MIDNIGHT SENSATION 51 MERC
John D’Agostino’s 1951 Mercury built over a period of time in the 1970’s and 80’s is one of those Custom Cars that left an huge impact to many enthusiast when it was built… and it still does today!
[dropcap]In[/dropcap] the early/mid 1980’s I was developing my taste in Custom Cars. I was reading every bit of information I could find, absorbing every little detail about historic and newly built Customs. In the summer of 1986 things changed a lot. I found a June 1986 issue of Hot Rod magazine at the book store. I browsed thru the magazine expecting to see perhaps one or two photos of custom cars and then debating if it would be worth buying the copy or not. But I was shocked to find an 8 page (EIGHT PAGE!!!) article on Custom Cars by Pat Ganahl inside. I could not believe it. I ran to the counter, paid for the magazine and rushed home on my bike to start reading the article.
Inside was an article titled “Custom Cars is it time to rethink the custom” by Pat Ganahl. The article has an full page of photos on the Jack Walker/Doug Thompson Hirohata Merc clone and many others including Barry Mazza’s Ayala/Barris Battancourt inspired 1950 Merc, and a deep purple and lavender 1951 Mercury owned by a guy named John D’Agostino. The photos in the Pat Ganahl article of John’s 1951 Mercury have had a huge impact on my current taste in custom cars. This 1951 Mercury, and the Hirohata clone featured in this Hot Rod magazine made me dream about Custom Cars for a very long time. A couple of years ago I even bought a new copy of this 1986 issue of Hot Rod magazine. I had lost the cover, and the pages were worn from looking and reading the article over and over again on my original copy…
Thats it for my experience with John D’Agostino’s 1951 Mercury named “Midnight Sensation”, now lets focus on the car.
The main section of the feature on John’s mercury in the June 1986 issue of Hot Rod magazine
Building in stages
John mentioned that he watched the movie American Graffiti in the early 1970’s, and that it was this movie that inspired him to built this 1951 Mercury. John eventually purchased a nice 1951 Merc from a fireman in Castro Valley in 1973. To start with he took it to Rod Powell’s shop in Salinas, Ca. Here, Butch Hurley chopped the top on John’s 1951 Mercury. Butch was already in the middle of chopping two other Mercury’s, a 1950 for Curly Tremayne, and a 1951 Merc for Rod Powell himself. So he already had the right experience and perfect state of mind when he started on John’s Mercury. Butch chopped John’s Mercury absolutely perfect and was able to lay down the rear window, not an easy task on the huge 1951 rear window, to create a perfect flow. With the chop in progress it was decided to shaved the drip rail like the old Barris and Ayala cars all had. The team at Rod Powell also lowered the suspension to give the car a wonderful slight speed boat stance.
Then the car went to Bill Hines who would do more custom work on the car including the full fade away fender line, similar to the Sam Barris and Louis Bettancourt Mercury. After that the car went back again to Rod Powell shop. Butch Hurley and Willie Wilde both did more work on the Mercury. They straightened the rest of the body and did more fine tuning and painted the car in white primer highlighted in Gold Murano Pearl in 1975. John drove the car to the OAKLAND Grand National Roadster Show in white primer, he parked the car in the parking lot in front of spectator gate. After he had visited the show he walked back to his Merc to find the car with a huge crowd around it.
An early version of John’s 1951 Mercury shows the car painting in pearl white. The photo was taken in August 1978 by Andy Southard at Rod Powell’s shop parking. A lot of the major customizing already has been done. But several details will be changed in the next couple of years including more smoother fade aways on the fender line, cut of rear portion of the hood and addition of the Buick side trip and reshaped fender skirts.
In several staged the car’s body was restyled with;
- Chopped top
- Full fade away fenderline
- 1953 Buick headlights molded into extended front fenders.
- Modified grille opening using two 1949 Mercury grille shells to create new opening
- Cut down 1954 Pointiac grille bar with 1954 Lincoln bumper bullets at the end.
- 1949 Mercury front bumper replaced the stock unit and was updated with a 1955 Pontiac bumper overrider, which was molded into the bumper.
- A second Pontiac overrider was used on the back where it was molded to the stock 1951 Mercury bumper.
- 1949 Mercury hood replaced the stock unit. It was modified with large radius rounded corners at the front and cut of ends with rounded corners at the back.
- All other body corners on the car were rounded.
- 1953 Buick Roadmaster side trim was reshaped to fit low on the body.
- 1952 Lincoln taillights, frenched into reshaped rear fenders.
- Lipped front wheel openings
- Modified and extended fender skirts that now flow with the Buick side trim.
With all the body work completed Curley Tremayne and Rod Powell blocked and prepped the car and added several coats of primer.
