A short drive in the Hirohata Mercury

 

A SPIN IN A CUSTOM CAR ICON

 

Hirohata Mercury owner Jim McNiel, asked me to jump in the passenger seat of his Mercury for a short drive. It put an instant HUGE smile on my face that lasted for days



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This article was original created in 2013, but with the passing of Jim McMiel on May 7, 2018 I thought it would be nice to put this article on Jim and driving the Hirohata Mercury back on top. RIP Jim McNiel.
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In 2010 the plan was developed to gather the very best historical custom cars, that were still around in the US, to be part of a special exhibition at the 2011 GNRS. I was invited to be one of the four organizers of this Customs Then & Now exhibition. The whole experience was mind boggling, something I will never, ever forget in my life. The “road” towards the event was special. In my mind’s eye, I could visualize the building getting filled with all the cars and people we invited from all over the US. When it was time to fly to California, a couple of days before the show, I had a hard time getting any sleep at night. Once arrived in Pomona, I saw the first historical custom cars that had already arrived. Cars like the Barris-built Dick Fowler 1938 Ford coupe, and several others, with more customs arriving every hour. I was in heaven.

On Thursday morning, set-up day before the show, I was walking from my hotel to the AHRF parking lot, towards the Fairplex building, when I spotted a long trailer with the side door opened a few inches. I immediately recognized the ice green color on the car inside: The Hirohata Mercury. So, I walked over and talked to the driver, to see if Jim McNiel was around as well. “They will be here any minute”, he said. And sure that was the case. It was really great to see Jim again, after we had met earlier at the Sacramento Autorama Mercury Gathering in 2009. We talked for a bit, and then he had to unload the car. He parked it in a nice spot at the parking lot, so I could take some photos.

Jim stepped back, and let me alone with the car for some time. I walked around it, followed every line on the car, took as many photos from every possible angle I could think of, and absorbed every little detail about this car. I had seen the iconic Hirohata Merc before in Sacramento, but seeing the car in natural light and being able to walk around it with nobody else to bump into, was an extremely nice and privileged experience.

CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-01-WThe extended front fenders and hood lip create a perfect balance for the long chopped roof line.
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The Hirohata Mercury is the Custom Car that comes to mind when somebody says the word Custom Car. At least it is to me, and I know this is the same for a lot of people. the Hirohate Merc is THE historic Custom Car icon. And the car was sitting there in front of me with nobody else around it. If I close my eyes I could hear Sam Barris and his team hammering away on the body. I could almost feel the excitement in the Barris Shop, when the car was finally assembled, and the team saw what they had created. I could almost see the huge smile on Bob Hirohata’s face, when he took it for the first spin around the block. I was in Custom Car Heaven before the show had started, and I did not even realize that – for me – the best thing that very day, still had to come.


CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-14-WThe rear 3/4 view shows show all the lines from the Buick Side trim, the chopped top, the curved side windows, custom made scoop and reshaped character line flow together .
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CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-03-WThe custom made parking lights add extra width to the front of the car. The hand made lip on the front wheel opening matches the one of the flush fitted fender skirt at the rear.
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Jim had made an appointment with a photographer from Sweden for a photo-shoot. Together they decided the best location for the shoot would be on the other side of area where we were standing. Then Jim asked me if I wanted to take a seat in the car, when he drove to the location…

Eh… Yes please!

Jim McNiel invited me to sit, and drive inside the Hirohata Mercury! Instant smile on my face. I made sure, I put my back-pack and try-pod extremely safely on the floor, in order not to damage anything, and carefully sat on the green and white tuck & roll front seat. Jim got in the car behead the steering wheel, and started the engine. It ran flawless, and the sound of the Cadillac engine was music to my ears. I looked around absorbing every little detail like the hand made laminated dash knobs, (which Bob Hirohate made himself, and which are still in place), the Von Dutch pin-striping on the dash is amazing, extremely fine and detailed, and weird above all. I also noticed the V-butted windshield, the chrome garnish around the windshield, the green hand made fuzzy rear view mirror “warmer” that Jim’s wife Sue, made so many years ago. The green and white headliner- which is still the original that the Carson Top Shop made in 1952, the slightly cracked Monterey steering wheel, and Jim holding it, slowly turning to maneuver the car thru the parking lot. It felt the car was floating, Jim drove slow and seemed to enjoy every second driving his baby.

