I love a good mystery. Whether written or real life, some are better than others. The thing is, in mystery books, if you can’t solve it along the way, by the end it reveals who done it. In real life, that’s not always the case. Also in real life, as you’re solving one mystery, sometimes others pop up. Surprises. Lots of people don’t like surprises. But they also can be good or bad. I like good surprises, and I’ve been lucky to uncover quite a few.
That indicates that I also love to sleuth. I like history. I love tracking down lost hot rods, and learning their stories. I’ve done two books on it. I coined the term “Hot Rod Archeologist.” And what is an archeologist if not a sleuth, a detective? Yes, I’ve encountered plenty of dead ends. But what’s really fun are the good surprises. When one discovery leads to another good one, and maybe another one after that.
What’s this jibber-jabber about? In this case, it’s the Mystery Merc briefly seen in the movie The California Kid. When I did my column on the filming locations for that film a few weeks ago, nobody could tell me anything about that mildly chopped, dark gray primered ’51–who owned it, who built it, where it went. Most people didn’t even remember seeing it. Remember, that TV movie was first shown in 1974.
But to me, this was another lost custom to track down. Just as nobody throws away an old hot rod, same goes for good chopped Mercs. So in the last few weeks I’ve done a lot of phone-calling, internet searching, following leads, and–best–getting some good tips from you, my readers. Everything you see and read in this column is stuff I didn’t know, have–or remember I had–a few weeks ago.
It starts with a film called Badlands. Two or three readers clued me to this, saying it also starred Martin Sheen (as a cross-country serial killer, with his 15-yr. old girlfriend played by Sissy Spacek), and during the first half of the film he drove this same primered chopped Merc. I never could find any still photos of this car as used in the CA Kid, but you might remember it had a good, mild chop, retaining the ’51 rear window, with slightly slanted B pillars. You can see in the photo above the proportions were good. But besides being nosed and decked, with shaved doorhandles, it was otherwise stock: headlights, taillights, bumpers, side chrome, etc. It was lowered some, but not much.
So, the movie Badlands. I had never seen or heard of it. Apparently not a whole lot of other people did, either. But, while it wasn’t a big box office success, it has been highly critically acclaimed. It was made the year before CA Kid (1973). It was Terrence Malick’s directorial debut, and it was Sissy Spacek’s “coming out film.” It was shot mostly in southern Colorado, and it was based on the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his young girlfriend. You can find the whole film on the internet. I watched just enough to get the gist, see the Merc’s part, and observe enough murder, brutality, and mayhem to turn it off, because we’ve seen enough of that, repeatedly, in real life news lately.
However, sounding like Alexa: I found this on Wikipedia, “Badlands is often cited by film critics as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. … It was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being ‘Culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Hyperbole? Watch it and see.
One thing I have to mention right here, because I totally forgot it for a while: In 1973, there were hardly any chopped Mercs, or other ’50s customs. Few knew what they were. I didn’t do my Special Merc Issue of Street Rodder until Aug. ’77, and then I could only find ten chopped Mercs in the whole country that were feature-worthy. As one of my current sources said, “Back then [’60s, ’70s], a chopped Merc was a hoodlum’s car. The only guy I knew who had one was a bad-ass biker. And they were all primered tail-draggers because nobody could afford paint and didn’t want to take care of it anyway.”
As one critic said of Badlands at the time of its debut, the main character drove “a beat-up old car.” That’s how a black-primered chopped ’51 Merc was perceived in ’73. But as for accuracy, in searching the net yesterday for info on Charles Starkweather, I found these two photos that are apparently the actual car he drove. Yes, a black-primered ’50 Ford, kinda beat-up, with the grille missing. To most observers, not much different from the chopped ’51 Merc (which had its grille missing in the CA Kid scenes).
