The Hirohata Merc: 1951 Mercury Custom

If you were ever interested in Hot Rods or Custom cars, chances are you have seen this car. You might not have known its name or history but the legacy of this car lives on in thousands of custom cars driving our streets today. This is the legendary Bob Hirohata Mercury, arguably the most famous and influential custom car ever. This car will be up for auction at Mecum in January 2022 in Kissimmee, Florida. Thanks to Larry D. for the tip.

Masato “Bob” Hirohata was born in 1931 in LA, which made him just a kid during WWII. Despite his youth and innocence, he and his family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans, were moved into concentration camps, out of fears about their loyalty. Despite enduring that injustice, after the war, Bob’s family ran a successful insurance business (or parking lot business, I found sources claiming one or the other) postwar, which allowed him, after leaving the US Navy in 1952, to have enough money to buy an almost new 1951 Mercury Coupe.

(A stock 1951 Mercury Coupe for comparison)

Now Bob was no stranger to customs. Before he joined the Navy, he had owned a 1949 Chevrolet that was mildly customized by Sam and George Barris at Barris Kustoms in LA. According to his August 1977 Street Rodder interview, Bob had always wanted a radical custom and once he saw Sam Barris’ chopped 1949 Mercury, he went out and found the aforementioned 1951 Mercury Coupe. Bob took the car over the Barris brother’s shop, told them he wanted it chopped, with the side windows modified the way they had done previously on another famous early custom, the Nick Matranga 1940 Mercury Coupe. Bob left the rest of the styling decisions up to the Barris brothers and Frank Sonzogni, a shop worker. Bob and the Barris brothers also agreed that the car would be the showpiece of the shop’s display at the 1952 Motorama.

(The Matranga Merc, inspiration for the side windows and representative of customs of the 1940s)

After three months of waiting, Bob Hirohata got the call and went down to Barris Kustoms to see the finished product. Bob had gotten exactly what he had ordered, a radical custom the likes of which LA had never seen before. He even had trouble believing it was the same car at first. This list of changes was immense. Sam had, as asked, removed the B pillars to make the coupe a  hardtop. To create the desired look, Sam cut off the top of the doors and welded them to the roof. The roof was chopped seven inches in the back and four in the front to create the longer, lower hardtop look, while the rear window was left uncut and was laid at a different angle from stock to make one continuous line with the roof. To achieve this look, Sam Barris had to extend the roof by adding more metal. In typical California fashion, the drip rails were removed and the windshield was changed from the stock two-piece to a V type that was more stylish. The A-pillar was modified to fit the new door and roof design.

With the roofline was lowered, the body of the car was similarly lowered. The stance of the car, hugely important in customizing even today, was brought down using chopped coils in the front and a frame notch in the rear. The springs were de-arched and a set of lowering blocks completed the new ride height. The car was so low that on a subsequent road trip, Bob Hirohata actually had to remove the blocks to prevent the car from bottoming out while driving. The bottom of the car also received a channel for the driveshaft for this reason. The car having been lowered, the Barris’ Brothers also set about lengthening the car and adding their own body modifications. Gone was all the stock trim. The front and rear fenders were lengthened. The grille was replaced with one made from three ’51 Ford grilles combined. The headlights were from a ’52 Ford and were “frenched” aka recessed/molded into the bodywork of the front fender. The rear taillights were similarly replaced, only this time with ’52 Lincoln lights, while the trunk corners were rounded off to better match the more streamlined contours of the customized body.

Other body modifications included having new fender skirts made that had a lip that matched the front fenders. The hood was filled, extended into the grille area, and had the front of the hood “peaked,” which means adding to or creating a ridge from the line from the center of the hood, through to the edge of the grille opening. The grille now came around under the headlights. The rear quarter panels just behind the doors received functional air scoops designed to cool the brakes and fashioned from parts of a ’52 Chevrolet grille. The rear fenders both received Radio Aerial Intensifiers antennas, a fun tech gizmo of the time. To complete the exterior transformation, the car was painted in a two-tone paint scheme. Sea Foam Green was the main body color, which Organic Green used on the bottom, framed by the custom trim. A set of whitewall tires with Cadillac hubcaps, and the obligatory twin Appleton spotlights finished off the car.

(The dash knobs made by Hirohata and the Von Dutch pinstriping faithfully recreated)

The interior was done in green and white Naugahyde with pleats and rolls by the Carson Top Shop while Gaylord’s Kustom Shop did the trunk interior. Bob Hirohata added his own touch in the form of new dial knobs for the dashboard. So popular were these that the knobs were reproduced with Bob’s permission by Carson Top Shop. The dash received pin striping from the legendary Von Dutch. Dick Jackson, a future famous custom car painter, cut his teeth painting the dash and steering column of the Hirohata Mercury. Even the trunk got its own treatment, similar to the interior, with custom gas and oil cans, and still room for a full-sized spare! The fuel filler lid was shaved and filled in, thus the trunk had to be opened to fuel up the car.

