Ben Mahony's MERLOW Mercury lead sled is a real life tale of basket case to best-in-show
This article on Ben's Mercury was originally published in issue no.17 of Street Machine's Hot Rod magazine
AT THE 2016 Kustom Nationals, Ben Mahony was blissfully cruising the Phillip Island circuit enjoying the event with his recently-finished ’49 Merc – when things got interesting.
“I heard my name called out over the PA,” says Ben. “I had no idea what was going on, I actually thought it was a gee-up.”
Nope, Ben had been summoned to the main stage to be presented with Top Kustom overall.
“They asked me to give a speech,” says Ben, “I was so stunned, so taken aback, I was literally speechless, I never expected to win.”
And before you start thinking MERLOW is a container sailor, the extraordinary thing is, it was built pretty-much single-handedly, in a one-car Melbourne garage.
Ben initially spotted a four-door Merc advertised on the HAMB. After contacting the seller, it came to light he also had a ’49 coupe — which took Ben a full 12-months to convince him to part with
And if that’s not impressive enough, before tackling the mammoth build, Ben had never attempted a project of this magnitude before. Sure he’d screwed together a few sweet streeters, but nothing that needed so much metal sculpting and fabrication. Grab a beer and a comfy chair, while we tell you a story.
“I’d always wanted a ’49 Merc, I like their nice, round bum,” says Ben “This probably got in the way of my better judgement, as I really should have known better after the seller would only send very selective photos.”
Despite not heeding the warning signs, Ben sent a wad of his hard-earned off to Savage, Minnesota, USA. Some weeks later, the true horror revealed itself.
“Apparently it had sat in a swamp for a long, long time,” says Ben. “The bottom 12-16 inches of the car was missing – there was absolutely no floor. Regardless I still thought it was worth the money, as everything else I looked at was top dollar and still needed good money spending on it.”
With the Merc in his Melbourne garage, Ben began scouting around for someone to tackle the body work and chop.
“A few said yeah, yeah; then took one look at the car and I couldn’t get them back on the phone,” says Ben. “Others wanted $20K just for the chop alone. I couldn’t afford that!”
Its difficult finding chrome platers willing take on die-cast, as it’s notorious for forming surface blisters that go ‘pop’. Glen Gleeson Plating, Bungarra Northern NSW eventually came to the rescue and did a great job – especially on the rare DeSoto grille teeth
Fed up, Ben decided to tackle the mammoth task himself, having picked up modest fabrication skills on his previous builds. Besides, how hard could it be? What could possibly go wrong?
As with almost any problem, the internet is your friend. He researched how other people had chopped their cars, collected a mountain of photos before eventually tracking down an old, old, old VHS instructional video. It was a three-hour, blow-by-blow tutorial on the finer points of creating a beautifully-proportioned chop.
Ben’s obviously a very good student, as MERLOW’s line from roof all the way down to the rear bar is bellissimo!
“It was measure four times and cut once,” says Ben. “I spent hundreds of hours, eyeballed everything countless times to make sure the roof sat level, the front and rear screens were straight and angled just right.”
All the old timers say you have to use oxy, however Ben reckons in 2016, a MIG works just as good if you know what you’re doing. The key is to go slow; tack then cool, tack then cool.
“I spent hundreds of hours tacking,” says Ben “You can’t just weld it. The moment you put in too much heat, it warps and gets out of hand. You end up having to cut the whole lot out, or trowelling it full of bog. That’s what I was worried about buying a car already done. I preferred putting my time and money into something I know is right.”
Despite the presence of a Sanden a/c compressor, the 350 Chev in MERLOW’s engine bay looks like it could have been dropped into place in the 60s thanks to the nostalgic, Cadillac-style air cleaner
At the end of it all, Ben was quite rightfully rapt with the result, which included rectifying a lot of the factory inconsistencies and imperfections.
“The body is the best it’s ever been,” says Ben. “I spent 10 hours just on adjusting the bonnet. I had to machine tiny shims to take the slack out of the hinges, so it would open and close the same every time.”
A lot of virtually impossible-to-get parts were also missing, which was a big problem as there’s virtually no reproduction stuff available. Mint steering wheels fetch up to $4000, while DeSoto grilles are another case in point. Ben paid $1500 for his 11 DeSoto teeth in rough ’n’ ready condition and minus the lower die-cast section that holds it all together. He thought it was a bargain and jumped on them, as he’d seen people asking $6000 for complete sets that needed restoring!
The tail-lights are original, however the factory reflectors have been converted into amber blinker lenses. These were created by cutting the centre section out of a round, universal Hella trailer light
The rear quarters were the only repro panels available, every other repair and patch panel had to be made from raw sheet. As for tracking down many other scarce parts, Shoebox Central in the US proved invaluable: “If they didn’t have it, they knew where to track it down,” says Ben. “Little things like a good glovebox lid — they managed to source me one complete with a lock and key!”
