A custom Mercury with a Batmobile in its pedigree is up for auction – The New York Times | Car Plazas
Nearly 70 years ago, a 21-year-old Navy veteran commissioned a custom Mercury, with a stripped-down roof, smoothed-down body panels, lower stance, novel chrome trim, two-tone paint and a meticulously hand-crafted interior. It was built by the same workshop that later made the Batmobile for the TV series Batman, and James Dean’s Merc in Rebel Without a Cause cut a similar style.
This 1951 Mercury stood out when young vet Masato Hirohata, who called himself Bob, had it customized in 1952. And it remains an example of the type of custom body shop that developed in Los Angeles in the mid-20th century. Now the car known as the Hirohata Merc is for sale for the first time in over 60 years. It will cross the block at Mecum Auctions’ auction on January 15 in Kissimmee, Fla.
“Among custom cars, the Hirohata Merc is paramount,” said Casey Maxon, senior manager of heritage at the Hagerty Drivers Foundation. In partnership with the Department of the Interior, the Foundation maintains the National Historic Vehicle Register – an inventory of individual automobiles of key importance to American culture. One of only 30 entries on the registry, the Hirohata Merc embodies what Mr. Maxon calls “that masterful indigenous art form that emerged from post-war California.”
The development of the Hirohata Mercury involved many of the key players in the burgeoning auto customization scene.
The body was designed by George and Sam Barris, experienced and prolific brothers with a knack for self-promotion. (Mr. Maxon said George Barris “made his own trophies” and photographed his creations with them.) George Barris built many prominent television cars, including the Munster Koach from The Munsters, the cart from The Beverly Hillbillies. ‘, the 1928 Porter from ‘My Mother the Car’ – and of course the Batmobile.
Its quilted interior was designed by Carson Top Shop, known for its padded convertible tops. Its intricate pinstripes were completed by Kenneth Howard, better known as artist Von Dutch, perhaps the only celebrated pinstripe in American history.
The car caused quite a stir at the 1952 Petersen Motorama Custom Car Show in Los Angeles. Publications in Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines followed. In 1953, with a newly installed Cadillac V-8 engine built by Dick Lyon of Lyon Engineering, Mr. Hirohata drove the car down Route 66 to exhibit at the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Custom Show, an adventure that in a Rod & Custom Article he wrote entitled “Kross Kountry in a Kustom”. The use of the letter K derives from George Barris’ spelling Kustom. Originally a means to publicize and publicize his efforts, this neologic style became a national trend in the custom car community.
“This probably gave many people a first-hand look at what a Southern California custom looked like,” Mr. Maxon said.
At the time, the country was just seven years away from the internment camps where the federal government imprisoned Japanese Americans – including Mr. Hirohata – during World War II.
“You can imagine a Japanese-American gentleman driving this radical car through a small town in Texas,” said Mr. Maxon. “He probably drew attention.” (Mr. Hirohata was shot dead in his parents’ driveway in 1981. The murder was never solved.)
Mr. Hirohata’s car won countless medals, ribbons and trophies in its day.
While the Merc fell into disrepair and sold for as little as $500 in the late 1950s, the man who bought it, Jim McNiel, always planned to bring it back to shine.
“I remember it being put back in the garage on one side, just kind of hidden, blankets and boxes piled on top, and I knew it had a meaning but didn’t understand why,” Mr. McNiels’ son said Scott. who is 51. “And it was ugly. This huge, ugly, two-tone green thing with dents and scratches. It just looked weird and kind of scary.”
Scott McNiel eventually helped his father restore the car. The whole process took decades, but the car was eventually shown again, most notably in 2015 at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it won a Best of Class award. It was added to the National Register of Historic Vehicles in 2017. As part of this honor, it was placed in a display case on the National Mall in Washington.
Jim McNiel passed away in 2018. Recently, Scott McNiel and his sister Darla McNiel made the difficult decision to sell the Merc.
“After Pebble Beach, my dad said, ‘I’m finally ready to get rid of the car. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I enjoyed it. I showed it. I’m ready to move on,’” said Mr. McNiel. When his father died, the siblings decided the car “wasn’t something we wanted to keep in the family,” continued Mr. McNiel. “We wanted to pass it on to the next ambassador.”
Sales of the car are expected to set a record for custom vehicles. According to Mecum’s lead analyst John Kraman, the pre-sale estimate is between $1 million and $1.25 million. But the bid can go much higher.
“There’s nothing quite like it, so it’s difficult to predict how much a car like this, which is truly a one-off, is going to sell,” said Mr. Maxon. “From our point of view, we underline and increase the cultural significance of such a car. What their value is doesn’t make them significant. Its importance is its overall history and its impact on the automobile.”
Although the younger Mr. McNiel is no car fanatic, when asked what he could do with a portion of the proceeds, he turned his attention back to custom cars.
“I definitely want to buy a cool little hot rod – but something I can ride,” he said. “That is what makes this Merc so special. I have the ultimate hot rod, but I can’t do anything with it. It’s too valuable. But if we can pass it on to the next person, I can get something fun. Something to enjoy instead of just looking at.”