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     Turnpike: (1) A road, such as an expressway, for the use of which tolls are collected. (2) A main road, especially a paved highway. – Merriam Webster Dictionary

Yet another study says larger vehicles are safer on the highway.

If true, then I need to make a trip to the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo to check out one of the safest automobiles ever made — a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, all 4,400 pounds in resplendent canary yellow.

Of all the big, beautiful cars built in the 1950s and ’60s, the ’57 and ’58 Cruisers stood out as revolutionary in design and technology.

Named for the new Interstate Highway System that had started construction in 1956, the Turnpike Cruiser, with its V-shaped fins and Merc-O-Matic transmission, was designed to take advantage of long, open stretches of road.

It boasted electric seats – “seat-o-matic” that included memory activation for different drivers. A retractable rear window called “breeze-way” ventilation and the push-button drive, located on a pad left of the steering wheel, were as cool and cutting edge as you could find.

But the Turnpike Cruiser had much more going for it than the latest creature comforts. It had size and muscle.  My older brother’s 1958 Cruiser allowed me to examine all aspects of this highway phenomenon.

Teen-age boys today don’t seem all that interested in what’s under the hood of their cars and why would they? Today’s cars look alike, make virtually no noise, and can’t be worked on without a computer. But when cars were metal and chrome instead of plastic, the most fascinating part of any given day – other than girl watching — was popping the hood and seeing what was underneath. The Cruiser’s standard power plant in 1957 was a 368 cubic inch engine, which was upped to a 383 in 1958. A 430 was available as an option.

Sometimes, when my brother was in a hurry to get home and I was riding shotgun, the Cruiser’s high tech speedometer, which looked like a thin, red neon line on the dashboard, would creep effortlessly to the right and fall off the end of the spectrum. No problem.

Inside, the Turnpike Cruiser was cavernous, and could accommodate three or four Minnesota Vikings linemen in the backseat.

Today, detractors say, yes, those big cars offered some advantages, but without airbags, they wouldn’t be as safe. And at 14 miles per gallon, they can’t compare to today’s vehicles.

Perhaps. And yet, style never goes out of style.  And class is always classy.

That’s why the Turnpike Cruiser, and some other cars of its era, is today called a “classic.”

June 14, 2017