LAKEWOOD TOWNSHIP – Tom Maruska is certainly not shy about a challenge when it comes to restoring classic vehicles.
But his last project, a one-of-a-kind 1956 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser, is in a class of its own.
The vehicle was badly rusted and completely disassembled, in addition to still having its wheels attached, when Maruska purchased it in 2018 from another car enthusiast in Ojai, California.
Nonetheless, he recognized the potential of the old show car, enough that he shelled out $100,000 for the distressed automobile and the multiple bins of uncataloged parts that had been removed from it. Before purchasing it, he sorted through enough of the mixed components to assume that the majority of the original and most critical parts were still there.
Much of the damage to the vehicle occurred while it was left parked outside at a Detroit lot, where it was vandalized and then exposed to the elements for years, long before another car enthusiast classical seizes it, with the intention of restoring it himself. But he never succeeded and knowing Maruska’s interest in the vehicle, he agreed to sell it to her.
Maruska arranged for the car to be driven back to his home in Minnesota, then began the arduous task of ringing the body and putting a complicated mechanical puzzle back together.
It didn’t help that there were few references to consult. The one-off concept car had been custom designed and assembled to take to the motor show circuit and gauge public interest in it before inspiring an actual, heavily dressed production model with fairly similar lines in 1957.
But this wasn’t Maruska’s first rodeo.
He had restored a 1954 XM-800. (XM stands for “Experimental Mercury.) This car, too, never made it to production and didn’t even have a working engine when it was first rolled out. times to gauge public reaction to the design, which was only fueled years later.After falling into the talented hands of Maruska, the restored and functional vehicle sold at auction in 2010 for $429,000 .
As for the XM-Turnpike Cruiser that Maruska plans to auction in January, he said it “should cost north of $1 million. At least, I hope it does.”
Several prominent classic vehicle auctions in the Phoenix area attract car collectors from around the world at the start of the year. Maruska has yet to decide which auction to attend, but said he has received several inquiries expressing interest in his XM.
Maruska noted that the market for restored classic cars has heated up in recent years, fueled in part by ultra-wealthy buyers willing to pay top dollar for something unique.
For this very reason, Maruska has avoided opportunities to show the vehicle, knowing that a “contest virgin” will be more valuable to many collectors looking to turn heads and make an impression.
Maruska has now brought 22 tired old vehicles back to their former glory, including a dozen Thunderbirds, and that number continues to grow, as does its reputation. At 73, he said he has no plans to give up on his painstaking restoration efforts, although he admits to being a bit slower to get back upright when rolling his vine under a undercarriage these days.
Maruska said he always enjoyed working and considered it a hobby, although serious and expensive, which also kept him active.
“Otherwise I would be sitting around the house watching TV, eating crisps and getting fat,” he said.
Over the past three and a half years, Marsuska, who previously owned and ran a flooring business, estimates he’s put in at least 6,000 man-hours restoring his latest XM.
Probably the biggest challenge was fixing and replicating rusted parts of the car. In all, 13 sheets of 18-gauge sheet steel, 4 feet by 8 feet, were restored.
Although some publications suggest the vehicle had a 1955 Mercury convertible chassis, Maruska discovered that it was actually built on a 1954 F-250 chassis. The hand-built car was so beefy it sported 11 blades in its rear spring suspension, instead of the three-leaf spring found in typical vehicles of the time.
The folks at Mercury certainly didn’t skimp on the chrome either when they designed the Turnpike Cruiser. Maruska said he was lucky to have acquired all of the original detail parts with the vehicle, but needed to have them rechromed.
Luckily they were brass, not steel, which would have corroded with the body of the car. He hauled some 220 pieces to AIH Chrome in Dubuque, Iowa for plating at a total cost of about $80,000.
The vehicle features a unique pair of butterfly windows – plexiglass panels in the roof of the car that automatically tilt when triggered by an open door to aid in entry or egress.
Although the original windshield is long gone, the previous owner knew people in the automotive industry who created a clay model of the swept-up piece of glass, which was then used to produce a plaster cast which Maruska inherited when he purchased the vehicle. With the help of this mould, Maruska was able to get a new, custom-produced windshield.
The side glass was flat and he was able to get it cut locally at Zenith Auto Glass in Duluth.
The car’s other curved windows were Plexiglas, although they were badly discolored after decades of exposure to the elements. Maruska said that for years he had relied on one store to supply custom plexiglass, but the owner had passed away.
Left to his own devices, Maruska decided to tackle the job himself. He made plaster molds of the old windows and then used them to fashion new duplicates.
“I got two free electric stoves on Craigslist and took them apart and put them together to make an oven big enough to put these butterfly roof sections in,” he said, showing the end result.
Maruska acknowledged there was a learning curve involved and said he went through quite a bit of plexiglass before dialing in the exact temperature and technique needed to accurately replicate the original windows.
The car has its original 292 cubic inch engine, but was rebuilt at Midwest Engine in Duluth. And Maruska redid the transmission himself.
However, he modified the engine compartment a bit. All components except the engine itself had been painted to match the original bodywork.
“Everything was orange in there, and I just couldn’t do that,” Maruska said.
The original vehicle was missing a few parts, including an air cleaner and intake, as well as a pair of carburetors and valve covers. Maruska replaced the Thunderbird valve covers but removed the bird emblems, replacing them with those from a 1957 Turnpike Cruiser to restore the vehicle to its original appearance. Other parts he fabricated and replaced as needed to restore the engine bay to its original look, minus the orange paint.
Maruska is already moving on to new projects, including a 1965 Corvette and a 1964 Amphicar, his fourth restoration of the German-built amphibious car.
One of Maruska’s meticulously restored Amphicars sold for over $124,000 in 2006, setting a record auction price that remained unheard of for over 15 years until April of this year when someone another sold one of the original vehicles for $161,700.