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Zupan Mercury


Keeping up with the demands set by car show organizers was quite a challenge in the mid-fifties. Especially when your car was considered to be old fashioned and out of style.

That’s one of the reasons why Johnny Zupan, the new owner of the Ayala/Barris-built Bettancourt Mercury decided to redo his Mercury twice. In 1956, Louis Bettancourt, after owning this car for 5 or 6 years, decided to let go of this car. Johnny Zupan bought the car in the mid-fifties, when the car was considered to be an old, out of style custom. At least that is how the custom car crowd thought about that type of cars built in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. In the mid 1950’s the custom car style was very much dictated by the show scene. Winning points became more and more important. And the points were given to the cars with the most details. Not necessarily to the most beautiful car.

This is the last – for now – article in a series of three on the historical important Louis Bettancourt 1949 Mercury. This article will be about the last versions of the car when it was owned by Johnny Zupan. At the end of the article you can find the links to the other two articles we created on one of the most beautiful 1949 Mercury’s build in the golden years of customizing.

CCC_Bettancourt_Merc_Versions-WHere we can see the three finished versions of the Bettancourt 1949 Mercury.


With the car shows in mind Johnny bought Louis’s car. In his shop in Lompoc, Ca., Johnny Zupan put a strong Oldsmobile engine in the car, and took the car, once again, to the Barris Kustom shop for a make over. The Barris shop created a, hand made, bubble type fender skirt with a functional scoop at the front, and fit to flow the new added side trim. The side trim is probably made from 1956 Dodge components, but we are not 100% sure. In none of the publications we have been able to find anything was mentioned about what kind of trim pieces the shop added to the Cadillac front spear. The Barris shop loved to cut, and past the new side trim from whatever they had in the shop, or could find at the junk yards. The fender skirt was dressed up with one large tear drop shape chrome trim piece, and two smaller units. We have also not been able to positively ID those. In the top center of the skirt, a Mercury script was added. The main body work done by the Ayala’s remained intact for this update.

Then it was time for a new paint job as well. Barris described the colors as “metallic gold, and rust”. With the main body in the rust color, and scallops around the grille opening up onto the hood, around the headlights, and up on the front fenders, and below the side trim in gold. The Carson Top Shop interior remained in the car like it was done in 1953.


This is the earliest photo we have been able to find of the Johnny Zupan Mercury. This photo from the Jim Roten Collection shows the freshly painted Mercury. The scallops have not yet been outlined here, and also it appears that the extra trim on the fender skirt is also still missing. According to Jim Roten the photo was taken at the 1956 Oakland Roadster show.


Johnny drove the car looking like this for a short time. The car still had the ‘Kolor Krome dyed 1953 Studebaker’ hubcaps that Louis Bettancourt already used on the car. But soon thereafter, Dean Jeffrey was asked to do one of his first pin-stripe jobs. He outlined the scallops in white and did the same thing with the side trim, Appleton spotlight base, antenna, skirt trim and Barris crests. And then added his unique style striping inside the scallops in white and red and on the trunk of the car. Dean Jeffrey’s was also asked to pinstripe the dash, glove box and heater under the dash. He did all those, either in free style striping, or in so-called weirdo scenes.



Johnny receiving an award in 1956, at an outdoor show held at South Gate High School.




The July 1956 issue of of Car Craft magazine included a 6 page article on how to prepare your car for judging at car shows. Johnny Zupan, with his 1949 Mercury, was used to telling the story. This article is filled with nice detailed photos of places of the car you normally don’t get to see.





This photo, taken at the Lynwood City Hall, gives us a good look at the Kolor Krome painted 1953 Studebaker hubcaps.


Some time after this, most likely in 1957, Johnny Zupan removed the Studebaker hubcaps, and added 1953 Cadillac units. He then added 8 starts (mosts likely from a 1957 Pontiac) to them. The car now had an totally over the top feel to it. With wild, and bright pin striping, and a lot of chrome trim, and scripts added. The total opposite of how the car was designed by the Ayala’s, in the early 1950’s. But it were things like this, that brought you points at the car shows. And most likely Johnny really liked all the bling. Johnny later also added a set of dummy lake pipes.



Later Johnny removed the Studebaker hubcaps, and replaced them with 1953 Cadillac hubcaps, to which he added 8 1957 Pontiac stars.



In this photo from the Barry Mazza Collection, we can see the last addition to the car: the full length lake pipes.




This photo from the Barris Collection, shows a part of the wild pin-striping Dean Jeffreys added to the dash.





These two photos (top), also from the Barris Collection are very interesting. They show the use of pale yellow Kolor Krome on the Appleton Spotlights as well as the custom grille. The extended forward section of the grille was tinted yellow and the seperattion between the kolor krome and regular chrome was pin striped in red. The bottom photo also shows the “Kustoms of America” window decal.


