The ‘Merk’ with a mean streak

Neil Snarr - Contributing columnist

It seems that my taste in cars dramatically changed after I sold my 1929 Pontiac, spent nearly two years in the military in Germany and returned to college (from start to graduation it took me eight years).

When and where I purchased my 1949 Mercury convertible escapes me, but it was a very cool machine.

It was essentially the same car that James Dean drove in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, except mine was a convertible and his was not. A few years ago, I was having my more recent car worked on at Bob’s on Fife Avenue and noticed a photo of the car driven by James Dean in the above-mentioned film. The picture constituted an advertisement for Mac Tools – it was much like advertisements one sees in auto repair shops, but it did not include the usual half-dressed woman!

I asked Bob if I could have the picture and he graciously gave it to me. (There is nothing like a small town!)

The caption reads, “This 1949 Mercury Series 9CM six passenger Coup has a bad attitude. And why not? It was James Dean’s car in the 1955 movie ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ that premiered one month after his death. A ‘Merk’ with a mean streak, it featured a nosed hood and decked trunk. L-Head 255 cubic inch V8 and optional overdrive. Showroom price: $1,978.”

James Dean died in 1955 in California in a car accident at the age of 24.

I must admit, I was totally oblivious to all of this information until many years later — after I had sold the car. It was decades later that I learned of a James Dean Cult that had emerged. Actually, I had a friend in college who was the spitting image of Dean – the same laid-back attitude and facial expressions as well as the haircut (it took years for me to fit all of these things together).

The car was cool, but not this driver!

More recently a friend of mine took a trip to the Fairmount, Indiana cemetery to view the headstone and James Dean Gallery. Again, I was oblivious about this, but I found plenty of material on the internet:

“The James Dean Gallery was established in 1988 in the actor’s hometown and final resting place of Fairmount, Indiana. This extensive exhibit is the private collection of James Dean archivist David Loehr who began collecting in 1974. The collection is housed in a beautifully restored 1903 Victorian home, located on tree-lined North Main Street in Downtown Fairmount. The exhibit consists of literally thousands of items of James Dean memorabilia and gives visitors the opportunity to see the worldwide impact that this Indiana native and American film star has made.”

But this is not all! Look further and you will find the James Dean Remembered Fan Club, the annual Festival which includes a parade, carnival, James Dean Look-A-Like contests, dance contests, the James Dean Memorial Junction Highway … on and on. Unfortunately, the festival this summer was canceled due to the coronavirus.

To conclude all of this, I phoned my 1950s friend to see what he has to say about his look-alike days during that one semester at college when we became life-long friends. He did recall that Dean had died in an automobile crash, but had no idea that there was any resemblance between himself and Dean.

This may simply be the consequences of the depth and pervasiveness of the impact pop culture and the media can have on us.

Gee, I wish I hadn’t sold those cars!

Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.

Neil Snarr

Contributing columnist