So where did the nicely chopped ’51 Merc come from? Who built it? Who owned it? Was Martin Sheen the link that got it from Colorado to California for the CA Kid movie a year later? I can’t answer all of that, and I can’t remember specifically where I learned any of it, but I think it came from searching the H.A.M.B.–always a good source for this sort of car-related stuff. Back in ’04, somebody going by 00 Mack asked “Anybody know whatever happened to the otherwise stock, nosed, decked, and chopped ’51 Merc with slanted posts in the movie Badlands with Martin Sheen?” He didn’t get an answer to that question, but in discussions following someone knew that the car was built by a guy named Gary Littlejohn. I hadn’t heard of him, but after much searching, sleuthing, and phoning, I learned that he is quite a story in himself that I unfortunately can hardly cover here, nor do I have any relevant photos to show.
Fairly briefly, Littlejohn got into chopper motorcycles in the latter ’60s. A very crafty guy, he built custom chopper frames, but was best known for fabricating several types of “coffin-style” fuel tanks. He advertised these for sale in early issues of Street Chopper magazine, and I even found a multi-page article they did showing how he made them. At the same time, being in the L.A./Hollywood area, he also got involved as an extra/actor/stuntman in several of the B-grade biker movies that were being made at that time. Lots of them. Apparently he was good at it, had the right look, and made the proper connections, leading to a long and very active career as a stunt driver, stuntman, and even bit-actor in dozens of films over five decades. For specifics, look him up on IMDb or Wikipedia. So not only did he get his Merc in Badlands, he also played the Sheriff who finally catches and handcuffs Sheen and Spacek at the end.
In addition to all this, any kid who’s into BMX bicycles knows the name Littlejohn because he designed, built, and sold the first frames for these racing, jumping, and flipping little bikes. He even invented “sidehack” models. Then came beach cruisers. You can look this up. But as of ’05, according to someone on the H.A.M.B., “Today Gary lives in Vermont [where he was originally from] and is a stunt co-ordinator in the film industry.” Apparently he’s still there.
But back to the Merc. And a whole ‘nother story. Someone else emailed me that they thought this same Merc was featured in Street Rodder magazine, obviously in some finished form.
It took me a while to find it–in the Oct. ’78 issue–because this was a few months after I had left the magazine. It was a 2-page feature, listing Paul Hatton of Garden City, MI, as the owner, and Bob Clark as the photographer. There was no body copy, and hence no byline, just captions on the black-and-white page of detail photos. But the first caption states: “Paul Hatton had Gary Littlejohn chop the top of his ’51 Merc 3″ before having his dad do the gold and brown lacquer job.”
I could tell something was amiss here, because Paul Hatton was probably the most acclaimed custom painter and pinstriper in the Detroit area for several years, especially known for his scallops on many famous cars such as Chili Catallo’s Deuce Coupe and other Alexander Bros. cars, such as the Victorian. So it didn’t make sense that he’d have his father paint this car. Besides paint, pinstriping, and tinted windows, the car now had a ’54 Chevy grille, fresh chrome, ripple sidepipes, Lancer wheelcovers, a louvered hood, and–surprisingly–doorhandles back in place. I assume (judging by exhaust sounds in both movies) that the smallblock Chevy shown here was installed by Littlejohn early on. Another B&W interior photo showing an unidentified bucket seat simply states that “The brown Naugahyde upholstery was in the ’51 when he got the car.”
I finally got hold of Bob Clark yesterday, who worked at McMullen longer than I did, starting on Street Chopper magazine. He said he made several trips to the Chicago and Detroit areas photographing choppers, and he just vaguely remembered photographing this car, and Paul Hatton. But no specifics. Previously, I called everyone I could think of who would have known Hatton, including Bob Larivee. What I learned was that Paul had died several years ago, as had his son, Paul Jr. However, I was able to contact Paul Jr.’s younger brother, Brian, now working in a custom shop in Tennessee.
He said he was only about 14 then, but he remembered much of the deal. To start, he said that was Paul Jr. seen in the car in the feature, who was 22 at the time. Hence reference to his father painting the car. He couldn’t remember how his dad heard about the Merc, but he bought it from Universal Studios (which produced the CA Kid movie and probably bought the car from Littlejohn then).
