You have a chance to own one of the greatest custom cars of all time: the Hirohata Merc. The car was built by Barris Kustom in 1952, sold in 1955, forgotten soon after, and disappeared from the face of the earth for decades before it was discovered in 1988 (in the most obvious location—the second owner‘s garage) and underwent a seven-year restoration. In January, the Hirohata Merc will cross the auction block at the Mecum auction in Kissimmee, Florida. Its next owner will join the world–famous custom in the hot rodding history books.
What Is the Hirohata Merc?
Bob Hirohata of Los Angeles was in his early 20s when he purchased a year-old 1951 Mercury Club Coupe. He only owned it for three years but his name has always been attached to the car and always will be. Hirohata bought the car with the intention of creating a show-worthy custom and delivered it to Barris Kustom, then located in Lynwood, California. Sam Barris, George Barris, Frank Sonzogni, and others on the Barris team customized virtually every inch of the Mercury. They finished the job in warp-speed time-less than 40 days-in order to have it at the 1952 Petersen Motorama show. After a phenomenal reception at Motorama, and tons of attention from hot rodding magazines, the Merc served as daily transportation for Hirohata. In 1953, he drove the car, packed with a fresh 1953 Cadillac engine, from Los Angeles to the Indianapolis Custom Show, where it took top honors. The road trip was chronicled in a now-famous article in Rod & Custom magazine.
The Icon Disappears
During the next couple of years, the celebrity Merc continued to undergo changes. The well-known Ice Green and Organic Green paint was covered with an avocado and gold combination. By 1955, Hirohata had moved on to other projects and sold the car. The next owner, Robert Waldsmith, was driving the Merc when it was hit by another car, damaging the entire driver’s side. During the repairs, the car was painted gold. Not long afterwards it was sold to “Dirty Doug” Kinney for a reported $200. Kinney owned it briefly before trading it in for a new Cadillac.
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By 1959, the Barris-built custom that had been the center of attention at hot rod shows and the cover car for many magazines was worn out, neglected, and relegated to the back row of a used car lot. It sat in that spot until a 16-year-old high school kid named Jim McNiel saw it, recognized it, borrowed $500 to buy it, and fixed it enough to make it his daily driver for a few years. By the mid ’60s, the famous custom had disappeared-forever, it seemed-but like Norm Grabowski’s Kookie T-bucket, Ed Roth’s bubbletop Orbitron, and other lost automotive icons, the Hirohata Merc would one day reappear.
What Makes a Car a Custom?
Hot rodsoriginally were cars stripped down and modified for speed. Customs, in contrast, were modified for distinctive looks. The engines were often left stock, with attention paid to extensive exterior and interior modifications, elaborate paint jobs, and liberal use of parts transplanted from other makes and models. Any car could be built as a custom, but the treatment was typically applied to cars from the late ’40s through the early ’60s. Barris Kustom was one of many pro shops building custom cars, and is probably the best known. The Hirohata Merc is one of the most famous cars from one of the most famous shops and many people consider it to be the standard–bearer for traditional customs.
The Hirohata Merc Unearthed
Custom cars, as well as traditional hot rods, lost a lot of their popularity after the muscle car era began in the ’60s. When interest in customs was revived in the ’70s, enthusiasts started wondering about the status of the lost Hirohata Merc. Jack Walker and Doug Thompson used old photos to create a successful replica (later owned by customizer John D’Agostino), but very few people knew if the original car still existed, and if it did, where it was.
One of the few who knew was Jim McNiel. He had never sold the car, but after getting married and starting a family, he had stowed the Merc in his garage, where it remained for more than 20 years. In 1988, customizers Roger Honey, Joe Bailon, and Joe Figueroa got wind of the Merc’s whereabouts and visited McNiel’s home where they were astonished to see the long-lost icon under a cover in his garage.
McNiel had always known his car’s heritage and intended to restore it, but knew that doing the job right would require a lot of money. The spark was lit when Rod & Custom magazine editor Pat Ganahl made McNiel an irresistible offer: the magazine would sponsor the restoration and would provide editorial coverage, with aftermarket parts manufacturers providing the parts. Thus began the resurrection of the Hirohata Merc to its original 1952 appearance. It would be a seven-year project. McNiel did much of the work on the car, assisted by his teenaged son Scott, with more work from Barris Kustom veterans Frank Sonzogni and painter Junior Conway, among others.
Since its completion, the Hirohata Merc has made many notable public appearances, from the Grand National Roadster Show to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It has been exhibited at the Oakland Museum of California and the Petersen Automotive Museum and was even displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Anatomy of the Hirohata Merc
Many of the features of the Barris Kustom cars, particularly the Hirohata Merc, were groundbreaking 70 years ago and set the standard for traditional custom car style.
- Recontoured body sides
- Extended front and rear fenders
- Shaved door handles and trim
- 1952 Buick Riviera side trim spears
- Functional rear brake cooling scoops with chrome Chevy teeth
- Frenched 1952 Ford headlights
- Frenched 1952 Lincoln Capri taillights
- Parking lights built from 1950 Ford parts
- Hood filled, peaked, and extended into grille
- Custom floating grille built from three 1952 Ford grilles
- Sectioned front bumper guards
- Rounded trunk corners
- Top chopped (4 inches in front and 7 inches in rear)
- A-pillars leaned back
- B-pillars eliminated
- Roof and upper doors reshaped to create a hardtop
- Reshaped side window frames
- V-butted windshield
- Flush-fit flared fender skirts
- Twin Appleton S-552 spotlights
- 1953 Cadillac “sombrero” wheel covers
- Ice Green and Organic Green two-tone paint
- Chopped front coils
- Frame kicked up in the rear
- De-arched rear springs with lowering blocks
- 1953 Cadillac 331 cu-in engine with three Stromberg carburetors
- Mercury three-speed transmission
- Green and white tuck ‘n’ roll upholstery from The Carson Top Shop
- Trunk finished by Gaylord’s Kustom Shop
- Custom-made steering wheel center
- Custom dash knobs built by Bob Hirohata
- Glovebox pinstriping by Von Dutch
- Trunk upholstered by Gaylord’s Kustom Shop
The Hirohata Merc‘s Next Chapter
Jim McNiel passed away in 2018. The famous car that has been in his family for more than 60 years has now been listed with Mecum Auction. When it is sold on January 15 in Kissimmee, the historic Hirohata Merc will have a new caretaker. We’re confident that the car considered by many enthusiasts as the greatest custom of all time will never disappear again.
2022 Mecum Auctions Schedule on MotorTrend+ and MotorTrend TV
- January 12-15: Kissimmee, Florida
- January 28-29: Las Vegas, Nevada (Motorcycles)
- March 18-19: Glendale, Arizona
- April 1-2: Houston, Texas
- May 18-21: Indianapolis, Indiana
- June 10-11: Tulsa, Oklahoma
- July 28-30: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
- August 19-20: Monterey, California
- September 8-10: Dallas, Texas
- October 14-15: Chicago, Illinois
- November 11-12: Las Vegas, Nevada
Watch! 1951 Mercury Street Rodder Top 100 Winner
Want more 1951 Mercury action? Check out this Street Rodder Top 100 winner from the 2017 Back to the ’50s car show, and read more details about the show when you’re done watching this walk-around video.
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