Icon's All-Electric ’49 Mercury Coupe.
Words Chris Nelson Images Andrew Trahan
“That’s a true American car, from a time when Americans knew how to build cars,” says a shirtless man, missing a few teeth, peering through the half-open window of his lifted pickup. It happens at almost every stoplight: some baby boomer waxes lyrical about Detroit’s glory days and how 70-year-old cars are somehow superior to today’s automobiles. A grotesquely flawed line of thought, and it’s all we can do to smile and say “Listen and watch” as the 5,000-pound, all-electric ’49 Mercury coupe quickly and quietly accelerates away.
Admittedly, the man was right: This is a true American car, an aftermarket EV built collaboratively by San Diego-based Stealth EV, a shop that specializes in electric car conversions, and Los Angeles-based Icon, a boutique outfitter best known for its six-figure overhauls of Ford Broncos and Toyota FJ Land Cruisers. Electric propulsion is playing an increasingly important role in Icon’s business; the company converted two EVs before starting on the “Derelict” Mercury — a ’66 Fiat Giardiniera and a ’77 Volkswagen Thing — and Icon is currently working on an all-electric ‘62 Ferrari 250 GTE.
Jonathan Ward, CEO and founder of Icon, says, “The Merc, after extensive testing and use by its owner, will determine our EV future. I’m excited about such, but there are unique liabilities with electric vehicles. EV tech moves very fast, so we try to build our EVs as sub-modular as possible for easy upgrades as technology evolves. When one of my repeat clients reached out to do a conversion of a ’49 Merc, I told him that this project would be full of unknown challenges, but that we were game if he was.”
The postwar Mercury Eight coupe, produced from 1949 to ’51, is a seminal car in street rod history. Its legacy begins with Sam Barris of Barris Kustoms in L.A., who bought himself a showroom-new, third-generation Mercury Eight and built the first-ever “lead sled”; Barris slowly melted and shaped poisonous lead filler to subtly restyle the slab-sided ponton body of his lowered, smoothed, chopped and channeled coupe. When one of Barris’s customers, Bob Hirohata, saw the lead sled, he commissioned Barris to build what is now considered to be one of the most influential customs of the classic era: The 1951 “Hirohata Merc.”
If Icon’s ’49 Mercury looked as progressive as it actually is, dyed-in-the wool car guys probably would’ve written it off as a bastard, so Ward opted to preserve the coupe’s natural patina and original brightwork, “to keep traditions alive and hot rodders engaged.” Most everything on the Merc appears standard until you peek under the hood, where battery packs and controllers have been cleverly assembled to look like a big, chrome V8. Positioned behind the faux engine are twin induction motors from AMRacing, together producing 400 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent through a Dana 60 rear end, cradled in an Art Morrison Enterprises four-wheel independent chassis with six-piston Brembo brakes. The Mercury’s dual motors are powered by an 85-kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion battery pack from a wrecked Tesla Model S, with cells carefully positioned throughout the chassis to improve weight distribution. The Mercury has a limited top speed of 120 mph, 200 miles of driving range, and can be fully recharged in 90 minutes, thanks to a 125-amp fast-charger hidden behind the front license plate.
The build required over two years and more than 3,000 hours of engineering and re-engineering. Icon couldn’t ignore day-to-day advancements in EV tech, which meant numerous mid-project modifications to the battery management system and the controllers. The bulk of the Mercury’s build time went toward writing software and developing a temperature control unit for the battery pack, given that the Mercury will live in the torrid Arizona desert. That work fell to EV expert Matthew Hauber, founder of Stealth EV, who painstakingly adapted Tesla’s thermal management system for use in Icon’s Mercury.
"There isn't a person on the road not breaking their neck to get a good look at this car, and when they find out it's electric they can't believe something like this is even possible.”
Hauber, who has completed more than 25 EV conversions in the last decade, says, “We built the most intuitive electric vehicle conversion to date and pulled off something very special. Everything we gained from the outcome of this build will be the new standard for all future builds. It's the most extreme build we’ve ever done and, of course, at the same time, the most challenging. There isn't a person on the road not breaking their neck to get a good look at this car, and when they find out it's electric they can't believe something like this is even possible.”
A stunning, subtle marriage of vintage elegance and modern engineering, Icon’s 1949 Mercury Eight coupe grows increasingly outdated with each passing day, but such is the life of an edge-case EV conversion. “What’s new today might not be the best option two or three years from now," Hauber says. "We’re in a fast-growing industry that’s always improving, and it’s a never-ending job to stay up to date and make sure we are working with only the best components.” For now, Ward will only build all-electric Icons for his most faithful clients, who understand their EVs will go through numerous iterations and periodically return to Icon for hardware and software updates.
As we silently slip-slide down the road, comfortably slouched in the bench seat, we wonder where this car will fall in automotive history. Is it the modern Hirohata Merc that brings about an aftermarket EV revolution? Maybe — or maybe not. But it will undoubtedly be the inspiration and blueprint for many vintage EV conversions to come. At another stoplight, we hear some guy holler, “Damn, they made ‘em right back then.” They did, but they're making ‘em better now.
This article was originally featured in Issue 036 of Iron & Air Magazine.