Custom Car Chronicle
Memo Ortega Files

Memo Ortega Stories Part 20


After working on several Mercury’s in the past, Memo now finally found one he wants to finish for himself. The car has recently been painted and is currently being put back together. Lets take a look how Memo built it.

[box_light]Memo Ortega is a well known name in the SoCal Custom Car and LowRider Scene, but perhaps not as well known as it should be. Memo has been working on custom cars and Low Riders since the early 1950’s. He became good friends with Custom Car Icon Gil Ayala, and in the late 1950’s he even bought Gil’s famous 1942-46 Ford Coupe as a persona driver. Today, in 2015, 80 years young, Memo is still chopping tops, and any other custom car work you can think of from, his garage work-shop. Check out more of the¬†Memo Ortega Stories¬†in the¬†Memo Ortega Files¬†on the CCC[/box_light]


While searching for more photos of the early stages of his latest 1951 Mercury Memo came across this neat family photo from 1981. We just had to include it here.

CCC-memo-ortega-37-chevy-kidsThe kid waving is Will, he is the one making the first cut on my old 1951 merc in the last article, n0 19. Next is Robert we call him Buba he is the one holding the top part of the cut door also in article no 19. The girls are Sylvia and Angie. Thought you would get a kick out of that, the other ones are their sisters.

In the last part on Memo’s stories we showed a photo of Memo’s Personnal 1951 Mercury which he has been building over the last couple of years. The car has been painted in late 2014 and looks really stunning. A lot of people asked about the car, so Memo got really inspired to tell the story on this Mercury. We will get back to Memo’s 1980’s and 1990’s builds after this.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-01Terry took this photo of me the day I brought the Merc home… a long way to go.
I have had this 1951 Merc sitting in the back for some time, while¬†I¬†was¬†busy doing a couple of chopped roofs plus a few other things. When I¬†was done with the other cars I¬†began working on this 1951 Mercury. I looked at the Merc, and realized the flathead motor just had to go. As you know I¬†like cruzin my cars all the time and anywhere I want to go. I¬†need it to be dependable like all my other cars. I knew if I¬†went with a flathead motor and it leaves me stranded out there, I cannot¬†just go into places like Auto Zone, and ask them for a flathead motor part. They would not know what I’m talking about… get the picture!
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-03Before I started on the body work I took out the flathead engine, replaced it with a Chevy engine and subframed it for a smoother ride.
So I¬†went ahead and pulled the flathead motor out. I told some of my buddies to let the word out I¬†had a 1951 Merc motor for sale. The next day one of my buddies called me. One of his friends, that had just left his house, two days before on his way home to Utah, just so happens he was looking for a Merc motor. My buddy called him about my engine. He¬†called me right back¬†to tell¬†me “don’t sell it, I’m¬†coming back to Calif to pick it up”. He drove all night, came an got it…¬†I decided to sub-frame the car. The 1951 Mercury front end suspension also had to go.¬†Looking at the front with all worn out stuff. I wanted power steering, disc brakes and a better handling car. But still all on a¬†low budget.¬†In the rear I¬†went with a ’92 Camero rear-end. Now if I¬†was not going to drive that car all over,¬†I¬†would have left it with the stock everything,¬†but I¬†would be afraid to go far out of town with the car but thats just me.¬†It’s kool the way other guys leave there cars with there stock restored running gear.I have great¬†respect¬†for that. All the original parts make the cars look really cool.¬†But thats not me,¬†I’m a kustom guy that loves to cut up cars the way I¬†like em.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-02The top has been marked for the cutting, and the first cuts above the rear window have been made, but first I neded to remove the headliner bows.
So out went all the old running gear and in with the newer stuff. Me and one of my grandsons, Michael cut the old front suspension out an went looking for a chevy camero front end. We found one, cleaned it up before we did all the measuring to make it fot right, and get the proper stance. Then we welded it on the Merc frame. It turned out very nice. I always love to teach my grandkids the stuf I know, metal work, welding etc. So when they can I ask them to help me out. Me and Will, one of my other grandsons, got an used 350 chevy motor, One he had already rebuilt and it also came with a 350 turbo combination. It turned out a good chioce for us. You all know we can walk in to most any auto parts places an get a chevy motor part.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-04The front portion of the top was seperated from the rear, material removed and the top welded back on, making sure the roof flowed the right way. The straight b-pillars made it necessary to add some material to the door posts, which still needs to be done in this photo.
With the suspension out of the way I¬†decided to go ahead and start cutting the Merc’s top. I’m doing this a little at a time. I¬†always have other stuff to do at the same time, so its nearly impossible to concentrate on just one project.¬†I started marking everything I¬†was going to cut away. Next came the cuts, and¬†off came the top. I like the drip-rails, so I¬†left them on the car. A¬†lot of builders¬†take the drip rails off but not me. Back in time

