Sunday, June 23, 2024
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MERCURY RISING – ROBERT DICKSON 1950 MERCURY COUPE

For a number of years now I have been told, overheard and also written stories that include the pitfalls of buying classic cars from overseas. Either purchased after pouring over photographs at length, or forking out extra cash for an independent evaluation, even the most knowledgeable enthusiast can be deceived. This one of a kind Mercury coupe owned by Robert Dickson falls within the second category, but thankfully was resurrected by a few good men into the stunning custom gracing the pages before you.   

Way back when Rob swapped his first set of wheels, a Toyota Corolla, for a brand new VN Commodore V8, his fate with healthy motors was set. “I loved the jump in power,” he fondly recalls. “I started my own cabinetry business and swapped the VN for a WB one tonne ute with a 253 V8. In 1988 I employed Big Al, who was building a 1939 coupe ute, it was he who sparked my interest in hot rods and I fell in love with the build process. Along the way he let me drive one of his mate’s 1935 Chevys. It had a 350 with a supercharger! I loved it, I was hooked. I just had to find a shape I liked!”

The shape that finally won Rob over and eventually led to an offshore acquisition, is the time honoured 1950 Mercury coupe. Who can blame him? History documents that the cream of customs has been the desire of hot rodders, customisers, cruisers and film stars for decades. He just had to find the right one.

Luckily for Rob a mutual acquaintance was bound for the land of Stars and Stripes on a buying trip and in a casual quip, he asked him to keep an eye out for one. In no time flat, Rob was about to become the proud owner of the perfect version of his daydream coupe, until negotiations hit a brick wall when the Merc’s dealer divulged that it was in fact already sold. All was not lost, the no sale unearthed a second coupe from within the dealers circle of friends that, tempted with the right amount of folding green, could sprout a for sale sign. With a report card detailing only small amounts of rust spots visible on the exterior and a thorough check of the hoisted undercarriage, it got the tick of approval and Rob coughed up the cash to secure the customised Mercury.  

“To be honest, when I first picked it up from the shipping yard, I was less than impressed. Yes it drove and it was shiny, but it looked better in the photos,” he laments. 

Despondent with his new wheels, he sought guidance and valued help from Big Al and together they achieved Rob’s major goal at the time… rego!  After that major box was ticked, Rob felt like king of the kemps and went cruising. Unfortunately, Rob measures in at six foot, two inches and hunching over the wheel for any length of time became a pain in the neck… literally! Scalloping the seat bottom and attaching braces to the headliner were band aid solutions that he could live with for a while, but the decaying paintwork and unpredictable reliability forced his hand to seek professional help.

“I went for a drive and it flooded and just gave up, leaving me stranded on the side of the road one day,” he explains. “Luckily my wife drove past with the kids and together they pushed me home.”

The next trip for the carked out custom was to Rotunda Revival. If you are not familiar with this automotive restoration establishment, check out Cruzin issue 161 for a behind the scenes tour of this unassuming workshop, staffed by a band of creative car lovers with parallel passion for vintage tin and quality workmanship.

By chance, Rob’s cabinetry skills intersected him with builder Peter Emmett (co-owner of Rotunda) on a building site, and being cut from the same oil soaked cloth, they exchanged car stories and kept in contact. “When he (Peter) opened the business (RR) I dropped in and showed him some photos of the car,” Rob says, “but I didn’t do anything about it until that day when it stopped. After being let down by a car a few times, it gets annoying. I work hard with my own business and don’t have the time to be playing around with it in the shed, just getting it to run right.”

At the time, Rob’s initial intention for his forlorn Ford was to repaint the shell and freshen the motor, but once they started digging at the coin sized rust spots, the deal went from disappointing to downright disastrous. As the paint (and bog) came off, it uncovered a multitude of hidden sins. 

