Buck Wilson grew up during the golden era of rodding and customizing. As a kid in Northern California in the ’50s, he fondly recalls the chopped ’51 Mercury belonging to his older sister’s boyfriend. After his family moved to Colorado, Buck spent a portion of his teen years hanging out with a young employee from his father’s body shop who built a potent little Model A roadster pickup (among other cars) with a 265 Chevy V-8. Buck’s first set of wheels was a ’32 Ford coupe with a ’48 Mercury flathead V-8.
Considering these early influences, it’s no surprise that Buck has been a lifelong hot rodder. Since settling down in McAlester, Oklahoma, and opening his own body shop in the late ’60s, Buck has built dozens of cars—rods, customs, trucks, you name it. Yet despite all these fine rides, one dream machine—a custom inspired by his early surroundings and influences—continually eluded him. “I always wanted a chopped ’40 Merc,” Buck says, “but could never find one or afford to build one.”
Given the scarcity of ’40 Mercurys in general—and nice ones in particular—Buck had concluded that his dreams of a sleek, chopped custom might remain just that—dreams. His outlook changed when his son bought a ’40 Mercury convertible project several years ago. As it turns out, the drop-top came with a companion coupe. “It was supposed to have been a parts car,” Buck says. “It was basically an old field car. It was pretty rough.” Of course, Buck didn’t see a parts car. He saw the realization of a lifelong chopped custom dream.
The battered coupe was an old drag car and hot rod from the Oklahoma City area. Back in the ’60s it had been outfitted with an Olds engine, louvered hood, radiused rear wheel openings, and shag carpet. Eventually, the old Merc was unceremoniously put out to pasture, where that once-hip rug on the floor soaked up moisture like a sponge. The resulting rust not only rotted away the floors, but the tops of the framerails, too.
A third-generation bodyman, Buck knew the metalwork would be daunting. “I didn’t have a frame, I didn’t have floors, I only had pieces of rear fenders,” Buck says. On top of that, the decklid was pushed in and the quarter-panels were warped. Yet despite the grim condition, Buck seized on the opportunity to finally build his own chopped, tail-dragging custom Merc.
Buck is what you might call a resourceful rodder. Rather than assemble the Merc from a grocery list of catalog-ordered components, he opted to scour swap meets, salvage yards, and classified ads for many of the necessary parts, starting with the frame. An ’80s-era extended-cab Chevy S-10 frame turned out to have the correct wheelbase for the coupe; Buck simply built the floors to fit it. “When I set the body down, I just positioned it where I wanted it, and then built some crossmembers to tie into the rocker panels,” he says.
Building the floors in this manner allowed Buck to establish ride height where he wanted it without altering the S-10 front suspension. The body was channeled 3 inches lower in the rear than in front, with a combination of lowering blocks and air springs dropping the tail down where it looked right, while allowing Buck to raise it for road duty. With four-wheel disc brakes, front and rear sway bars, plus a positraction rearend, the stage was set for comfy highway cruising.
Once the body was firmly established on the frame, Buck could concentrate on the profile-enhancing sheetmetal alterations, most noticeably the top chop. He cut the top 3 1/2 inches in front and 7 inches in the rear. Taking a cue from several classic custom ’40 Mercs, Buck removed the B-pillar; unlike many of those early efforts, however, he went to extra lengths to retain roll-down quarter windows, using the regulators and cut-down glass from a ’62 Chevy hardtop. Eliminating the wing windows enhanced the new roofline’s clean, flowing appearance.
Custom flush-fit fender skirts enhance the body’s smooth shape, as do custom running boards. To further enhance the car’s teardrop profile, Buck extended the decklid down 3 inches, bringing it flush with the ’46 Ford gravel shield. Both bumpers also came from a ’46 Ford.
Buck managed to massage the original hood into shape, leaving the louvers to help ventilate the somewhat unorthodox 390 Mercury mill underneath. “I wanted a car I could drive anywhere,” Buck says, when asked about the engine choice. The FE V-8 was rebuilt by R&P Machine Shop in Shawnee and outfitted with 427 heads and a factory three-deuce intake from a 406 Ford. “I had to do a lot of whittlin’ on the front crossmember to get that 390 to fit,” Buck says. He also had to set the engine back about 8 inches. A Tremec five-speed, purchased secondhand from a friend, keeps everything happy at high speeds.
Buck understood that color selection would be crucial for showing off the Mercury’s smooth body lines. After months of searching, he found the perfect hue on James Hetfield’s custom Auburn speedster at the Grand National Roadster Show a couple years ago. It required a bit of experimenting with various PPG paint mixtures and base colors to achieve the exact hue Buck was after. “It took us about two weeks of tweaking to get it right,” he says.
Though inspired by the Matranga Merc and other classic-era customs, several details separate Buck’s tail dragger from other efforts. One is the presence of exterior door handles, which came off a ’48 Ford pickup. (“I’ve had cars with door handles removed, and I hated them,” Buck says.) He also retained the Mercury hood emblems and added vintage foglights up front, just because he liked the way they looked. Advanced Plating gets credit for restoring the original grille, which involved repairing several broken bars in addition to replating. “I couldn’t believe they could do that good of a job on pot metal,” Buck says.
Like any good custom, the “shoes” help make this Merc’s outfit. Buck selected 215/75R15 BFGoodrich Silvertown whitewall radials for classic looks and modern road manners. Just to keep things interesting, he alternates between ’57 Cadillac wheel covers, ’54 Merc caps, and the ’53 Olds Fiesta flippers shown here.
The interior reflects the same resourcefulness Buck employed on the rest of the car, with a dash sourced from a ’59 Chevy and bucket seats pirated from an ’80s-era Honda. The dash was fitted with Haneline gauges, Vintage Air, and a ’59 Impala wheel atop a ’57 Chevy column. Dick’s Custom Auto Upholstery in Muskogee, Oklahoma, wrapped the seats, side panels, and custom console in creamy tan vinyl, using maroon ’60 Ford Galaxie fabric for the inserts and silver piping for additional accent.
Completed in early 2011, the owner-built Mercury immediately began earning accolades. Don’t mistake it for a trophy queen, though; this custom was built for cruising and is already soaking up road miles. For Buck, there’s only thing more satisfying than realizing his lifelong dream: actually putting it in motion.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1940 Mercury Coupe