From drop-off to delivery, the Hirohata Merc spent just 97 days at the Barris Kustom Shop and the build might have taken even less time. According to Bob, the car sat around for a few months before anything was done with it. With so many legends and artisans working on the car, it is no wonder the car is as famous today as it is. Only a year after it was completed, in 1953, Bob made another change, this time to the power plant. The original flathead Mercury V8 was replaced in favor of a powerful new Cadillac OHV V8. Done in just five days, and a little over a week before a planned massive road trip down Route 66, surprisingly the journey was mostly trouble-free. The only problem came from the aforementioned low ride height and Bob did end up taking out some of the lowering blocks to improve the comfort.

Bob won awards with the car left and right but he didn’t park it in between shows. Amazingly, the award-winning radical custom was Hirohata’s daily driver and only car. It received minor changes in the years after 1953. The trunk antennas were removed, the paint was changed multiple times, at one point Avacado Green, another time Golden Lime Mist. The Merc had a film appearance with Mamie Van Doren in the film Running Wild (1955). At the time Variety magazine simply called the movie “okay”. Bob sold the car in 1955 and it went through a series of owners through the late 1950s. It was laid up in 1964 when the then owner got married and the car disappeared for the next 20 years. The Hirohata Mercury reemerged in 1988 and was restored to its original 1952 appearance. In 2017, the car was added to National Historic Vehicle Register. Now the car is about to embark upon the next chapter in its story in January of 2022 up on the auction block at Mecum.

Bob Hirohata never got to enjoy all the latest interest in the car in the past quarter-century. He was murdered on May, 14th, 1981 while working on his car in his driveway. His murder remains unsolved. Despite his tragic and senseless murder, Bob Hirohata will never truly die. He lives on in his car and in the millions of cars that have been influenced by it. He is forever linked to the most iconic and significant custom car in history. Whoever becomes the newest custodian of this incredible automobile, however rich, will be just that, a temporary caretaker. The car will forever be the Hirohata Mercury and I can think of no more fitting tribute to Masato “Bob” Hirohata than that.

(Huge thanks to Kustomrama for all the detailed information and photos of the car and Bob Hirohata.)

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Comments

  1. unclemymy Member

    Wow! What a great write-up about this fantastic car! This is why I subscribe, because of all the great history laid out by dedicated enthusiasts. To be able to appreciate the significance of this automobile, and be rich enough to own it, too? Hard to imagine.

    Like 43
    • Frank Sumatra

      The write up is attributed to the Kustomrama website, as it should be, Check out the site. It is based in Oslo, Norway

      Like 15
  2. Doug from MD.

    This is an iconic automobile that’s sadly most young people could care less about. I followed the reconstruction in Rod and Custom magazine in the late 80s. I’ve always loved the early custom cars and the builders of the day. Sam Barris kinda takes a back seat when the Barris brothers are mentioned. George was the promoter of the shop a d the most visible, but Sam was the talent. No matter who owns this car it will always be the Hirohata Merc.

    Like 29
    • Frank Sumatra

      In this case “Young People” would be anyone under 55.

      Like 19
      • nlpnt

        I’m in my mid 40s and only heard about it in the past couple years.

        Like 4
      • SirRaoulDuke

        I am 50 and am very familiar with this legendary car.

        Like 3
  3. Mark

    Ever been to a museum and found yourself in front of a piece that made you stop and just stare at it, taking in all the fine details? This is one of those.
    A work of art.

    Like 23
  4. Steve Clinton

    It looks like that woman in the first photo is a 1951 model as well.

    Like 24
    • Mark Member

      I wonder if she is still around. Be great to get her at the auction.

  5. Slantasaurus

    I was able to see this car in person at the MCACN show. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

    Like 11
  6. Gary

    The Matranga Merc and the Hirohata Merc are the two customs all others are judged by. This car will sell for $2,000,000.00 plus. I just wish I was well heeled enough to purchase it, it would be a dream come true.

    Like 12
    • Will Fox

      It wouldn’t surprise me if this Merc hits $3M on the block. It’s the holy grail of customs, and the only one of it’s kind. A true legend. I’m 61 and recall seeing photos of this in the small Rod & Custom magazines from the early 50s.