“The inner sills were almost non-existent, outer sills weren’t much better, floors needed to be redone, inner and outer guards needed to be repaired, panels were pop riveted over other panels and then punched inward to allow a good helping of bog stick,” he says with a disapproving chuckle. One major disappointment was the roof chop, executed by joining the new stretched profile with a six inch strip of sheet metal that created a valley between the front and rear crowns. More bog filled the void, up to three quarters of an inch in some places! Assessing the corrective surgery required to address the carnage, the Rotunda crew rolled up their sleeves and attacked the molested Merc with all arsenal and talent available.

Unable to live with the misaligned rear screen, the entire assembly was cut from the body shell and repositioned eight millimetres back towards centre. It was also perfectly aligned horizontally,   compared to its former one sided droop. After the previous welds were removed, it was re-welded into the braced body. Rotunda pride themselves on achieving the best for their clients with quality workmanship and cutting no corners. Once all body repairs were completed, every new weld was finished with lead and no body filler. Bog be gone!  

As you can imagine, the time frame for resurrecting the custom coupe was no quick fix, giving Rob plenty of time to think about areas other than body and paint. When purchased, the power plant was your garden variety 350 Chevy, but Rob wanted to put a Ford back in this Ford. After contemplating a blower, he listened to experienced advice and settled for an injected FoMoCo mill. A brand new 427 crate fitted the bill, topped with Inglese injection. The idea of a real street sleeper appealed to Rob and I think he nailed the brief.

“The Ford Racing engine was a collaboration between Scott (Nosworthy) and I,” Rob clarifies, “what I didn’t get for it, he found. He’s a whizz at finding stuff on the computer and pretty handy at piecing all of the (motor) components together.”

Backing up the ballsy Boss engine, Rob chose a late model BTC computer controlled auto transmission from a late model XR8. Geelong-based DTM Automatics refurbished the modern gear selector with a 2,500 stall converter that’s now controlled by a Lokar stick.

Final drive train component consists of a ’69 Camaro third member that came with the car. While the chassis was treated to a sand blast and fresh paint, Keysborough Diff’s popped a new limited slip centre with 3.7 gears into the Camaro housing. Rob felt that the original rebuilt GM brakes at the rear were up to the task, but up front he elected to install a new set of discs from Hopper Stoppers. Bringing all the binders into play, a Corvette master cylinder and seven inch GM booster is activated by the stock pedal assembly.

Before the body was reunited with the freshly finished frame, Rotunda outfitted the chassis with reset springs, new bushes, rubbers and shocks, providing better than new bounce to the 65 year old platform that was spared from air bag alterations.

“I toyed with the idea of bagging the Merc, but the guys at Rotunda explained that it would open a whole new can of worms and to be honest, I love how it sits as is.”

With the body massaged back into the shape of a desirable super model; that of a fresh 1950 Mercury, Rob had to step up to the plate with a paint palette. After considerable consideration and collaboration, the final hue to grace the slippery sled is a custom mixed blend of HOK Wild Cherry. Concocted in house at Rotunda, the almost black appearing exterior teases onlookers with a glimmer of its rich cherry centre if the light is just right. Like vine ripened fruit perfected by Mother Nature plucked at its optimum peak, the finish is flawlessly intense.  

Garnishing the gorgeous exterior, a combination of owner laid scallops and tasteful pinstriping was adorned by gifted brush master, Shane Abbott. “I met Shane through Andrew (Hutchinson) at Rotunda, we sat down and discussed a brief of what I wanted and I let him go. The gold leaf was his idea and wow, what can I say except it’s brilliant.”

There are so many elements of Shane’s artwork that embellish the Mercury’s exterior and interior, it’s hard to take stock. Perfect pin lines surrounding painstaking hand laid gold leaf inlays with perfect alignment, and that’s just in the door jambs. Further validation of the man’s true talent is visible on the CNC-milled valve covers, where after he paint filled the carved Mercury motif, he freehand detailed the Mercury man’s famous head onto the oil breather…. on both sides of the engine. While in the engine bay, note the fully dressed Ford power plant is highlighted by the oyster flaked firewall which receives an encore performance on the dash. Nice.

