In the 1950s, concept cars-often referred to as Dream Machines-were built to test new ideas. For 1954, Ford Motor Company fielded two new entries in the show circuit: a sporty little two-seater called the Thunderbird and a full-size two-door hard top produced under the Mercury banner and called the XM-800. Ford’s head of design, George Walker, sent this project to the Mercury Pre-Production Design Studios, which was headed up by John Najjar.
Initial designs for the XM-800 used sweeping lines to present a streamlined profile, with lavish use of contoured chrome trim badges and a great deal of decorative gingerbread. That was until an up-and-coming designer by the name of Elwood Engel stepped in and lent his hand. He suggested a more subdued approach, softening the lines to provide a clean and elegant look.
When the final design work was completed, Ford contracted Creative Industries of Detroit to build the car. The XM-800 would be based on a standard-production Mercury Monterey chassis and all of the body panels would be fiberglass. When the XM-800 debuted at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show, it was an instant success. It was hailed for its open use of glass in the greenhouse area, offering drivers and passengers an almost-360-degree panoramic view.
So impressive was the final product that Benson Ford, who headed up the Lincoln-Mercury Division at the time, pushed for the XM-800’s basic design to be added to the Mercury lineup and prompted literature of the day to note that this car had been “engineered for full volume production.” However, at about the same time as the XM-800 was developed, the company had decided that an entirely new line should be produced, which would become the Edsel.
Under the hood of the XM-800, an experimental version of the new overhead-valve Y-block V8 was installed, reportedly 312 ci, with nearly 270 horsepower and backed up by a Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission. A number of promotional items were produced, including key-chain fobs and even a toy car in Post brand cereals, which is considered quite collectible today.
During 1954 and into early 1955, the XM-800 made appearances at car shows and exhibitions across the country. It was also loaned out to movie studios and featured in the 20th Century Fox production “Woman’s World,” starring Clifton Webb, Van Heflin, Cornell Wilde, Fred MacMurray, June Allyson, and Lauren Bacall.
A number of styling cues on the XM-800 foreshadowed future products. The greenhouse had a streamlined contour with a rakish wrap-around windshield featuring forward-canted A-pillars that would be seen in many 1957 models. Headlights were “frenched” into the fender with canted housings which would appear the next season on the Mercury line.
Even the hood reflected new innovations, with a functional hood scoop that was both practical and stylish. Aerodynamic drag was reduced at the wheelwells with skirted front fenders front and rear.
In 1957, after the XM-800’s service had come to an end, it was donated to the University of Michigan’s Automotive Engineering Lab to serve as inspiration for future designers. In the 1960s, the school sold the car at auction to a private individual. The owner of the car has been lost to history but he parked the car in a barn in central Michigan where he rented space for one year. Unfortunately, the farmer pushed the XM-800 outside and left it to sit in the elements until the mid-1970s. At that point a young car enthusiast was able to purchase it.
The new owner hoped to restore the XM-800 and he proceeded to disassemble it. While his plans did not come to fruition, his actions did preserve the car from further deterioration, and it eventually ended up in one of the largest collections of concept cars-still unrestored-where it sat for 20-plus years. The car was then sold to the current owner, who was able to complete a frame-off, nut-and-bolt restoration.