Minnesota man's rare classic car expected to fetch $1M at auction
Tom Maruska's 3 1/2-year effort to restore his one-of-a-kind concept vehicle proved to be a bigger challenge than expected.
DULUTH — Tom Maruska certainly doesn’t shy away from a challenge when it comes to restoring classic vehicles.
But the latest project he has completed, a one-of-a-kind 1956 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser, stands in a league of its own.
The vehicle was badly rusted out and completely disassembled, aside from still having its wheels attached, when Maruska bought it in 2018 from a fellow car buff in Ojai, California.
Nevertheless, he recognized the former show car’s potential, enough so that he shelled out $100,000 for the distressed automobile and the multiple bins of uncatalogued parts that had been removed from it. Before buying it, he sorted through a sufficient number of the jumbled components to surmise that the majority of the original and most critical pieces were still there.
Much of the damage to the vehicle occurred while it was left parked outside on a Detroit lot, where it was vandalized and then left exposed to the elements for years, well before a fellow classic car aficionado snatched it up, intending to restore it himself. But he never got around to it and knowing of Maruska’s interest in the vehicle, agreed to sell it to him.
Maruska arranged to have the car hauled back to his Minnesota home and then began the daunting task of making the body sound and fitting a complicated mechanical puzzle back together again.
It didn’t help that there were few references to consult. The one-off concept car had been custom-designed and assembled to go on the car show circuit and to assess the public’s interest in it before inspiring an actual, much-dressed-down production model with quite similar lines in 1957.
But this wasn’t Maruska’s first rodeo.
He had restored a 1954 XM-800. (XM means "Experimental Mercury.) That car, too, never made it to production and indeed didn’t even have a working engine when it was first rolled out for display to gauge public response to the design. It was powered only years later. After falling into Maruska’s talented hands, the restored, working vehicle sold at auction in 2010 for $429,000.
As for the XM-Turnpike Cruiser Maruska plans to bring to auction in January, he said it "should go for north of $1 million. At least I hope it does.”
Several prominent classic vehicle auctions in the Phoenix area draw car collectors from all over the world at the start of the year. Maruska hasn’t yet decided which auction to attend, but said he has received multiple 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 that very reason, Maruska has shunned opportunities to show the vehicle, knowing that a “concours 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 count continues to grow, as does his reputation. At 73 years old, he said he has no plans to quit his painstaking restoration efforts, although he does admit to being a bit slower to return to vertical when he rolls his creeper out from beneath an undercarriage these days.
Maruska said he still takes pleasure in the work and considers it a hobby, albeit a serious and expensive one, that also keeps him active.
“Otherwise, I’d be sitting in the house watching TV, eating potato chips and getting fat,” he said.
Over the past 3½ years, Marsuska, who formerly owned and ran a floor covering business, figures he has sunk at least 6,000 hours of work into restoring his latest XM.
Probably the single largest challenge has involved repairing and replicating rusted pieces of the car. In all, 13 sheets of 4-by-8-foot, 18-gauge steel sheet went into the restoration.
Although some literature suggested the vehicle had a 1955 Mercury convertible chassis, Maruska discovered it was actually built atop an 1954 F-250 chassis. The hand-built car was so beefy that it sported 11 leafs 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 chrome either when they designed the Turnpike Cruiser. Maruska said he was lucky to have acquired all the original detail parts with the vehicle but needed to get them rechromed.
Fortunately, they were made of brass and not steel, which would have corroded with the car’s body. He hauled 220-some 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 — Plexiglas panels in the car’s roof that automatically tilt up when triggered by an open door to provide for an easy entrance or exit.
Although the original windshield was long gone, the previous owner knew people in the auto industry who created a clay model of the swept-back piece of glass, which was then used to produce a plaster mold that Maruska inherited when he bought the vehicle. With the help of that mold, Maruska was able to get a new windshield custom-produced.
The side glass was flat, and he was able to have it cut at Zenith Auto Glass in Duluth.
The other curved windows in the car were made out of Plexiglas, although they were badly discolored after decades of exposure to the elements. Maruska said that for years he had relied on a single shop to provide custom Plexiglas, but the proprietor had died.
Left to his own devices, Maruska decided to tackle the job himself. He made plaster molds of the old windows and then used those to shape new duplicates.
“I got two free electric ranges off of Craigslist and I took them apart and put them together to make one oven big enough to put these butterfly roof sections in,” he said pointing to the finished result.
Maruska acknowledged there was a learning curve involved and said he went through quite a bit of Plexiglas before he dialed in the exact temperature and technique needed to accurately replicate the original windows.
The car has its original 292-cubic-inch engine, but it was rebuilt at Midwest Engine in Duluth. And Maruska redid the transmission himself.
He did alter the engine compartment a bit, however. All the components but the engine itself had been painted to match the body originally.
“Everything was orange in there, and I just couldn’t do that,” Maruska said.
A few pieces were missing from the original vehicle, including an air cleaner and an intake, as well as a pair of carburetors and valve covers. Maruska subbed out Thunderbird valve covers but ground the bird emblems out, replacing them with those of a 1957 Turnpike Cruiser to return the vehicle to its original appearance. Other pieces he fabricated and replaced as needed to return the engine compartment to its original appearance, minus the orange paint.
Maruska’s 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 fastidiously restored Amphicars sold for more than $124,000 in 2006, setting a record auction price that stood unparalleled for more than 15 years until April of this year, when someone else sold one of the quirky vehicles for $161,700.