• One of the very first California customs
• Built in 1940 by Charles Marr and Gerry Huth
• Owned for four decades by Carl Morton
• Equipped with the best speed equipment and trim of the period
This Mercury is a work of art and one of the earliest, most important “lead sleds.” It is a must-have for any custom collection.
|Vehicle:||1940 Mercury Custom|
|Years Produced:||1939–40 (with this body style)|
|Number Produced:||7,818 in 1939, 9,741 in 1940|
|Original List Price:||$1,018 in 1939; $1,100 in 1940|
|Tune Up Cost:||$200 (estimated)|
|Distributor Caps:||$19.75 (Mac’s Antique Auto Parts)|
|Chassis Number Location:||Stamped on the left front frame rail in front of the firewall|
|Engine Number Location:||On the bell housing|
|Club Info:||Early Ford V-8 Club of America, Goodguys, NSRA|
|Alternatives:||Pre-war Ford customs|
This car, Lot 33, sold for $107,250, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Arizona auction on January 16, 2014.
Authentically restored, original pre-World War II custom cars are very rare. This is arguably the prettiest example ever built.
Charlie Marr, a Burbank, CA, resident, bought this Mercury new in November 1939. Just two weeks later, he and his friend Gerry Huth (who owned a well-known muffler shop in Los Angeles) chopped the windshield three inches. A sleek Carson padded top was added next, fabricated by the best in the business: Houser’s Carson Padded Tops at 4910 South Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. It’s possible this car was the first ’40 Mercury convertible ever chopped.
Other custom touches included a molded hood, shaved side trim (but not the door handles), a filled deck and a sunken license plate — all popular customizing practices from the 1940s. An odd pair of scoops was also added to either side of the hood.
The Mercury must have led a hard life. Photos in the RM catalog, taken in 1962, show a then tired-looking custom, fitted with 15-inch whitewalls and Dodge Lancer “spinner” caps. At that time, the car belonged to Carl Morton — its second owner — of Burbank, CA. Morton had recently bought the famed Valley Custom Shop in Burbank from its founders, Clay Jensen and Neil Emory.
Carl Morton, who knew Marr and Huth, believed this car was one of the first customs from the San Fernando Valley, and he kept it for over 40 years. He retained all the customized parts and panels, including the hood, doors and deck lid, and collected new-old-stock parts with a mind to restoring it. He disassembled the car completely, cleaned and dipped the sheet metal, but never reassembled it.
Restored to a fare-thee-well
In 2005, Tom Black of Portland, OR, bought the Mercury from Morton and became the car’s third owner. From 2008 to 2009, Black meticulously restored the car, insisting on authentic pre-World War II parts. Tom told me, “There’s not an Allen head, tie-wrap, crimp connector, plastic wire or billet anything on this car. I even used old-style friction tape where needed. I must be nuts.”
After the bodywork was done with lead filler, Black epoxy-primed the car and finished it with custom Sikkens Autocryl green metallic paint — a modern take on the nitrocellulose lacquer that would have been applied in the 1940s. Paul Reichlin of Cedardale Upholstery re-created the original padded Carson top with a correct white-pebble-grain material. Guy’s Interior Restorations of Portland, OR, hand-crafted the posh green and white interior, which sports an ivory-toned ’40 Buick steering wheel. There’s a column shifter, custom knobs and tastefully chromed garnish moldings.
Exterior touches include a sunken rear license plate, tunneled exhausts that run through the fenders,’40 Ford headlight surrounds and ’41 Studebaker taillights. The door handles were shaved and the holes filled. A matched pair of 1937 DeSoto ribbed front bumpers were modified to fit. (Rear ’37 DeSoto bumpers have too large a radius, so you need a pair of fronts). Twin Appleton spotlights, flipper-bar hubcaps and teardrop fender skirts round out the list of era-correct modifications.
The engine is a 1940 Mercury flathead V8, bored and stroked to 276 cubic inches. The block was ported, relieved, and fitted with adjustable lifters and a three-quarter-race Iskenderian camshaft. Additional pre-war-style speed equipment includes chromed cast-iron cylinder heads, a “tall” Weiand dual intake manifold and a converted Lincoln-Zephyr V12 distributor.
Black also had a low-ratio Lincoln-Zephyr first- and second-gear cluster fitted to the stock Mercury gearbox. A Lincoln-Zephyr hypoid differential (fitted with a Columbia 2-speed overdrive), along with a Cee-ed frame for improved clearance, facilitate that low silhouette without radical surgery to the driveshaft tunnel. To get the rear down, Black removed the stock Mercury spring spacer, which is about three inches thick. That, along with new U-bolts and a reworked spring, brought the rear down.
In front, a dropped axle and reversed spring eyes lowered the car. Black reused the shells from the accessory Aer-O-Plane shocks in front but added new internals, while the rears are Houdaille lever-action units. The brakes are also Lincoln-Zephyr self-energizing hydraulics. Black says, “All these period modifications make for a very nice-driving car that can cruise comfortably at highway speeds.” That oversized rear license plate is reportedly still registered to the Valley Custom address in Burbank.
The Mercury broke cover in 2009 at The Quail — A Motorsports Gathering, and looked right at home with all the exotics. “It’s amazing how many lines this car crosses,” Black said. “Everybody who sees it loves it.”
Well sold the first time, well bought the second
I flipped over this historic Mercury when I saw it at Bonhams’ “Exceptional Motorcars” sale at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA, in August 2010. After spirited bidding, it sold for $166,500, including buyer’s commission (ACC# 165804). At the time, I thought it was well sold at the price, but considering the care and workmanship that clearly went into the build, I thought it was well bought, too.
It was soon offered for resale for $225,000 from a dealer in Texas, but it did not sell at that price. I believe that dealer was the consignor for the January RM Auctions sale in Phoenix, where the car was sold for just $107,500, including buyer’s premium.
The Mercury looked just as beautiful as it did in 2010, so I can only conclude that demand for these early customs may have dropped over the past few years. The buyer on this old Merc got a terrific deal this time. Prior early custom-car auction sales, like the ex-Jack Calori ’36 Ford coupe, the ex-Ralph Jilek ’40 Ford convertible, and this same car, did quite well. I asked Tom Black, who commented wryly, “It seems as though the market has softened up.”
Will early customs return to popularity? I can’t say. Regardless, this emerald beauty exemplifies all that is true and elegant about early custom cars, and that’s got to be more than enough for this fortunate buyer. I wish I’d bought it.
(Introductory description courtesy of RM Auctions.