A custom Mercury, with a Batmobile in its family tree, heads to auction
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A custom Mercury, with a Batmobile in its family tree, heads to auction
The Hirohata Merc, a Mercury custom built nearly 70 years ago. An exemplar of a type of custom coach-building that developed around Los Angeles in the mid-20th century, the car is expected to fetch at least $1 million at an auction in January 2022. Mecum Auctions via The New York Times.

by Brett Berk

NEW YORK, NY.- Nearly 70 years ago, a 21-year-old Navy veteran commissioned a custom Mercury, with a chopped-down roof, smoothed-out body panels, a lowered stance, novel chrome trim, two-tone paint and a meticulously handcrafted interior. It was built by the same shop that would later create the Batmobile for the “Batman” TV series, and James Dean’s Merc in “Rebel Without a Cause” cut a similar style.

This 1951 Mercury stood out when the young vet, Masato Hirohata, who went by Bob, had it customized in 1952. And it remains an exemplar of a type of custom coach-building that developed around Los Angeles in the mid-20th century. Now, for the first time in over 60 years, the car — known as the Hirohata Merc — is for sale. It will cross the block on Jan. 15 at Mecum Auctions’ sale in Kissimmee, Florida.

“Among custom cars, the Hirohata Merc is as significant as they get,” said Casey Maxon, senior manager of heritage for the Hagerty Drivers Foundation. In collaboration with the Interior Department, the foundation administers the National Historic Vehicle Register — an inventory of individual automobiles with key significance in American culture. One of just 30 entries in the register, the Hirohata Merc epitomizes what Maxon calls “this masterful vernacular art form that came out of postwar California.”

Creation of the Hirohata Mercury involved many of the most important players in the burgeoning car customization scene.

The body was designed by George and Sam Barris, skilled and prolific brothers with a knack for self-promotion. (Maxon said George Barris “would make his own trophies” and photograph his creations with them.) George Barris went on to build many prominent television cars, including the Munster Koach from “The Munsters,” the jalopy from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the 1928 Porter from “My Mother the Car” — and, of course, the Batmobile.

Its quilted interior was created by Carson Top Shop, famed for upholstered faux-convertible roofs. Its intricate pinstriping was completed by Kenneth Howard, better known as the artist Von Dutch, perhaps the only celebrated pinstriper in American history.

The car caused a sensation at the Petersen Motorama custom car show in Los Angeles in 1952. Spreads in Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines followed. In 1953, with a newly installed Cadillac V-8 engine built by Dick Lyon of Lyon Engineering, Hirohata drove the car across Route 66 to show it off at the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Custom Show, an adventure memorialized in a Rod & Custom article he wrote, headlined “Kross Kountry in a Kustom.” The use of the letter K is derived from George Barris’ way of spelling Kustom. Originally a means to brand and publicize his efforts, this neologistic style became a national trend in the custom car community.

“That probably showed many people for the first time, in person, what a Southern California custom looked like,” Maxon said.

At that time, the country was just seven years removed from the internment camps in which the federal government imprisoned Japanese Americans — including Hirohata — during World War II.

“You can imagine a Japanese American gentleman driving through some small town in Texas with this radical car,” Maxon said. “He probably caught some attention.” (Hirohata was shot and killed in 1981, in his parents’ driveway. The killing was never solved.)

Hirohata’s car went on to win scores of medals, ribbons and trophies in its time.

While the Merc fell into disrepair and was sold for just $500 in the late 1950s, the man who bought it, Jim McNiel, always planned to return it to glory.

“I remember it being backed into the garage on one side, just kind of tucked away, blankets and cardboard boxes stacked on top, and knowing there was some significance to it, but not understanding why,” said McNiel’s son, Scott, who is 51. “And it was ugly. This huge, ugly, two-tone green thing with dents and scratches. It just looked weird, and kind of scary.”

Scott McNiel eventually helped his father restore the car. The full process took decades, but the car was eventually shown again, most notably in 2015 at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it won a Best of Class award. It was inducted into the National Register of Historic Vehicles in 2017. As part of this honor, it was displayed in a vitrine on the National Mall in Washington.

Jim McNiel died in 2018. Recently, Scott McNiel and his sister, Darla McNiel, made the difficult decision to sell the Merc.

“After Pebble Beach, my dad said: ‘I’m finally ready to get rid of the car. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I enjoyed it. I’ve shown it. I’m ready to move on,’” McNiel said. Once his father died, the siblings decided that the car was “not something we wanted to keep in the family,” McNiel continued. “We wanted to pass it down to the next ambassador.”

The car’s sale is expected to set a record for custom vehicles. According to Mecum’s lead analyst, John Kraman, the presale estimate is set at $1 million to $1.25 million. But the bidding may go much higher.

“There’s nothing like it, so predicting what a car like this, which really is a one-of-one, will sell for is tough,” Maxon said. “From our standpoint, we’re underlining and elevating the cultural significance of a car like this. What its value is isn’t what makes it significant. Its significance is its overall history and influence on the automobile.”

Although the younger McNiel isn’t a car fanatic, when asked about what he might do with a share of the proceeds he looped back to custom automobiles.

“I definitely want to buy some kind of cool little hot rod — but something I can drive,” he said. “That’s the thing about this Merc. I have the ultimate hot rod, but I can’t do anything with it. It’s too valuable. But if we can move it along to the next person, then I can get something fun. Something to enjoy instead of just look at.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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