The world’s most influential custom car goes to auction

Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to Mecum Auctions and have a longstanding, strong relationship with Hemmings Motor News. That’s why it was doubly stunning, and satisfying, to receive the Hemmings Daily last week – if you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for free at the site – and learn from Daniel Strohl, the web-content editor at Hemmings, that the landmark full custom known as the Hirohata Mercury is headed to auction next January at Mecum’s huge sale in Kissimmee, Florida, which is fast gaining a reputation for megastar sales like this one. If you don’t immediately recognize the name, the photo, courtesy Mecum, surely ought to help you.

Bob Hirohata was a Navy veteran from Southern California who was deeply fascinated by the region’s exploding car culture and wanted a radical custom created by the very best. After leaving the service in 1952, Hirohata found a very clean 1951 Mercury coupe on a used car lot in the San Fernando Valley and grabbed it. Like everyone else, he wanted a chopped top, but Hirohata also wanted the hardtop look that trademarked the pioneering 1940 Mercury coupe owned by Nick Matranga, whose conventional B-pillars were eliminated in favor of a hardtop treatment with hand-formed, curved window frames. So Hirohata went to the guys who built the Matranga car, George and Sam Barris. What you see is the result. Dramatically lowered and with its rear quarters extended, the Mercury also received Buick Riviera side trim, functional rear brake scoops, a raked windshield, a full interior from the Carson Top Shop and a dashboard mural painted by Von Dutch himself. Despite being a daily driver – in 1953, Hirohata swapped the original Mercury flathead for a Cadillac OHV V-8 and drove it from California to the Indianapolis 500 – the Mercury was the subject of innumerable magazine covers and feature stories, and won at least 26 trophies at major auto shows, in addition to a star turn in the 1953 Mamie Von Dohren potboiler Running Wild, before selling the car. It passed through several owners, and redone appearances, before 16-year-old Jim McNiel bought it for $500 in 1959. McNiel, who died in 1998, drove the Hirohata Merc for five years before hiding it away in his garage. The hot rod and custom historian Pat Ganahl, who calls this the first 1951 Mercury to have its roof chopped, located the car and persuaded McNiel to let Rod and Custom magazine, which Pat was editing, pay for the car’s restoration to its 1952 appearance. The result was a new starring role in 2015 when the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance featured historic customs as a judged class for the first time. According to Daniel, Mecum expects this car to command a million dollars at auction. Given what the clapped-out Mustang from Bullitt delivered at Mecum’s 2020 sale in Kissimmee, we bet that estimate will prove to be on the light side.

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