Classic Sports Car
WHERE THE MERCURY RISES
Built for a record-breaker and used to tour the trenches by movie star George Formby, this unique Mercury has had a varied career
Jack Phillips samples a unique station wagon, coachbuilt to serve the stars
The black-and-white footage flickers to reveal a skinny soldier tumbling out of a shop, the owner appearing close behind, brandishing a broom and reeling off tirades in French. The gag that follows in strong but squeaky Lancastrian tones is simple but the chuckle infectiously raises a smile, still 80 years later, and an army of soldiers quickly crowds around asking him to “sing us wind-uhs”.
George Formby obliges, wielding a banjolele and flashing a toothy grin, and some of the three million troops he played for during the Second World War are suitably entertained.
Formby had numerous stints in France and, performing for the British Expeditionary Force in 1940, being evacuated through Dunkirk and returning to France as dusk fell on the D-day landings to play at Montgomery’s request for paratroopers, he was in many ways among the first in and last out. Not just of the entertainers – at times he crawled through trenches, so dangerous was it to sing so near to enemy lines.
During the war he still starred in films, performed in Aldwych underground station for those taking cover in London and headed much farther afield, too, venturing south with the Eighth Army to Africa via the harsh Mediterranean. He did so in a certain style aboard this unique Mercury Eight, originally built at the behest of Sir Malcolm Campbell.
The great record-breaker and tip of the famous family tree had retained a close eye over the car’s construction in 1939; as head of the UK arm of Lincoln, like Mercury a subsidiary of Ford, he had commissioned the car personally. What arrived direct from Dearborn was a threespeed Mercury Eight, launched only that year, with a 3.9-litre V8 and already in right-hand drive – hence the ‘F’ stamped on the chassis plate beneath the bonnet catch.
Blue Bird K3 had come to the end of its career with three Water Speed Records under its hull and was being replaced by K4. What better crew vehicle than a rugged estate that could carry six people, and whose seats could fold flat to form makeshift accommodation for the night? Longestablished coachbuilder Windovers produced the unique square-back lugger, retaining the distinctive, almost boat-like prow of the Eight behind wraparound bumpers.
But 1939 was no year to be chasing such frivolous pursuits, and the onset of war restricted the speed king’s efforts to a solitary record attempt on Coniston Water in August that clocked 141.740mph. Campbell’s team of mechanics led by Leo Villa didn’t have the luxury of the Mercury by then, perhaps still being clothed by the Royal-approved coachbuilder.
The Mercury marque had been launched in 1939 to split the difference between Ford and Lincoln-zephyr, its sole 99A Eight model designed: ‘To extend Ford-lincoln standards of mechanical excellence, progressive design and outstanding value to a new price field.’
The period advertisements could each have been a prescient catchphrase for what Formby would later subject his modified model to. ‘Action!’ exclaimed one, while others suitably declared ‘It’s time to roam!’, ‘Maybe this is what you need!’, ‘So we headed the Mercury for Sun Valley!’ and ‘We matched our Mercury against the Painted Desert!’.
It was targeted at just about everyone, with some unsubtle ads aimed at elegant women with silk scarves flowing gracefully in the wind, in a country still releasing itself from the grip of the Depression and the threat of war a distant Old World problem, an Atlantic away. Slotting into that mid-range arena would give Ford a shot at the whole population, rather than the top and bottom of the market. The Mercury would be more powerful and more expensive than the Ford but cheaper than the Lincoln, with a comfortably torquey 95bhp flathead V8 and hydraulic brakes. The Edsel Ford-devised brand boasted with its 1940 Club Convertible of being far ahead of its first-year popularity records, with a range of two- and four-door bodies on offer.
None were quite like Campbell’s, though. Not only was the spacious body unique, but the
suspension, too, because it had been under the eye of Leslie Ballamy. A specials builder, he devised a split-axle front suspension for Ford Pops and Austin Sevens that formed a crude early independent set-up. Campbell had it installed in one of his own racers, and it found its way beneath a Grand Prix Bugatti and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Delage, among other things.
The Mercury, meanwhile, today carries a solid front beam and what magic Ballamy wrought in period is now lost to history. Campbell wrote to Ballamy in September 1940, congratulating him on the suspension he had kindly fitted, apologising for the delay because he wanted to test it fully. ‘It fulfils all the claims you have made for it and I am delighted with the results achieved,’ he wrote from his Great West Road base. It also had rifle racks at that point, because correspondence in 1990 from the late Ballamy stated that it was intended for war use.
The car came into Formby’s hands following a charity event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1943, where he and Campbell met. They would have had plenty to discuss, not least Brooklands; Campbell’s exploits at the Surrey temple of speed are well known, but Formby was the first to lap at 100mph in a V12 Lagonda. A specific claim, but impressive nonetheless for the certified petrolhead: an Aston 2 Litre Sports, Bentleys and Rolls-royces all graced his garage, but his weapon of choice was reputedly his Hillman.
