This Mercury Marauder Is One Man’s Hand Built Legacy
Photography by Ted Gushue
You know that feeling you get when you shake someone’s hand and can immediately tell that they’ve seen and done more than most men will ever experience? It’s a certain texture, a firmness to the grip, an honesty to the calluses. It’s not overbearing or intimidating, more reassuring in the sense that even in the face of uncertainty, everything is going to be ok.
I shook Steve Dauria’s hand for the first time the other day. I saw his car at the Art Center Car Classic that we sponsored a few weeks ago. It stood out from the crowd of hand built tributes to the European design legends. Unlike them it wasn’t a car penned by Bertone, Vignale, or Guigiaro. It was a simple, honest Mercury that looked like it had more than a few tricks left up its sleeve. Standing next to his car he carries an interesting looking cane for reasons we’ll get to further down in the story. What’s his cane made out of you might wonder? A used titanium hip joint he bought off a doctor pal of his.
Steve and I got in touch and as we chit-chatted about what he was up to in his little garage in Monrovia, I knew that it was going to make a tremendous story to share.
Ted Gushue: You strike me as someone that’s seen a lot of life, Steve. What can you tell me about how you got here today?
Steve Dauria: I grew up here in Southern California. I was always interested in cars from a very early age. I used to keep my pedal car covered with a sheet. They just didn’t cover cars back then and my mother knew I was strange. Then cars became a driving force. As a child I built car models and then was introduced to the car world by one of my friend’s fathers. He sold race tires for Firestone and took me to a man’s shop close by where I live now, who had constructed a Indianapolis race car and allowed me to sit in it. It was very telling in that I knew I was hooked.
That same year I went to the LA Times Grand Prix in 1958. I was 11 years old and observed the Scarab of Peter Revson.
TG: Which sat next to your car at the Art Center.
SD: Exactly. Which I thought was quite the coincidence. All of these things rolled into me going to Riverside Raceway. At that age I was aware of the place and when I became of driving age, my friends and I would drive there and witness the races of the day, of which I’ve recreated one of the cars that I saw race back then.
TG: Did the Marauder stick out to you at the time or did you discover it later on and it jogged your memory?
SD: No, it did stick out in that all of these large cars were on a road course, which impressed me as being ungainly looking, but yet capable of driving aggressively. Later when I proposed the project, I interviewed the man’s son that built the cars for Ford, Bill Stroppe Jr and was more or less given his blessing and he gave me photographs of his father that I was able to scale details out of. He was also kind enough to give me one of the chassis builders of the day’s name. The man was still alive and he came to my shop. I bought him lunch and he told me all of the things that they would do and not do.
From an academic standpoint it’s been an interesting project to involve myself in. I’ve enjoyed all the aspects of it. The hard work of taking something that looks like absolute dog crap and bringing it to a finished product that can be seen and enjoyed by all, I have a lot of fun too watching everybody else enjoy it. It’s not so much a reflection on me, but it’s just the piece itself. Whether this was mine or not, I’d still get excited if I saw it.
TG: Talk to me about the way and the state in which you found this car?
SD: The car was found via eBay, an unlikely vehicle for me to buy a car because normally you don’t get to inspect what you’ve bought unless you have enough money to fly there, but this was a local car. It had escaped two auctions and I called the owner, who happened to be a car dealer in a nearby town. We struck up a deal for $1,500 for the body. It was an intact car, fairly straight, but it had the Marauder package on it. It was a two barrel, 390, non-air conditioned car, very plebeian, nothing much, but the body still spelled NASCAR to me when I looked at it. Because of the way it was trimmed, had you elected to restore it, it would been a very expensive restoration.
I elected to strip the car and put it on a rotisserie and then the body went in one direction. It actually went back to the man’s shop who had built the Indy car all those years before. His son took over his business and we had been friends and they started the body work. Then at some point he decided that he was selling his business and one of his people started out on his own and took the car. He turned out to be a criminal and more or less hijacked the body for three years. Six months of which I didn’t know where the car was.
Although the one thing that he did do that I have to thank him for is he put a new roof on it. Somebody had sat or tap danced or something on the roof and everybody’s attempt at shrinking the metal added more problems than it solved. I found on eBay a roof in New Mexico for $150 including shipping and I said, “This is incredible.” Putting a roof on a car like this is not a simple thing. The car has to be braced. Once the roof is cut loose, the rest of the body could move. You have to brace the car with welded pieces of steel to ensure adequate location of the new roof, which he actually did a decent job of doing. The other thing about the car is there were two ways of setting the car up. One for high-banked ovals, in which the car had windows, or for road racing, which is without windows. Since I was taken with the road racing, I decided to go that way and that was one aspect that I did not have to restore even though I had already restored the window regulators, but the car has no side windows.
