By Justin Houston
Perhaps no automaker has had a more powerful influence on promotional models than Mercury. Yet, the irony is that Mercury was never considered a player in the field of traditional promotional model cars.
Promotional model cars had established a strong foothold in Detroit’s marketing strategies by the late 1950′s. Indeed, the arrival of the 1959 sales year saw the introduction of Rambler and Mercury, the last two US automakers to invoke the popular annual plastic replicas.
Why did Mercury stay out so long? Given the shaky marketing decisions at Ford during the early postwar years, it’s a wonder Mercury even got involved at all.
History does reflect the concept that cars selling well don’t need much in the way of promotional efforts, and Mercury was no stranger to this ideology. Between 1949 and 1954, Mercury had risen from 7th to 3rd in sales, right behind Ford at No. 2 and Chevrolet at No. 1. But, like the anonymous tinkerer whose invention was made popular by somebody else who took the credit, Mercury was the initiator of many of the accepted styles of promotional auto models we take for granted today.
For example: Can you identify the first ‘promo’ used as a color demonstrator? How about the first promo to function as a coin bank? And what manufacturer first tried cereal premiums to create brand loyalty? And who offered the first promo of an Indy 500 Pace Car? If you answered Mercury on all four, you’re right!
Prewar automotive promo cars came in both rubber and pot metal. The rubber versions, at a standard 3” to 5” in length, were also sold in retail toy stores in much the same way the friction models were in postwar years. Both styles were highly detailed and many came with dealer imprints or sales slogans, but – like their print-ad counterparts – they were done in bright, garish colors the actual cars never saw.
At its outset, Mercury was simply a division within the Ford Division, and not the distinct separate line of cars it became a year later. Accompanying the successful launch of the Mercury in 1939, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company produced the first Mercury promotional model. In the form of a 5” rubber 4-door sedan, its distribution was limited to people who attended the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco.
The following year, Ford explored the possibility of a promo that would do more than just be a toy with a sales pitch. The Straits Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Michigan brought forth the first “promo bank”, with a word-play on the Mercury car name and the popular ten-cent piece. Called the Mercury Dime Bank, the car – at industry standard 5″ length – was cast in a highly detailed aluminum single-piece body with wooden tires mounted on a stamped steel chassis. “MERCURY EIGHT” was boldly embossed on each side of the car’s hood. A slot ahead of the windshield allowed dimes to be dropped into the car. When the car was full, the bottom trap was permanently removed, allowing access to the accumulated coins.
Ford decided that as long as the cars were metal, they might as well be painted in actual car colors, and the first promotional model car as a color demonstrator kit was conceived. The Mercury Dime Bank has appeared in all eight 1940 Mercury colors.
Like their postwar descendants, these were also sold for showroom displays or goodwill distribution. And, like many later promos, they were reincarnated as toys after the sales year concluded. These later toy versions came in generic colors, such as the green shown here, but featured a reuseable coin trap.
After the World War II hiatus, Mercury promotionals returned in 1949 to be produced by National Products, which continued production of the 4-Door Sedan. These were molded in heavy, slush-cast pot metal. (The name comes from the method of pouring molten metal into a mold.) When the 1950 Indy 500 loomed, Mercury contracted with Banthrico’s National Products to produce leftover ’49 and new ’50 sedans in Mirada (Pace Car) Yellow with roof-mounted graphics, thus initiating a tradition of Indianapolis Pace Car promos that remains to this day. Unlike Indy promos in later years, these early Pace Car replicas were never distributed to dealers or customers, but only to select invitees attending the annual Pace Car Party, held each March at the Indianapolis Athletic Club. Each guest would find one of these promos at his reserved seat at the dinner table. Because this was a media event, only the automotive press was invited – few, if any, manufacturer or dealer representatives were ever expected to be seen at a Pace Car Party. The sole purpose of this special dinner was to announce which manufacturer had been chosen to pace the coming Indy 500 Mile Race in May. This was one of the premiere events around Detroit, and one for which every high profile editor of the day hoped to receive an invitation. These early Pace Car promos were produced in quantities limited to the number of attendees expected at the annual dinner and even today, are rarely found in private collections. (By comparison, later Pace Car promos were distributed to dealers and as direct-mail promotions for consumers, often in record numbers.) Either Pace Car is considered extremely rare and is usually regarded as the rarest and most desirable of pot-metal promos.
While not a true promotional at the dealer level, Banthrico Industries of Chicago, Illinois (the parent company of National Products) nevertheless released a Mercury 4-Door Sedan under the tradename Autobank, which was distributed exclusively to financial institutions. These were nicely cast models made of pot metal and finished in sometimes attractive but generic colors. The bright work was highlighted by use of stencils in the same fashion as the National Products cars of recent years had been. These Autobanks were 1/25 scale and are as highly prized as the later plastic promotionals are.
