Update: The Barris-built Hirohata Mercury sold for a whopping $1.95 million before fees at Mecum Kissimmee on Saturday, January 15, 2022.
The legendary Hirohata Mercury nears its time on the Mecum auction block in Kissimmee, Florida, where it is a standout piece of the auction house’s capstone sale. The sale of Mecum in Kissimmee not only kicks off the year of the collector car trade, but is also one of the most important milestones in the Mecum calendar. Pieces of automotive history or coveted machines will find a new home here. Joining his ranks this year is Bob Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury.
We took a look at the history of this Barris-built Mercury when it was first confirmed to be headed to the auction block. As the name suggests, the Hirohata Mercury was built in 1952 by the team at Barris Kustoms for Robert “Bob” Hirohata View some film work. As is usual with custom cars, Hirohata has constantly updated his prized Mercury – and as is often the case, these cars tend to fall out of favor with age, and Hirohata’s Mercury is no exception.
After exchanging hands a few times, Hirohata’s once-beloved Mercury found himself sitting in a used car spot. This formerly groundbreaking custom looked dated and used and probably went in the same direction as other prominent custom cars like the Barris “Kopper Kart” or Ed Roth’s “Mysterion” and just disappeared with time. Luckily for anyone in the world obsessed with custom cars, Jim McNiel managed to raise the money to buy Bob Hirohata’s 1959 Mercury from the used car park and owned it until his death in 2018. Under McNiel’s ownership, the Hirohata Mercury was restored , shown and won its class at the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Such is the case at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours Chasing vintage cars F40 Motorsports host and owner Wayne Carini enters the story of the Hirohata Mercury. While filming his TV show in Pebble Beach, Herschel “Junior” Conway, the painter of Hirohata Mercury, brought McNiel and Carini together. Carini recalls, “We talked for a while and he[McNiel]said, ‘Would you sit in the car with me?’ So I said sure I’m thrilled to sit in it. He said, “I just want to tell you something. I hired you to help my family sell the car. I would like your permission to tell my family that you will help them sell this car after I die.'” Carini shot back at McNiel, “Jim, you look damn healthy to me.”
Three years later, McNiel’s death got the ball rolling towards the auction block. Carini didn’t make it easy for itself to help a legendary car find a new home. He said: “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. It’s an icon in the car world and now it’s been given to me as the person responsible for helping his (McNiels) family sell the car. And a lot of weight is being put on my shoulders to do the best I can for the family.”
About the plan to sell this Mercury, Carini said: “We have made a decision on where we want to sell it. Now we had a few offers right in advance and the family decided the best way to make it fair and get as much money for the car as possible was to go to an auction and get everyone a fair offer make chance to buy it.”
Wisely, Carini didn’t take on the task of helping the Hirohata Mercury trade alone. Carini asked his friend Ken Gross for help. Gross, for the unfamiliar, is not only a renowned journalist and walking history book of car culture; He’s also one of the people responsible for helping cars like the Hirohata Mercury see the green at Pebble Beach.
“I’ve often said there’s the Hirohata Mercury, and then there’s all the other customs. For me, this is the definitive custom car,” said Gross. “I’m saying that partly because of his fame, his fame, his movies, Barris and the rest, but he’s just better looking than the rest. The combination of that two-tone paint job, the Buick side sweep, and the way the car had a hard top… It pioneered a number of features that people copied, but nobody copied them quite like this car.”
Gross probably thought the same thing when he and his jury had to pick a winner from a group of some of Pebble Beach’s most historically significant Mercury customs. Gross explains, “First of all, to win the class, we judged these cars on the Pebble Beach grading system… So you can judge a custom car that way in terms of restoration accuracy, paint quality, etc. and so on. We’ve had a couple of these cars score either 99 or 100 on a standard rating scale. What makes the difference are those three points for Field Presence, Notoriety, and Fame. These last three points often separate a group of 100-point cars. It’s subjective, but you have to do that because many cars can score 100 points in terms of restoration perfection. So you have to look at these almost intangible assets.”
Carini and Gross both got a chance to drive the Hirohata Mercury the way you probably take your weekend car for a spin. According to Gross, who is also a North American Car of the Year judge, he noted that despite his aggressive chop, he had no trouble seeing out of the car. “I loved driving,” he said. “One of the things I enjoyed the most was watching people’s reactions to the car. You couldn’t drive past people without them turning around or pulling out a phone for a photo.”
With a pedigree stretching back miles and a solid place in history, the question always arises of price and buyer. Mecum estimates the Hirohata Mercury will fetch a seven-figure sum, ranging from a cool $1 million to $1.25 million. Of course that’s a lot of money. As for the buyer, Gross and Carini agree that it could be almost anyone. While this car obviously touches the hearts of those who have experienced it in real time or vicariously through old magazines and movies, this Mercury has broken free from the constraints of being only a wagon. The Hirohata Merc has officially become a part of American history since it sat in a used car lot and sold for less than $1000 to its dwelling on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It is a reflection of its time, of the entire car culture and, for some, as important as a work of art.
You can see for yourself how much will fall on this historic car at the Mecum Auction in Kissimmee, Florida on Saturday, January 15th.
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