1940 MERCURY STARDUST
In 1986 John DAgostino hired Bill Reasoner to create his dream radical 40’s style custom based on an 1940 Mercury. The end result, named Stardust made a huge impact.
In our series Custom Car Icons of the 80’s ad 90’s we feature Custom Cars that have left a mark on the scene in during the rebirth of the Custom Car in the 1980’s and early-mid 1990’s. One of the key figures in promoting the traditional custom style during these years was John D’Agostino. During the 1980’s he created several Custom Car Icon’s that inspired many people around the globe to like and build traditional styled Customs Car. John’s 1951 Mercury “Midnight Sensation” had left a huge impact on the scene, and in 1986 John set out to to fulfill his dream of building a radical ’40’s style Custom.
John started to look for an suitable base for his dream and found a one owner 35K miles, original light grey painted 1940 Mercury coupe in Sacramento Ca in October 1986. In December that year he delivered the car to Bill Reasoner’s Classic Auto Body shop in Walnut Creek, California with a list of modifications he wanted to be done on the car. The main inspiration for the car was of course Nick Matranga‘s Barris Kustoms restyled 1940 Merc from the early 1950’s. But John wanted his custom to be a bit more radical, yes still remain that wonderful art-deco feel. After John had acquired the Mercury he started to hunt for the needed parts to create his dream Customs and had delivered everything to Bill’s shop.
The chassis was updated with a Mustang II front end which dropped the front around 8 inches lower than stock. The rear of the frame was modified in the rear to allow the original rear axle to be lowered 9 inches. The rear was modified with air shocks and an air compressor to allow the rear to be lowered and raised for high way cruising. John mentioned… NO air bags at that time !!! The front wheels were replaced with ’47 Cadillac units, which made the use of Caddy Sombrero hubcaps really easy. A set of BFGoodrich wide whites (7.10×15) 4 1/8″ white walls from Coker tires was used front and rear.
Next up was the engine. John had the engine replaced by an 1948 Ford 239 cubic inch flathead engine that was bumped up to 255 cubic inches. The engine was completely balanced and rebuilt, and dressed up with period perfect speed parts. A set of polished Offenhauser heads, and three carb intake was installed along with three chrome plated Stromberg carburators. The engine work was done by Bill and Tom Frazer.
To start with the body work Bill Reasoner cut the top 5 inches in the front and around 6 inches in the back. A 1941 Mercury oveal rear window was used and the whole rear portion of the top was remade in fresh sheet metal to get the perfect shape. In the process the top was thinned a little to prevent the top to become to heavy. The side window openings was reshaped to accept hand made side window moldings created from chrome plated 5/8 inch channel, similar styled as the Barris Shop had done in 1950 on the Matranga Merc.
All four fenders were molded to the body with a nice radius. The bottom hinges of the door was cut off and new hidden hinges installed for a smoother look. The stock running boards were removed and new smooth units created and welded and molded to the body and fenders. The lower door corners were rounded. A set of 1940 Buick teardrop shape fender skirts was frenched into the rear fenders using a molded in metal rod. Again for the ultimate smooth look. At the front the cowl vent was welded shut and the hood peak was extended onto the cowl all the way to the windshield. The original chrome plated eye brows on the bottom of the hood were removed and a new lip was added to give the grille a slight frenched look. All the molding and frenched elements had similar radius effects to give the car an uniform look.
At the back the lower corners of the trunk were rounded and a hand made splash pan was installed and molded to the body. A set of 1946 Ford bumpers was smoothed, the bold heads welded to the back and filled in. Then the whole unit was narrowed ad reshaped to fit the 1940 Mercury body perfectly. Sam Foose was asked to create the bumper guard mounted taillights at the rear, similar in style as was used on the Matranga Mercury. The complete body was shaved of all handles and trim except for the belt line trim. The trim on the hood was shortened in the front till the forward point ends front wheel opening center point, just as they did in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. With all the body work done the car was painted with black primer and put back together. All the body work had been done by Bill Reasoner and Bob Munroe.