Although a tasty treat underneath the 4 ½” lowered lid, the main course of Rob’s custom cockpit is the lush interior. Sculptured from Andrew Muirhead Leather in Pillar Box Red by Emmanuel Bazzano of The Trim Shop, the stunning creation airs on the edge of opulent while fulfilling all functional requirements effortlessly. Thanks to a reworked 1967 Lincoln front seat, Rob’s head doesn’t connect with the red suede above. Underfoot, deep maroon Wilton wool carpet tempts barefoot cruising, whilst the addition of air conditioning provides year round comfort for all on-board occupants.

Complementing the two tone dash treatment, Rob let his imagination run wild, piecing together the perfect combination of elements to create the made-to-order steering wheel by CON2R. This is a new concept where customers can choose their own combination of components to build a steering wheel to suit their car. Pleased with his configuration, Rob remarked that it was delivered in its own felt lined box and parking cover.

Naturally Emmanuel’s fastidious threadwork extends into the trunk space where it is refreshing to reveal a full sized spare wheel for long haul cruising. Setting the rolling stock stance, a quartet of traditional old school 15”x6” chromies are wrapped in Coker Classic wide whites with bullet centres. 

Taking in the outstanding view of the overall package with its lakes pipes, Appleton spots, white walls and killer paint, the most notable component insisting that this customised Mercury will never be mistaken for any other, is the grill and rear bumper. When Rob first conceptualised his rendition of the ever popular custom, he was challenged to be individual. “I remember my mate, Big Al saying to me that everything in hot rodding has been done before! That started an explosion of ideas to create something different and a few of them made it onto this car.”

For the record, Big Al is a bullet nut and I have on good authority that his coupe ute has them everywhere. This is obviously where Rob’s inspiration came from, but the process and accomplishment is a pure triumph. Love it or not!

“When I conjured up the bullet grill idea, I made a drawing. At the time we had some metal spun for a job that we were working on, so I approached the guy with my design and dimensions. His only concern was the pointy tip, so we blunted it and he had a crack. Using two millimetre thick mild steel, he made a tool to form the shape against and made it work. The centre bar was rolled to my dimensions then die punched several times to form the shape and radius that I wanted. I fabbed some brackets to hold it all in place and sent it to the chromers.”

A pair of bullets incorporated into the rear bumper, acting as overriders, complement the high calibre grin. Showcasing the new brace of bullets is a mesh styled grill backdrop, reminiscent of expanded mesh that became popular with early customisers. A turret punch filled with several custom dies was used to perforate sheet steel to form the mesh. Each hole was struck five times to create a repeated pattern deliberately penned to resemble a gun sight capping off the bullet influenced theme. The fine cast flying eyeball is Rob’s nod to the immensely talented Von Dutch who he holds in high esteem. It’s just another detail amongst many that are only discovered after spending time studying the car and not just a passing glance.

“The two year rebuild at Rotunda was probably one of the best things that I have done,” Rob concludes. “The skill, knowledge and design sense they encompass is amazing. I am a perfectionist at what I do, and to find a group of guys with the same values was fabulous. During that time we shared a lot of laughs and beers. To me that’s what hot rodding’s all about.”

“I would like to thank Big Al for guidance, my wife Anita and family, and of course all at Rotunda. In its new incarnation, the Mercury just makes people smile. I couldn’t have asked for more than that.”

Although he didn’t ask, Robert’s magnificent Merc scored Top Custom and 1st Radical Custom on debut at the 50th anniversary Victorian Hot Rod Show this year, compounding that it is more than just another custom Merc. This is a number one a chart topper… with a bullet.

BY DALE HABERFIELD, PHOTOS MILLBROOK STUDIO. FULL FEATURE CRUZIN #175
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