Andy Southard listens to Rod Powell explaining how much was taken out of the top of John’s 1951 Mercury. All the body work was now completed and the car was in primer. It would take at least another year before John would bring it to Rod to have it painted. (Street Rodder magazine photo)
John took it back home and actually sold the car to Harry Craycroft who planned to finish the car. But a year later John traded it back for the Gene Winfield built 1958 Chrysler the “Golden Sunrise” which John had had bought from Richard Zocchi in 1982. John now set out to actually finish the car, We are now in 1983, and John brought the car over to Rod Powell once more. Now for an ultimate custom paint job. Rod added a custom mixed Ultra Violet on the main body and lavender pearl below the side trim. The Violet was a mix of pearls and Candy paint for extra depth.
The interior was handled by Ken Foster from Sacramento and was done in a typical early 1980’s style with silver and lavender mohair over more modern seats. To blend the more modern interior with the typical 1950’s style exterior the seat and headliner inserts were done in tuck & roll style with lavender piping. Ken also built a custom console with a bar for the rear. The interior now features power windows and seats, cruise control and a modern tilt steering wheel, again very much in style with the era the car was built. The finishing touch on the car was a set of 1957 Cadillac hubcaps on wide white tires and a set of Appleton shaped dummy spotlights.
The car was then all ready to be shown, and that was what John did. He showed it everywhere he could, and people loved it. Magazine editors loved it and photos of John’s Midnight sensation would show up in many magazines. This 1951 Mercury made a huge impact to many young and not so young car enthusiasts all over the world. Back in the early 1980’s this Merc made sure that a lot of Custom Car enthusiast from all over the world knew how those cars looked back in the 1950’s. The history of the original Custom Car was not as well written and easy to find as it is today. But the Midnight Sensation made sure people who never had been there in the 1950’s knew how it was, and wanted to know more about that time and the car that were built then. the 1951 Mercury Midnight sensation truly is an very important Custom Car icon from the 1980’s.
The May 1984 issue of Classic & Custom Magazine had John’s Mercury on the cover, and on the center spread.
Pat Ganahl photo shows the use of two 1949 Mercury grille openings. One to replace the stock 1951 unit, and the other flipped upside down to form the lower portion of the opening.
1952 Lincoln taillight are perfect for any 1951 mercury. The absence of the drip rail helps the flow of the top.
The modern interior is far from the period look the outside has, but works well and fits the era the car was built in. A lower console was added to the stock 1951 Mercury dashboard.
Tuck & roll inserts in the headliner with lavender piping are s nice touch and hint to the 1950’s interiors.
Folded forward power seat reveals the mini-bar built into the custom made center-console for a comfortable ride.
From Bo Bertilsson’s Classic Customs and Lead Sleds book.
Later in the 1980’s the 1951 Mercury was sold to David and Carol Evens, they moved Ocean Park B.C. and took the car with them. Later they and the car moved back to California. In the early / mid 1990’s when they sold the car to Bill “Bugsy” Romaniello in Stamford Connecticut. Bugsy owned the car for some time. Then Busy sold it to Frank Mercede in New Canaan, Connecticut. Frank passed away in 2013, and his family then took care of the Mercury.
After reading the CCC article on the Midnight Sensation 1951 Mercury Carolyn Matera contacted us and send these four snapshots taken of the Mercury in 2014. Her father, Frank Mercede has owned John’s Mercury for around 20 years. The car still looks in great shape, and the only real change appears to be the addition of the pin-striping.
In the meantime the Mercede family learned more about the history of the Mercury, about John D’Agostino and about a young Rob Fromme (john is Rob’s uncle) who loved this Merc as a kid. They got in touch with Rob and decided that Rob would be the perfect person to be the new caretaker of this Custom Car Icon. Rob wants to thank the Mercede Family for their generosity and kind heartedness for allowing his dream car to come back home. They were so gracious and luckily they wanted Rob Fromme to have it. In October 2015 the car was transported from Connecticut to California, where it was reunited with John D’Agostino and its new owner Rob Fromme. The car is in good shape, but will need to be completely freshened up which Rob plans to do in the next few month. After that the car will be shown as much as possible, and above all enjoyed. When the car is all fresh again we will share a few more photos here on the CCC.
The Midnight Sensation 1951 Mercury in Rob Fromme’s Antioch, California garage. A good new home… waiting to be freshened up so that everybody can enjoy its beauty again.
Resources and more info
- Classic & Custom Magazine, May 1984
- Hot Rod Magazine, June 1986 article by Pat Ganahl
- Classic Customs and Lead Sleds, Book by Bo Bertilsson (isbn 0-7603-0851-9)
(this article is sponsored by)