On The Block – Hirohata Merc Hits Market, First Time In 60 Years

If there is one automobile that could be hailed as the most famous kustom car of all time, you’re looking at it folks.  The last time this car changed ownership was decades ago when a young Jim McNiel found it on a Southern California used car lot.  Jim paid a measly $500 in 1959 and after getting the sled roadworthy, it became the car he drove in his high school years.

Bob Hirohata and the Merc back in the day.

Years earlier, Bob Hirohata from Los Angeles California, had seen the Barris Brothers work on other cars and asked if they could duplicate the modifications to his 1951 Mercury Coupe. George and Sam Barris along with Frank Sonzogni, got to work and chopped the top four inches at the front, seven inches at the rear and leaned back the windshield.

They nixed the B-pillars and smoothed the famous Merc door dip to match the chrome side spear from a 1952 Buick. They frenched the headlights and extended the front and rear fenders as well. To top it all off, George Barris shot the thing in a minty green/dark green two-tone combo that has become a signature element of the car. The interior is a green and white concoction with pinstriping done by none other than Von Dutch.

Most kustoms back in the day were considered “low and slow,” and Bob wanted to dispel that so he installed a 331 cubic inch Cadillac V-8 and drove it all the way from California to the Indianapolis 500 in 1953. The car was also in a movie with Mamie Van Doren titled “Running Wild.” After winning a bunch of trophies and garnering the cover of many car mags, Hirohota sold the car.

After Jim McNiel bought it, he drove it for around five years and then steered it into his garage, covered it up, and there it sat for over 25 years.  In 1996, McNiel had the car restored and the world was reintroduced to this famous Merc once again. In 2015 the car won first in class at Pebble Beach.

Sadly, McNeil died in May 2018, and while his family has made other attempts to sell the car, they have since listed the Hirohata Mercury with Mecum in Kissimmee, Florida on January 6-15, 2022. While no pre-auction value estimate exists for the car, folks-in-the-know expect it to sell for more than $1 million. A comparably important kustom from the same era, the Golden Sahara, crossed the block and sold for $350,000 at Mecum’s 2018 Indianapolis auction.

  • Named for the car’s original owner, Bob Hirohata of Los Angeles, California
  • Iconic kustom car built by Sam and George Barris
  • Featured in Hot Rod Magazine in March 1953
  • Cover car for Hop Up magazine in March 1953
  • Class Winner at the 1952 Petersen Motorama
  • Featured in Rod & Custom in October 1953
  • Appeared in the film “Running Wild” in 1955 starring Mamie Van Doren
  • In the care of the McNiel family since 1959, when Jim McNiel purchased the car for $500 at the age of 16
  • Restoration completed in 1996 to exact 1952 Motorama specifications
  • Restoration detailed by Pat Ganahl in several issues of Rod & Custom magazine
  • Colors matched using spectrography and new paint was applied by Junior’s House of Color using PPG materials
  • Displayed at the “Hot Rods and Customs (The Men and Machines of California’s Car Culture)” exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California upon completion
  • Restored again by the original builders, including Herschel “Junior” Conway and Frank Sonzogni, in 2015 for Pebble Beach
  • First in Class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2015
  • Added to the National Historic Vehicle Register in 2017 and displayed on the national mall in Washington, DC
  • Previously displayed at the Petersen Automotive Museum
  • 1953 Cadillac 331 CI OHV V-8 engine with three Stromberg carburetors
  • The B-pillars were removed and the roof was reshaped to create a hardtop
    V-butted windshield
  • Top chopped 4 inches in the front and 7 inches in the rear
  • Front fenders extended 4 inches, incorporating frenched 1952 Ford headlights
  • Rear fenders extended and fitted with frenched 1952 Lincoln Capri tail lights
  • Trunk corners were rounded
  • Hood was filled, peaked, and extended into the grille
  • Custom grille made from three 1952 Ford grilles
  • Factory dips on the doors were filled and the surrounding sheet metal was reshaped to flow with 1952 Buick Riviera trim spears
  • Functional brake cooling scoops on rear panels
  • Flush-fit flared fender skirts
  • Chopped front coils in the front and the frame was kicked up in the rear
  • Springs were de-arched using two sets of 1.5-inch lowering blocks
  • Finished in two-tone Seafoam Green and Organic Green
  • Pinstriping originally applied by Von Dutch
  • Custom upholstery by The Carson Top Shop
  • Trunk upholstered by Gaylord’s Kustom Shop
  • 1953 Cadillac “Sombrero” wheel covers
  • Twin Appleton S-552 spotlights

Article Sources

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
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