Photo courtesy of: Kustomrama.com
The Search Is On:
In 1952, Bob Hirohata wanted a radical custom, one made from a car that had never seen major customization before. Two cars would be responsible for helping Bob make his decision. First was Nick Matranga' 1940 Mercury Coupe that had a hard top conversion done to it by Barris Kustoms. The second car would be a 1949 Mercury Coupe owned by Sam Barris, brother of Barris Kustoms owner, George. The '49 had a radically chopped top. Both Mercs helped Bob decide he wanted a hardtop conversion and top chop done to a late model Mercury Coupe. He began searching around and found a clean, low mileage 1951 Mercury Club Coupe in the San Fernando Valley. He bought the car and took it to George Barris, the owner of Barris Kustoms. No one had ever chopped or done a hardtop conversion on a '51 Merc. Bob left the car with George & Sam with the only instructions that the car be chopped and have a hardtop conversion performed... Everything else was up to them.
Sam, George & Frank Sonzogni would have 90 days to transform the Merc. Sam Barris started by removing the B-pillars and welding the tops of the doors to the roof line. The top was chopped 4 inches in the front and 7 in the rear. In order to accommodate the now drastic slope of the rear glass, a large portion of the roof had to be completely remade. To make the A-pillars & the door glass align properly, a major reworking of the area took place. Once that was worked out the vent windows were installed. The dividing bar between the two windshield sides was eliminated and two pieces of glass were V-butted into place.
Front & Rear End Details:
A set of '52 Lincoln tail lights were frenched into lengthened rear fenders. Also in the back, the trunk was shaved and its corners were rounded over. '52 Buick side trim was added after the stock trim was removed. In order to balance the extended rear fenders the front fenders were lengthened 4 inches and '52 Ford headlight rings were frenched in. The hood was shaved, peaked and extended into the grill area. The grill was made from three '51 Ford grills mated together. The parking light housings were made from old grill parts and new lenses were made from clear plastic and they were also frenched in.
The Small Things:
George added a pair of Radar Ariel Intensifier antenna toppers to the car. The scoops at the rear wheels were functional and aided in rear brake cooling. '52 Chevy grill teeth were added to them. Stock fender skirts were molded into the the fender wells and round steel stock was used to make them rounder on the bottom.
While the sheet metal work was still being done, the seats and door panels were taken to Carson Top Shop and remade. Once the body work was done the car was sent to Carson and they finished the seats and made the headliner. White and green Naugahyde material was used through out, with a roll and pleat pattern. Once the interior was finished the car was sent to Gaylord's Kustom Shop and they laid green carpet on the floor, with a white leather border that was also rolled and pleated. Gaylord's also did the trunk of the car. The owner even created a set of custom knobs for the dash. Bob's knob design proved to be so popular that Cal Customs would go on to produce them for individual purchase. The final interior touch was when Von Dutch striped a figure on the dash called, "This is The City".
It Was a Hit:
As soon as it was completed the car begin winning trophies. It is estimated that the car has won over 184 of them. It also was featured in magazines numerous times. In the October '53 issue of Rod & Custom the story of Bob's trip out to the 4th Annual Indianapolis Custom Show appears.
Photo courtesy of: The Custom & Hot Rod Life extensive archive department.
In the story, we learn that Bob had Dick Lyon of Lyon Engineering swap out the Flathead Mercury engine for a 1953 Cadillac OHV engine. The swap was done over the week before leaving for the trip, "It was Monday when I took the car to the shop and by Friday evening it was ready to go to the muffler shop for headers.", so says the R&C article. The car spent the night at Nates Muffler Shop & was picked up on Saturday afternoon. The article goes on to tell about the trials of the trip. It's a pretty neat insight into how such a famous car was used when it was new.
In 1955 Bob sold the car to Robert Waldsmith. In 1957 the car was involved in an accident and was repaired by Sam Gates. Sam wasn't able to match one of the green shades, so the car was painted metallic gold and covered in clear lacquer. Robert sold the car to Doug Kinney for $200. The gold paint job had started to crack and Doug sanded it down and was going to restore the two-toned green paint. For whatever reason Doug wasn't able to do this and ended up selling the car to a car lot. In '59 a then 16 year old Jim McNeil bought the car for $500. Jim repaired some of the things wrong with the car and drove it until putting it into storage in 1964.
The car prior to restoration in 1988. Photo courtesy of: The Historic Vehicle Association
Lost & Found:
In the 1980's the car was thought of as another one of the many "lost custom" of the '50's & '60's. Then in 1988, Jim let it be known he had the car and had been unaware of people's interest in it. Shortly after that the car was completely restored to its pre 1955 glory by George Barris, Junior Conway and Frank Sonzogni.
A legend reborn:
In April of 2017 the Hirohata Mercury was added, as number 18, to the National Historic Vehicle Register. It spent a week in a glass case on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Merc was chosen as it represents a significant piece of American automotive history. George and the guys sure built one fine custom & then did it again!
Photo courtesy of: The Historic Vehicle Association
To the Future:
Now that the Hirohata Merc has been acknowledged for its historical significance. It is important to not forget that the best story ever written about the car involves it being driven cross country from L.A. to Indy for a car show. For the last 66 years people have idolized it and made copies of it. I suppose that may be part of the equation that will someday make it priceless. As interesting an idea as that is, it is important to remember that it is still a car and cars are meant to be driven. Don't misunderstand me, I'm glad the car got its week in a glass case. It was important not just for itself, but for the memory of customizers that spent their time, money and, in some cases, whole careers making ordinary things, a little cooler. However, I think a more fitting tribute would have been to cruise the car slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue at about 10 o'clock on a Saturday night, while "Rumble" by Link Wray played in the background. Yeah, I'd have cruised up to D.C. for the chance to see that.
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