FIRST CHOPPED 49-50 MERCURY
Who was the first one to chop the top of the 1949-1951 Mercury, the quintessential Custom Car? This is a question that has been on the minds of a lot of die-hard custom car enthusiast for many years.
I’m not quite sure when the discussion about who did the first chopped ’49-51 Mercury came up for the first time. Perhaps it was at the time the Barris Technique books were first published, and photos of Sam Barris chopping a 1949 Mercury where shown in these books. On the HAMB there were several threads discussing this topic off and on for several years. When a photo album, created with photos that Marcia Campbell took of Sam Barris chopping Jerry Quesnel’s 1949 Mercury, showed up at the 2009 Sacramento Autorama, the discussion took on a whole different direction. I was fortunate to be at this show, and be able to copy the content of this amazing photo album and share it on the Custom Car Photo Archive, and later in the Rodder’s Journal article on Marcia Campbell, TRJ #51)
The first couple of customized 1949-51 Mercury’s are the trend setters for most customized Mercury’s being built ever since. So it is interesting to find out who actually chopped the first of these customized mercury’s. More than likely these first well known customized Mercury’s were all build around the same period, chopped with perhaps just days, weeks or mostly a few month between them. Possibly the builders must have known about the facts the other Mercury Customs were being build, and how they were build and chopped. The fact is, that unless some photos will show up with an exact date, or with multiple of the discussed Mercury’s in the same picture, at possibly different or the same building stages, we most likely will never really know the answer to the question who was first. However it is really fun to do the research needed for a project like this. And most of the times the research will reveal other new Custom Car related facts.
The candidates for this quest in this CCC-Article are: (in alphabetic order)
- Buddy Alcorn 1950 Mercury
- Sam Barris 1949 Mercury
- Louis Bettancourt 1949 Mercury
- Bill Gaylord 1949 Mercury
- Jerry Quesnel 1949 Mercury
- Wally Welch 1950 Mercury
For long it was “believed” that the Sam Barris 1949 Mercury was the first Chopped Mercury out there. Sam had chopped his own personal car in his spare time. It was said he had bought the car brand new and started working on it a few weeks after he got it. We now know that Sam actually bought his Mercury as a used car, but we are unaware of the date when he bought it. Some of the photos shared in the Barris Books (published in 1994-97), as well as a few other publications, show Sam Barris chopping the top of a 1949 Mercury. In multiple publictions the photo captions always read that Sam was chopping his own personal Mercury.
Fortunately Custom Car photographer and good friends with Sam Barris, Marcia Campbell, took a series of photos of Sam chopping the top on a 1949 Mercury andcreated a photo album from those. Some of these photos taken by Marcia were the same that had been used in the Barris publications with photo captions saying Sam Barris chopping his own personal Mercury, letting us believe Sam was the first one to chop one of these Mercury bodies. However the rest of the photos in this photo album created by Marcia, clearly showed that Sam was not working on his own, but rather on Jerry Quesnel’s Mercury. Which made the enthusiast wonder how true the written “facts” were that Sam Barris chopped his own personal Mercury as the first with this body style. And then the whole discussion about who was first was brought up again.
The photo album that shows the photos taken by Marcia Campbell chopping the Jerry Quesnel 1949 Mercury.
Below are two lists of Original Radical Restyled Custom 1949-51 Mercury’s, one by Harry Bradley (published in 1986) and the other by Pat Ganahl (published in 2001). Since then, a lot more new information has surfaced. So these lists are not quite accurate anymore. However they are very interesting to look at, and also to see that back then the question who had done the first Radically (chopped) Mercury, was already on people’s minds. And publishing these findings was possibly done to trigger a discussion… well they succeeded, and the discussion is still going on in 2014.
Harry Bradley published this list of the Original Radical Customs in the February 1986 issue of Super Hot Rods & Customs magazine.
In this CCC-Article I have collected as much facts about the “candidates” for being the first chopped 49-51 Mercury, as I could find. Hopefully this article will generate even more info from the readers that might have been there when some of these cars were customized and might remember details we have not seen, or heard before.
The new 1949 Mercury has been available to the public since April 1948, and in the past it has happened more than once that a brand new, or near new cars where customized right from the dealer by their owners. So in a way it is kind of strange that the 1949 Mercury was not chopped as soon as it hit the dealers. Perhaps the relatively high price was responsible for that. However Bill Gaylord did not mind this, and he had George Barris chop his 1949 Mercury Convertible in 1949. Bill then created a wonderful padded top for it. Perhaps this was the real first chopped 1949 Mercury. I have included Bill’s Mercury in the candidates list, but since it is a convertible we have to see it apart from the other candidates.
