David Newhardt, courtesy of Mecum Auctions Inc.
Uniquely American in many ways, the custom-car craze truly found its calling in the late 1940s, blossoming throughout popular culture in the following decade. For many owners, the restyled early post-war Mercury coupes have been the way to go for these changes, and the 1949–51 cars quickly became an open canvas for custom “lead sled” ideas. This 1951 example had a larger bearing on that reputation than any other vehicle, as it is considered to be the purest initial refitting of this model. Always associated with the hobby’s most famous names, this is the Bob Hirohata Merc. This car’s history is well known, documented through the pages of numerous magazines during the past 70 years. In 1952, young Bob Hirohata had just returned from a stint in the Navy. He owned a 1949 Mercury that featured some mild customization work done by the Barris brothers, Sam and George, prior to Hirohata’s military service. The Barris custom business, started in the war years (when Hirohata had actually been among the Japanese-American citizens the Roosevelt administration interred) was now growing rapidly in its new Lynwood, CA, location. When Hirohata saw Sam Barris’ own just-chopped ’49 Merc, Hiroharta bought a basically new ’51, took it to the Barris shop and told them to go all out with a radical customization. Not only did the Barris crew agree, but they also decided that Hirohata’s car would be used to showcase their skills at the 1952 Motorama show. It took 97 days to complete, and the result was unlike anything seen before.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1951 “Hirohata” Mercury Custom Coupe
Years Produced:1951
Number Produced:1
Tune Up Cost:$400
Club Info:National Street Rod Association
Alternatives:Batmobile by George Barris, “The Golden Sahara,” “Kookie’s Kar”

This car, Lot S152, sold for $2,145,000, including buyer’s premium, at Mecum’s Kissimmee, FL, auction on January 15, 2022.

Countless artisans modified Mercury coupes, but only a few cars achieved lasting fame. This 1951 Mercury, built for Los Angeles native Robert “Bob” Hirohata, has long been considered the definitive example. George Barris told me that Hirohata showed up at his shop one day with a barely used black Mercury to have it fully customized. “He’d purchased the car from an older couple,” Barris recalled. “He wanted something different.” Sensing an opportunity, George and his brother Sam were quick to comply.

The legend begins

On Hirohata’s car, the headlights were frenched (tunneled) and the rear fenders lengthened with ’52 Lincoln lenses. The hood was peaked, extended and rounded. A one-of-a-kind nose and grille made the front end appear wider. Full fender skirts with flared lower edges followed.

This car’s defining feature was its significant roof chop, about four inches in front and seven inches in the rear. The B-pillar was eliminated, and new curved windows were constructed for a hard-top effect. Barris’ radical surgery made the roofline appear cleaner and updated the car’s appearance. The chassis was radically lowered as well.

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 affixed chrome trim spears from a ’53 Buick and used that divider to separate the car’s original shades of light and dark green lacquer.

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; the Hirohata did it with integrity and some subtlety.”

The price of perfection

George Barris said the cost of the work was “about $3,500.” That was a lot of money in 1952. Hirohata 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.”

Most radical Mercury customs in that era were finished in dark maroon metallic or dark green. With its pastel ice green light-over-dark treatment, the Hirohata car stood out from the rest.

Inside, 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 that Hirohata made himself. The trunk was upholstered by Gaylord, another noted trimmer. Kenneth Howard, better known as “Von Dutch,” discretely striped the dash panel and the glove compartment two years later.

Born to win

The Hirohata Mercury won its class at Robert Petersen’s 1952 International Motorama, and it was featured in Rod & Custom magazine in 1953, after it had a Cadillac V8 installed.

Featured on the covers of Hop Up and Motor Trend in 1953, the Hirohata Merc was a consistent winner, with nearly 200 awards. Other customs began to look excessive, even freakish, because judging awarded points for every modification. No matter how slight, each element on this Mercury flows together perfectly.

Bob Hirohata occasionally drove his seminal custom to his job at the Hirohata Insurance Company that his family owned in Little Tokyo. He later offered the car in a Hot Rod classified ad in the May 1955 issue for $4,900.

Jim McNiel bought the historic Mercury custom in 1959 for just $500 at a used-car lot, drove it during high school, dated his high-school sweetheart (later his wife) Sue in the car, and stored it away for years, intending to restore it someday. It was presumed lost for all time. A few enthusiasts knew its whereabouts and tried to buy it, but Jim said, “I just couldn’t sell it.”

Sadly, Hirohata was murdered on May 14, 1981, execution-style, in his parents’ driveway in Temple City, CA. Hirohata’s slaying has never been solved.

Restored the right way

In the late 1980s, Ganahl, then-editor of Rod & Custom, persuaded McNiel to restore the Mercury, and he helped coordinate its painting with an all-star cast including original builders George Barris, Frank Sonzogni and Hershel “Junior” Conway. The original paint hues, buried under several repaints, were electronically duplicated, ensuring the car would look just the way it did in 1953.

When Jim took out the dash to rewire the car, he found Bob Hirohata’s and George Barris’ business cards wedged behind the radio speaker, to keep 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 restoration was completed in 1996, and Jim and Sue McNiel showed the Hirohata Mercury at many events. A refresh resulted in a Best in Class win at the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and a 2017 Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) display on the National Mall in Washington.

A world-record sale

At their father’s request, Scott and Darla McNiel, the son and daughter of Jim and Sue McNiel, owners of the Hirohata Mercury for 59 years, retained Wayne Carini and me to help promote and sell the car. We wanted to do our best for the family, and we were pleased with the result.

The essential question here is why did the Hirohata Mercury sell for over $2 million?

This car ticks all the boxes. It was built by the legendary Barris brothers with a unique design. It won countless awards. It had an unbroken chain of ownership and was restored by custom legends. It then took a class win at Pebble Beach, and became the only custom car recognized by the HVA.

No other custom can match that. It’s arguably the most striking and beautiful one ever built. I’d call this a great deal for both the sellers and the buyer.

Yes, Barris’ original Batmobile sold for twice as much, but I submit that this “car” is more of a movie prop. All other great customs have sold for substantially less. None have topped six figures.

Does this mean that every Mercury custom is suddenly more valuable? Not for a moment. The Hirohata Mercury is one of a kind. Its new owner, Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors Inc., showed it at the 2022 Grand National Roadster Show and the Detroit Autorama. He promised the McNiels it will always be on display. That’s befitting for the most valuable and important custom car of all time. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Mecum Auctions Inc.)

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