There’s no question the hot topic among rod and custom car enthusiasts this week–this year…ever…–is the sale at auction in Florida of the Hirohata Merc for 1.95 million dollars. I’m not here to analyze, debate, or even discuss the ramifications of that sale. That remains to be seen. Nor am I here to expound on the history, lineage, inspiration, or even the rightful place in the classic car pantheon of this vehicle. Any of you who have followed my work know that I have very thoroughly covered those topics in various publications over the past 33 years.
In fact, given all the build-up and hype in the last few months over the car’s impending sale, including histories, analyses, and tons of photos, I have avoided reading most of it because I’ve definitely been over that territory in minute detail. If you want to know the true history of the Hirohata Merc from its inspiration, to its building, to its salvation and its final reconstruction–from the mouths of the people who were there and did it–I would direct you to The Rodder’s Journal No. 5 (1996), celebrating in photos how the car started and drove on the street for the first time in 30 years, and including my interview with Jim McNiel, his older brother Bob, and Jim’s wife Sue about how they snagged it from a used car lot in ’59 for $500, rebuilt it, drove it to high school, courted in it, drove it to work, then parked and stored it in ’65 when customs slipped into oblivion.
A couple of years later, in TRJ No. 8 (1998), when the car was in Junior’s House of Color getting a perfect, if rushed, paint job to make a large, significant show at the Oakland Museum, I was able to sit George Barris, Hershel (Junior) Conway, Frank Sonzogni, and Jim at a table and record a wide-reaching interview about Bob Hirohata, the car’s origin and ground-breaking design concept, and its construction. In that article I also traced the car’s history in as much detail (and photos) as I could find. Bob Hirohata couldn’t be with us because he was murdered in 1981. But when he approached Barris in early ’52 with a new ’51 Mercury, George said, “He was such a quiet guy, such a low-key guy, he didn’t push anything to any great extent. But he said, ‘I’d like to see it a little different.'” George and Sam and Sonzogni took it from there, creating the next new wave in custom cars. You know the story. Magazine covers, big show awards, cross-country trips to Indy and Detroit for more trophies, and finally a movie role calling for a fresh paint job in a brighter lime green. But that was all in a span of about two years. Bob sold it shortly after the film in ’55. It went through three owners between then and ’59, one of whom I never could locate, before it ended in the back row of a used car lot for $500.
That’s the story of the Hirohata Merc, and I’ve told it as best I can. What I want to emphasize here is the story of the Jim McNiel Merc. I’ve chronicled that as best I could, too. But most of that seems to be overlooked. And lately, on a few very misinformed internet threads, Jim’s amazing, impeccable work in fully rebuilding that car has even been denigrated. Specifically, the conversation has been, “Jim didn’t do anything on that car. They made it a Rod & Custom magazine project, and he got everything done on it for free.” That’s not only untrue, it’s about as far from the truth as possible. There’s no way I can show and tell all the impeccable, and respectful, work Jim did on this treasured car in the 50-some years he owned it, but I’ll give glimpses. Hell, there’s hardly room for that. Let me start by stating that Jim not only preserved it, and protected it, but also perfected it through his own talent and meticulous detail. Thank god they finally let these custom Mercs compete at Pebble Beach by 2015, where they figured the Hirohata would be preordained winner by dint of its prestige and provenance. Maybe somewhat. But it was Jim who rebuilt this car to Pebble Beach level, at the same time carefully preserving its unique historicity.
At first I was just going to show how Jim restored the engine compartment and the trunk, which are perfect examples. But I’d better start at my involvement in this project, because I was the guy at Rod & Custom who offered to make this a “project car.” You know my love of traditional customs, my zeal to revive them, and my penchant for finding lost ones. The Hirohata was obviously very high on that list. I knew some weirdo or hoarder had it hidden somewhere in a SoCal garage. Rumors abounded. It took me a couple of years and some bulldogging to finally get Jim’s name and number. So I called and carefully made the offer. Jim–another soft-spoken, unassuming guy–hemmed and hawed and said, “No, I don’t think so.” So I played my trump card, “You don’t understand. If we make it a magazine project, we can get you all the parts you need for free.” That got Jim’s attention. It also turned out to be overstated. But Jim’s first retort was, “No, I don’t want any other shops working on this car. I want to do the work myself.” I enthusiastically replied, “That’s exactly what we want, too. I just want you to finally get it out, start work on it, and let me take pictures of what you’re doing so we can show it in the magazine. Plus we have lots of connections to try to get you the parts you need to do it.” That’s what finally did the trick, and what I announced in the Aug. ’89 issue of R&C. Work actually commenced, with our coverage of it, in the Dec. ’89 and June ’90 issues.
