1949 Mercury: The "lead sled"
What do super-hero crime-fighter Batman, Hollywood icon James Dean, hot rod customizer Sam Barris and IHRA pro modified driver Johnny Rocca have in common?
The common link connecting these disparate personalities is the 1949 Mercury, often referred to in its customized form as the "lead sled."
The 1949 Mercury offered a radical design that appealed to post-war drivers looking for a new ride. The '49 offering was a departure from the make's standard offerings and was remarkably well received. In its "natural" stock form, the car even hit the silver screen. A stock 1949 Mercury convertible served as the Batmobile in a live action movie serial.
Featuring aerodynamic lines as part of its unique appearance, the '49 Merc was also an immediate hit with those searching for a great look for their hot rod. The late Sam Barris, a well-recognized innovator in hot rod customization, is credited with the first makeover of the lead sled. He appreciated the design of Mercury's new offering, but determined the car would look even more impressive with a lowered top. His chopped Mercury grabbed attention and soon customizers from coast to coast were modifying their cars.
Of course, lowering the top was not the only adjustment customizers made to the car. Chrome was often stripped and the cars were frequently lowered until they hovered just inches above the pavement. Also, hot rodders were prone to adding custom hubcaps, fender skirts and grills from other vehicles.
Those modifications, combined with its sleek design, earned the '49 Merc the nickname of "lead sled." Modifiers patched the holes left after their chop jobs with lead, leading to the unique moniker. The smooth lines of the '49 lead others to christen their hot rods as "bathtub cars."
The result of customization efforts was almost always impressive. The 1949 Mercury soon became almost symbolic of the hot-rodding craze. Its reputation as the top custom hot rod of the era was cemented in 1955 when James Dean hopped behind the wheel of a customized Merc in the now-famed film, Rebel without a Cause.
Dean drove a slightly modified version of the stock automobile in the movie. His character raced a Mercury stripped of chrome and outfitted in a flame-throwing paint job. The impact of the film was, of course, tremendous and helped push the popularity of drag racing and hot rodding. Dean, the 1955 epitome of cool, became so associated with the 1949 Mercury that many took to calling the lead sleds "James Dean cars."
The 1949 Mercury ranked sixth in total sales for the model year, and car enthusiasts snapped up slightly over 300,000 lead sleds. Despite those impressive sales figures, the popularity of the 1949 Merc as the basis of a custom car makes it nearly impossible to find an "unchopped" version on the market today.
The flat head V-8 engine is noted for its smooth operation and brisk acceleration. The car was capable of reaching 60 miles per hour from a standstill in 7.8 seconds. The 350 cubic inch engine produced 380 bph of power at 5,100 rpm and a fairly impressive 380 lb./ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm. The lead sled rolled out of Detroit with a three-speed automatic transmission. The 1949 Mercury was also one of the first automobiles offered with an optional overdrive, which was a true innovation at the time. By today's standards, the '49's suspension is a bit soft and the car does not handle particularly well when cornering.
Mercury offered the 1949 release in four distinct models. In addition to a four-door sports version, dealers could outfit Mercury drivers with a six-passenger coupe, a two-door station wagon or a six-passenger convertible.
One should not confuse the use of the word "lead" in the Mercury's moniker as an indication the car lacked get-up-and-go. Off the line, these James Dean cars were capable of hitting 120 miles per hour and hot rod enthusiasts were more than capable of increasing the sleek vehicles' performance.
As recently as 1999 IHRA speedster Johnny Rocca was able to pilot a 1949 Mercury to the pole position in at least two pro modified IHRA events. His souped up lead sled ran the course in only 6.272 seconds and topped out at an impressive 220 miles per hour. Over 50 years after its introduction, the 1949 Mercury was still showing hot rodding aficionados that it was a serious competitor.
Due to its historical role in the hot rod world and the classic James Dean film that featured it, the lead sled has developed an immense cult following. Experts state that buyers should expect to pay at least $85,000 to $150,000 today for a “perfect” 1949 Mercury.
Few vehicles have ever achieved the lasting popularity and notoriety possessed by the 1949 Mercury. Whether one prefers to call them lead sleds, James Dean cars or bathtub cars, they occupy a unique place in automotive history. The 1949 is a true hot rodding classic.