Ocean City —
The Other Woman.
That’s the name Joseph Palermo gave to neighbor Byron Mercer’s Buick when Palermo restored it.
That is because the 1955 Century took that much of Palermo’s time and Mercer’s resources during the year it took to restore the car.
The broad, black and white car was returned to its former glory between the spring of 2011 and March of this year. It includes as many of the car’s original features as possible.
Photo: David Nahan
The Fireball V8 engine that powers the 1955 Buick Century.|
Now drivable, the Buick is a blend of two centuries with restored red and black leather interior, part new and part original, white-walled tires and a number of old-car quirks.
The car’s engine doesn’t start when the key is turned. Starting the engine requires turning the key in the ignition and then hitting the gas pedal because that’s where the starter button resides
A tube radio – not transistor – supplies the car’s music. Mercer has the original radio tuned to an oldies station and it takes a few moments for the music to come on after Mercer hits the button while driving down Asbury Avenue in Ocean City. A guy driving by gives him the thumb’s up.
Before the year of hard work began, the car’s unique and no-longer-manufactured features were seen only by a privileged few.
Mercer kept the car, an heirloom passed down from his parents, in a cedar garage at his Ocean City home from 1985 to 2011.
Palermo, who owns Preferred Automotive Specialists in Jenkintown, Pa., moved next door to Mercer 10 years ago. He was instantly drawn to Mercer’s garage.
“My hope at the time was to see if it was maybe empty so I could rent it, and Byron said, ‘you know, there’s a ‘55 Buick in there,’” Palermo said. “I was interested in what was in that garage, but he would never show it to me.”
Mercer laughed as Palermo explained it would be seven or eight years before Mercer allowed Palermo into the garage.
“There was a car there with all four tires flat, but not in all that bad condition,” Palermo said.
The pair decided to get the car running again.
They got to work.
Palermo, armed only with hand tools, spent hours at a time in Mercer’s garage, while Mercer supplied Palermo with the history of the car.
The car cost Mercer’s parents just over $4,000, the price of a house at the time.
Though the car was valuable, Mercer, who was then a young man, often chauffered his parents.
His mother never had a driver’s license, Mercer said, and he helped drive the car in its first expedition: a vacation to see family in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The car also made road trips to Williamsburg, Va., and the Shenandoah Valley, which spans Virginia and West Virginia.
After attending the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts), Mercer began a career in Atlantic County. He eventually settled in Ocean City, and worked until retirement in the advertising department at the Ocean City Sentinel.
His parents, who lived in Lawnside, Pa., eventually followed Mercer. They purchased a summer home in Ocean City and moved to the area permanently in the mid-1960s.
Mercer, his wife, and family also lived in Ocean City at the time. Eventually, Mercer and his family moved in with his parents when they had health problems.
Mercer and his family remained in the house after his parents’ deaths. The car in the garage stayed with Mercer.
Mercer and his wife drove the car until 1985. In the 30 years the car was actively used, it accrued 71,000 miles.
“My wife had a car (and) I had a car so we didn’t need to drive it,” Mercer said about retiring the Buick. “Before my wife passed away, she was sick for about three years. She made me promise to take care of the car and fix it. I kept my promise.”
Palermo and his team began the labor of love last spring.
“The car needed a lot of work, but before we began I began trying to acquire the sensitive parts we needed, so I began looking into the history of the ‘55 Buick,” Palermo said. “I found that back in its day, this was a pretty big engine. It had this new thing on it called a four-barrel carburetor. At the time it was revolutionary, and at that time the police, the California Highway Patrol, used that engine.
“All this information (helped when it) came down to the meticulous finishing touches. For example, I learned that there are certain chrome emblems on the car. Inlaid in between (the chrome), in the little divots on the chrome, was red paint,” Palermo said. “When I saw the car, the paint was long gone. We went through great lengths to find the paint we did it with,” Palermo said. “All of the little things went into making the car as aesthetically correct as it possibly could be.”
The paint on the car’s engine had also worn off.
“No one makes it anymore and it’s very hard to match,” Palermo said. “We literally had to take a chip and have it made.”
All of the car’s mechanical work was done first, which included several minor repairs and work on the car’s original engine and transmission and replacing the air filter.
The leather interior was completely removed and re-stitched, using a combination of the original leather and new, matching leather.
The car’s clock has its original face, but behind it, the clock’s broken springs were replaced with a modern clock.
The battery was also replaced when Palermo worked on the car in Mercer’s garage.
“Mechanically the car wasn’t too bad,” Palermo said. “I really had a lot to work with.”
With that completed, Preferred Automotive Specialists moved on to the more cosmetic work.
The car’s bumpers and all of its chrome were removed and the Buick was sanded down to bare metal.
Palermo sent the car for a high quality paint job at Maaco Collision Repair and Auto Painting in Philadelphia.
Once the car was painted, the Preferred Automotive Specialists team realized that the original clips that held the chrome to the car were too old to be put back on the car.
Much like the paint, those clips like that aren’t made anymore either, Palermo said.
Palermo found a shoemaker to make the clips.
“With all of these little things it was two steps forward, one step back, and it’s like how are we going to solve the next problem?” Palermo said.
Palermo said that Preferred Automotive Specialists does between two and three antique car restorations a year. Mercer’s car is the oldest Palermo and his team ever worked on.
For Palermo, all of the effort is worth it.
“These cars are a lot more than something you took out of mothballs,” Palermo said.
“I began to realize this isn’t just a car, not to Byron anyway. I don’t even think heirloom does it justice.”
“It’s like a member of the family,” Mercer said.
Palermo and Mercer plan to enter the car in several area antique car shows, including the upcoming Antique Auto Show in Ocean City on June 23. Cars will be at the Ocean City Tabernacle between Fifth and Sixth streets from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. At 2 p.m., cars will head to the Ocean City Boardwalk for a parade.