Lets take a quick look at the candidates and we will share all the details about them further on in the article. Right now I like to concentrate on the big name shop customs. I think that these Mercury’s were relatively expensive when they were brand new, making the changes that somebody would just chop it in their back yard or home garage when brand new very small. So its probably fair to say that the first 49-51 Mercury was chopped by one of the bigger custom shops.
Below are the facts we know about these early Restyled 1949-51 Mercury’s.
Buddy Alcorn 1950 Mercury
(Buddy bought the car already chopped and customized in 1955, original owners name is unknown)
- Chopped by: Ayala’s. Gil’s Auto Body Works year unknown
- First documented appearance: Unknown
- First publication: Dan Post Blue book of Custom Restyling published in 1952 (the car is shown here unfinished and in primer)
- Earliest date on license plates when the car was chopped: unknown
- Other facts: Full fade away front fenders, molded in rear quarter panels, Oldsmobile rear fenders, rounded hood corners, near fade away roof chop at the back, angled forward B-pillars Further restyled by Barris in 1955 for owner Buddy Alcorn.
Sadly we have no photos (yet) of the Mercury as a finished Ayala custom, we are not even sure if it was ever finished, but this photo shows the car after Buddy Alcorn had the Barris Shop restyle it for him in 1955.
Sam Barris 1949 Mercury
- Chopped by: Sam Barris
- First documented appearance: Oakland Roadster Show 20 to 25th February 1951 (Shown in full paint but with unfinished interior, indicating a rush to get the car done for the show. The car placed second in full custom class.)
- First publication: Motor Trend Magazine, December 1951
- Earliest date on license plates when the car was chopped: 1951
- Other facts: Full fade away fenders with molded in rear quarter panels. heavy chop with straight B-pillars. Grille uses parts of a 1951 Ford. Sharp hood corners, hand made taillights.
No known in progress photos. Car most likely built in Sam’s spare time after shop hours. Car was sold in 1951 to its new owner Bob Orr of Muscatine, Iowa.
A few of the Barris books claim Sam bought this car brand new from the dealer, but several other sources who worked with Sam in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s all say Sam bought the car used. Sam had to work on his own Mercury in his spare time, after shop hours. This being a disadvantage over client cars (Jerry Quesnel) which could be built during shop hours.
(The photo of the snow scene on the cover of Dec 51 (winter of ’51-’52) Motor Trend was most likely photographed around October or perhaps even earlier – assuming the Dec ’51 issue hit the stands before Dec ’51 + production time of at least one more month. Therefore, since Sam’s Merc was sold in February ’51 – right after the Oakland Roadster show, it pretty much proves that the photo was shot in the winter of ’50-’51 right before the show at which the car was sold.)
Louis Bettancourt 1949 Mercury
- Chopped by: Ayala’s. Gil’s Auto Body Works
- First documented appearance: Petersen’s Pan Pacific Motorama 1952 November 10-16
- First publication: Restyle your car, 1952
- Earliest date on license plates when the car was chopped: 1952
- Other facts: full fade away fenders with molded in rear quarter panels. Angled forward B-pillars, and lots of molded in panels. Large radius on all the corners. Removal of most external body trim. Hand made taillights. Of all the Mercs in this list this one has the most body work done to them. There are no known in-progress photos. Car was styled a lot like how the Ayala’s styled the 1941-48 Fords.
Perhaps this could have been the first one chopped and customized because of a lot of the late 1940’s styling cues. Possibly lack of funds or simply the huge amount of work involved this radical customs, prevented Louis to have the Ayala’s finish the car for him until late 1951 or early 1952.
Car was redone by Barris in 1953-54. There are also stories that say that it was planned that the Louis Bettancourt and the Wally Welch Mercury, both painted in “similar” lime gold paint jobs, were going to debut at the same time at the 1951 MotorRama show. The Wally Welch Mercury made that deadline, but Louis had to wait another year to show his car at that show.
Hand made bubble taillights are most likely shaped from laminated red lucite. and set in round rod shaped openings flared into the rear quarters. Notice how the fade away fenders wrap around the body all the way to the trunk.
Bill Gaylord 1949 Mercury convertible
- Chopped by: George Barris
- First documented appearance: Hot Rod show, Los Angeles National Guard Armory in 1950.