Gil Ayala once told me that the reason they took off the drip-rails was becuase it took to long messing with them to get them to flow right, and trying to get the lead work done between the top and the drip-rail. And it turned out that customers back then really like the smooth look. 

I just¬†like the way the drip rails¬†look on my 1951 Mercury. The same thing with my center door post. I¬†did not want to do what most of the people¬†do, I¬†left them straith, not angle forward.¬†Don’t get me wrong, these forward angled pillars also¬†look kool, but thats just me, and how I saw this car.

CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-08Micheal, one of my grandson’s helping me with the welding.

CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-52This photo, sorry its a bit dark, shows the 1941 Chevy top test fitted to the ’51 Mercury roof.
When I got to shaping the top, I decided to do something special.¬†I¬†cut the center portion of the ’51 Mercury top, and¬†got me a ’41 chevy roof. I cut it up and made it to fit it to my Mercury top and glued it in place. Glued is just the¬†word¬†I use… it¬†means I¬†welded it on… just me doing crazy stuff. The Chevy roof panel had a nice shape, but of course it needed some reshaping to fit the Mercury top. I wanted a 1951 Merc with it’s original, tall ’51, rear window. Not what most others¬†do… taking it the “easy way” out with a ’50 window. The ’50 rear window is¬†way easier to do. The ’51 window is hard to do but a ’51¬†Merc¬†looks so much cooler with its own rear window…. At least in my book, but again, thats just me. Its¬†the¬†way I¬†like my enchilada. I looked at my doors and decided I wanted to do round top corners. And the same thing on the bottom trunk corners. I’m glad I¬†did them with my top done it now all flows together.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-09Most of the ’51 Mercury top was removed and replace with the ’41 Chevy top., this photo shows the hole cut in the Merc roof, prior fitting the Chevy top in place.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-10Another look at the cut out ’51 Merc roof section. The bows were added to keep everythign alignedduring the process.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-11I decided to shorten the drip rails at the back and a new C-pillar was shaped to make the top flow nicely into the belt-line.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-12I decided to do reshape the interior window moldings with the top still off the car, had some more space to make this a bit easier.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-13The ’41 Chevy top welded in place. It just has the right shape I was looking for and far less work to get the rear to flow right.

CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-14Added some primer to the top, and made the side window trim to fit.


CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-06More primer on the top and the door window molding are done now. 

We did the¬†suspension before I¬†started customizing on the front.¬†I¬†decided I wanted to have¬†air-bags for the Mercury, just like in my scalloped Chevy. I¬†love them air-bags. In the old days when we went to get gas we would scrape the heck out of our cars on steep drive ways. Now I just hit the swisch, and no matter how steep the drive way is, I have no problema… up she goes. Thats why¬†I¬†got them on the merc. I set up the frame and suspention both front and rear for the ari-bags. My¬†grandson Will has been helping me with my Merc the whole way, and he will end up with the Merc after I cannot drive it anymore.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-07Me with my tourch, my favorite lemon tree and the Merc getting ready for air-bags in the garage.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-15I have the aribags installed now and was using some black markers to see how the car would look with skirts and darkening the light gray primer top.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-16The ’51 front end with the grille surround sticking out,¬†and sharp hood corners….not very nice.¬†
I then went to work on the front¬†I¬†cut the hood in the front to round the corners and fill in the emblem holes. Then I¬†frenched the head lites with my favored ’53 Merc rings. I added some metal and “glued” them in.¬†Then it was time to¬†reworked the grill surround. I¬†made several cuts in¬†the ’51 Merc shell¬†and re-shaped it a lot to match the shape of the hood. A lof of work involed here, but I¬†could not afford to go and buy a 49-50 grille surround…¬†they want mega bucks for one, and I¬†can’t do that.¬†I have no special tools or fancy benders… just my backyard garage guy tools and a big hammer LOL.¬†I also¬†decided to make¬†me a new gravel pan. Everything looked good to me, I¬†was happy the way it turned out.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-19I made several cuts in the top portion of the grille surround, pushed it in, and bend it to follow the shape of the hood. I also rounded the hood corners.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-22I decided to make a new smooth splash pan up front. I used the stock one as a pattern.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-17New splash pan in place and the grille surround partly in primer. The ends needes a little more work.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-20I was not happy with the way the hood fitted, so I added some metal to the fender. The 1953 Mercury headlights righs were welded in place and on the outside I added some haped metal to make them flow better from the fender line.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-23Little Alex checking out the Mercury project.



