1955 Thrifty Parking Lot Show

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55 THRIFTY PARKING LOT

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1955 Hot Rod and Custom Car show held at the new Thrifty Drug Store on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.

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Original article from August 09, 2018, updated August 26, 2019.

In the 1950’s it was very common to organize Hot Rod and Custom Car shows at the local parking lots large public facilities as drug stores, stadiums etc. The parking lots were huge easily accessible and it was easy to rope off a section for the show. One of the most famous of these parking lot Shows was a show with high end custom cars held at an Los Angeles Thrifty Drug store in May 1954 which we covered in this CCC-Article.

Since we did that article I have been collecting photos of outdoor parking lot car shows I came across to add to this what I hope to become a series on parking lot car show articles. Several early and mid 1950’s magazines had a few photos taken at these parking lot shows which I had not been able to identify until I came across an article on the Hot Rod Magazine Article featuring some really great photos taken by Rick Rickman.

One photo in particular stood out to me. A picture taken at a Thrifty Drug store in May 1955 showing the Hirohata Mercury, in it later lime gold paint, Dave Bugarin’s 1951 Mercury and Bob Dofflow’s ’49 Ford. And while drooling over that photo I realized I had seen a few more photos taken at the same location, and now I was able to place them all at one May 5th, 1955 event held at the Thrifty Drug Store at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. And, perhaps just as important. The photo caption from the Hot Rod magazine article explained why these car shows were held at the Thrifty Drug Show… and how it was possible that all these high end Custom Cars were at this and the 1954 show.

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This was taken at a show at a Thrifty drug store on May 5, 1955, at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Blvd. From right to left we can see, Bob Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury with the new (after the Running Wild movie shoot) lime gold paint job, and door mounted mirror, Dave Bugarin’s 1951 Mercury (both by Barris), next to Dave’s Merc is Bob Dofflow’s ’49 Ford restyled by Bear Customs, and next to that we can see the top and a few other small details of what most likely is the 1948 Mercury of Cliff Rackohn (thanks Anthony White for identifying that one) Behind Bob’s Ford we can see a ’46 Chevy panel truck with roof rack, which was most likely used by Rick Rickman to make the overhead photos.

From the Hot Rod magazine article

Three rolls that Rickman logged into Petersen’s in-house lab on May 9, 1955, as “Thrifty Drug NHRA Show” mystified archive divers for decades. In our July 2010 issue, founding HRD editor David Freiburger published six pages of parking-lot pictures, including one showing NHRA’s third employee and Drag Safari organizer, Chic Cannon, with an L.A. sheriff’s deputy. Left unexplained were who organized the event, and why, and how a gathering of so many famous hot rods, race cars, sport specials, and especially customs apparently never made HRM or its sister magazines.

In 2013, Cannon’s autobiography answered the first two questions: “Since I had some experience organizing car clubs, Wally gave me the position of [NHRA] National Club Advisor. My cousin, Art Crawford, was in marketing … and had Thrifty Drug Stores as a client of his. They were developing new shopping centers all over Southern California, and Art asked me to help promote the grand openings…. So in 1954 and ’55, I organized about a dozen car shows.” As for why at least two were thoroughly photographed on Petersen film but never made print, Chic’s insight leads us to suspect that Rick’s assignment came from NHRA president Wally Parks—not his HRM boss and editor, also named Wally Parks.

Possibly the photo lab supplied sets of prints, only, to NHRA and/or Chic’s cousin for promotional purposes, while the negatives were filed, as usual, with the publishing company.

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Close up of the Hirohata Mercury which was at the 1955 show with the new lime gold and organic green below the Buick spear paint. The color was changed, because it needed to be updated after having been on the road for a few years, but also because a darker hue would show better on camera for the Running Wild movie. Most likely the Mercury was still owned by Bob Hirohata, but he did sell it in 1955. Notice both the hood and trunk are open, and the public can come very close to the cars, even touch it.

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The Dave Bugarin ’51 Mercury and Bob Dofflow’s ’49 Ford a bit more close up. It must have been an amazing sight to see these high quality, magazine featured and show award winning Customs lined up in the parking lot.

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Here’s a shot of the other side of the parking lot. Possibly taken from the roof of the Hovey 1946 Chevy panel truck we can see in the top photo. In the foreground are Dave Bugarin’s ’51 Merc, next to the Hirohata Merc, and unidentified chopped padded top early 40’s Chevy and two more light colored customs I have not been able to identify. On the other sied are three drag cars including the Sparks & Bonny Willys and on the far right we can see the front of the pale yellow Chuck Porter truck. It is amazing to see that people could walk up to the car and even touch them.