TG: It is such a great look without the windows.
SD: Yeah. It really is. I started this in April of 2007 and shortly after I started it our great recession had hit.
TG: Were you affected by the recession in a way that paused the project?
SD: Yes and no. I wouldn’t have started this had I known, but I was already committed to it. The body was separated and it was well underway, so I continued work. Then I had to mothball the project for three years because of a house project. The chassis remained wrapped up in plastic in my shop. Then I had to construct all the doors and many of the things, features of the house that I was building.
Then after the house was complete, I came back to complete the car. During that period of time, something interesting, or maybe not so interesting, happened to me. I started losing the use of my legs due to neuropathy, peripheral neuropathy. I was dragged to every neurologist and quack and acupuncturist and no reason was found. It wasn’t until just a couple of weeks ago that I found the reason. There was a antibiotic that’s suspect now for the causation of the neuropathy. There’s no reversal, but during this period of time, I did recognize the fact that it was a progressive problem.
Instead of doing the interior work, the roll cage and the aluminum work myself, which even if I’ve never done them before, the challenge is to teach yourself how to do them and to take all the time you need to do a nice job. I engaged a well thought of shop out in Northridge called Maeco Motorsports. They were predominantly a Ford based performance shop. They’d prepared a lot of Ford Mustangs and larger cars as well. They executed some of the suspension modifications and the aluminum work and the roll cage on the inside, which I’m very pleased with. In an effort to buy time after completion, the car went back to my friend’s body shop that had initially started it. The new owner took on the effort to paint it. As soon as it was painted, I finished assembly and found that the engine that started the project, which was taken out of a boat, would not cool. Every combination of cooling potential, the radiators, the fans, fan clutches, mechanical fans, electric fans, with shrouds, without shrouds, water pumps were all tried, but to no avail. Finally out of frustration, after 400 miles of testing, I took the motor out, completely disassembled it and found nothing to be wrong with it. It was really maddening. A passerby, turned out to be the famous rock star Little Richard’s friend and caretaker, popped in and he’s also a Ford guy and said his friend would be interested in buying the engine. I said, “Well, I might sell it” because it didn’t really have enough horsepower for this big, heavy car.
His friend came and we struck a deal. I sold him the engine and I built the aluminum version of this engine, so I got an extra 200 horsepower and probably 200 plus pounds of weight off of the front end. When I put the new engine back in the car, it would not cool. Suicide was looking like an option after spending that much money and effort and also ate up a little more of a year of time. For me that was a crucial factor because I was losing more and more function of my legs.
Then one of my shop neighbors and everyone that surrounds me is a car person and we’ve all talked about it ad nauseum. Finally one of my shop neighbors tossed me a magazine. It was Hemmings Muscle Machines that he said, “There’s an article on cooling systems. You might want to read it.” I knew that he knew what the problem was. I grabbed the magazine and almost immediately came to the paragraph that spelled out why I screwed up.
TG: What was it?
SD: It was the pulley speed ratio. The original engine that I got to start this project came out of a boat. It had no water pump. It had wet stacks. There were no pulleys. I added a pulley and it was a Ford pulley, but it was the wrong size, so I was under driving the water pump and not getting enough cooling. Ninety two dollars later for the correct pulley, I didn’t need to spend the extra $16,000 or so building this engine, counting the cost of selling the other engine as well. Nor did I need to give up that year’s worth of time. Let this be a lesson. Do your homework and always check your pulley speed ratios if you have a cooling problem.
TG: Never underestimate the two dollar fix for the twenty thousand dollar problem.
SD: That’s right. Now the car’s done. It’s my pleasure to bring it to light in whatever way I can. I’ve enjoyed meeting with your group and having it exposed at Art Center.
TG: Tell me about the recent run in with Parnelli Jones.
SD: I was at a book signing two years ago when Parnelli Jones brought out his first book and he was at a book signing at some friend’s bookstore in Burbank, Autobooks-Aerobooks. They introduced me to him and I got to sit next to him and chit chat with him while he was signing other people’s books. I told him about the car and then he told me about working for Bill Stroppe and driving the original cars. It was really inspiring to a car person that’s attached to this car, as I am, to hear all of this from the horse’s mouth.