Banthrico’s Autobank returned with the new body design, again as a 4-Door Sedan sold only to banks and savings and loan associations.
1954 saw an innovative new marketing campaign with the placing of miniature 3-inch plastic Montereys in breakfast cereal. Models included the Monterey Special Custom Sport Coupe, Monterey Special Custom 4-Door Sedan, Monterey special Custom Convertible and the handsome XM/800, an experimental show-car. Six colors included a general assortment taken from across all of Ford’s 1954 lines.
The Banthrico cars appeared again, now as a Monterey Sport Coupe. Faithfulness of detail was starting to weaken, as Banthrico began losing its edge in the industy to the plastics.
Banthrico’s final Mercury edition was the 1/25-scale 1955 Monterey Sport Coupe. While now almost toy-like in appearance, these none the less command intense collector interest today, as demonstrated by their prices on the collector markets.
This year hobby-kit maker Revell of Venice, California produced the first highly-detailed Mercury to come as a polystyrene plastic model assembly kit, the Monterey 4-Door Sedan. These ’55 and ’56 models were both made in 1/32 scale – larger than the cereal models but smaller than the Autobanks. This proved to be a popular item and it reappeared for ‘56 as the Montclair Phaeton with a dramatic increase in both production and sales. Both of these were offered to dealers to sell or give away to potential customers at a cost of $7.65 a dozen. A single, full-assembled and painted display model, mounted inside a clear plastic display case, was available to dealers for $2.00 and arrived with two figures seated in the front and an open hood with detailed V8 engine. On the bottom a mirror reflected the nicely detailed undercarriage.
Between 1955 and 1957, Mercury had slumped from 3rd in sales back down to 7th. In desperation, Mercury finally appeared in 1959 with traditional plastic 1/25-scale promos, manufactured in Tenite by the AMT Corp. of Birmingham, Michigan. AMT would continue to build Mercurys through the 1960’s. Dealers were offered a full range of Parklane colors at a price of $14.60 per dozen hardtops or $15.80 for convertibles. The price differential was not reflective so much of labor efforts as it was of the popularity of convertibles at the time. All were equipped with a metal chassis and a flywheel motor. Companion versions were sold by toy and hobby stores in generic colors and as unbuilt styrene customizing kits. Kit versions would survive the factory-built models, as collector prices escalated in later years.
AMT continued to produce the Parklane 2-Door Hardtop and Parklane Convertible in a full range of colors. Each body style – hardtop or convertible – was available for $12.80 per dozen. Dealer versions now came with an improved fully detailed plastic chassis replacing the metal chassis with flywheel motor. Companion versions sold in retail stores came as customizing kits or with the metal flywheel chassis.
Mercury launched the first luxury compact with the independent Comet brand in the spring of 1960. A Sultana White Comet 2-door sedan was offered for a 25c direct-mail campaign to showroom visitors who attended Comet’s March 17 announcement. Dealers also had the option of ordering 2-door Comets in a 12-pack assortment. However, very few of these were sold, since most participating dealers had already purchased Parklanes for their color demonstrators. Today, they are rarely seen in colors beyond Sultana White. On the other hand, the Comet 4-Door Sedan was sold in retail toy and hobby stores as non-flywheel “coasters” in proper colors, but wasn’t offered to dealers.
19611961 Monterey 2-Door Hardtops, Convertibles and Comet 2-Door Sedans appeared in dealer’s showrooms in a full regalia of colors. Direct mail versions of Comet and Monterey hardtops were marketed to previous purchasers of Mercurys, many packaged with an assortment of sales stickers. These could be optionally applied to the outside of the car’s body and touted the car’s new features. This idea was cloned from De Soto, who came up with this questionable marketing tack in 1959.
Early Montereys going out to dealers in advance of announcement day were still molded in Tenite. But Dow Chemical Corporation’s new Cycolac was instituted in time to save the Comets and direct-mail promos from warping.
Mercury promo production declined after 1961 and some of their rarest and most sought-after promos were produced between 1962 and 1964.
Mercury’s mid-size intermediate, the Meteor, appeared in 1962 as a 2-door sedan in their full range of colors.
Dealers received both Monterey 2-Door Hardtops and Convertibles in a full range of colors. Direct-mail programs continued for the 1962 Monterey hardtop which, introduced mid-year, utilized a body and separate hood molded from kit dies in Cardinal Red.
The Mercury Comet 2-Door Sedan continued in its full range of colors.
In 1962, the Comet was absorbed by Mercury as its compact line of cars. Comet’s marketing strategies shifted slightly and Comet began targeting fleet buyers of economy cars with direct-mail incentives. A special limited-issue Sultana White Comet 2-Door Sedan promo, mounted on a wood base, was distributed to potential fleet buyers to stimulate sales.