- First publication: Unknown
- Earliest date on license plates when the car was chopped: 1949
- Other facts: chopped windshield, sharp hood corners withe grille surround molded in. Rear quarter panels are not molded to the body. George Barris chopped the windshield and frenched the headlights in trade for Bill Gaylord doing the padded top and interior on George his personal 1942 Cadillac. Bill’s Mercury is a Convertible and not a Coupe like the others in this list, but since most likely this is the very first 1949 Mercury ever to be chopped, we feel it is significant enough to be part of this list.
Jerry Quesnel 1949 Mercury
- Chopped by: Sam Barris / Jerry Quesnel
- First documented appearance: Possibly the tent Show in Montebello in 1951. No exact dates known for this show. (the Car was shown at this show in white primer, possibly a late arival, indicating a rush to getting it ready for the show)
- First publication: Popular Science October 1951 (in white primer)
- Earliest date on license plates when the car was chopped: 1951
- Other facts: Heavy chop with curved forward raked B-pilars. sharp hood corners, similar grille as on the Sam Barris Mercury (painted version) rear quarter panels do look to be not molded to the body. Taillights hand made and set in bumper guards. Marcia Campbell documented Sam Chopping this mercury in a photo album containing 37 photos. Stock grille when the car appeared in white primer. Later the grille would be replaced with one made out of 1951 Ford parts, similar to the Sam Barris Merc grille. Sharp hood corners. Jerry was an Barris employee working afternoons and evenings at the Barris Shop. We are not quite sure if Jerry’s merc was a customer car, or build in the spare time of Sam and Jerry.
Jeff Neppl has been in touch with Jerry for a couple of years, and have had several conversations about this topic. Jerry mentioned that he started customizing his mercury in his parents driveway, on a near new Mercury. His father got very upset about the fact he was cutting in a perfectly good car. Jerry (who is still with us in 2014) claims that Sam Barris cut the top on his merc before Sam chopped his own Merc. (This was confirmed by the late Jack Stewart in a short video Jeff Neppl recorded, but Dick Jackson mentioned that both Sam’s and Jerry’s where chopped at the same time, perhaps just a few days apart.)
Jerry’s mercury in white primer at the Montebello Armory tent show. We assumed this is 1951 since that is the date on the license plate, but we have no date for this show to find out what time of the year it was.
Wally Welch 1950 Mercury
- Chopped by: Ayala
- First documented appearance: Petersen’s Pan Pacific Motorama 1951, November 7-11
- First publication: Hop Up magazine, April 1952
- Earliest date on license plates when the car was chopped: unknown
- Other facts: Straight B-pillars, rounded hood corners, rear quarter panels are not molded to the body. reshaped extended front fenders. ’51 DeSoto grille teeth, stock taillights with the bezels removed. The chop on the Wally Welch Mercury was relatively mild with shorter (compared to the others) rear quarter windows. In 1952 Barris redid the car for Wally, changing the color to deep purple, and adding two extra 1951 DeSoto grille teeth. Rounded hood corners. This Mercury has a lot less body work than the Bettancourt Mercury, a relatively easy chop and could have been done in a shorter time.
Wally was known for having had a lot of custom cars already. And most likely he was able to sell them for good money thus generating some money for having his 1950 Mercury to be built in one run and fast.
Some quotes of people who where there.
Some quotes by people who were around when these first ’49-51 Mercury’s were restyled in the late 1940’s early 1950’s.
Sam’s was the first one I saw chopped at the Barris shop. Sam was a cop at the time, not sure it this was part-time or full-time, but he worked on his Merc after work. It took him some time to get it done because he could only work on it in his spare time. I do not remember Jerry Quesnel, nor the Mercury you mention. I was building my 1949 Buick at the Barris shop at that time, and in 1951 I bought the Jack Stewart 1941 Ford, but I lived in Dayton Ohio and I was not there all the time, so it did not see every car being build there. (Jim Street)
Back then there was no competitive attitude about who had his car chopped first. Like many books and magazines have said, Sam did not buy his mercury brand new from the dealer. Sam bought is towards the end of 1950, and it was in a stock Mercury green color.
