Bob Hirohata's 1951 Mercury
Bob bought the car after getting out of the Navy in 1952. Before he went in to the service he had a mildly customized 1949 Chevrolet that Barris Kustoms had restyled for him. Bob had always wanted a radical custom car, so after seeing Sam Barris' chopped 1949 Mercury, Bob bought a clean low mileage 1951 Mercury that he found in San Fernando Valley. The car was still fairly new, and since no one had chopped a 1951 Mercury yet, Bob instantly knew that this was going to be his radical custom. Bob drove the new car over to Barris Kustoms, and told George and Sam that he wanted to have it chopped. He also wanted to give the side windows a hardtop appearance just like they had done on Nick Matranga's 1940 Mercury coupe. The rest was up to George and Sam.
Bob and George discussed some few minor changes to the car. But George had other plans for the car. When Bob picked up the car he could have sworn that it wasn't the same car that he had left 3 months ago. Every square inch of Hirohata's car was modified by Sam, George and Frank Sonzogni. Sam removed the B-pillars, cut off and welded the top of the doors to the roof and turned the Merc into a hardtop. The top was further chopped 4 inches in the front, and 7 in the rear. The stock rear window was reinstalled at a rakish new angle in order to fit the new lines of the roof. This meant that a large new section of the top had to be scratch built to to make it all flow nicely. At the front, a new cut was made just above the beltline on the A-pillar for a new door shape, the drip rails were removed in the process as well. A V-butted windshield was fit, a customizer's trick instead of using the stock two-pice unit. Bob's Mercury was the first chopped 1951 Mercury, and the first hardtopped 1949 -1951 Mercury.
The rear fenders were extended and fit with frenched 1952 Lincoln tailights. For balance, the front fenders were extended 4 inches as well and modified with frenched 1952 Ford headlight rims. The stock chrome was removed from the hood, trunk and sides. The trunk corners were rounded, and the hood was filled, peaked and extended into the grille. The gravel pan was molded-in and reshaped to match the top. The grille was constructed from three 1951 Ford grilles. The grille wrapped around under the frenched headlights. The parking light holders were fabricated from old grille bars welded together and chromed. The lenses were hand-made from clear plastic and frenched.
The factory dips on the doors were filled and the surrounding sheet metal was reshaped to flow with the 1952 Buick Riviera trim spears which were used on the car. The side trim flowed into functional scoops carved into the rear panels to assist in brake cooling. The scoops were punctuated by three teeth from a 1952 Chevrolet grille. New fenderskirts where made to fit flush into the stock Mercury wheel openings. Round rod was used to add the lip on the bottom. Same round rod was used to create the lip on the front fenders.
To give the car a proper stance, Bob's Merc was lowered more in the rear than in the front. Chopped coils were used in the front, while the frame was kicked up in the rear. The springs were de-arched, and two sets of 1 1/2 lowering blocks were used. A new drive tunnel was fabricated in order to accommodate the drive shaft in the lowered body. Sam Barris and Frank Sonzogni did most of the work on the car. Sam did the drivers side, and Frank the passenger side.
The build took 97 days to complete, and according to Bob Hirohata it seemed like it sat untouched for 60 days. As the 1952 Motorama was coming up, Bob thinks George wanted to make a good showing as they really hustled to get the Hirohata Merc and two other cars done in 30 days. In an interview Bob did with Street Rodder in 1977, he said that the seats and door panels were taken to Carson Top Shop for upholstery while the bodywork was still being done.At Carson Top Shop the seats, headliner and kick panels were upholstered in a white and green Naugahyde rolls and pleats. The trunk was upholstered by Gaylord's Kustom Shop in Lynwood. Gaylord covered the floor with a green carpet, before the sides were lined with pleated and rolled white leatherette. The stock dash was enlivened with custom plastic knobs fabricated by Bob Hirohata himself. The dash knobs gained popularity, and was soon thereafter put into production by Cal Customs. The dashboard was actually the first Dick Jackson ever painted on a car, and it was pinstriped by the legendary Von Dutch. Von Dutch made a striped figure on the dash called "This is the City".
Unlike other custom cars of its time the Hirohata Merc was not painted in a dark metallic lacquer. George Barris painted it in right in the beginning of 1952 in a two tone Sea Foam Green or Ice green as many people call it with Organic Green below the trim spears. Not long after it was completed, the front bumper guards were sectioned two inches to clear the custom grille. Bob added whitewall tires, 1949 Cadillac sombrero hubcaps, and twin Appleton S-552 spotlights. The 1949 Cadillac sombreros was later replaced by sombreros from a 1953 Cadillac.
The Hirohata Merc immediately began appearing in magazines and winning car show trophies all over the country. As he wanted to see the Indianapolis 500, Bob took his award winning custom on a route 66 cross country trip to the 4th annual Indianapolis Custom Show. The trip was chronicled in the Rod & Custom October 1953 story "Kross Kountry In A Kustom - Mile After Mile In My Modified Mercillac". About 8 days before he was supposed to leave, he decided to replace the Flathead with a brand new 1953 Cadillac overhead valve V8 engine. Dick Lyon of Lyon Engineering did the engine switch in the Mercury. The clutch was taken from a Ford, and the flywheel came from an Oldsmobile. The conversion took 5 days. And Bob completed the conersion by sending the car to Nates Muffler Shop for a set of headers. In Indianapolis the Merc won the big first place trophy. The only trouble Bob had on his 2,500 mile trip was because the car was so low. So on their way home, they took one set of lowering blocks out for the trip.