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Close up of the Hirohata Mercury and Dave Bugarin Mercury, both Barris Kustom Shop creations.

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Taken from the same high location as the previous photo, but taken at a different angle shows Bob Dofflow’s ’49 Ford the best of all the known photos shared from this event.

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Show officials checking out the Hirohata Merc.

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The Ayala/Barris Bettancourt Mercury also made an appearance.

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Also taken from the roof rack, but now facing the opposite direction from the photos shown earlier. This side of the parking lot had more of the Hot Rod entries. The only car I recognize is the ’34 Ford with the padded top which was owned by Earl Schieb or possibly his son, Al at the time.

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Slightly different perspective.

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Mild custom line up on the road side.

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Mild Mercury Hard-Top with ’53 Pontiac Wagon taillights.

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Subtle touches on this early 50’s Chevy convertible.

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Love the super smooth rear end of the 1952 Chevy fastback, especially interesting are the taillights in the Kaiser over-rider. ’51 Ford Sedan looks good with the Pontiac grille bar and smoothed hood. Simple, but very effective.

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Many thanks to the Petersen Archive for sharing these amazing photos on the Hot Rod Magazine website. And hopefully many more from those 3 rolls of film that Rick Rickman took in 1955 of this event will be shared. And hopefully more of the 1954 and perhaps any of the other events held at the Thrifty parking lot will be shared. With such top cars in attendance at these outdoor events it would make sense if many more photos were taken. By professional photographers, as well as by car owners and those who came to look at the cars at these free Custom Car Shows. If any of our readers know about more photos from these events, or know more about the events themselves, please email Rik here at the Custom Car Chronicle.

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There were quite a few photos of this customized Muntz with Hemi engine. I guess Rick Rickman realy liked it, or perhaps planned to do a feature on it?

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Awards

David Zivot send us two photo of a Trophy from his Personal Collection.
“This trophy from my personal collection
was awarded to the 2nd Place winner at a Thrifty Drugs grand opening less than a week earlier than the show from this article. It appears that the Thrifty and Alexander’s Market sponsored show (in cooperation with the NHRA) was held one street over on Sunset & Vermont, at the Barnsdall Shopping Center.
It would be very interesting to discover which customs were in attendance at this show, and who won this 2nd Place award.”

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These photos, the awards and the notes from the Hot Rod Magazine article that there were a series of Car Show held at the Thrifty Drug Store parking lots across LA makes me really wonder how many of these shows were held in 1954-55. And how they were advertised. So far I have still not been able to find any announcement for these shows. Possibly announcements were made in the local news-paper, or perhaps posters were made that were distributed at the local hang-outs? Who knows more?

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1954 aerial view showing the parking lot where the ’55 Car Show was held.

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(this article is sponsored by)

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Frank Sonzogni Mercury

 

FRANK SONZOGNI MERCURY

 

Frank Sonzogni Lynwood Police Officer worked part time at the Barris Kustom Shop. Here he created his ultimate Dream Custom 1950 Mercury.


Frank Sonzogni was an Lynwood Police officer of Italian Descent, who was very passionate about cars, and Custom Cars specifically. In general the Hot Rod and Custom Car scene was very much frowned upon – put mildly – by the SoCal police force. By the stories that have been told by the guys ho drove heir Hot Rods an Custom Cars in the 1940’s and 1950’s, how the where pulled over all the time and getting tickets for ridiculous thing, we know there was a serious issue between these two camps. But this all did not prevent Frank to really love the scene.

Frank did not care for what his colleagues thought of him and what he did with his off duty time. Frank started to take very actively part of the custom car scene and started working part time, after his regular shift at the Police Force, at the Barris Kustom Shop. Frank was a good craftsman working on a lot of the famous Barris Customs, including the famous Hirohata Mercury, where he worked on the passenger side of the car, copying everything that Sam Barris had created in the drivers side.

Early photos of Frank chopping the top on his mercury. Most likely this was in later 1952, or very early 1953. Frank measuring the amount the top needs to be dropped. Notice the paint can used as brace. And on the right Frank is showing how the angled forward B-pillars will look.
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After having done a lot of work on the Hirohata Merc, Frank got very inspired and got himself an 1950 Mercury that he turned into his dream Custom in his spare time at the Barris Shop. Frank was inspired by some if the design elements of the Hirohata Mercury, like the removed dog leg in the door and the fender line disappearing in heavily reshaped rear quarter panels, but for the rest of the car Frank added his own personal touches.