Next up was the interior. John had something special for that in mind as well. The stock 1940 Mercury dash was smoothed, the ribbed inserts removed and the whole unit was send out to Century Plating in San Leandro, CA to be chrome plated. Mark Marini from San Leandro CA. was asked to make new inserts for the chromed dash in clear red lucite. Just like the Barris Kustoms from the late 1940’s had. Mark also created the off white teardrop dash knobs. The steering wheel was replace with a pearl white painted 1949 Mercury unit. For the upholstery John send the car to Jerry Sahagon’s Custom Interiors in San Leandro. Jerry modified the stock mercury front seat, and he custom made a rear wrap around unit. When it became time for the upholstery John choose an pearl white naugahyde and maroon mohair for the seats, panels and headliner, and a maroon nylon carpet to cover the floor. Jerry designed the unique upholstery pattern giving the interior both an modern and vintage luxurious feel.
Stardust surrounded by rock-salt at an late 80’s Oakland Roadster Show.
John drove the car like this for a short time and when the 1988 Oakland Roadster show was coming up he send the car back to Bill Reasoner so he could paint it in an amazing custom mixed House of Kolor candy black cherry over a pearl black base. The base color was Nacromer Pearl a left over from the early days. Bill Reasoner did an really amazing job on the paint and the car looked absolutely stunning. The car was finished just in time to debut at the 1988 Oakland Roadster Show where is was a huge crowd pleaser and it won 1st place in the Kustom Class. Highlight for John that show was when Nick Matranga flew in together with Junior Conway from Los Angeles espcially to check out Stardust. Nick absolutely loved the Merc and it brought back a lot of great memories for him. The deep and sparkling paint made John nick-name the car “Stardust”.
After the Oakland Roadster show John took the car to the Sacramento Autorama where it won the prestigious Sam Barris Memorial Award, best use of Color and the Most Popular Car in Show awards. In 1988 John also took the car to the other most important Custom Car event, the Paso Robles West Coast Kustoms show where Stardust won the prestigious Best Kustom award. And besides that the mercury was a HUGE crowd pleaser with people surrounding the car the whole weekend. The Mercury made a huge impact on many people who saw it at these late 1980’s shows. After that John showed the car at over 20 ISCA shows from 1988 to 1995 winning top honors and Most Popular awards in almost all the shows the car was entered.
Stardust was featured in many magazine over the years and inspired a lot of people to build similar styled customs. It showed the younger generation (including the author of this article) in the early 1990’s how traditional styled custom cars were looking back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Remember that in those years not many magazines were out there, no books, and no internet to search for period customs. In fact I saw photos of Stardust even before I had seen any image of the Barris restyled Nick Matranga Mercury. This might be hard to imagine now, but back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s it was very hard to find traditional Custom Cars, especially if you lived outside the USA. So Stardust made a huge impact on me, and many other custom car enthusiast. The was very special for me back when it was new, and it still is today.
Stardust was featured in many world wide magazines. The nicest feature might be the one in the rare Custom Car magazine from Nov-Dec 1989 with amazing photos shot with the 1941 Ford “Forty One for the centerfold, and a great scene on the cover.
The cowl vent was welded shut, and the peak on the hood extended on the cowl. The hood was peaked and an lip added at the lower edge where once the chrome eye brows were mounted. The 1946 Ford bumpers were narrowed, smoothed and reshaped for a better fit.
In 1995 John decided it was time to let go of the car and Woodroe Parker, a car collector from Seattle Washington bought the car. He displayed the car in his personal museum for a few years. In 1997 the Oakland Museum was putting an exhibition together; Hot rods and Customs, the Men and Machines of California’s Car Culture. Stardust was invited to be part of this exhibition to be displayed together with the original Hirohata Mercury, The Buddy Ohanesian 1940 Mercury, and Billy Gibbons Cadzilla to represent the Custom Car scene.
