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Car of the Week: The Hirohata Merc

The Merc that set the Custom world on fire is going under the hammer in Kissimmee on January 15th. The time is right to take a closer look at this famous ride.
Car of the Week 2020
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The Hirohata Mercury, arguably most famous custom car of all time, owned by one California family for 59 years, is about to be offered for sale. Custom car enthusiasts can’t wait to see the result. Will it be the “Million Dollar Merc?”

Before we speculate on that question, let’s examine the car, the culture and legend.

The Basics of a Custom Legend

If ever a single car has come to define its genre, this 1951 Mercury hardtop, built by George and Sam Barris for Los Angeles custom car enthusiast Bob Hirohata, is it. Hand-crafted in mid-century by the Barris Brothers, who were some of the best talent in the business, and featured in countless magazines (not to mention it was a scene-stealing Hollywood B-movie star), this stunning car was highly acclaimed in its heyday. Then its first owner was murdered in a drive-by shooting, and the obsolete custom fell into disrepair and disappeared for a time. Decades later, it emerged as the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Oakland Museum and, after a serious re-restoration, it starred at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The Culture Behind the Hirohata Merc

When World War II ended in 1945, pent-up demand for new cars drove America’s automobile industry to convert, in record time, from producing war materiel back to building civilian vehicles. Deprived of their formative years, returning GIs with saved-up combat pay demanded new wheels right away. So did the gas-rationed and war-deprived civilian population. To quickly meet demand for the 1946 model year, Detroit’s automakers offered what came to be known as “warmed over” 1942 models: prosaic cars with stodgy styling barely changed from their prewar counterparts. Kaiser-Frazer, Nash, Studebaker and Hudson were among the first to offer completely new sheet metal in 1947. General Motors, Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co. followed suit in 1948 and ’49.

For enthusiasts who hadn’t the means to purchase a new car, restyling an older model or scratch-building a sports custom was a popular alternative. Customizing, known earlier as re-styling, had begun before the war by a few West Coast shops and builders. There was Jimmy Summers and Link Paola in Hollywood; Neil Emory and Clay Jensen, owners of Valley Custom, in the San Fernando Valley; and Harry Westergard in Sacramento. They were joined by Gil and Al Ayala in East Los Angeles, and the prolific Barris Brothers, Sam and George, in Lynwood. Even before custom cars were featured in Robert E. Petersen’s Hot Rod Magazine and its companion, Motor Trend, Dan Post’s “Blue Book of Custom Re-Styling,” and a pamphlet from Pennsylvania speed merchant Ed Almquist, taught budding builders customizing techniques.

The fundamental premise of customizing was simple, although not everyone got it right. Most production cars of the late 1940s were staid, bulbous and dull. The period’s best auto writer, Ken W. Purdy, called them “...turgid, jelly-bodied clunkers.”

Customizing techniques such as lowering and de-chroming, applying metallic paint in deep tones, reshaping fenders, altering grilles, top chopping and even sectioning (excising a strip of metal from the center of the body for a lower silhouette), soon became popular nationwide. After a fender was reshaped, or a hood or decklid ornament was removed, the hole-filling and finish work were done by tinning and smoothing over holes and joints with melted lead filler, hence the term “lead sleds.”

The Mercury’s headlights were frenched, and its rear fenders received a molded set of ’52 Lincoln lenses. The hood was peaked, extended and rounded. A one-of-a-kind nose and grille were specially made, the front fender openings were flared. Full fender skirts were fabricated. The roof was chopped 4-inches in front, and 7-inches in the rear. New curved windows and an excised B-pillar created a hardtop effect. Barris’ radical surgery made the roofline appear cleaner, and updated the car’s appearance. Extensive lowering brought the coupe down to about a four-inch ground clearance. Here’s Bob Hirohata with one of over 200 trophies the car won.

The Mercury’s headlights were frenched, and its rear fenders received a molded set of ’52 Lincoln lenses. The hood was peaked, extended and rounded. A one-of-a-kind nose and grille were specially made, the front fender openings were flared. Full fender skirts were fabricated. The roof was chopped 4-inches in front, and 7-inches in the rear. New curved windows and an excised B-pillar created a hardtop effect. Barris’ radical surgery made the roofline appear cleaner, and updated the car’s appearance. Extensive lowering brought the coupe down to about a four-inch ground clearance. Here’s Bob Hirohata with one of over 200 trophies the car won.