According the period magazines Frank chopped the top 3,5 inches in the front, and to get the perfect flow the rear was cut around two inches lower than the front. When chopping the top on a Mercury like this, with more taken out of the back, the profile of the door opening gets just perfect, necessary to do this is that the windshield is angled slightly in the process as well. But Frank wanted to make the top of his Mercury even sleeker than most others, so he angling the whole windshield back a few degree more.

This picture shows the car shortly after Frank had welded the top back together in the new lower position. Notice the angle on the windshield. Frank now also started to experiment with the fade away fender line, which was alter changed to a line with a scoop and dip just behind the door.
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Frank adding lead to the freshly chopped top. Notice how the factory stock sharp edge at the belt-line was now all leaded smooth.
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To continue with the smooth flowing look Frank also shaved the drip rails and the b-pillars were angled forward. The door top and rear bottom corners were rounded for a very pleasing new door opening shape, and to help make the rear quarter window flow nice from the door lines. The rear corner of the rear quarter windows was reshaped, with a more pointy towards the bottom shape. All the stock side trim and handles were removed, including the belt-line trim

Frank sanding the lead on the body worked top smooth to be able to add some primer to have a good look at his work. This photo was most likely taken on April 18, 1953.
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Frank liked the new longer 1951 Mercury fenders, so he bought a pair and molded those into place on his ’50 Mercury. The 1955 issue of R&C mentioned that the rear section of the rear fenders was hand made, but after studying all the photos I’m pretty confident the rear fenders are just 1951 Merc units molded in place. Frank had worked on the Hirohata Mercury, and really liked the side body modifications that Sam Barris had created.  Frank wanted to use a similar styling on his Merc, but with his own twist to it. The front fender line was modified on the door, and into the rear quarter, removing the “dog leg” and raising the rear a little.

Frank cut out a section of the rear quarter panel and pushed it outwards thus creating a scoop. The character line on the rear quarter panel was raised at the front to flow nice with the extended line from the front fender. Above the scoop a nice curvature was created.and the scoop was later dressed up with trim pieces from a ’53 Chevy 210, which can be found just above the stainless rock shield on a stock ’53 Chevy. Frank heavily modified the side trim and wheel opening trim of a 1953 Dodge to create the side trim on his Merc. The back portion of the new trim flows wonderfully with the scoop opening as well as with the angled forward B-Pillars. At the rear of the quarter panels the character line was extended all the way to the back were it blended into the new taillight housing.  The taillight housings were created from 1953 Chevy grille parking light bezel’s molded to the ’51 Mercury rear fenders. Frank modified a set of 1954 Oldsmobile taillight lenses and added 9 Chrome 1950 Ford Dash Board knobs around it.

A little later, still in 1953 the body work on the car is all done, and the car is sitting outside the Barris Atlantic Blvd. Shop to be completely wet sanded and smoothed for the final primer coats and then paint. That is Sam Barris at the corner of the office building waiting for the water can to be filled with fresh water.
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This picture is very interesting since it shows the stock molded grille opening really good. The lower corners of the grille opening are slightly rounded with the same radius as was used to mold the splash pan to the front fenders. The headlights are molded in 1952 Ford units.
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The fit of all the separate panels on Franks Merc, like the hood and doors looks to be exceptional well the time it was created.
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Sam Barris wet sanding the trunk of Frank’s Mercury. This photo also gives us a good look at the reshaped and molded in rear quarter panels, and how they were extended at the back to flow nicely into the molded in 1953 Chevy grille parking light bezels.
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All the ornaments an trim was removed, including the door handles. Door poppers and push buttons installed. At the Front Frank rounded the hood corners and molded in the stock Mercury grille surround. The hood was beautifully peaked, and a lot of work went into making the hood fit the fenders and cowl the best way possible. A 1955 De Soto grille was was modified, narrowed from 9 to 5 teeth to fit the new opening. The splash pan was modified to fit the new ’52 DeSoto bumpers and molded to the body with a nice radius for a smooth look. A set of 1952 Ford headlights was molded to the front fenders for the desired french look.