Jerry Sahagon from San Leandro, California, was responsible for the really unique interior done in pearl white and maroon mohair. This photo taken in the early 2000’s also shows the clear red lucite dash inserts and the 1949 Mercury steering wheel.
Stardust is powered by an 1948 Ford 255 cubic inch Flathead V8 completely balanced and rebuilt. It featuring polished Offenhauser aluminum heads and 3-carb inlet manifold, beehive oil filter and brass radiator.
Ted Steven the new owner
After the one year exhibition in the Oakland Museum of California the car was send to the Monterey RM Auction to be sold. The car was bought by Richard “Ted” Stevens of Los Gatos, CA., who took the car to Roy Brizio for a complete redo. Ted had always been in love with the 1940 Mercury and he knew now he was able to buy his dream custom he wanted to drive the car at any moment as well. So the car needed to be updated mechanically, and while at it he decided the 80’s interior needed to go as well. The car was build 20 years ago and had been on the road and in shows most of the time. So it was time for a complete redo. The team at brizio completely redid the Mercury including the Flathead engine, transmission, rear and front end to make it as reliable as a driver as possible. Brizio modified the dash by removing the red lucite inserts and replacing the Mercury steering wheel with a custom made transparent 1946-48 Lincoln steering wheel with Mercury center button.
After Brizio had done all their work the car was send of to Darryl Hollenbeck’s Vintage Color Studio who prepped the body and added an wonderful PPG Brandywine. Sid Chavers was asked to redo the interior in and off white and maroon leather in a more 50’s style. The overall looks of the car was left very much as how it was original designed by John D’Agostino in 1988, just updated to more modern standards and with the focus on creating a driver. The redone Stardust debuted at the 2009 Sacramento Autorama where the car was invited for the Special Mercury Gathering event. Later in 2009 the Mercury won the Custom of the year award at the Goodguys All American Get-Together. In 2011 the Mercury was invited to represent the 1980’s Custom Car creations at the Customs then & Now event during the GNRS in Pomona.
The red plexiglass panels were removed from the chrome plated dash and the 1949 Mercury steering wheel was replaced with a custom build translucent red ’46-48 Lincoln steering wheel with custom mercury center. The dummy spotlights were replaced with genuine Appleton Spotlights.
It was extremely difficult to capture the color Darryl Holenbeck used on the latest version of Stardust. I took this photo at the 2009 Sacramento Autorama mercury Gathering and it gives a hint of the wonderful red sparkle of the pearl black paint. Without a direct light the paint looks a very deep organic black.
Ted Stevens was invited to bring Stardust to the prestigious Customs Then & Now exhibit during the 2011 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona California. I took this photo at set-up day when the car had just arrived in building No. 9.
Luke Horton captured the wonderful molded rear fenders and smooth running boards in this photo. It also shows how the teardrop skirts are frenched into the rear fenders with a molded in lip around the skirt. The super straight reflections say enough about the team at Brizo and painter Darryl Hollenbeck’s craftsmanship.
Just like the original Matranga Mercury, Stardust also has the taillights set into the 1946 Ford rear bumper guards. The smoothed bumper, the hand made molded in splash pan and rounded corners on the trunk are unique for Stardust, and were not seen on the Matranga Merc. Sam Foose created the bumper guard taillights.
John’s D’Agostino’a 1940 Mercury Stardust is one of the few Custom Cars created during the rebirth of the traditional Custom Car in the 1980’s, that has left a huge impact on many people. The well executed designs on the Mercury, performed by the team at Bill Reasoners shop, reminded people how beautiful the customs from the 1940’s and early 1950’s were. It influenced many people to create their own ’40’s influenced Custom Car, and till today the 1940 Mercury Stardust is one of John D’Agostino’s personal favorite Custom Cars.
Special thanks to John D’Agostino for helping with this article.
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