The Mercury, suggested Campbell, would be ideal for Formby’s upcoming tour: 53 days away with the sun-beaten and terrain-ravaged troops, straight off the set of Bell-bottom George. According to David Bret’s biography, A Troubled Genius, Formby had initially asked the Entertainments National Service Association whether he could go on his motorbike to better keep up with the columns of troops. The ENSA denied him the privilege. It did, however, sign off on the taking of the Mercury and Formby added a tent for his valet and pianist. The brackets on the running boards remain as testament to that fact. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers added chunky tyres and, with paint, reduced the glass area to help them cope with the relentless sun, but ENSA hadn’t accounted for the V8’s thirst. Bret writes that a gallon eked out a 15-mile best – so much for the advertised claims of ‘Thrills and Thrift!’, and hence the excess of body-coloured jerry cans everywhere you look in the boot and on the body-mounted brackets
Prior to shipping out, Formby acclimatised himself with the big sand-coloured wagon on the roads around Blackpool. It likely wouldn’t have taken long. The cabin is instantly comfortable, exuding something indefinably homely – those 53 days it spent as house and home have left an impression that remains today. Because the bulbous wings provide so much of the car’s width, the cabin feels a perfect size; there’s space without the anxiety of clouting a corner off.
The flaking painted cream wheel is well placed and comfortably angled on its arrowstraight column, matching the metal dash, and the unmistakable smell of an army-navy store hangs heavy. The small letterbox ’screen is close, though today cracked, and the dials look as if they are a caricature of the era. The font on the deep crescent speedo is distinctive – it could almost have been lifted from period Hollywood films of two-tone brogues and trilbys.
The seats have at some point been retrimmed, but not in a way that jars with the endearing patina. There is a faint Morris Minor Traveller air to the car, but precariously pumped up, and you suspect that changing gear would be more
‘The flaking cream wheel matches the metal dash, and the unmistakable smell of an army-navy store hangs heavy’
“Obviously we could make quite a lot of money in Canada,” said Formby, “but I felt that the Middle East would be more of a job of work”
to pass the time rather than achieve anything particularly meaningful.
The car supposedly took in three tours, but that gruelling 53-day enduro is best recalled. Formby’s notoriously tough wife, Beryl, didn’t allow him the liberty of keeping a diary. Inexplicably, nor did she record the trip, according to Bret, except with terse retorts to some press back home. It took in Morocco, where he sang impromptu off the plane, plus tankstrewn Tunis – “it was the hottest climate we had ever struck” – and from Northern Africa to Italy and Sicily, where he met Chelsea centre-forward Alex Jackson. “Isn’t it funny how you meet people in strange places?” Formby said, after Jackson introduced himself as the welfare officer. Malta, Gibraltar, back to Africa and across to Palestine followed, and some 750,000 beleaguered troops were entertained. In Moss Bros suit, with ENSA badges to complement the Mercury’s, he could have gone to Canada instead. Yet he has been quoted as saying: “Obviously we could make quite a lot of money in Canada, but I felt that the Middle East would be more of a job of work. The last time Basil [Dean, ENSA founder] suggested Canada, I felt I was needed more at home; we all expected the Blitz to be starting again, and the Canadian audiences were a long way from the battlefront. Our lads out there in the desert could do with a little entertainment, and my word, they deserved it.” His impact is thought to have been unquantifiably important.
His loyalty was reciprocated by the Eighth Army, fittingly for the Mercury, which made him their mascot. Despite George and Beryl being deserted by the Eighth in Catania – they had more important matters at hand, after all – they latched back up in Naples and ate with General Montgomery. On the way in the Jeep-led convoy the Formbys saw some native soldiers hit a landmine, bringing the perils to the forefront of their minds. By October, and returning home, they’d each shed a stone. A set of ENSA boxes in the back of the car, some with skeletons of film reels, recall the trip, while each window retains thick blinds, held up by hooks and eyelets.
Following its long, arduous tour Formby sold the car to Earl Peel in 1946, and it was pressed into service on grouse shoots. By the 1970s it was still active with a hotelier in the Lake District before it entered the Sorn Collection. Robert ‘Bobby’ Mcintyre used his cars, once venturing from Ayrshire to Devon just to buy a Facel Vega HK500, and in 1986 the Eight visited The Netherlands on a Military Trust tour. Supposedly partial to the odd halfshaft, it returned on an AA flatbed. Then a hot runner, the flathead V8 was replaced by a period-correct unit, its colour a fitting shade that matches the ‘Bluebird’ script above the ’screen and only adds to the roundness of this special car’s story.
With Mcintyre it remained until the end of the ’80s when it was sold by Sotheby’s to Keith Schellenberg, who had been taken by its story. It was perfect for travailing his Isle of Eigg, and he was persuaded to part with it after years of trying by collector Graham Greenwell, who is renowned for keeping historical vehicles relevant and running. The door fell off when he opened it, but was soon refitted and the car’s travels continued as it visited as far as Norway, fragile but perfectly good on motorways, by all accounts.
Whoever stumps up the required £25-30,000 with H&H on 14 April has the added pleasure of trying to fill in those gaps agonisingly left by Beryl during their incredible tour. Though perhaps the buyer should roll it from pedestal to hangar at the Duxford venue. Because while the passing of time has dulled some of the links to those sand-swept days, it remains a monument to Formby and the likes of Gracie Fields’ own war efforts when other performers remained in the relative safety of home.
And though his bravery pales alongside the sacrifices of the men he entertained, with banjo under arm and tales wagging, it shouldn’t be underestimated the courage it must have taken to drive this Mercury from site to site, night after night within the faux-safety of its thin coachbuilt walls. Formby initially volunteered for military service, only to be caught literally flat-footed.
His pluck wasn’t reserved for wartime: touring South Africa, he refused to abide by segregation and wouldn’t play to split venues. And the couple was vilified for hugging a toddler bringing them chocolates. Beryl later softly asked National Party leader Daniël François Malan: “Why don’t you piss off, you horrible little man?”
Forget restoration, this unique Mercury deserves to be preserved as much as any multimillion-pound rarity. If not more. But maybe clean its wind-uhs…