SOMETHING ABOUT A MERCURY
Frenchy’s Mercury was a rare Monterey, these were the deluxe models of the voluptuous 1949-51 Mercury’s rolling off the line. He bought it in 1956 and almost immediately he began to restyle his Mercury.
By Larry Pointer
Alan Jackson sang it. Mercury had that Something. The very essence of Sex. When those voluptuous 1949 models of the marque rolled off the line, America fell in love. But hardly had we caught our breath, than California craftsmen took a good song and made it better. And no Mercury, before or since, captured that Something better than the Bob Hirohata 1951 Merc, transformed by brothers Sam and George Barris into exquisitely excellent sculpture.
In 1955, James Dean cruised into our lives in a nosed and decked black ’49 Mercury. “Rebel Without a Cause” left us restless, and lusting after a long, low Mercury.
Yes! There is Something about a Mercury.
It only follows that this series of Conquistador Car Club reminiscences would turn to Frenchy Holbert’s 1950 Mercury. This Wyoming custom didn’t even start out as just any Mercury coupe off the backlot. Frenchy’s Merc was a rare Monterey. These were the deluxe models, dressed up to steal the show from the classy hardtops General Motors had released. The Monterey had a vinyl covered roof set off with chrome trim. Their interiors sported leather seats, color coordinated to match the special Monterey paint options. And then there were those highly coveted chrome window garnish moldings and special steering wheel.
Frenchy picked up his low mileage Monterey in 1956. It was gorgeous to start with, Cortaro Red Metallic, with a black vinyl top covering. But almost immediately he began to transform his Merc, not far behind fellow Conquistador Jack Bushmaker in the remake of his ’47 Chevy coupe.
First on his list of alterations, was to drop the Merc “in da’ weeds”. A coil was cut from each front spring, and lowering blocks dropped the rear. At the risk of expressing sacrilege, I have to say the Mercury those days before power steering, took some power to steer them. And when the front springs were torched, they would bottom out against the rubber bumpers mounted on the lower A-frames. Even when you hack-sawed the tops off of the bumpers. A choppy ride resulted, and you could tell a lowered car in the Fifties from some distance, by the bounce in the ride. Bless the man who created the dropped spindle.
As can be seen in the photographs of Jack and Frenchy’s cars in 1957, sitting side-by-side in the low light of late afternoon, areas of black primer draw the eye to the early body alterations to the Merc. People always are looking for “firsts” to set their world in order, and in the customizing world it is no different. The “little pages” of Honk!, Car Craft, Hot Rod and Rod & Custom passed along new styling cues back in the day, and those pages are key to us today in tracing innovations. “First in our town,” Frenchy frenched 1953 Buick headlight rims onto this 1950 Mercury Monterey. Right after that, he trimmed down a ’50 Mercury grille shell and flipped it upside down to create a full oval grille opening. Looking at the car head-on, an integrated sculptural theme is realized. And strongly emphasized by the rounded contours of that incomparable Mercury hood.
Frenchy standing with his 1950 Mercury parked next to Jack Bushmaker’s 1947 chopped Chevy coupe.
I have to confess here that I spent countless misspent Chemistry classes doodling drawings of Frenchy’s Merc with its horizontal oval grille flanked by vertical headlight ovals, and topped by curvaceous fender caps and hood.
Something about a Mercury!
Keeping to the oval theme, front to rear, 1952 Buick tail lights were molded into the rear fenders where the original Merc lenses had ridden. (Frenchy was working in the Buick dealership right out of high school.)
Frenchy next replaced the flat Mercury side trim with a 1952 Chevrolet spear, extending from over the front wheel opening, back across the door. At a lower level, just above the Merc fender skirts, he added the ’52 Chevy rear fender spear. As things progressed, Frenchy would add a guidecoat of black lacquer to cover the primered work until the entire car — including the roof that had been covered in vinyl — now stood out in black. Finally, a unique double-curve chrome trim piece lifted from a 1955 Oldsmobile was placed upside down and backwards on the bodyside below the forward Chevrolet spear. Then, with a custom mixed lavender, he painted the lower panel that had been partitioned off by the Olds trim.
Late afternoon photos with long casting shadows. Frenchy’s Merc was the first to use the oveal 1953 Buick headlights in our town. They looked so like they belonged there.
Both cars had a Conquistador plaque hanging from the rear bumper.
The taller fellow on the left is Jack Bushmaker. The shorter one on the right, with the “lowrider” jeans, is Leroy “Frenchy” Holbert (our “Fonzi”).
While work developed in a piece-meal fashion, there was nothing hap-hazard in Frenchy Holbert’s approach. Every change integrated into a well-thought-out plan of design. Looking back, I fully believe that LeRoy “Frenchy” Holbert possessed true artistic genius.
I haven’t been able to locate photographs taken of Frenchy’s Mercury Monterey in later progressions of its transformation into a custom car of the mild class, but I did save my sketchbook from back in the daydream days. It’s a pretty accurate amateur rendering, save for the Larry Watson Grapevine ’53 Chevy grillebar with added teeth. That was, well, artistic license on my part.
One of Larry’s sketches of Frenchy’s Mercury Monterey pretty much how it looked in its final version. Larry changed the grille in his drawing to look more like Larry Watson’s Grapevine… a very popular custom from the time the drawing was created.
Frenchy did add a grillework to fill the oval void. By this time, he had moved from the Buick bodyshop to the Cook Ford shop, where Jack Bushmaker’s ’47 Chevy had been transformed. There, he trimmed a 1958 Ford grille of expanded metal meshwork to fit.
When the old flathead gave up the ghost to leave Frenchy afoot, fellow Conquistadors came to the rescue. A 1953 Dodge donated its “baby Hemi” to the cause. Club President Bob Prill, learning the business at his father’s sheetmetal shop, fabricated an adapter plate to mate the Hemi to the Mercury 3-speed with overdrive. In the driveway of a local fireman (Harry Schwartz’s then-girlfriend’s dad), a tripod was set up with a chain hoist and the huge Hemi was nestled into its new home. Frenchy came away with two more “town firsts”, a Hemi in a Merc and with that heavy Hemi, a slight “California rake” at the same once.
All good things come to an end. Frenchy came to covet his father’s ’55 Thunderbird, and sold the Merc to fellow Conquistador Larry “Mo” Frazier. In turn, Mo sold it to Calvin Lawrence, older brother of our Conquistador Ed’rd. Calvin, the custom Mercury Monterey, and Frenchy’s old girlfriend all left town together.
Something about a Mercury.
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