A new Cad “crate engine” was installed in ’53 for Bob’s trip to Indy. The unknown later owner added the three carbs and a Hydro trans. Jim got the car for $500 because it had a mismatched piston and a bad vibration. Jim’s was a car-oriented family, with plenty of tools and advice. He first rebuilt this engine while in high school. But this is how it looked after 30 years of repose. Note undercoating on firewall.
And this is what it looked like when Jim got the engine out. Not a pretty sight.
Jim was an auto mechanic, working for Sears, all his life and he could literally do anything from engine, trans, or brake rebuilding, to sheetmetal, heli-arc welding, tune-up, wiring and electrical, to bodywork and paint. We got new pistons, rings, bearings, and gaskets from Egge Machine. Jim cleaned and painted the block and heads sea foam green. But we couldn’t find a cam for an early Cad anywhere then. I spotted three on a shelf at Isky’s, and brought one to Jim. The crazy part is he couldn’t get it to dial-in correctly, no matter what he tried. It had no special markings on it. But he finally ascertained this was a reverse-rotation cam for a dual-engine boat. How in the world do you figure that out? Jim could do stuff like that.
So what’s going on here? All through the project Jim was a stickler for retaining as much of the original parts and construction as possible, even though some was pretty crude (as it was in those days). The grille and park light bezels were hand-made from ’52 Ford pieces, with formed sheetmetal, torch-cut brackets, and welding-rod braces. It was falling apart. So Jim refurbished and reinforced it, and is aligning its mounts with a piece of string. One of the project’s first sponsors was Bob Barnes at Verne’s Plating in Gardena, which did all the new chrome on the car.
Please excuse the fuzziness of some of these photos. I had to enlarge them from 35mm proof sheets. But you get the idea. This is the 2-car garage where the vast majority of the work on the car was done, by Jim. Here he has stripped all the undercoating, filled holes, and is bodyworkig the engine compartment for fresh black lacquer. You also see an overdrive 3-speed I got donated, and then rebuilt, for Jim to swap back in. A reader sent an adapter plate. I found a flywheel.
Again, excuse the fuzzograph, but this is how Jim finished the refurbished engine room in hand-rubbed black lacquer. I’ll also mention here that Jim removed and restored all fasteners, clips, brackets, and so on and had them silver cad plated to look new. All fasteners on the car are ’51 Merc; all on the engine are ’53 Cad. He even found a good ’53 Cad V8 in the junkyard with a better set of heads, and lots of bolts to rob.
So here’s the completed and highly detailed engine (and trans) back in the car, along with a few other chrome goodies. Jim decided to rebuild and keep the semi-chromed triple carbs because that’s what the car had all the time he owned it, including cruising Lynwood High with the hood off because it looked so impressive. Speaking of which, that’s how he met his wonderful wife, Sue. They first dated in it, and it was part of her life as long as Jim was. She loved the car, and helped often in the rebuild.
Over-restoration? I don’t think so. This car was built to beat all the other customs at the biggest shows in the country–and it did. Jim’s detailing is of a higher order, but it’s certainly in the same spirit…with the same results at Pebble Beach.
Some think customs should keep the hoods closed. Not me. Not when it looks like this. Note no extraneous wiring showing. Polished acorn nuts. Chrome and cad plating. Flawless paint, even on the radiator. Jim did everything you see here, himself. And the day Coonan and I visited to see and hear it run for the first time in 30 years, Jim reached in the driver’s window from outside, turned the key, hit the button, and it fired on the first revolution and ran perfectly smooth. Then he reached over with a screwdriver to set the idle to 2000 rpm to break in the new cam. After 20 minutes, everything still working fine, Jim got in to ease out into the street. But not before Sue came running over, jumped in the passenger door, and slid over next to Jim to share the first ride. Oh yes.
Besides the engine installation, Jim rewired the whole car, using fabric-covered wire and removing, cad plating, then resoldering on all the original Merc terminals. Further, after removing the bashed-in gas tank, cutting it apart, cleaning and straightening it, and welding it back together, he next fabricated a whole new exhaust system from 2-inch mandrel U-bends he cut, fitted, then heli-arced together, using as many straightened original brackets as possible. You’ve probably heard how, when he pulled the dash out to rebuild the gauges (and clock) to work on 12-volts, as well as rewire it, he found some of Hirohata’s and Barris’s calling cards wedged behind the speaker grille to stop a rattle–and he put them back. Yes, they’re still there. And everything in the dash works, from turn signals to correct time.
Jim fully intended to paint the car himself, and Stan Betz agreed to supply all the products. So the next step was to strip the four or five previous layers of paint off. Wouldn’t you know it was about 100 degrees the day Jim, one of his neighbors, and I donned rubber gloves and attacked it with strong, noxious, (but effective) liquid aircraft stripper. I think it took all weekend–all this work happened on weekends, because we had day jobs, including Jim. But we were pleasantly surprised and impressed with what we found underneath. If you read the interview in TRJ No. 8, you’ll hear from Sonzogni, Barris, and Junior how George was a stickler for fully hammer-welded seams, thorough cleaning with rotary wire brushes, and using a modicum of lead to finish it. That’s what we found, as you can see.