Yesterday he came back with his new book to sign again at the same bookstore and when he walked in I said, “Do you remember me?” He says, “Yes.” I said, “I finished the car.” He says, “Where is it?” I said, “It’s outside.” He came outside and signed it. I bought his new book and in the inscription in his new book, he said, “Nice Mercury.” It was a great day.
TG: What’s it like to drive?
SD: It is deceptively nimble. It’ll take some getting used to on a race track where you have run-out room if you make a mistake, but there’s a lot of power. The 600 horsepower could make or break the car in a heartbeat if you overestimate your ability. I’m a little unwilling to hang it out on a corner at this point. The car also has race tires on it that I think by temperature don’t start working until 160 or 180 degrees. The couple of times that I’ve blipped the throttle on a corner the word ‘gymkhana’ comes to mind.
TG: The tires are NASCAR tires?
SD: They are NASCAR tires that I found from a source that tests NASCAR’s tires for a day. The seller guarantees a half tread life or three quarters of a tread left. I bought six of them and constructed the wheels around the tire to fit.
TG: What do NASCAR tires go for?
SD: New I would suspect they’re not cheap. To me they were fifty dollars.
TG: Anything else about the car we should know?
SD: Just the number of modifications, when you see the care you don’t see the modifications and the immense amount of thought that had to go into them. Everything from the wheel wells being rolled out to accommodate the ten inch wide tires to the front bumper… actually the bumper apron had to be cut and sectioned and welded back together an inch shorter, so that the tires could actually turn without striking the bumper. Things like that, the cage in the consideration of making it, going through the firewall, picking up points of attachment to more safely protect the driver, yet I did not go the extra amount to put a radiator bar in there. That didn’t come until later in NASCAR. I think sixty-five or six saw the advent of that.
You just kind of have to stop at some point. Then brakes, I enhanced the brake capacity, but I did it with stock Lincoln Versailles calipers and a twelve inch rotor. The bracket had to be constructed around the Torino front spindles that I had initially mocked the car up with Torino disc brakes. It was only ten and three quarters or ten and a half inch diameter. Now with the twelve inch and the two piston calipers, it actually has a fairly decent ability to stop.
However there’s probably some future consideration to a booster, either hydraulic or vacuum to help assist in that braking effort. The diameter of the master cylinder was increased. When that happens it takes more leg pressure to actually stop the car, so if one is used to power steering and power brakes, the power steering exists. That was also a consideration. The steering was changed around to an actual power steering box from a power assist ram and in doing so the stock pump that I was using had to be upgraded from 600 pounds of pressure to 1,400 pounds.
I found a NASCAR shop in Sunland that was able to accommodate me. However they did not have the ball bearings that they needed. It was something like, if memory serves me, it was 0.893 and 0.912 bearing size to alternate to get a better feeling out of the steering. It was all very technical, so I had to find these. I got on the internet. I love the internet. I found a place in the center of Los Angeles in an industrial area called Bal-tec. They’ve heard all of the jokes about their business, as you can imagine. I was able to buy them for a dollar each and forty five dollars later and forty five ball bearings later I returned to the shop that rebuilt the power steering pump and was able to complete the steering and solved the problems of how the steering felt.
TG: Amazing. Now, because you’re driving a piece of NASCAR history, how do you feel about modern day NASCAR?
SD: I’m not a fan of modern day NASCAR. I respect the cars. They’re wickedly fast. They’re potent. The personalities of the drivers these days probably is commensurate with the personalities of other drivers of years gone by. However the cars have descended into just nothing but a spec series, which is sad because of the spirit that started stock car racing and the word that I put in quotes is “stock cars” was something that the average guy could go and buy. If he saw it on Sunday, he could buy it on Monday. That doesn’t exist any longer. I wish it did. This was at the end of that era, sixty-six or seven or so was about the last that everything started to become so specialized. The chassis were being changed and going to smaller cars and then they’ve evolved to what they are today that are really difficult to differentiate if all the stickers were removed from the cars.
It would be nice if we could go back to stock cars. I think it would be an improvement for the consumer in that to be competitive in the sport you would have to make a decent car that would handle and then you could pick with a fair degree of certainty that your brand was best, instead of, “I’m a Chevrolet guy” or, “I’m a Ford guy” or a Dodge guy, just because of a logo.