Hot Rodders fell into one of two camps in the early fifties: those that favored the cheaper, and faster ’32 Fords or the lead sleds that chose to customize their cars by shaving the moldings and handles on the exterior of the cars. Both groups were looked down at by the mainstream society but the lead sled group were viewed as total delinquents and subversives.
James Dean’s performance in “Rebel without a Cause” put an exclamation point on the brooding, subversive, teen-age angst the country was experiencing as the post war industrial revolution continued to explode.
The Barris Brothers’ Hirohata Mercury set the tone for lead sleds with major modifications. The Barris’ 1951 Club Coupe Mercury was decked, shaved, the top was chopped, giving it a sinister kustom appearance.
Because of work like the Barris’ Merc sled, the Rebel Without a Cause’s Mercury Eight worked well with Dean’s character in the movie despite being a typical 1949 9CM six-passenger coupe. The car’s subversive nature added to the mystic when Dean was killed in a car crash before the movie was released. This elevated the car’s natural appearance to an even more sinister presence.
The 1949 Mercury was so popular as a customizer’s vehicle that Mattel created a Hot Wheels model in 1990 of a 1949 chopped Mercury called “Purple Passion.” It is reportedly one of most desirable and priciest Hot Wheels to ever be cast.
The 1949 Mercury Coupe James Dean drove in the movie is part of the permanent collection at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. The museum is located south of Truckee River, with most of the vehicles displayed from the collection of the late casino owner William F. Harrah. The museum was once known as, and frequently still referred to as, the Harrah collection.
- Engine: L-Head V8 255ci
- Carb: Holley 885 two-barrel carb
- Horsepower: 110
- Wheelbase: 118.0-inches
- Length: 206.8-inches
- Curb Weight: 3,500-pounds