Customizing techniques, done well, could positively transform the look of an older model, making it appear streamlined, more attractive and more modern. Often, engines of customs were modified, improving performance. Adapting trim, fender skirts, grilles, hubcaps and bumpers from more expensive brands made low-priced Fords and Mercurys appear sleeker. Soon, people began customizing brand-new cars.

When Sam Barris chopped and lowered his nearly new 1949 Mercury coupe, he transformed a chunky design into a dramatically modern show car, beginning a trend almost overnight. For 1951, performing what today we’d call a “facelift,” Ford Motor Co. stylists extended the rear fenders and redesigned the grille on the 1949-’50 Mercury for an more distinctive silhouette. Customizers immediately began work on the “updated canvas” that was the 1951 Merc. Around the time Sam Barris’ chopped-and-lowered 1949 Mercury coupe appeared on the cover of the December 1951 issue of Motor Trend, several more “hammered” coupes emerged, and the radically chopped-and-lowered 1949-’51 Mercury became a poster child for the burgeoning custom car movement. Countless artisans modified Mercury coupes, but only a few cars achieved lasting fame.

The Definitive Custom Mercury

This “hardtopped” 1951 Mercury, known as the “Hirohata Merc,” has long been considered the definitive early lead sled. Putting it another way, there were and still are a lot of Mercury customs. But the Hirohata Merc is the best one, and then there are all the others.

The Hirohata Mercury won its class in Bob Petersen’s 1952 “International Motorama,” and it was featured in Rod & Custom magazine in 1953, when its owner boldly drove it cross-country from Los Angeles to a major hot rod and custom car show in Indianapolis. At Indy, the Hirohata Merc won “Best Custom,” of course.

The Hirohata Mercury amazed and delighted the folks who spotted it cruising the streets of Los Angeles, appearing at countless car shows, and starring in the Hollywood B-movie, “Running Wild,” with Mamie Van Doren, shown here with one of the car’s creators, George Barris.

The Hirohata Mercury amazed and delighted the folks who spotted it cruising the streets of Los Angeles, appearing at countless car shows, and starring in the Hollywood B-movie, “Running Wild,” with Mamie Van Doren, shown here with one of the car’s creators, George Barris.

It’s difficult to describe the stunning effect this radically restyled Merc had on the customizing community, let alone the people who saw it cruising the streets of Los Angeles, appearing at car shows, and starring in the Hollywood B-movie “Running Wild” with Mamie Van Doren in which it arguably upstaged the film’s “blonde bombshell” starlet.

In the 1950s, the sight of any “classic” chopped Merc, with its almost sinister silhouette, gliding along a darkened street — accompanied by rock ’n’ roll music on the radio and the not-too-discrete rumble of glass-pack mufflers — was enough to set a car-crazy kid’s heart racing. James Dean’s character drove a mildly customized, jet-black ’50 Mercury coupe in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.” As a result, these cars became popularly known as “James Dean Mercs.” However, the tragically short-lived actor, who espoused bikes, MGs and Porsches, was never a custom car guy himself.

Building a Legend

The late George Barris told me that Bob Hirohata showed up one day at his shop with a barely used, black ’51 Mercury, asking to have it fully customized. He’d purchased the car from an older couple. “He wanted something different,” Barris recalled. Sensing an opportunity, George and his brother, Sam, were quick to comply.

On Hirohata’s Mercury, the headlamps were tunneled (customizers called the technique “frenching”), and the rear fenders received a molded set of ’52 Lincoln lenses. The hood was peaked, extended and rounded. A one-of-a-kind nose and horizontal grille were fabricated, which made the front end appear wider. The front fender openings were flared so the wheels could turn without rubbing. Full fender skirts with flared lower edges were crafted. Functional rear fender scoops were accented with 1952 Chevrolet grille “teeth.”

The Hirohata Mercury was repainted gold over the original dark green, reportedly for better visual contrast in the “Running Wild” movie. Over the years, it was battered and bruised, before high schooler Jim McNiel bought it off a used car lot for $500.