I used to drive Sam’s Merc (when it was in primer) to high school sometimes, and I even got it stuck at a RR crossing with a train coming, when the battery cable popped off and we couldn’t get the doors to open. We were on our way to the Carson Top Shop, to pick up a Chevy convertible that was just finished. Somebody as able to put the cable back on just in time. Sam had Bill Gaylord do a black and white rolls and pleats interior right before he sold it. I remember both Sam’s and Jerry’s being built at the same time, and finished at the same time as well, perhaps with just days or a week between them. (Dick Jackson)
Another observation. When Barris Kustoms put the Nick Matranga 1940 Mercury in the Feb. 1951 Oakland Roadster show (same show where Sam debuted his 1949 Mercury) they used the wall behind the car to display the latest or most important work by the shop. (Check out the CCC-Article about this display). This photo display did not show any 49-51 Mercury’. We know that Sam’s 1949 was at this same show, but it still is a bit strange that Barris would display only older model cars as promotional material. Most likely Sam’s Mercury was so fresh, that no photos had been taken of the car yet.
The Jack Stewart Ford timing the photos.
The Marcia Campbell photo book of Sam chopping the top of the Jerry Quesnel 1949 Mercury has learned us a lot about how Sam worked. It also showed us that Jerry’s Mercury had 1951 plates shortly before it was going to be chopped. Two photos in this series showed something else that also dated the chop process a bit more detailed. The photos below show the Jack Stewart 1941 Ford is in the background. And show that the Jack Stewart Ford has the interior installed. (the photos are a bit blurry in the background, but since I have studied the Jack Stewart Ford for my book about the car, I can tell for sure that the interior has been installed at the point those photos were taken.)
We all know that the Jack Stewart 1941 Ford was mostly built at the Ayala shop, but George Barris finished it for Jack. And we also know a few dates when certain things where done to this car. Jack Stewart entered his 1941 Ford in the 1951 Hot Rod and Motor Sport Show at the Los Angeles National Guard Armory held January 25 thru 28 of 1951. He showed the car there with white out windows since he did not have an interior in the car yet. So with the Jack Stewart 1941 Ford in the background with an interior we can now be sure that Marcia took the photos of Sam finishing the metal work on the top of Jerry’s Mercury after the end of January 1951.
Jack could not remember exactly when he had the upholstery on his car done, “sometime after the Hot Rod show” was as close as Jack could remember it. So if the Jerry Quesnel 1949 Mercury and Sam barris his personal Mercury were chopped around the same time, we can now narrow this happening down to January and the first half of February 1951. Sam had his 1949 Mercury finished in paint at the 1951 Oakland Roadster show held in February 20-25, a short month after the Hot Rod show where jack showed his 1941 Ford.
If you look carefully you can see the interior on the top right of this photo of Sam using the grinder. I have set in a more recent photo showing the original interior which is still in the Jack Stewart Ford today.
Based on all these findings we can draw the following conclusions;
- First chopped ’49-’51 Mercury to be shown at a car show.
Sam Barris at the Oakland Roadster Show February 1951.
- First published chopped ’49-51 Mercury.
Jerry Quesnel, unfinished in primer Popular Science October 1951
- First published finished chopped ’49-51 Mercury.
Sam Barris, Motor Trend Magazine, December 1951
- Earliest date on the license plate of a chopped Mercury.
Sam Barris and Jerry Quesnel, both 1951. Bill Gaylord Convertible has a 1949 plate.
Will all this info and facts about who was first be really important? No, I do not really think so.
Back in the day when these cars where being built it was not important who was first. As long as a new Custom Car was making the deadline for a major show. Car owners wanted to win trophies at these shows, and the builders needed these new entries to attract more clients for the shop. But I doubt that it was a race against the clock to have the first ever 1949-50 Mercury chopped.
Well, this was quite long… I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I had gathering the information and creating this article. I hope more facts will be added in this thread in the futures. And hopefully one day we will be able to get a date for when the first 1949-50 Mercury was chopped, and or finished.
If you have more info on this subject to be added to this article, then please leave a comment at the end of the article, or email Rik, so that I will be able to add it to the article.
Many thanks to Jeff Neppl, Rob Radcliffe, Ian Gibbons, Jason Bickford, Curtis Leipold, Ulf “Wolf” Christiansson, and many others who have discussed this topic with me.
Resources and more info
- Popular Science, magazine October 1951
- Motor Trend, Magazine December 1951
- Blue book of Custom Restyling, book by Dan Post, 1952
- Restyle your Car, Trend book # 105, 1952
- Hop Up, magazine, April 1952
- Kustoms Illustrated, magazine #35
- Super Hot Rods & Customs, magazine February, 1986
- Barris Kustoms of the 1950’s, book 1994
- Barris Kustom Technique books, books 1996-97
- The American Custom Car, book by Pat Ganahl, 2001
- The Big Book of Barris, book, 2002
- The Jack Stewart Ford, book, 2012
Contact Rob Radcliffe at King Kustoms for more info on these T-Shirts Email Rob