As the Merc was Bob's only car, he drove it almost every day. Around 1954, Barris did some minor changes to the bodywork and removed the antennas on the real fenders. George Barris painted the car Avocado Green.
In Rodding and Re-styling January 1956 there is a letter from Bob Hirohata in the "RODDING and 'Riting" section. In the letter Bob tells how big fan he is of the magazine, and that he would like to see more customs featured. In the letter he tells that he owns a 1951 Mercury restyled by Barris Kustoms of Los Angeles, that is painted in a golden lime mist paint job. So that dates the golden lime mist color back to at least 1955. In the same letter Bob is also saying that the engine is chromed, and that the car has been fit with a two-way radio, portable rear speaker with 50-foot extension cord for beaches and picnincs, gold-plated hubcaps, custom upholstery inside trunk, tool case mounted inside with special screwdriver handles made of green plastic to match the knobs on the dashboard. By the time the Hirohata Merc had won a total of 26 trophies at car shows in California, Indiana, and Michigan, and Bob tells that no other single custom in California could match that. Overall the Hirohata Merc is supposed to have won 184 trophies.
The Merc was used in the movie Runnin Wild featuring Mamie Van Doren. It was not the only Barris custom used on the set, Fred Rowe's 1951 Mercury was used as well. Bob sold the Hirohata Merc to Robert Waldsmith in 1955. In 1957, Robert was was hit by a car comming from the opposite direction, the whole left side was banged up. Sam Gates fixed the car up after the accident, and painted the body metallic gold with a clear lacquer. He had to paint the whole car because he was not able to match the Avocado green that George Barris mixed up.
After a while, Doug Kinney bought the car for 200 dollars. The gold lacquer paint had cracked a lot from the sun and everything, so he tried to fill the cracks and repainted it in lime green. Doug stored it away in his garage for years. According to Ed Roth the car was then in primer, and had a big dent in the hood. When Dirty Doug's garage owner threatened him with eviction, Doug sold the car to a car dealership. According to a Rodders Journal article, Bob Hirohata was shot and killed excecution style on May 14, 1981. The murder was never solved.
In 1959, 16 year old Jim McNiel bought the well used custom car off a lot for $500. He was 16 years old at that time and did some repairs to it and drove the car to high school and everywhere else. The car was put in storage in 1964, when he was married.
In the 1980s it became a big deal for the custom guys to track down the lost Hirohata Merc. Roger Honey went over to Jim's place to check it out along with Joe Bailon in 1988. In 2015 he told Kustomrama that it was talk about where it disappeared to as long as the KKOA run in Reno in the 1980s; "As a matter of fact it seems the whereabouts were brought up by someone at any custom event we went to, and on both coasts. Doug Thompson was really serious about tracking it down, and spent lots of time on its whereabouts before he took on the clone for Jack Walker." In 1988 Jim began restoring the car back to its former glory. The car was painted by Junior Conway.
In 2011 the Hirohata Merc was shown at the Customs Then and Now exhibit at the Grand National Roadster Show. April 2011, the Hirohata Merc was also shown at the 2011 Custom Motor Show in Elmia, Sweden.
April 12, 2017 the McGee Roadster, the Hirohata Merc and the Gypsy Rose were announced as the 16th, 17th and 18th vehicles to be added to the National Historic Vehicle Register in recognition of their significance in American automotive history. All three vehicles were center stage on the National Mall that morning to mark the commemoration and opening ceremony for the third annual Cars at the Capital exhibition. The exhibition and documentation are part of the Historic Vehicle Association partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record and Library of Congress archives. As part of the exhibition, the Hirohata Merc will be showcased in an illuminated glass box in the National Mall from April 27- May 04, 2017.
Magazine Features and Appearances
Hot Rod Magazine March 1953
Motor Trend March 1953
Hop Up July 1953
Rod & Custom August 1953
Rod & Custom October 1953
Rod & Custom March 1954
Trend Book 109 Custom Cars 1954 Annual
Rodding and Re-styling January 1956
Custom Cars October 1957
Trend Book 133 Custom Cars 1957 Annual
Trend Book 143 Restyle Your Car
Street Rodder August 1977
Rod & Custom August 1989
Rod & Custom August 1990
Custom Rodder November 1994
Road & Track August 2004
Trend Book 208 Custom Cars 2012 Annual
The American Custom Car by Pat Ganahl
Lead Sleds by Joe Kress
Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture by John DeWitt
The Ultimate Hot Rod Dictionary: A-Bombs to Zoomies by Jeff Breitenstein
The Big Book of Barris by George Barris, David Fetherston
Hot Rods by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth
Rik Hoving Custom Car Photo Archive
Howard Gribble's Flickr Photostream
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