The Hirohata Mercury was repainted gold over the original dark green, reportedly for better visual contrast in the “Running Wild” movie. Over the years, it was battered and bruised, before high schooler Jim McNiel bought it off a used car lot for $500.

This car’s defining feature was its significant roof chop: about 4 in. at front and 7-in. at the rear. Mercury didn’t offer a pillar-less coupe in 1951, so the center post, or B-pillar, was eliminated by the Barris Brothers. New curved windows were constructed for a hardtop effect. Earlier, the Barris Brothers had similarly “hardtopped” Nick Matranga’s ’39 Mercury coupe, so they’d already experimented with this look. Barris’ radical surgery made the roofline appear cleaner, and updated the car’s appearance.

To break up its slab sides, the Mercury’s original designer, E. T. “Bob” Gregorie, penned a subtle reveal that gently dipped partway along the side of the car, reminiscent of the sheerline of a yacht. For a more dramatic accent, Sam Barris extended that reveal and affixed chrome trim spears from a ’53 Buick as a divider to separate the custom’s original shades of light and dark green lacquer. A matched pair of Appleton spotlights, tilted toward the hood, completed the modifications.

Pat Ganahl, author of “The American Custom Car,” wrote that, “the Hirohata Merc began the era of redesign and ornamentation that would soon get completely out of hand; (but) the Hirohata did it with integrity and some subtlety.”

Extensive lowering brought the coupe down to about a 4-in. ground clearance, enhancing its already ground-hugging silhouette. The front spindles and coils were modified; rear lowering blocks were fitted with longer U-bolts to hold them in place; the parallel leaf springs were de-arched; and a C-section arch was welded into the rear frame rails to ensure sufficient axle travel.

Bob Hirohata, a Japanese American custom car enthusiast, showed up one day at the Barris shop with a barely used black 1951 Mercury, and wanted it fully customized. He’d purchased the car from an older couple, George Barris remembered, and “he wanted something different.” Sensing an opportunity, George and his brother Sam, were quick to comply.

Bob Hirohata, a Japanese American custom car enthusiast, showed up one day at the Barris shop with a barely used black 1951 Mercury, and wanted it fully customized. He’d purchased the car from an older couple, George Barris remembered, and “he wanted something different.” Sensing an opportunity, George and his brother Sam, were quick to comply.

George Barris said the cost of the work was “about $3,500.” That was a lot of money in 1952! (It’s $36,500 in 2021 dollars.) To make the International Motorama date, the work was completed in just 97 days. Most radical Mercury customs in that era were finished in dark maroon metallic or dark green. With its pale-pastel, ice-green, light-over-dark treatment, the Hirohata coupe stood out from the rest. Bob Hirohata once told a Rod & Custom editor he was “shocked” when he got the bill. “I had to sell everything I owned and put my great aunt in hock to pay for the car, but it was worth it.”

A luxurious, green-and-white tuck-and-roll interior by Glen Houser’s Carson Top Shop was complemented with laminated, teardrop-shaped knobs in green and white plastic. Bob Hirohata made these himself, and the unique knobs would later be the subject of a magazine how-to feature. The trunk was upholstered by Gaylord, another noted Los Angeles trimmer. The timetable was so tight they needed two upholstery shops. Renowned pinstriper Kenneth Howard, better known as “Von Dutch,” discretely striped the dash panel and the glove compartment two years later.

For his cross-country trip, Hirohata replaced the stock flathead with a 1953 Cadillac V-8 that was installed in a week by Dick Lyon, of Lyon Engineering.

Cadillac V-8 For a bold cross-country trip, Hirohata replaced the stock flathead with a new 331-cid Cadillac V-8, that was installed in a week, by Dick Lyon, of Lyon Engineering. It was modified with an Iskenderian ¾ racing cam and a three-carburetor manifold. Most accessories were chrome-plated as befitting a period show car.

Cadillac V-8 For a bold cross-country trip, Hirohata replaced the stock flathead with a new 331-cid Cadillac V-8, that was installed in a week, by Dick Lyon, of Lyon Engineering. It was modified with an Iskenderian ¾ racing cam and a three-carburetor manifold. Most accessories were chrome-plated as befitting a period show car.