1963 was Mercury’s final offering of the complete color demonstrator line and Mercury’s final year for a convertible promo, as production was scaled back. Except for the mid-sized Meteor, no hardtop promos were produced this year. The Maurader 2-Door Hardtop, a welcome addition, appeared mid-year as a hobby kit on retail store shelves but was not offered to dealers.
With deeper cutbacks, color selection was axed to six hues. The Parklane Breezeway was an innovative item which appeared along with the Comet Caliente in dealers’ 1964 merchandising materials catalogs. The Parklane Maurader was released mid-year as a direct-mail 25th edition model, in Anniversary Silver using kit dies and separately attached hood. All appeared only as 2-Door Hardtops. As cost increased to $15.00 a dozen, demand went down resulting in production cuts that surpassed ’63 levels. As a result, all 1964 Mercury promos are exceedingly rare. Any Parklane in particular is highly sought after.
The 1965 and ’66 Mercury Parklane 2-Door Hardtop each appeared in six colors. The highlights of the 1965 line were 2 limited, special-issue promos, one of the 5 Millionth Mercury and one for the Bing Crosby Golf Tournament. (In previous years, the Tournament had been sponsored by Oldsmobile.) Both were finished in Ice Blue. The Comet went dark for 1965.
The Comet – missing in action since 1964 – was resurrected for ‘66, due to the Cyclone GT Convertible having been chosen as the Indy 500 Pace Car. It made news both as a dealer’s item in six colors as well as a direct-mail slot car kit, molded in Cardinal Red, complete with electric motor and decals. Factory assembled ’66 Pace Cars appeared in Cardinal Red with white graphics and Polar White with red graphics. Only the red car is accurate; although the actual Pace Car was a Convertible, the pace car promos came only as Hardtops.
Factory-built models by AMT went on hiatus this year, as the Parklane was dropped. The Cyclone, after a brief introduction as a hobby kit, was also dropped. The Cougar, while not available to dealers in 1/25-scale as in prior years, was still produced as a hobby kit with Mercury Division still picking up the tab.
The Cougar was also aggressively launched with both a 10” plastic promo and as a cereal in-pack promotion at its 1967 debut. Cost of the handsome 10” model via direct mail was 50c postpaid. The identical cars were also sold at retail for $1.95. The larger car appeared in 4 new Mercury colors and the cereal cars were done in five authentic colors and one generic green.
The large-scale model was offered the following year with subtle 1968 detail changes and sold only in retail toy outlets.
1969The final cereal-box promos Mercury sponsored came as a beautiful 24-piece collection of models and colors. The Cougar, Cyclone CJ, Maurader X-100 and Marquis were accurately replicated in 3-inch plastic models and available in six factory colors. They were only distributed “in-pack” and were no longer available by mail, making the acquisition of the complete set a lengthy, difficult undertaking.
Body detailing was typical of that expected from cereal premiums with hood and trunk badges and scripts clearly articulated.
Dealers were not provided with copies of these, but their marketing materials encouraged them to talk up the program with new-car prospects.
1969 marked not only the end of a decade but signaled the end of an era, as the entire industry experienced widespread rising costs and a downward spiraling market for toys and models.
In 1970, The Comet-bodied Cyclone appeared as a plastic hobby kit and was not available to dealers. Like the other hobby kits that evolved from promos, it is included here because of its importance to the genre of promo collecting.
By 1971, the Comet reappeared as a dealer promo. Based on the Ford Maverick body platform, creating the new Comet as a promo was a simple task, as the Maverick marked the first Ford product produced by Jo-Han Models of Detroit. Sadly, the Comet was the first victim of Jo-Han’s cost-cutting measures, and was molded in non-glossy styrene plastic. Appearing in three colors, it was repeated the following year with no changes to detail or color. No indicia appears on either the models or the packaging to indicate year model, but the 1972 versions had a clear-coat applied to spruce up the dull finish and are exceptionally rare, if you can identify one.
Mercury Cougars remained in production annually as 1/25 hobby-store assembly kits through 1973. Because these dies were never updated to newer models, the 1973 continued to be re-issued at the retail level.
Mercury’s final effort at model-making was the 1979 Capri plastic kit sold at retail stores. As a real car, it was based on the body platform of the new Mustang. This model is an MPC model molded in silver metallic.
1979 Mercury Capri molded in Silver Metallic.
The Miss Teenage America Series
In 1961, the Annual “Miss Teenage America” Pageant was begun, sponsored by Mercury who issued Comet and Cougar promos (usually in white or turquoise) with pink/white “Miss Teenage America” door badges. The promos for this event were issued from 1961 through 1967.