- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

In 1951 Tom Pilot was on the brink of driving age in Johnstown, Pa. He still remembers the new Mercurys in town, their colors and who owned them.

Almost 50 years later, Mr. Pilot, now living in Rockville, Md., received the surprise of his life. One of his sons, Jeff, through a third party, learned that a local man had inherited a dark green 1951 Mercury four-door sport sedan.

During the time that he had had the Mercury, the now-deceased owner evidently invested a substantial amount of time and money in the car, which was not appreciated by his heir.

Early in November 2000, Jeffrey Pilot bought the Mercury as a surprise for his father. The first order of business was to clandestinely drive it to the house of a co-conspiring neighbor.

There it could be safely stashed out of sight until Thanksgiving, which was planned as the appropriate moment to present the surprise.

Hiding a 3,550-pound Mercury is not easy. For his granddaughter Isabella’s first birthday on Nov. 11, 2000, Mr. Pilot stopped by his son’s house to deliver an armload of birthday balloons.

He took his son aside and asked him if he knew that one of his neighbors had a 1951 Mercury in the back yard. There was just a sliver of space between the house and garage where the car was visible from the road, but that’s all it took.

At that point, Mr. Pilot’s son responded with, “Here are the keys, Dad.” Mr. Pilot was as light-headed as the helium-filled birthday balloons he had just delivered.

Mr. Pilot needed no instructions on how to operate his new old car. His right hand slid the ignition key in place and turned it as his left thumb pressed the starter button. The 254.4-cubic-inch flathead V-8 — fed fuel by a two-barrel Holley downdraft carburetor — roared to life, prepared to deliver 112 horsepower.

It had been many years since Mr. Pilot had steered a car with a shoulderwide steering wheel. The black, two-spoke wheel is highlighted by a 360-degree chrome-plated horn ring. Mr. Pilot says he misses a right-side mirror when it’s time to back into the garage and on multilane highways.

The four-door sport sedan was by far the most popular 1951 Mercury with 157,648 manufactured, about 5,000 more than all the coupes, convertibles and station wagons combined.

On the trip home he noticed the steering was somewhat loose. He’s going to have to check if it really is loose or if that’s the way it was in 1951.

Even with a 118-inch wheelbase and independent front suspension, the Mercury isn’t nimble. “You need a city block to make a U-turn,” Mr. Pilot says.

The interior has been reupholstered using some of the last of the original fabric.

When new, the Mercury carried a base price of $2,000. The car was delivered with no radio, but did have a heater, fender skirts, front bumper guard overriders and, most importantly, an overdrive unit.

The initial problem facing Mr. Pilot when he got the car home was a perforated exhaust system. “It was loud, but sounded good,” Mr. Pilot says; nevertheless he had a new exhaust system installed.

Stainless-steel plates eliminate paint scratches at the door handles. Adding glitter to the total package is the exhaust deflector and the full wheel covers on the 7.60x15-inch-wide white-sidewall tires.

Mr. Pilot’s 1951 Mercury is the last Mercury model to have a two-piece windshield.

Although Mr. Pilot’s Mercury is equipped with a manual transmission, 1951 was the first year that a Borg-Warner three-speed Merc-O-Matic automatic transmission was available. The speedometer tops out at 110 mph.

Last autumn he was caught in a rain storm while showing his car at the Rockville antique car show. He and the Mercury left the show and he was treated to the delight of watching vacuum-powered windshield wipers in action.

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