updated 01/18/22: The Hirohata Merc sold for $1.95 million at Mecum’s Kissimmee auction last weekend. This story has been updated to reflect this.
Every car has a story. But nobody has one like the Hirohata Merc.
In the early 1950’s, a young man named Bob Hirohata bought a 1951 Mercury and brought it to George Barris’ LA shop for customization. Hirohata’s family owned an insurance company and a parking lot or two. He had money to spend, he wanted something spectacular, and he knew George Barris, Barris’ brother Sam, and the guys who worked at this place were the right team for the job. Barris produced this car that no one had ever seen, a car that is still making headlines.
It had a fender line that stretched from front to back. All emblems and even the door handles have been removed to give the car a smoother look. Barris used a Cadillac engine (making it a “Mercillac”) in place of the original Mercury. He crafted more scoops than an ice cream shop, a one-of-a-kind grille made from three Ford production grilles, and a dash with original Von Dutch pinstripes. Ice green pastel color. Headlights on both sides of the A-pillars. And of course the car was chopped, lowered and adorned with the Barris crest.
No American custom car has garnered more attention over the years. On Saturday, January 15, the car went up for sale for the first time in more than 60 years at the Mecum auction in Kissimmee, Fla. for $1.95 million.
“Of the American custom car genre, I think this is the most important,” says Ken Gross, automotive historian, judge at the Pebble Beach Concours and occasional R&T contributor. “I don’t think anyone in that era – the mid-1950s, a golden age of custom car building – ever built a custom car that attractive. It embodied the right mix of styling, paintwork, finish and imaginative modifications. So when you look at it alongside other custom cars, it just shines to me. There are custom Mercurys and there is the Hirohata Mercury. It’s in a class of its own.”
What makes this car so special, aside from its apparent status as an original industrial work of art, is its exceptional storyline. When it first came out, Bob Hirohata took the Merc to Motorama shows everywhere and to the 1955 Indy 500. It turned heads everywhere. It appeared on magazine covers and in film run wild with Mommy Van Doren. But the praise endured. It won its class at Pebble Beach as well as the Dean Batchelor Most Significant Award in 2015. In 2017 it was named a Historic Vehicle Vehicle Resister and displayed on the National Mall in Washington DC.
Nevertheless, even the does not capture the entire essence of Hirohata Mercury’s biography. In 1959, the custom car movement changed the era. George Barris’ business had transitioned to making quirky film and television cars, from the Batmobile to the Munster Koach to the fold-a-car featured in The Beverly Hillbillies. The Hirohata Merc fell into disrepair and ended up in a random used car lot. Jim McNiel was 16 at the time. He found the Hirohata Merc and bought it for $500 (he had to borrow cash from a friend). For years it sat in his garage, in the modest home where he raised his family. When asked why he kept this car for so long, McNiel said, “I’m just a little bit different. I like to keep old, neat things.”
Ultimately, McNiel decided to restore the car in 1996, but restoring it to its original specifications presented major hurdles. He recruited the original members of the 1950s Barris team, members of the McNiel family, and he did a lot of work on the car himself. Others got involved, such as Rod & Custom Magazine Editor Pat Ganahl. The work took years and the finished restoration was impeccable. In 2015 McNiel showed the completely restored car for the first time. As in its youth, the Hirohata Merc turned out to be an eye-catcher. The mere fact that it even exists, let alone in its current form, is a small miracle.
It’s a car that literally made people cry when they saw it. McNiel passed away in 2018. Now the Hirohata Merc has a new caretaker.