I tried to imagine how it must have been driving this car back in the early 1950’s. The car probably just stopped traffic, and had people turn to take a second look when it was passing by back then.

CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-05-WNotice the relaxed position Jim has in the car. This photo also shows the slightly cracked -unrestored- Monterey Steering wheel. Jim added the bullet steering wheel center when he was unable to find the original accessory badge.
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CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-06-WEven Jim has a great smile on his face, and he can jump in the car and take it for a spin whenever he can.
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On the short trip on the parking lot, people turned their head when they heard the soft rumble from the Cadillac engine, realizing something special was driving by. And then the large eyes, and instant smile on the faces when they realized what they saw. An experience I will never forget, and the smile it caused on my face never disappeared throughout the duration of the show.

CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-13-WHere we can see the V-butted windshield, Sue’s hand-made mirror warmer, and the unrestored dash with the Von Dutch pin-striping.
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CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-08-WBob Hirohata also created the laminated knobs for the Appleton Spotlights.
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CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-07-WClose up of the intricate Von Dutch pin-striping “this is the City”. Notice the cracked off-white paint on the glove-box lid and dash. This is the original paint that was added in 1952.
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CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-12-WOriginal Carson Top Shop created headliner, and detail work round the curved side windows.
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When Jim parked his car, and we got out, I noticed one other detail I had never seen before on the car. I had never really seen the custom made dark green lucite piece, that Bob Hirohata made for the door garnish moldings. I noticed it, because the sun light made it look really fantastic when I opened the door to get out.
We drove the car for only a small distance, perhaps a little more than half a mile, but this was a trip inside the Hirohata Mercury… an unforgettable experience!

After making some more photos of the car at the new location, I thanked Jim for the unforgettable experience, and went to toward the main building. Jim and I were talking throughout the weekend, whenever we bumped into each other. He seamed to have a great time at the show.

CCC-Hirohata_Mercury-02-WMy own personal favorite angle of the Hirohata Mercury. This photo also shows the sectioned bumper guards at the front only covering the bottom part of the grill.
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I know the short drive was “only” at the parking lot of the GNRS, but to me it was more like a drive in early 1950’s Los Angles…. Very similar to these Photoshopped images I created¬†shown below.










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Memo Ortega Stories Part 26

 

MEMO’S 51 MERCURY FINISHED

 

Memo Has been working on his personal 51 Mercury for many years. In the¬†last couple of weeks Memo was finally able to get all the loose ends taken care of¬†and apart from having a complete clean up and polish session… Memo’s 1951 Mercury can now be called Finished.

 
[box_light]Memo Ortega is a well known name in the SoCal Custom Car and LowRider Scene, but perhaps not as well known as it should be. Memo has been working on custom cars and Low Riders since the early 1950’s. He became good friends with Custom Car Icon Gil Ayala, and in the late 1950’s he even bought Gil’s famous 1942-46 Ford Coupe as a persona driver. Today, in 2015, 80 years young, Memo is still chopping tops, and any other custom car work you can think of from, his garage work-shop. Check out more of the¬†Memo Ortega Stories¬†in the¬†Memo Ortega Files¬†on the CCC[/box_light]
 
 

In the Memo Ortega Stories 20 and 21 we have already shared the early stages of Memo’s personal 1951 Mercury project. The car has been almost finished for quite some time. But there were a few things that still needed to be done.¬†The most important and the things that in the end made it to take a while to get done were; new chrome on a lot of the parts¬†and a¬†new rear window. The chrome was a matter of saving money and get the parts done over a period of time Rafael H. Chrome from the Best Polishing and Chrome Shop in Pomona did an really great job on all of the Chrome parts on Memo’s Mercury. Memo has been using Rafael on several projects with great success. Each time when the new chrome came in Memo took his time to instal it on the car. In the meantime memo was keeping busy with other projects for his friends and clients.