While we were doing this, Sue took one of the loose doors and sanded down through all the layers of paint, carefully, to show each color that had been painted (plus various primer coats). She did this above and below the chrome strip, for all the two-tones. Most important were the two original greens, to match the new paint to.But Jim cut 4-in. squares of sheetmetal, primered them, then sent them over to Betz’s for Stan to match each of the colors, since they were all being stripped off, and this would be the only record of what they were.
The other amazing thing Sue did was collect all the “scrapings” of the original paint as it fell off the car. Then she selected fragments of the right shape and size, once they had hardened, and fashioned them into earrings. This is the set she made for Anna, and car people are appropriately blown away when she tells them what they are.Sit tight. Yes, we’re doing another Ganahl epic here. But I think both the subject, and especially Jim, deserve it. So, with the car stripped to beautiful bare metal, Jim consulted with Junior on the best modern products to start the new paint job. After careful masking and sealing, Jim finally laid on several coats of PPG K200, as seen here. Not sure why the engine’s unmasked, but at this point time was running short to get to Oakland for the big museum show, and Junior had volunteered to spray the final colors in his booth. Jim and Sue spent two weeks of long nights block-sanding the car before Junior hauled it over to his place, where he (of course) sprayed fresh coats of K200 and block-sanded the whole thing again. Here you see Jim sanding on a door while Jr. works the quarter. We all pitched in as the clock ran. You can see Jr.s paint work in TRJ 8. You’ve seen plenty of pictures of that.
The only thing that didn’t get done before the Oakland Museum show was the upholstery. The Hirohata was featured, front and center in the main room, next to CadZZilla. But Jim “soaped” the windows, like we used to do at ’50s shows if the interior wasn’t done yet.
I think it was Junior who knew famed ’50s upholsterer Eddie Martinez, who agreed to reproduce the 3-tone tuck-and-roll initially done by Bob Hauser’s Carson Top Shop. But Eddie didn’t work for free. However, he happened to have a jones for Jaguars, and Jim had a worn, but high-end Mark II sedan sitting in his driveway that Eddie spotted and had to have. A deal was made: Jag for upholstery. In this photo at Eddie’s shop he has kick and side panels done. The only part of the original Carson interior Jim could save was the distinctive headliner. It had a 6-inch tear in the right rear corner, but Jim found an excellent vinyl repair person who fixed that.
The last thing I want to show is the trunk. In typical Barris shop style, the whole crew had to thrash to get the car done for its first Motorama debut. Hauser couldn’t do the whole interior, so they called in Gaylord, just down the street. His hallmark was the diamond-stitched panels, plus he was assigned the whole trunk. This is the earliest photo I have, before gas cans were added.
But this is how the trunk looked most of the time I saw Jim working on the car. The upholstery was brown and stained, the carpet worn and torn, and the panels warped. The gas cans were in the back seat, along with an ice chest (for beer) added in the package tray.
Trash, right? Not to Jim McNiel. That’s original Bill Gaylord upholstery from 1953. So he found something that would clean the Naugahyde back to white, bought new fiberboard panels, replaced some green carpet as needed, and then bought a used industrial sewing machine, taught himself how to use it, and reupholstered the trunk himself, almost all in the original materials.
Yes. What you see here is all the handiwork of Jim McNiel. Not some high-dollar shop. Not Rod & Custom magazine. I didn’t have anything to do with it (in fact, I didn’t know he was doing this until I saw it done.) He even got an extra new whitewall tire and restored Cad Sombrero wheelcover, not to mention restoring and chroming the gas filler. Plus he also figured how to make Hirohata’s signature laminated plastic handles and knobs, replacing ones that needed it (such as trunk tools and spotlight handles). And at Pebble Beach they don’t even judge the trunk.
Winning Pebble Beach was never Jim’s goal, and certainly not the reason he did all this. He did it because he appreciated the car and the whole milieu it stood for. And he did it because this was his car, and this is the way he did things. But I am so happy that both Jim and Sue got to be there in 2015 to accept the final trophy for this amazing piece of automotive customizing, culture, and history. Jim died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2018, Sue not long after. I truly, sincerely miss both of them.
The final question is who bought the car and where is it going? I am currently sworn to secrecy, but I can say that it’s not going off-shore and it will be seen and available to the public, quite soon. What does its extraordinary sale say about the value of other custom cars and the state of customizing today? That’s not for me to say. My simple point here was to acknowledge the talent, patience, and persistence of Jim McNiel in preserving and perfecting this historical automotive artwork.