Frank’s Mercury was displayed at the Petersen Motorama at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in 1954. It was displayed in the Gaylord’s section where Bil Gaylord displayed several cars his shop had created, or for which he had done the interior.
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Rare color photo of the original version of Frank’s Mercury. Clean and simple, in wonderful two tone metallic dark green and lime gold green.
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The suspension was modified to get the car to the perfect ride height. Frank stepped the frame 6 inches in the back and used 4 inch lowering block to get the rear down, and still have enough axle travel. And he installed some heavy duty swivel casters just beneath the rear bumper to make sure the rear of the car would not hit the road in case of steep driveways. The front suspension was dropped by reworking the A-arms and cutting the coils. Frank added a set of wide white wall tires and dressed them up with Custom hubcaps. The interior was done with an diagonal them by Bill Gaylord. For the cars original version Frank choose to not use the almost mandatory at the time Appleton Spotlights, but chose for the smooth look, perhaps being a cop had something to do with that choice.

It took Frank around two years to create his dream Custom. Working on-and-off in his spare time after show hours and in the weekends. As we can see in the Life Magazine photos he had some help of some of the Barris crew, including Sam Barris.

The 1954 DeSoto grille was narrowed to fir the Mercury grille opening from 9 in the stock grille to 5 teeth. This photo shows how nice the front fender flow line is extended into the rear quarter panels.
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Close up of the fender skirts which were either modified stock units, cut down on the sides to fit flush in the wheel opening, or completely hand made. The bottom of the skirts was made to flow with the bottom of the rear fenders. Very nicely done.
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Bill Gaylord really outdid himself on the interior in 1954. He most likely saw it as a display project to show what his shop was capable of. Gaylord created an really unusual interior combining traditional tuck&roll with diamond shaped patterns, using dark green, chartreuse and white material.
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This is what the R&C April 1955 article mentioned about the Bill Gaylord interior.

Frank wanted the inside of his Mercury to be as unusual as the exterior, so he went to Gaylord Kustom Shop in Lynwood. Bill Gaylord responded to Frank’s pleas with a series of rolls in pleats in a combined color combination of three shades that practically defies description. As the accompanying photos illustrate, the headliner is composed of a mixture of dark green, chartreuse and white panels with a large diamond forming the center of attraction. This inner white panel of the header is pleated with the rows running fore and aft instead of from side to side as is normally the case. The remaining door and side panels and the seats complete the design. The general styling theme of the interior is a series of diamonds, large and small, with a large, padded button set squarely in the center of each. Bill Gaylord and staff of upholsterers deluxe, has been doing a little experimentation with this new diamond studded treatment with Frank’s Merc being their latest project.

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The taillights on the original version were made from 1954 Oldsmobile lenses dressed up with 1950 Ford Dash knobs. The pod at the end of the fender is most likely created around molded in 1953 Chevy grille parking light bezels, and feathered out into the reshaped and repositioning rear quarter character line.
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Police man Frank Sonzogni posing with his ’50 Mercury. The hubcaps on Frank’s Ford are are based on Ford aftermarket dummy wire wheel hubcaps. The center of the hubcaps was modified with a chrome bullet taken from a 1951 Ford grille. These modified hubcaps are identical as those used on Bob Dofflow’s 1949 Ford.
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Nice side profile photo shows the modified fender line with the removed dog leg, reshaped rear quarters with scoop added which is dressed up with 1954 Chevy 2010 trim pieces. (These small pieces fit on top of the Chevy’s stainless rock shields) Notice the beautiful flow of the chopped roof, and how the ’53 Dodge side trim matches the angled forward B-Pillar.
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The April 1955 issue of Rod & Custom Magazine had a whopping 7 page feature on Frank’s Mercury.
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Barris Custom?
The Frank Sonzogni 1950 Mercury has been listed as Barris Kustom Shop created Custom, but as far as we know it never had a Barris Crest mounted until after Frank sold the car in 1958. The car was created at the Barris Shop, similar to for instance the Jesse Lopez ’41 Ford, but both cars were created by part-time Barris employees in their spare time. Frank’s Mercury had all the styling elements so typical for the Barris Shop, yet it was displayed at the Gaylord section at the 1954 Motorama, instead of the Barris section. Personally I see the Frank Sonzogni as a Barris Custom created completely at the Barris shop and heavily influenced by all cars that had been created around the time Frank was working on his Mercury.



Version 2

Somewhere around 1956, after Frank had been showing the car for some time it was time for an update to keep up with the current trends, which was usually done at the time. The original super clean body was dressed up with bolt wide white pin-striping done by “Earl”. On Frank’s Mercury the striping was very much present, and changed the look of the car quite a bit. Personally I do not feel it as an improvement, but at the time it must have been a spectacular update. Frank also replaced the Oldsmobile taillights and modified a set of 1956 Ford Customline taillights to fit the ’53 Chevy grille parking light molded in bezel openings.