 

CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-afin-01Freshly plated rear bumper back from Rafael H. Chrome, looking good.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-afin-02Installing the freshly plated rear bumper.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-afin-03After installing the windshield and stainless it was time to get the Spotlights on. Memo had saved a set of real Appleton Spotlights for his Mercury. Feels good to have the rear thing on this Merc.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-afin-04After struggling with the rear window for a long time, getting new glass, new rubber twice, Memo and a glass guy finally were able to get it to fit. Almost done now.
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When the car had been painted and Memo started to put the car back together is came out really nice… and one thing Memo did not like was the way the old 1951 Mercury rear window glass looked. Over time it had been scratched a lot, and during the build process this was not really that noticeable. But it just looked so much out of place on the finished high gloss painted car. So Memo decided to find a replacement rear window. It took him some time to find one and to get it installed right. After many attempts the rear window was finally in place and after that it was really a matter of finishing all the small details. This article shows the first snapshot Memo and his nephew Will took of the finished Mercury parked on the front lawn…. enjoy.

 
Memo would like to thank his first born grandson Will. Without his help he could not have gotten the merc to this final stage. It was their work collaboration that made the Mercury to what it is today.
 

CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-afin-05Modifying a set of Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps to fit the Merc’s wheels.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-01Saturday November 21, 2015, first time outside as a nearly completed car. All that is left are some final cleaning and a good polish job. Congratulations Memo.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-02Memo kept the stock 1951 Mercury taillights and even the chrome plated “louvered” panels on the rear quarters, and the both look so great on Memo’s Mercury. Notice how smooth the flush fitted skirts look.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-03The car looks already amazing… but will look even better after a good polishing. reflections show that all the hard work prepping the body really payed off.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-04Memo and Will Ortega with the Mercury on the front lawn.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-07One of those things that are still on the “to-do-but-can-wait-for-now-list” is to have the dash insert all cleaned up and send out to be replated. But for now its just perfect…. And Memo just wants to have this one on the road¬†and start cruising it.¬†
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-08Interior in dark blue and white traditional style tuck & roll fits the deep dark blue painted body really well.
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CCC-memo-ortega-51-merc-fin-09The new scratch free tinted rear window looks really great on the car, and so does the upholstered package shelf.
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Go to Part 27 of the Memo Ortega stories.
Go back to Part 25.
 
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Midnight Sensation 51 Merc

 

MIDNIGHT SENSATION 51 MERC

 

John D’Agostino’s 1951 Mercury built over a period of time in the 1970’s and 80’s is one of those Custom Cars that¬†left an huge impact to many enthusiast when it was built… and it still does today!



[dropcap]In[/dropcap] the early/mid 1980’s I was developing my taste in Custom Cars. I was reading every bit of information I could find, absorbing every little detail about historic and newly built Customs. In the summer of 1986 things changed a lot. I found a June 1986 issue of Hot Rod magazine at the book store. I browsed thru the magazine expecting to see perhaps one or two photos of custom cars and then debating if it would be worth buying the copy or not. But I was shocked to find an 8 page (EIGHT PAGE!!!) article on Custom Cars by Pat Ganahl inside. I could not believe it. I ran¬†to the counter, paid for the magazine and rushed home on my bike to start reading the article.


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Inside was an article titled “Custom Cars is it time to rethink the custom” by Pat Ganahl. The article has an full page of photos on the Jack Walker/Doug Thompson Hirohata Merc clone and many others including Barry Mazza’s Ayala/Barris Battancourt inspired 1950 Merc, and a deep purple and lavender 1951 Mercury owned by a guy named John D’Agostino. The photos in the Pat Ganahl article of John’s 1951 Mercury have had a huge impact on my current taste in custom cars. This 1951 Mercury, and the Hirohata clone featured in this Hot Rod magazine made me dream about Custom Cars for a very long time. A couple of years ago I even bought a new copy of this 1986 issue of Hot Rod magazine. I had lost the cover, and the pages were worn from looking and reading the article over and over again on my original copy…

Thats it for my experience with John D’Agostino’s¬†1951 Mercury named “Midnight Sensation”, now lets focus on the car.


CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-12-wThe main section of the feature on John’s mercury in the June 1986 issue of Hot Rod magazine
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Building in stages

John mentioned that he watched the movie American Graffiti in the early 1970’s, and that it was this movie that inspired him to built this 1951 Mercury. John eventually¬†purchased a nice 1951¬†Merc from a fireman in Castro Valley in 1973. To start with he took it to Rod Powell’s shop in Salinas, Ca. Here, Butch Hurley chopped the top on John’s 1951 Mercury. Butch was already in the middle of chopping two other Mercury’s, a 1950 for¬†Curly Tremayne, and a 1951 Merc for Rod Powell himself. So he already had the right experience and perfect state of mind when he started on John’s Mercury. Butch chopped John’s Mercury absolutely perfect and was able to lay down the rear window, not an easy task on the huge 1951 rear window, to create a perfect flow. With the chop in progress it was decided to¬†shaved the drip rail¬†like the old Barris and Ayala cars all had. The team at Rod Powell¬†also¬†lowered the suspension to give the car a wonderful slight speed boat stance.

Then the car went to Bill Hines who would do more custom work on the car including the full fade away fender line, similar to the Sam Barris and Louis Bettancourt Mercury. After that the car went back again to Rod Powell shop. Butch Hurley and Willie Wilde both did more work on the Mercury. They straightened the rest of the body and did more fine tuning and painted the car in white primer highlighted in Gold Murano Pearl in 1975. John drove the car to the OAKLAND Grand National Roadster Show in white primer, he parked the car in the parking lot in front of spectator gate. After he had visited the show he walked back to his Merc to find the car with a huge crowd around it.



CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-02-wAn early version of John’s 1951 Mercury shows the car painting in pearl white. The photo was taken in August 1978 by Andy Southard at Rod Powell’s shop parking. A lot of the major customizing already has been done. But several details will be changed in the next couple of years including more smoother fade aways on the fender line, cut of rear portion of the hood and addition of the Buick side trip and reshaped fender skirts.¬†
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In several staged the car’s body was restyled with;

  • Chopped top
  • Full fade away fenderline
  • 1953 Buick headlights molded into extended front fenders.
  • Modified grille opening using two 1949 Mercury grille shells to create new opening
  • Cut down 1954 Pointiac grille bar with 1954 Lincoln bumper bullets at the end.
  • 1949 Mercury front bumper replaced the stock unit and was updated with a 1955 Pontiac bumper overrider, which was¬†molded into the bumper.
  • A second¬†Pontiac overrider was used on the back where it was molded to the stock 1951 Mercury bumper.
  • 1949 Mercury hood replaced the stock unit. It¬†was modified with large radius rounded corners at the front and cut of ends with rounded corners at the back.
  • All other body corners on the car were rounded.
  • 1953 Buick Roadmaster side trim was reshaped to fit low on the body.
  • 1952 Lincoln taillights,¬†frenched into reshaped rear fenders.
  • Lipped front wheel openings
  • Modified and extended fender skirts¬†that now flow with the Buick side trim.

With all the body work completed Curley Tremayne and Rod Powell blocked and prepped the car and added several coats of primer.

 

CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-01-wAndy Southard listens to Rod Powell explaining how much was taken out of the top of John’s 1951 Mercury. All the body work was now completed and the car was in primer. It would take at least another year before John would bring it to Rod to have it painted. (Street Rodder magazine photo)
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John took it back home and actually sold the car to Harry Craycroft who planned to finish the car. But a year later John traded it back for the Gene Winfield built¬†1958 Chrysler the “Golden Sunrise” which John had had bought from Richard Zocchi in 1982. John now set out to actually finish the car, We are now in 1983, and John¬†brought the car¬†over to Rod Powell once more.¬†Now for an ultimate custom paint job.¬†Rod added a custom mixed Ultra Violet on the main body and lavender pearl below the side trim. The Violet was a mix of pearls and Candy paint for extra depth.

The interior was handled by Ken Foster from Sacramento and was done in a typical early 1980’s style with silver and lavender mohair over more modern seats. To blend the more modern interior with the typical 1950’s style exterior the seat and headliner inserts were done in tuck & roll style with lavender piping. Ken also built a custom console with a bar for the rear. The interior now features power windows and seats, cruise control and a modern tilt steering wheel, again very much in style with the era the car was built. The finishing touch on the car was a set of 1957 Cadillac hubcaps on wide white tires and a set of Appleton shaped dummy spotlights.



CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-10-wJohn D’Agostino with the white and blue shirt showing the freshly finished Mercury at an early¬†West Coast Customs show.
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The car¬†was then all ready to be¬†shown, and that was what John did. He showed it everywhere he could, and people loved it. Magazine editors loved it and photos of John’s Midnight sensation would show up in many magazines. This 1951 Mercury made a huge impact to many young and not so young car enthusiasts all over the world. Back in the early 1980’s this Merc made sure that a lot of Custom Car enthusiast from all over the world knew how those cars looked back in the 1950’s. The history of the original Custom Car was not as well written and easy to find as it is today. But the Midnight Sensation made sure people who never had been there in the 1950’s knew how it was, and wanted to know more about that time and the car that were built then. the 1951 Mercury Midnight sensation truly is an very important Custom Car icon from the 1980’s.



CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-18-wThe May 1984 issue of Classic & Custom Magazine had John’s Mercury on the cover, and on the center spread.¬†
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-04-wPat Ganahl photo shows the use of two 1949 Mercury grille openings. One to replace the stock 1951 unit, and the other flipped upside down to form the lower portion of the opening.
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-03-w This side view photo shows the amazing lines of John’s Mercury. The chop is perfect with its stock laid forward rear window. The fade away fender line and low mounted Buick side trim all enhance the flow of the car. The reshaped fender skirt combined with the Buick side trim show that John used the Hirohata Merc as inspiration restyled the elements to fit his car. Perfect Custom Restyling.
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-19-w1952 Lincoln taillight are perfect for any 1951 mercury. The absence of the drip rail helps the flow of the top.
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-14-wThe modern interior is far from the period look the outside has, but works well and fits the era the car was built in. A lower console was added to the stock 1951 Mercury dashboard.
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-15-wTuck & roll inserts in the headliner with lavender piping are s nice touch and hint to the 1950’s interiors.¬†
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-16-wFolded forward power seat reveals the mini-bar built into the custom made center-console for a comfortable ride.
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CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-20-wFrom Bo Bertilsson’s Classic Customs and Lead Sleds book.
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Another photo from the 1986 Hot Rod article shows John behind his Mercury talking to Randy Harrison who is leaning against his Sam Foose built 1941 Ford.
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Later in the 1980’s the 1951 Mercury was sold to David and Carol Evens, they moved Ocean Park B.C. and took the car with them. Later they and the car moved back to California. In the early / mid 1990’s¬†when they sold the car to¬†Bill “Bugsy” Romaniello in Stamford¬†Connecticut. Bugsy owned the car for some time. Then¬†Busy sold it to Frank Mercede in New Canaan, Connecticut. Frank passed away in 2013, and his family then took care of the Mercury.



CCC-john-dagostino-51-merc-22-wAfter reading the CCC article on the Midnight Sensation 1951 Mercury¬†Carolyn Matera contacted us¬†and send these four snapshots taken of the Mercury¬†in 2014. Her¬†father, Frank Mercede¬†has owned John’s Mercury for around 20 years. The car still looks in great shape, and the only real change appears to be the addition of the¬†pin-striping.
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In the meantime the Mercede¬†family learned¬†more about the history of¬†the Mercury, about John D’Agostino and about a young Rob Fromme (john is Rob’s uncle) who loved this Merc as a kid.¬†They got in touch with Rob and decided that Rob would be the perfect person to be the new caretaker of this Custom Car Icon. Rob wants to thank¬†the Mercede Family for their generosity and kind heartedness for allowing¬†his¬†dream car to come back home.¬†They were so gracious and luckily they wanted¬†Rob Fromme¬†to have it. In October 2015 the car was transported from Connecticut to California, where it was reunited with John D’Agostino and its new owner Rob Fromme.¬†The car is in good shape, but will need to be completely freshened up which Rob plans to do in the next few month. After that the car will be shown as much as possible, and above all enjoyed. When the car is all fresh again we will share a few more photos here on the CCC.

CCC-midnight-sensation-51-merc-in-caThe Midnight Sensation 1951 Mercury in Rob Fromme’s¬†Antioch, California garage. A good new home… waiting to be freshened up¬†so that everybody can enjoy its beauty again.
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Resources and more info

  • Classic & Custom¬†Magazine, May 1984
  • Hot Rod Magazine, June 1986 article by Pat Ganahl
  • Classic Customs and Lead Sleds, Book by Bo Bertilsson (isbn 0-7603-0851-9)

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