackles and a de-arched spring give it the '40s tail-dragging look.
The removable, padded top style would eventually take on the name of one of its main practitioners, the Carson Top Shop in Southern California. Veteran upholsterer Bob Sipes of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, stripped the original down, repaired some of the chicken wire foundation and wood framework across the back, then re-covered it outside with early-style convertible top material and inside with wide-pleated Naugahyde. Walker chose to leave such details as the rather crudely finished wing window frames as they were "to show that's how they did it back then." The white rolled 'n' pleated leatherette upholstery with black piping was in good enough condition to clean up and leave as it was.
Danny Wheeler of Independence, Missouri, rewired the car. Guffey and Rogers pitched in to pull all the loose ends together to finish the car for last year's Championship Auto Shows tour and some summer appearances across the country. Walker and Guffey love to share custom car history, so if you haven't had a chance to inspect this 65-year-old example of the custom craft, watch for it when it comes to your area.