      Like 12
  7. Joe Haska

    It will be interesting to see how much this car sells for. I can’t even begin to guess, it is am absolute icon. It really is priceless, this is the reason for 50 Merc’s, just like the Doane Spencer 32 is the definition of the 32 Ford Roadster. I am 79 years old and I grew up with these two cars , I can’t even imagine owning one. You can’t really own it, you are a caretaker, when you have legend and historical artifact, it is your obligation to share it.

    Like 5
  8. Doug from MD.

    Not mention in the write up is that the late owner Jim McNeil saved this car from sure ruin. He was just a teenager in the early 60s when he found it on a used car lot in sad shape. He’s owned this car until his death in 2018. So a big thank you to Jim for saving this rolling piece of art.

    Like 41
    • Frank Sumatra

      I think he is a big part of the story on the Kustomrama site.

      Like 8
    • Gary

      Truly a man with foresight, it would have most likely been scraped and a historical treasure would have been lost forever.

      Like 3
    • Gary

      Truly a man with foresight, it would have most likely been scraped and a historical treasure would have been lost forever. When he restored the car he said it was hard to leave the bubblegum welds on the frame as is and not pretty them up, they were left as Sam and company had done them.

      Like 3
  9. Doone

    Beautiful Lead Sled with, new lights you could call it a Lead Led Sled. First time I can agree with everything everyone said and to add to the list does anyone else see the shape similarity of the Metranga Merc to this one?

    https://www.netcarshow.com/mercedes-benz/2016-vision_maybach_6_concept/

    Like 4
    • Doug Anderson

      yeah,…but, the original is “the Bomb”
      the other,..?

      hmmmm… ‘just a copy’…. LoL

      The Metranga car is my personal fav….
      but they’re both ‘just the best’ -ever

  10. BIMMERBILL

    What a great car. I enjoyed every word and it brought back a lot of memories from my high school days driving my slightly customized ’49 Cadillac. I read every article on Bob’s Mercury that I could find. Boy was I in love with that car.
    By the way did anyone notice the rollers that were installed on each side at the rear of the car for steep driveways. Ck out the the picture of the rear view and look hard, they are there.

    Like 6
  11. Jimbosidecar

    Thank You for the history lesson

    Like 5
  12. Jon G.

    $5 million car any day of the week. It really should go for more like $10m. I would love to see it set an all time record for an American made car.

    Like 2
  13. Lowell Peterson

    Bob Hirohata was living in San Marino Ca when I was a teenager in Arcadia, a couple miles away. This car cruised Colorado blvd in Pasadena back in the day. I saw the famous custom car paint wizard Stan Betz mix the paint for this car when McNiel restored it. About 10 gallons!!! Amazing!!!

    Like 7
  14. Mike

    As seen in Running Wild:

    https://youtu.be/OZSa9VJsB_w?t=1271

    Like 1
  15. jwaltb

    Barn Finds continues its metamorphosis.

    Like 1
  16. 57 Chevy

    It’s a very nice custom, however I guess I’m an oddball because I would much more prefer the Original than the custom one!

    Like 1
  17. 57Chevy

    Very nice custom, but I guess I’m weird or an oddball. I much prefer the Original to this radical custom. Not much of a fan of chopped cars. But a very professional job indeed!

  18. Micky

    Most of all; Thank You Bob: Here’s To You.

    Like 3
  19. Brian Cox

    This is my dream car, i seen a photo of this car in the early 80ties I was 20ish at the time living in NZ, now I’m 61 living in OZ, i bought a 50 merc imported it from the USA 10 yrs plus ago, unfortunately i was deceived i didn’t get what i paid for, yes i know now I’m not alone. my call is out to the oz community like you old guys i hv a workshop 1/2 set up south windsor NSW or maybe resco my ride Australia lets keep Bob & the Barris’ Brothers alive. This is a great start its chopped shaved, 53 buick side chrome, lincoln tail lights, etc. unfortunate chev motor now will be gone.
    lets get straight I will never sell the car, Only pure at heart conceded this will be a community project lets make this happen i’m looking to a contribute car to the for fathers of customs.

    Like 1
  20. Rolls-Royce

    I sol ones a modern Mercury SUV, not so far a way from here, and when I watched at the inside, well, the inside was very lux.

  21. Bruce Nairn

    Beautiful car(s), beautiful woman and a great story too!

    Like 1
  22. BIMMERBILL

    Mamie Van Doren is 90 now. I hope she is well and still pretty for her age. The design of the CAR has not aged one bit even though it went through a restoration to bring it back to a 100%. Long live Bob’s Mercury.

    Like 1
  23. Luke

    Sold for $1950000!!!

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