Sixty years ago this month, one of automotive history’s most radical looking factory experimental vehicles appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. Looking as though the entire top had been shorn off save a single, shark-like fin directly behind the driver, the “Mermaid Merc” was unlike anything else ever conceived or designed up to that point. Built specifically for the 1957 Daytona Speed Trials by Bill Stroppe and other Mercury crew/team members, the Mermaid was created for one reason—speed.
It was the age of tailfins and cars that looked like spaceships and airplanes, arguably one of the most unique eras in terms of automotive design. The late 1950s saw some radical design ideas being executed by some of the largest automobile manufacturers in the country. And while a lot of these ideas never made it past the “dream car” or concept phase, some design and engineering elements first seen as fantasy did eventually find their way into production vehicles.
Of all the fine finned cars of the late 1950s, none was quite as radical looking as the 1957 Mercury Mermaid. It’s a car that, to this day, still manages to surprise with its utterly unique look. Operating under the “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” mentality, auto manufacturers were constantly looking for ways to improve their product, both from a stylistic standpoint and the ever-increasing need for speed.
It was during this time that standard production cars modified for racing began pushing the limits of what was previously thought possible, and nowhere else was this more prevalent than on the beaches of Daytona. Here, cars with engines that could push upwards of 400 hp raced along the smooth sand, reaching speeds of up to 180 mph.
Space Age Streamliner
Created by the legendary Bill Stroppe and associates for the 1957 Daytona Speed Trials as a factory experiment, the Mercury Mermaid was built to go as fast as possible and look great while doing so. Looking a bit like a boxy Jaguar D-Type on steroids, the Mermaid featured a giant tailfin just behind the driver and an almost completely flat, enclosed cockpit built by Eddie Kuzma. The car was thus made as aerodynamic as a chrome laden domestic land barge of that era could be without modifying the lower half. In other words, the Mermaid was the automotive equivalent of something of an inverted mullet-style haircut with the party (racing) up top and the practical (business) down below.
Arriving at Daytona for the Daytona Speed Trials in February 1957, the Mercury Mermaid was an immediate showstopper, its radical look backed by an equally impressive amount of speed. By removing the car’s interior and windshield and installing a small, single driver’s side cockpit with an equally small windshield in its place, the Mercury’s team shaved a great deal of weight off the vehicle while also cutting down on the car’s drag. Stroppe and team flexed some serious muscle on the drivetrain by shoehorning in a Hilborn injected, bored-out 387 cubic inch Lincoln. On the beach, driver Art Chrisman pushed the car to a reported speed of 180 mph to prove that all those crazy looking design features were not simply for show. For whatever reason, the 180 mph top speed was not repeated and thus didn’t capture a speed record for the week. However, Chrisman captured second place for a standing mile record of 93.47 mph.
As with so many other iconic concepts, the Mermaid Merc was used in a number of promotional efforts by Mercury dealers before ultimately being parted out. The car has since been faithfully recreated and, whenever it appears on the show circuit, still manages to draw a crowd with its one-of-a-kind look. We recently spotted the recreation at this year’s Carlisle Ford Nationals.