Here’s one big surprise. Brian was able to find this photo of how the car looked when they got it. He said Universal sprayed it with a quickie pale yellow paint job, put a stock grille in it, and raised it to stock height (note door handles still shaved) for use in another movie that he’s not sure ever got made. It’s my guess they did this to use it as background “filler’ in some ’50s era film(s), the top chop being mild enough that most people wouldn’t notice. Brian said this photo is dated Sept. ’75. He thinks his dad bought it in ’76. Paul Jr. flew out to California to get it and drive it back to Detroit. He remembers it had some sort of Universal tag on the key chain. Then they stripped it, repainted it, and finished it as you see in the ’78 SRM feature. But that’s about as long as they kept it. Brian said they had this, and an unchopped black and flamed ’51, and sold both in ’78 or ’79 “to some collector, or someone who had a museum, maybe in the St. Paul area.” All that he really remembers is that they both “went away.”
Here’s the second big surprise–for me. When I finally found the feature in Street Rodder, I had a small shock of recognition. The paint job is unusual. I wouldn’t call this custom beautiful. But I knew it…from somewhere other than this feature. It wasn’t until I was falling asleep the other night that it popped into my head: I used this car in one of my own stories. I even remembered where. It was a British magazine called Hot Rod & Custom that I wrote a monthly column for, and for their June ’78 issue I did a 4-page color article simply titled “Mercs.”
I used this one photo, saying in the caption that it was Paul Hatton’s from Garden City, MI, that it was only mildly chopped and modified, adding that it had a “highly effective ‘scallop’ paint scheme.” Most of the other cars were ones I used in my Aug. ’77 SRM Chopped Merc Issue. This led me to my files out in the garage, where I was able to find the work envelope for this article, but all it had were several B&W prints of the all Mercs (no info), including these two:
This in turn led me to my shelf full of binders of more photos, and I picked the oldest one marked “Color Customs.” Sure enough, in a plastic sleeve holding 12 2-1/4 transparencies, I found two more, the one above, and this one:
The takeaway from all this? First, I’ve got photos in my files I can’t even remember I’ve got. And second, I never had a clue this was the same chopped Merc that was in The California Kid, which started this whole caper in the first place.
So this of course brings us to the final question: where is it now? And this, I’m afraid, is the not-so-good surprise. In fact, it’s sort of like a mystery book that doesn’t quite tell you who really did it.
Threads on the H.A.M.B. can continue for years. The one started by 00 Mack in ’04 asking whatever happened to the Badlands Merc finally got an answer on 6/28/17 from somebody calling himself “Nobody” from “Liberty Sc.” It said: “I have owned it for 15 yrs now drove it alot for about 12 yrs w/some minor upgrades now I’m doing full frame off if anyone would like pics email” (and he gave an address I won’t repeat here, to reduce frustration). I have no idea where “Liberty Sc” was supposed to be, but this person obviously didn’t speak English well. This was of course followed by lots of H.A.M.B. chatter, mostly asking who this “Nobody” was. Then by 1/25/19 somebody going by Bwest wrote, “I know exactly where this car is. The man who owns it already replied above. And yes he goes by the name Nobody.”
I have searched so many websites at this point I can’t remember where exactly I found this further information, except it was “another site.” According to it, “Chicomarx, aka ‘Nobody’ was born in 1978 and lives near Bruges, Belgium.” As of 9/2017 Nobody wrote, “I happen to own it now. Bought it from the grandson I was told original owner. I got all sorts of papers with it. Concerning its use in sev. movies over the years.”
Naturally I emailed this person at the address he gave in his first H.A.M.B. response, asking if he still had the car and if he could send me any photos of it, as he said he would. This time his name was Vince Doll, and on 3/30/21 he replied to me, “I do still own the Merck have it so what part right now doing few things to it. (Sent from my iPad)” I tried once more, asking for photos, and of course have heard nothing.
So my unfortunately hypothetical guess is that this car is now (and has been for nearly 25 years) in Belgium, owned by someone maybe named Vince Doll, and it–like far too many other lost hot rods and customs–is sitting somewhere (hopefully indoors) in some state of disassembly. That’s it. I’m not sure how true it is. But that’s all I can tell you. Whew, I’m tired. I think it’s time for a nap. Later.