Behold the 1951 Hirohata Mercury, purchased by Bob Hirohata after he got out of the Navy in 1952. Previously, Mr. Hirohata had a mildly customized Chevrolet by Barris Kustoms, but he had always wanted to do a more complete, more significant build. He took his Mercury to Barris Kustoms and told brothers Sam and George Barris (yes, that George Barris) that he wanted the top chopped. He said he wanted a hardtop appearance for the side windows by removing the B-pillar, a look the Barris brothers had previously built for another customer.
Bob and George talked about doing a few other things to the Hirohata Mercury, but nothing major. What George had in mind for the Mercury was something entirely different. By the time Mr. Hirohata picked up the car, it was so radically changed he didn’t recognize it.
The Barris Brothers, with help from Frank Sonzogni, had left nothing untouched. The B-pillars were gone and the tops of the doors had been welded to the roof, creating the hardtop appearance Bob wanted. The top had been chopped four inches in front and seven inches in back, with the stock rear window reinstalled, but at a much flatter angle. Ultimately, the Hirohata Mercury became the first chopped 1951, and the first 1949-1951 Merc to be converted to the hardtop aesthetic. But there was so much more to it.
The rear fenders had been extended, and now had frenched taillights from a 1952 Lincoln Capri. The front fenders had been lengthened an additional four inches, and now carried frenched 1952 Ford headlights. Most of the trim had been removed from the sides, trunk, and hood. The hood had been smoothed, filled, and extended into the reconstructed grille made from three 1951 Ford grilles. New parking light frames had been hand fabricated, with frenched lenses crafted from clear plastic.
The doors of the Hirohata Mercury were reshaped, with the design line dip eliminated for a smoother line flowing from the front fender. The rear fenders had functional scoops added to aid rear brake cooling, and flush-fitting fender skirts were made for the rear wheel openings.
The Hirohata Mercury got its proper stance by dropping the rear lower than the front. This was achieved by altering the frame in the back, de-arching the springs, and adding lowering blocks. The coils were chopped in the front, and lowering the car required the fabrication of a new drive tunnel.
While all of the body work was in progress, the interior was taken to Carson Top Shop to be upholstered in white and green Naugahyde. Gaylord’s Kustom Shop was responsible for the trunk, covering the floor in green carpet and lining the sides with rolled and pleated leatherette. Mr. Hirohata made custom knobs for the interior, and the dash was pinstriped by none other than Von Dutch.
The Barris brothers completed the work on the Hirohata Mercury in just 97 days (Mr. Hirohata claimed the car sat largely untouched for 60 days), in time for the 1952 Petersen Motorama. It was finished in a Sea Foam Green over Organic Green two-tone, and fitted with Appleton S-552 spotlights. 1949 Cadillac “sombrero” hubcaps were fitted to the steel wheels (later replaced by 1953 units), complemented by wide whitewall tires.
The Hirohata Mercury was featured in numerous magazines and won car shows all over the United States. Mr. Hirohata drove the car extensively, and it was featured in the October 1953 issue of Rod & Custom in Kross Kountry in a Kustom – Mile After Mile in My Modified Mercillac, as the Merc was now powered by a 1953 Cadillac overhead valve V8 with triple Stromberg carbs. All in, the Hirohata Mercury is said to have amassed some 184 trophies.
Being Mr. Hirohata’s only car, the Hirohata Mercury was naturally his everyday driver. After a few years, Bob returned the Merc to Barris for a few changes and a color change to a different shade of green. But this car’s story doesn’t end there.
In 1959, Jim McNeil spotted the Hirohata Mercury on a used car lot, as it had fallen into disrepair. The 16-year-old McNeil scrambled to come up with $500, and took the car home. He drove the car through high school and for a few years after, finally putting it in storage in 1964, after he got married. It would stay in storage for nearly 25 years.
McNeil began resurrecting the Hirohata Mercury in 1988 with assistance from Pat Ganahl and Rod & Custom Magazine. Jim and his son dug into the project, rebuilt the Caddy engine, and Pat documented and photographed the process. Legendary painter Junior Conway, former employee of the Barris brothers and owner of Junior’s House of Color, took care of the bodywork and paint. The restoration took nearly a decade.
The first show for the resurrected Hirohata Mercury was at the Oakland Museum of California. It was an eye-opener for Mr. McNeil, as people stood in line to see the car and talk to him. The significance of the Mercury was undeniable, even after decades out of the public eye.
The Mercury Eight was subsequently shown at the Customs Then and Now exhibit at the Grand National Roadster Show, the 2011 Custom Motor Show in Sweden, and the 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it took First in Class and the Dean Bachelor Memorial Award as the Most Significant Custom Car.
In April of 2017, the Hirohata Mercury was inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register. It was displayed in an illuminated glass box on the National Mall during the third annual Cars at the Capital exhibition.
Sadly, Jim McNiel passed away in May 2018, but the Hirohata Mercury stayed with the family, and was displayed at the Petersen Automotive Museum. In January 2022, the Hirohata Mercury was the feature car at the Mecum Auctions Kissimmee sale, where it sold for $2,145,000.