A 1950 flashback

There was the Camario bros… three of them from Cucamonga Ca, now known as Rancho Cuca Monga, a few miles east of us. they lived in the Barrio, there I¬†met Pual in Ontario. I¬†was driving by this car wash and I¬†spotted this ’37 Chevy, wow it did look just like mine.¬†I made a u-turn, went back to take a closer look at¬†the car. Man I¬†tell you, it had ’40 Ford headlites, like my car.¬†The car looked awesome… better than mine¬†ever did. I¬†got to talking with Pual about the car. Seemes him and his bros build the car. He invited me over to his house in Cucamonga, to meet his brothers, we went over. I met his two other bros. Wow in the drive-way was a ’49 blue custom Merc and a ’40 custom Merc coupe. I asked them who owns the ’49?¬†The older brother did,¬†I¬†forgot his name, the other bros name was Jhonny, they were known as the Camario’s Brothers, well known for there cars back then. The ’49 really caught my attention. The hood and trunk were were filled in, as was the door handles had tuck an roll interior, Appleton spotlites, one bar homemade custom grill, frenched lities… wow I¬†look back, and realize that car was was about a year old. They told me they built everything on them cars. The ’40 merc did’nt really interest me like the ’37 Chevy and the ’49 Merc back then. Thought I¬†would tell you this happening in 1950, one of my many great¬†memories…. lets get back to the ’51 Mercury.




I¬†also wanted to do my own style grill, somthing nobody elese had. Not the typical grilles used in so many Mercs¬†like¬†the Desoto grille. I call those¬†“the Merc grille”. I¬†did¬†a few¬†drawings how I¬†wanted my grille to look, made several designs on paper. I ended up choose the first one I drew. I used 1953 Chevy grille ends and added some bullets to it. I¬†made my own center bar, still using¬†my brain like when I¬†was young building my first custom bike when I¬†was a kid ha..ha. I use everything I can put my hands on, if it does not work for me, I make it work. The grill came out nice fits in the cavety perfect, I¬†allso rounded the bottom trunk corners as well as the top of the doors,..¬†at my car show (Memo Ortega Show) I¬†had my chevy and the Merc parked next to each other. Joe Figuero came checking out the merc and told me… “Memo… your grille…. nobody eles has one like yours on this planet” we both started LOL.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-18Asambling the freshly chromed parts for my home made grille. On the right is one of the ’53 Chevy grille eneds with the chromebullet mounted.
CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-p1-24Front end boy work is all done, and I just put the grille in place to see how it looks. I really love the look of it.


In the next Memo Ortega Stories,¬†Memo will show more on his 1951 Mercury… stay tuned.


Part Twenty One…¬†coming soon, stay tuned.
Go back to Part 19.



( this article is made possible by )





Rik Hoving

Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what's going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)

3 thoughts on “Memo Ortega Stories Part 20

  • Another great story Memo and a truly great looking Merc.
    I dig the fact that you do things the way you want and not because some one else says it’s cool.
    Can’t wait for the next Chapter.

  • Memo…. I really enjoyed reading this section of your story. Great looking merc . I like my enchiladas the same way you like yours. I wish I had my car repainted so we could get together and take some pictures of the mercs. Joe and I have always had a good laugh about the ” merc grills “. ūüėČ

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