To enable Ben’s lanky six-foot-one frame to fit inside the hammered Merc, Mark Shaw Trimming played around with different thickness seat foams before re-covering the factory Mercury front pews. Even with a scratch-built rear seat, the slope of the roof has rendered the rear an adult exclusion zone
Being an auto electrician, MERLOW is above and beyond in that area. Engine bay wiring is discrete, there’s a full Accuair E-Level set-up along with power windows operated by the factory crank handles converted to operate as switches. The original window mechanisms were missing or broken, requiring new set-ups to be engineered from scratch.
Suspension wise, none of the original stuff remains. Up front are Jamco upper and lower control arms linked by Mustang stub axles — which facilitated the use of ’67 Mustang GT four-spot Kelsey-Hayes calipers. Out back the 10-inch chassis kick-up incorporates a Cal Custom universal four-link set-up that was grafted onto an EB Falcon BorgWarner disc-brake diff. Airlift 2500 (front) and 2600 (rear) bags enable MERLOW to live up to its name.
The interior also sports a host of fabrication work. The dash bezel was finessed to accommodate the Auto Meter gauges, while the master cylinder, booster, a/c unit and wiper motor were all tucked up under the dash. The vents were tastefully incorporated either side of the Dakota Digital gear-shift-position indicator — which also provides tell tales for the blinkers, high beam and red light. Mark Shaw Trimming provided the excellent leather and stitch work, which included the custom made hood lining that fits to perfection.
There’s lots of metalwork inside as well; the panel in which the a/c vents now reside was originally a speaker grille which was filled using an old glove box lid. Ben also machined the bronze claw setting that holds the big, red, glass ruby sitting atop the shifter
With all the fabrication completed, good friend Tom was enlisted to help massage the panel work into shape before rolling the Merc into the booth for its coat of metallic pearl Ford Merlot — which really gives the Merc the classic 50s look Ben was chasing.
The build took bang on two years, with Ben adamant MERLOW was never meant to be a prize-winning show car: “I built it to load up the wife and kids and head for a cruise down the Peninsula,” says Ben.
“The child restraint points in the back were in there from the beginning and even though the kids’ seats have stretched out the leather, I really don’t see the point of building something you can’t take out and enjoy.” Can't argue with that logic.
His Kustom Nationals success certainly came out of the blue. After which his friend, Peter Unsworth, convinced him to enter the Vic Hot Rod Show – where the ’49 came third to the two killer 50s Mercs of Les Sherry and Rob Dickson.
Nonetheless, MERLOW’s accolades are proof positive that this is one sled that’s a cut above the rest.
IN THE BUILD
“Chopping a roof is like taking an upside down bowl, cutting a slice out of it, then trying to join the two halves back together,” says Ben. “Nothing lines up. The front pillars aren’t too bad, but there’s lots of pushing and pulling to get the rears into shape. You’ve also got to spread the roof as you go – all while creating nice flowing lines. Because of this, you start by taking out a three-inch slice, but you end up having to take more out of the rear to get the pillar to sit back on itself. I don’t think there’s a chop in the world, that hasn’t had more taken out of the back than the front.”
If you look very quickly, the car doesn’t look too bad. However, 26 years sitting in a paddock prone to flooding wreaked havoc on the lower sections of Ben’s baby
There’s badly rust ridden and then you step up to this level of decomposition. Is it any wonder it made a couple of professional body guys run for the hills
The suspension’s bump stops were set-up so that the rails didn’t hit the ground when MERLOW was aired out. Check out the interesting tubular Jamco A-arms that bolt up to the factory suspension mounts
Before relieving the Merc of its turret, the body was extensively braced with one-inch, by one-inch, RHS square tubing to ensure it maintained shape while in pieces
Note the tape on the ends of the pillars – they’re the guides for the cut lines
Chopping the top not only changes the height of the openings, it invariably also changes their length – as graphically shown here. Getting these proportions right is the key to creating a great looking custom
Getting everything to go back together is like assembling a giant, ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle
All the cut lines in the turret are to spread it out so that the pillars could sit back on top of each other
Rather than this being his maiden effort, anybody would think Ben was a professional metal maestro who’s been chopping tops for years
1949 MERCURY COUPE
Colour: Ford Merlot
Engine: 350 Chev, 010 four-bolt block
Carb: 600 Holley
Ignition: MSD billet dizzy, 6AL-2, Blaster coil
Cooling: Dual thermo fans
Diff: V8 BorgWarner
Front: Jamco A-arms, Mustang stub axles
Rear: Triangulated four-link
Airbags: Airlift 2500 (f), 2600 (r), Accuair E-Level
Brakes: Mustang K/H four-spot (f), EB Falcon (r)
Rims: 15-inch steelies, ’57 Caddy Hub caps
Rubber: BF Goodrich Silvertown Radials
Seats: ’49 Merc
Wheel: ’49 Merc
Column: Ididit tilt
Gauges: Auto Meter Vintage Series
Tunes: Pioneer CD/Tuner, 6in splits, 12in sub
Three-inch chop, Frenched headlights, hand-made spats, DeSoto grille, custom grille pan, new floors, shaved door handles, door locks, boot and bonnet