Then in 1958 or ’59, Johnny Zupan decided it was time for a complete redo. Quad headlights, and Studebaker grille pan’s were the rage at the time. So, Johnny decided he needed to have both incorporated into his Merc. Johhny started the job himself, in his own shop in Lompoc. However most of the work on this radical make over was performed by Bill DeCarr at his Artesia Boulevard shop in Bellflower. At the front the bottom section of the grille opening, the splash-pan and the lower sections of the front fenders were cut of. Reshaped Studebaker grille pans were added, and the fenders were reshaped, to accept vertical quad headlights. It looks like there would be no bumper on this version of the car.
At the rear, the whole bottom section of the rear fenders, the trunk and the splash-pan were cut off. Including the hand made taillights. And a new grille shape was created, using the Studebaker pans. The lower section was reworked into a roll pan, just as on the front. And at the back, it looked like there would also be no bumper.



This is how the Mercury looked in the late 1950’s. This photo from the Larry Watson Collection shows the car sitting in front of the Bill De Carr shop on Artesia Blvd. We can see the slightly canted quad headlight openings in the front fenders, and how the stock portion of the grille opening at the top was extended outward and nicely blended into the Studebaker pans, below the headlights.

As far as we know, Bill DeCarr added dark gray primer to the body worked sections, and the car went back to Johnny. Most likely, Johnny lost interest in the project due to the fact that radical customs were not so popular any more. And somewhere between then, and the early 1970’s Johnny died in an heavy Equipment accident. Dean Jeffreys ended up with the car, which was then completely in light gray primer. Dean parked the car without wheels at his shop, next to the Hollywood Freeway. One morning, when he came to work, he noticed scrapings along his driveway. When he tried to find out what caused the scrapings, he noticed the Mercury was gone. They had just taken the car from the parking lot, and dragged it away, but he had no idea what exactly had happened. Dean never saw the car again.



This photo was taken in Dean Jeffreys parking lot. Not to long after this photo was taken, the car was stolen.




Barry Mazza possess three photos of the car in his collection. They show the car in driving condition, but still in gray primer. The photos are most likely taken in the 1980’s.


Then there are many rumors about a motor cycle gang that might have owned the car. We, at CCC have heard stories about the car, sitting on a semi-trailer, out in the open, and that it even could be seen on Google Maps, if you knew the location. It does look like the car is still around today. Only not in the hands of somebody who, at this point, is considering any kind of restoration. Hopefully in the near future this will change, and will we be able to see this car again. And possibly see it getting restored. We would love to add a fourth article to this story.
The question arises, to which version should it be restored? There are now basically four versions.

  1. version 1 as designed and built by the Ayala’s
  2. version 2 as redone in 1953 by the Barris Kustom shop
  3. version 3 redone again by Barris for new owner Johnny Zupan
  4. version 4 redone with quad headlights and Studebaker pans by Bill DeCarr


It would be hard to cut off the work, done by Bill DeCarr, who is a living legend. So that it would be be able to recreate the Ayala designed front and rear. However, I think, this still should be the best option. “Simply” cut off the Bill DeCarr work, find a donor 1949 Mercury – in good condition -, and replace the removed sections on the Bettancourt mercury with stock 1949 Mercury body parts, from this donor car. Then customize and style these stock section; the same way as the Ayala’s did in the early 1950’s. Then the Bill DeCarr components should be placed back on the donor car, which then needs to be chopped, and modified, in order to make it look like the Johnny Zupan version.
That way we will end up with two versions of the car. One would be done either as the Ayala first version, or like Barris’ second version (for many reasons the Ayala version would have gotten our vote). The second Mercury should be finished in a similar way, as was intended – with all the new body work- by Bill De Carr.Perhaps Bill DeCarr remembers his talks with Johnny, about how Johnny wanted to car to look like finished. Of course this is a dream scenario. We still need to “find” the car first. But it would be great if this story could get a good end.

Go to part one of the Louis Bettancourt story. The Ayala version.
Go to part two of the Louis Bettancourt story. The first Barris version.


Sources and more info:

  • Barris Kustom Techniques of the 50’s No 3 & 4
  • Kustoms Illustrated #28
  • Barris / Mad Fabricators Photography DVD
  • Rod & Custom Magazine
  • Car Craft July 1956


Rik Hoving

Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what's going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)

3 thoughts on “Zupan Mercury

  • Man the Zupan versions make me want to cry. I totally understand the changing custom scene and the fact that at that point these were not historic cars but man did he mess up one of the cleanest built ’49-’50 Merc’s of all time.

  • If I find it, I will restore it in a mix of all three early versions, excluding the Bill De Carr version.
    It would bring back the Ayala design work front and rear on the car, the Barris trim work and grille and bumpers including Kaiser overriders, then I´d paint it in the darker
    Zupan copper metallic (I´d use candy) with white pinstriping only on the dash this time.
    But I like the wild Zupan twotone color version with pinstriping as well.
    Finally I´d use a hopped up 372 Olds mill or 331 Cad with lots of chrome in it.
    Somebody track it down!!

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