Car guys come in many diverse packages, with limitless levels of commitment. For some, the pursuit of old cars is merely a passing fancy between fresh activities like scuba diving and coin collecting. But, for a large group of "the afflicted," there's just no alternative to the smell of used gear oil and musty pocket-size custom-car magazines, combined with a pure lust for the shapes of cars produced at least 50 years ago.
Then comes an even smaller collective of the most devout "unwashed," who not only have the thoughts of hot rods and customs flowing through their minds at a screaming 6,500 rpm, but must also drive their cars across the united states as often as possible, and for the longest distances. Mark Morton is one of the latter, and his extreme commitment to vintage automobiles cannot be measured by any chart or graph.
Mark grew up a stones throw away from the "ground zero" of hot rodding and kustomizing (yeah, with a "K"). It was all happening in a tight cluster around Maywood, California, during the 1950s, and Mark was there to see it evolve as sam and george Barris forever changed how we look at automobiles.
Soon after, Ed Roth took the whole movement 10 steps further, especially captivating-and warping-the developing minds of young postwar hot rod kids like Morty. It was during this time period that Morty started his own personal relationship with fixed-up old cars and found a group of like-minded young men in his neighborhood who would become lifelong friends.
One of those friends was a very young Jim "Jake" Jacobs, who would soon be a part of forming the Early times car club and go on to become a technical editor of Rod & Custom before forming the legendary Pete & Jake's with friend and fellow chopped '34 Ford coupe owner Pete Chapouris. As the Early times club grew and raised the bar on the quality of their cars, all the while making it into the pages of all the magazines, Morty was having a blast racking up tons of miles on whatever hot rod to which he happened to be holding the title.
Decades passed and street rodding was a huge part of it for Morty and his co-conspirators, but then came a day when a good portion of them had had enough of trying to cram every late-model amenity into their cars, and they looked back to the simpler times that had inspired them all in the first place. A close-knit group began scrounging the swap meets and back corners of garages looking for those perfect pieces to build "real" hot rods; along with this movement to bring back the spirit of rodding, Morty was instrumental in resurrecting a magazine that captured the early period perfectly. That magazine is known by two words-Hop up.
The golden era of hot rodding was reclaimed through this journalistic portal and brought to the present for a whole new generation of rodders to enjoy and emulate. After bringing his stable of hot rods back to the future, Morty reflected on those other early memories of fantastic modified shapes that slipped out of the Barris driveway and down the streets of Maywood.
There were plenty of memorable cars for Morty to dream about, but what he wanted more than anything was a chopped '49 or '50 Mercury. He chased the trail of a few very nice ones, but along the way he had a visit with Charlie Edwards in Lexington, Kentucky, and took a ride in his '54 Merc convertible. Morty had a whole new goal after a long chat about design, a look through some old magazines, and hands-on looks at a few '54 Mercurys. He made a couple phone calls from Charlie's, and his own '54 Mercury was on the way by the time he got home. The seller was his pal, B.J., in Minneapolis, and his words were, "Morty, it's the best one in the country." And, "He was right," said Morty. "We were gonna screw up a real nice car!"
Morty met Clint Ring in tulsa, Oklahoma, and had seen his cars at about the same time Morty's Merc took up residence in California. He had also been hearing about builder sam Rambo, who was making quite a name for himself cutting tops in the same area. So, when Morty commented to Rusty stevens that he didn't know who to go to with the Merc, Rusty suggested Clint, and the car was shipped straight to Oklahoma without any further discussion.
"For me, it's always been about the Ronnie Dragoo 54 and the peripheral Mercs of that year," Morty said. I grew up across the river from Barris and feel 'kin' to the hot rod/custom stylings of that time. I could feel that car, could hear it, and could see it ... Not much different than being that kid too young to drive but old enough to dream of having something that cool.
"Those Okie guys didn't need any coaching on the Mercs and customs, either," he continued. "I couldn't allude to a magazine picture or Barris fact without them knowing exactly what I was talking about. They are purists. When I was asked my opinion on something or had to make a decision, it was nice seeing (or hearing) their relief when I got it right!"
Even though the project started with one of the nicest restored '54 Mercury Montereys he could find, once the project got underway, Morty said, "It was a lot more work than any of the team signed on for because it kept getting nicer and nicer." Discussions like, "Well, since we're going to paint the dash, it will sure embarrass the seats. Let's do the interior, too," were often being made back and forth.
The biggest chunk of work was divided between sam Rambo, who chopped the lid, and tim goodbar, who handled the balance of filling, frenching, and shaving. For sam's effort, Morty's only request was that he make the chopped rear glass "look right," and by anyone's standards, he far over-achieved that goal when he remove 3 inches from the roof height and then cut down all the stainless steel pieces and stitched them back together seamlessly. Then, the project was handed off to tim goodbar in tulsa, who got busy frenching the headlights and hood scoop, shaving the door handles and excess badges, and removing the rear backup lights. With everything slicked off, it was Jason smith's turn to spray the paint. "Jason originally lobbied against the pearl paint," Morty said, "but we dug in and we took him up on the compromise, which was to leave the top Wimbledon White-no pearl. In the end, all involved absolutely concur with the paint selection."
Modifications were kept to a relative minimum under the properly smoothed and painted skin, only enhancing the looks and improving the driveability (mostly the stopping power) of the Mercury. One-stop shopping at Jamco picked up all the necessary chassis pieces, like disc brakes, 2-inch dropped spindles, a sway bar, and dropped coils for the front, along with a set of gas shocks for all four corners. During the final phase, Morty said the icing on the cake was definitely the interior. "Dan Kirkpatrick does big classic cars, Pebble Beach stuff, and the like," he said. "after hearing our general design idea, his layout and execution were perfect, and he was the most skilled talent we've ever employed for that craft." With the rest of the interior just the way it left the factory, except for fresh paint, Dan kept it simple and within the time period of Morty's original vision by stitching up some rolled 'n' pleated off-white vinyl to cover the seats and door panels.
The circle has been completed for Mark Morton, that little kid a long time ago who always wished he could have one of those "kustom jobs" that cruised through his childhood. And, we can all benefit from his many contributions preserving a huge chunk of automotive history.