The Hirohata Mercury was featured on the covers of Hop Up and Motor Trend in 1953. It became a consistent winner with nearly 200 awards. Although other custom cars had begun to look excessive, even freakish, because car show judging awarded points for every modification, no matter how slight that modification was, that’s not the case here. Each element on this Mercury perfectly flows together.

Bob Hirohata occasionally drove his seminal custom to his job at the parking lot of the Hirohata Insurance Co., which his family owned, in “Little Tokyo.” He later offered the car for sale in a classified ad that appeared in the May 1955 issue of Hot Rod Magazine. The asking price was $4,900; the selling price was somewhat less. Sadly, Bob Hirohata was murdered on May 14, 1981; the “gangland style” crime was committed in his parents’ driveway, in Temple City, Calif. The case was never solved.

Rediscovering a Lost Custom

Over time, the car disappeared. But a few insiders knew where it was. During an extensive search for information, Rod & Custom magazine’s then-editor, Pat Ganahl, located and befriended the car’s longtime owner, Jim McNiel, who’d bought the historic Mercury custom for just $500 from a used car lot in 1959. He drove it during high school, dated Sue, his high school sweetheart (later his wife), in the car, and then stored it for decades, intending to, someday, restore it. It was presumed lost for all time. A few who knew where it was hidden tried to buy it, but McNiel said, “I just couldn’t sell it.”

Recognizing a good story when he saw one, Ganahl convinced McNiel to restore the Mercury, and he helped coordinate the painting with an all-star cast including George Barris, Frank Sonzogni and Hershel “Junior” Conway, most of whom had worked on the Hirohata car when it was initially built at the Barris Kustom Shop. Bill Lazerlere, a top LA detailer, helped with the finish work. Jim and Sue McNiel, assisted by friends, did the paint prep. Jim did nearly all the mechanical work and reassembly himself. Eddie Martinez redid the upholstery. Also of assistance were Jim’s son, Scott, his neighbor, Murl Redwine, and Chris Kaiser.

A luxurious, green-and-white tuck and roll interior by Glen Houser’s Carson Top Shop was complimented with laminated teardrop-shaped dash and spotlight knobs in green and white plastic. Bob Hirohata made these himself, and the unique knobs would later be the subject of a magazine ‘how-to’ feature, before being offered commercially by  Cal Custom.

A luxurious, green-and-white tuck and roll interior by Glen Houser’s Carson Top Shop was complimented with laminated teardrop-shaped dash and spotlight knobs in green and white plastic. Bob Hirohata made these himself, and the unique knobs would later be the subject of a magazine ‘how-to’ feature, before being offered commercially by Cal Custom.

“Pat (Ganahl) kind of helped hurry the process,” McNiel told me. “I’d always had it in the garage. Then Pat showed up at the house saying he wanted to get Rod & Custom started, and they’d do a report every other month on the progress. I thought that’d be good. But I didn’t want to restore it. I wanted to preserve it.

“I always intended to do that, but it had to be after I’d raised my family,” McNiel added. “I decided, except for the paint color, which was the most recognizable feature, I’d do it the way it was when I got it. I wanted everything to be done right here in my garage — and except for the painting, it was.”

Fortunately, the car’s previous owners had kept the Mercury pretty much intact.

 “When I first got the car,” McNiel added, “the fender skirts were in the trunk. And it still had everything on it, even the Von Dutch striping, which was put on in ’55.”

Famed pinstriper Kenneth Howard, better known as “Von Dutch,” subtly striped the Mercury and painted a bizarre design on the glove compartment door two years after the car was built.

Famed pinstriper Kenneth Howard, better known as “Von Dutch,” subtly striped the Mercury and painted a bizarre design on the glove compartment door two years after the car was built.

With his wife’s enthusiastic help, McNiel, a talented mechanic and painter, painstakingly repaired the ravages of time that had resulted from the car’s 50-plus-year history. The pair uncovered the original Ice Green and Organic Green Metallic paint hues, buried under several repaints. Stan Betz electronically duplicated them, and PPG formulated the exact acrylic lacquer color, ensuring the team could refinish the car to look just the way it did in 1953.

When Jim removed the instrument panel to rewire the car, he found business cards for Bob Hirohata and George Barris wedged behind the radio speaker, which kept it from rattling. 

