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.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1954 Mercury XM-800
Years Produced:1954
Number Produced:1
Original List Price:n/a
SCM Valuation:$429,000 on this day
Tune Up Cost:$150
Distributor Caps:$20
Chassis Number Location:Brass plate on frame behind front left corner of bumper
Engine Number Location:Pad on upper front of engine near timing cover
Club Info:International Mercury Owners Assn. PO Box 1245 Northbrook, IL 60065
Investment Grade:A

This car sold for $429,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Automobiles of Arizona Auction in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 22, 2010.

Most post-war American concept cars were unbridled flights of fancy. From the impractical to the impossible, the Dream Cars of the 1950s had gas turbine engines, aircraft-inspired shapes, radar guidance systems, nuclear powerplants, and more. One of Ford’s 1954 concept cars, the FX Atmos, had tailfins that stood nearly four feet tall, a glass bubble top right out of the Jetsons, and twin sharp spears projecting from the front bumper. They were intended for some highway of the future to control the vehicle by radio, but in reality would have skewered pedestrians. The 1955 Lincoln Futura was so extreme it was used a decade later on TV as the Batmobile.

And then there are the stand-outs

But out of this era of exuberance, a few designs stand out. The 1953 Motorama Corvette went into production almost exactly as shown. A year later, Ford’s Thunderbird concept from the Detroit Auto Show was almost identical to the production version on sale that fall. The Lincoln-Mercury News Bureau called the Mercury XM-800, also introduced at the ’54 Detroit show, “the most advanced design in a car capable of going into volume production.”

The design by John Najjar and Elwood Engel was so strong it influenced Mercury and Lincoln automobiles for the rest of the decade. And ten years later, Engel replaced Virgil Exner as Chrysler’s design chief, partly due to his bold, clean design of the 1961 Lincoln Continental.

Though the XM-800 was not drivable, it was built on a production frame and had a development V8 engine. When the last owner, Tom Maruska, restored the vehicle, he had to create an electrical system to make the car operable. Fortunately, Najjar was able to assist with the blueprints. Maruska drove the XM-800 for the very first time under its own power last year, and it was shown at the 2009 Meadow Brook Concours.

The value question

Concept cars are traditionally hard to value. Some design and engineering cars from the GM Heritage Collection were snapped up last year for just $20,000. Yet the 1953 GM Futurliner Parade of Progress bus sold for $4.3m in 2006, while the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 sports car concept sold in 2005 for $3.2m. The strange and extravagant Boano-built 1953 Lincoln Indianapolis Exclusive Study coupe sold for over $1m, as did the pretty 1952 Chrysler D’Elegance coupe.

So why would the XM-800 sell for a fraction of these prices? While the current market is strong enough for historic race cars of impeccable provenance, it seems it won’t support a six-figure dream car. There’s also an apparent GM bias, and comparable Ford and Chrysler models often sell for less. In this case, I believe the buyer got an important ’50s design study at an absolute bargain price, especially considering that the car was reported sold on eBay in January 2009-unrestored-for $315,500 (SCM# 119411).

I’m guessing the restorer is disappointed. Very well bought.

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