The modified second version of Frank’s Mercury was featured in a four page article in the February 1958 issue of Custom Cars.
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Frank’s Mercury at one of the many parking lot car shows he went to. Notice the bolt striping on the hood and front fenders creating different optical lines on the car.
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Frank’s Mercury together with the Johnny Zupan and Buddy Alcorn Mercury posing in front of the Lynwood City Hall. Ironically this Barris color photo shows three Mercury’s that all have been created by other shops, or people. Two Ayala merc’s on the right, and Frank doing his own Mercury.
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A different angle from Frank’s Mercury at a photo shoot at the Lynwood City Hall.
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I really love this photo of the Sam Barris 1955 Chevy in front of the Barris Shop. A mother and daughter “patiently” waiting for here husband to get back out of the Barris Shop. And in the background the Frank Sonzogni Mercury. Frank used his Merc as daily driver, and of course it was a good idea to have such a great looking custom parked in front of the shop.
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Frank demonstrating the push buttons he added to the Dodge side trim.
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George Barris photo proof of Frank’s Mercury. Although much heavier than the stock Mercury bumpers, the ’52 DeSoto units looked really well on Frank’s Mercury. Both front and rear splash pans had to be modified to make the bumpers fit.
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A closer look at the custom made scoops with ’53 Chevy trim pieces, the modified Dodge side and wheel opening trim. On the right a better look at the 1956 Ford Customline taillights that had to be modified a bit to fit the ’53 Chevy parking light openings. A section around the taillight had to be cut down. The chrome ribbed bezel also comes from the ’56 Ford.
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Frank Sonzogni sitting inside his ’50 Mercury. Frank was 6-foor tall so the seat had to be cut down 2.5 inches to give Frank enough headroom. Notice the Bob Hirohata dash, shifter and Appleton handle knobs. Frank is demonstrating the push buttons he installed on the dash to open the doors.
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1958 New Owner

Around 1958 Frank sells his Mercury to a new, unknown owner from Tucson, Arizona. We do not know anything about this new owner (so far0 All we know is that at the time he bought the Mercury is that the car had new wheel covers and that a Barris crest was added to the front quarter panel, close to the wheel opening. The new owner apparently used the car at the drag strip as well. In 1959 the car caught fire and the car was taken to the local junk yards were it sat until Larry Dames found it in 1973.  According Larry’s son there was a rumor that the only reason the car didn’t get crushed all these years is the owner of the yard was gradually taking the lead out of it. (We do not know if this was true, or that the fire had caused the lead to melt, which seams to make more sense.)

Pat Ganahl shared this neat color snapshot in his Hot Rod Gallery book. It is very interesting for several reasons. One, because by the time this photo was taken 1958-59, Frank had sold it to a new owner in Tucson, Arizona. Two, because it is the only photo I have been able to find of the car with a Barris crest added to the front quarter panel (possibly added when Frank sold it?). Three, it shows the Mercury with all new hubcaps. And Four, because this is perhaps the last photo of the Mercury, at the Tucson Drag strip (by Tom Prufer) before the car burned down in 1959.
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Larry Dames owner from 1973

In 1973 Larry Dames acquired the Merc back when he had just moved down to Tucson from St.Louis. Larry was looking for a Custom Car project car and found the burned down remains of an old Custom ’51 Mercury at the local junk yard. He found out that the car was burnt up back in 1959 and had been sitting in this junk yard ever since. Larry did not know the history of the Merc at the time, but liked its overall shape, and despite the poor burnt condition with caved in top he decided to bring it home.

The photos below show that the Mercury was in pretty poor condition, and we all can be very grateful to Larry for saving is despite all that. Larry needed a new mercury rood, hood and trunk, plus a lot of hours to get all the damage done by the fire fixed. Along the way a few changed were made, especially to the rear where the extended line from the rear quarter was brought back to stock 51 Merc rear fender specs.


This is how Larry Dames acquired the Mercury back in 1973. Larry had just moved down to Tucson from St.Louis and found the Mercury sitting in a junk yard. Most of the trim of the car looks to be still in place, but all the lead has been molten in the fire.
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This picture shows the caved in roof and missing lead work from Frank a bit better. Sad to see it like this.
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The Mercury during its restoration in the late 1970’s. Larry Dames had to use a donor roof and trunk and hood to replace the damaged in the fire original parts.
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Larry finished the restoration and painted the car all white, and installed a Hemi engine. He drove it around for quite some time in the 1980’s. Entering it in shows and swap meets. Very few people knew the real story on the Mercury. In 2009 Larry was invited to bring his Frank Sonzogni Mercury to the Sacramento Autorama Mercury Gathering where it would be displayed with several other historical Custom Mercury’s.