“I never touched them,” he said. “It was important to me that their hands put them there. I didn’t want to change anything that was a link with the builders. I wanted to feel their presence.”

The Hirohata Mercury was featured on the covers of Hop Up and Motor Trend in 1953. It was a consistent winner with nearly 200 awards. Although other custom cars had begun to look excessive, even freakish, because car show judging awarded points for every modification, that’s not the case here. Each element on this Mercury car blends together perfectly. In 2015, the radical custom Mercury won its class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. In 2017, it was honored by the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) with an unprecedented appearance on the Washington Mall.

The Hirohata Mercury was featured on the covers of Hop Up and Motor Trend in 1953. It was a consistent winner with nearly 200 awards. Although other custom cars had begun to look excessive, even freakish, because car show judging awarded points for every modification, that’s not the case here. Each element on this Mercury car blends together perfectly. In 2015, the radical custom Mercury won its class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. In 2017, it was honored by the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) with an unprecedented appearance on the Washington Mall.

Ganahl described Jim McNiel as the consummate perfectionist, noting: “All the car parts are authentic 1951 Mercury, and the engine parts are original 1953 Cadillac.” It’s hardly surprising that the restoration took a long time, but the results speak for themselves. It’s spectacular, and befitting for a car Ganahl called, “the most famous of the classic custom era, if not all time.”

Jim and Sue McNiel generously showed the Hirohata Mercury at many important events. But the big moment eluded them until 2015 when the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance approved a class of Mercury Customs — a first for the event. The Hirohata Merc looked presentable, but that wouldn’t be enough. And some damage had occurred when the car was shown in Sweden. McNiel didn’t have the means to fund another restoration, so the call went out for the old gang to reassemble one more time. Junior Conway, who’d arguably become the most acclaimed painter in the business, led the charge, culminating with a thorough freshening by Frank Sonzogni, Bill Lazerlere and others.

“I called my friends to help me and nobody said no,” Junior says. “Working on this car was an honor,” he adds emotionally. “Money couldn’t buy the privilege. Look what this car did for us.”

The trunk was upholstered by Gaylord, another noted Los Angeles trimmer. There wasn’t time for a single upholsterer to complete the car in time for the 1952 Los Angeles Motorama, so two shops did the work. The auxiliary gasoline and oil cans, painted to match, were a period custom conceit.

The trunk was upholstered by Gaylord, another noted Los Angeles trimmer. There wasn’t time for a single upholsterer to complete the car in time for the 1952 Los Angeles Motorama, so two shops did the work. The auxiliary gasoline and oil cans, painted to match, were a period custom conceit.

The result, perhaps predictably, was a coveted Best in Class win at the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where a class of custom Mercurys was very well-received. That was followed by a 2017 display by the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Sadly, NcNiel and his wife Sue have passed on. Their son, Scott, has maintained the Mercury just as his parents did.

But circumstances change. Scott and his sister, Darla, have decided to sell their family’s heirloom.

 “After Pebble Beach, my dad said it was finally time to part ways and let the car go to its next caretaker.” The Hirohata Mercury will be offered on Jan. 15, 2022, at the giant Mecum Auctions Kissimmee (Florida) sale. “Darla and I want it to go to the right person, who will share it, or to a museum,” says Scott, “where people will be able to see and admire it.”

Excitement abounds, and the rod and custom car world is ablaze with rumors. Will this be the first seven-figure traditional custom car? (You really can’t count the “Batmobile,” which sold for much more, because it’s a famous movie prop). It’s impossible to predict. But this much is certain: The Hirohata Mercury has never been equaled, and it’s probably going to set a new sales record.

That’s a fitting tribute for this timeless custom car.

Talk about a thrill, author Ken Gross drives the Hirohata Mercury with Wayne Carini, TV host of “Chasing Classic Cars.” With its powerful Cadillac V-8, boulevard ride and showstopping styling, cruising in the ultimate custom Merc is the stuff of dreams.

Talk about a thrill, author Ken Gross drives the Hirohata Mercury with Wayne Carini, TV host of “Chasing Classic Cars.” With its powerful Cadillac V-8, boulevard ride and showstopping styling, cruising in the ultimate custom Merc is the stuff of dreams.

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