Larry finished the car in all white and had added a Hemi Engine. This is how he showed it in the early 1980’s. By now Larry had found out all about the cars history and even added a Barris Crest to the front quarter panels.
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Painted all white it links back to the early 1950’s Barris times where painting your Custom white primer was very hot.
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Larry Dames’s son wrote this about his father’s mercury.
“To those who are wondering why the cars is White instead of green and why it does not have the Desoto grill or side trim on it. This car was burnt and sitting in a junk yard for almost 15 years before he got it and allot of stuff was missing including the 54 Desoto grill, the original flat head as well as numerous other items. The car was rough and in a sense worthless back in the mid 70’s so he built it the way he wanted and could afford at the time. The car is still the way it was when he finished it 30 years ago, and still has the Chrysler Hemi he put in it back then, which is why it has a louvered hood, and he still drives it all the time.

As far as the cars future, I have been bugging him for over 15 years to restore it back to its original look but with kids, work and other cars, that has yet to happen. He has told me that if he can get his chopped 51 conv. going so he will have a Merc to drive, he will start to tear the car down and restore it back to its original look, Although the interior will more than likely be different, it was pretty hideous looking and he can’t get himself to match the interior, I can’t say I blame him for that.”

Larry Danes was invited to bring his Sonzogni ’50 Mercury to the 2009 Sacramento Autorama Mercury Gathering. The car made quite in impact at the event all in white with bright white and red contrasting interior. It was one of several original Barris Mercury’s on display.
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David Myers took this snapshot of Larry showing one of the burnt down original Bob Hirohata created dash knobs that were still in the car when he got it.
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With all the lead molten away in the fire the rear quarter panels looked quite different than original. Larry kept the stock rear quarter panel look and replaced the taillights with slightly different 1955 Ford units.
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Danny was extremely impressed with the reception his Mercury got at the 2009 Event, and he was very inspired with all the other classic Mercury’s at the event. He planned to get back on the Sonzogni Merc as soon as he could to get it back to the cars original version. Hopefully we will see that happening in the near future.
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Hirohata Merc Clone new Owner

 

HIROHATA MERC CLONE NEW OWNER

 

In August 2016 John D Agostino and parter Woodroe Parker  buy the Doug Thompson built Hirohata Mercury Clone from original owner Jack Walker. John plans a World-Wide tour for the famous Custom recreation.



On August 30, 2016 John D’Agostino announced BIG news for the Kustom world. He post a photo of a car mounted Barris Crest on his Facebook account. Immediately a buzz starts… What could be this big news? Fortunately for us, John does not keep us waiting very long. The very next Day John announces that he is the new owner of the famous Hirohata Mercury Clone, or recreation. John and his partner Woodroe Parker bought the car from the original owner Jack Walker from Belton, Missouri. John D’Agostino is planning a World-Wide tour with the Hirohata Mercury clone for 2017.

 

 

CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-00John D’Agostino’s Facebook Announcement something BIG is going to happen.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-01John D’Agostino on the left making the deal with Jack Walker in Jack’s Missouri Custom Car garage. The Home of the Hirohata Merc recreation since the late 1980’s.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-05At the time nobody recreated old license plates, so Doug had to take an “generic” 1952 California plate, smooth out the stamped letters and hand hammer the right numbers into it. Fortunately the car only used one plate.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-04Creating all these modifications on a car is one thing, but recreating the exact same thing based on a few magazine photos is something else. Doug Thompson is an very skilled craftsman, with a perfect eye for proportions. 
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CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-03Recreation of the Kustom’s Los Angeles plaque on the front of the car.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-02The Hirohata Mercury recreation will soon find its way to John’s home in California.
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About the Hirohata Mercury recration

In the early 1980’s Jack Walker spend a lot of time with his good friend and Custom Car builder Doug Thompson. They were working on a project and as usually the discussion was about historic Custom Cars, the Hirohata Mercury to be precise. At the time, not many people knew that the original Barris Kustoms 1951 Mercury for restyled for Bob Hirohata in Los Angeles was still around, and “hidden” in the garage of Jim McNeil. Jim had owned the Mercury since late 1959. Most people thought this famous and trend-setting custom had been lost for ever. Jack really loved the Hirohata Mercury, and when the project him and Doug was finished, and it was time to pick a new project, he asked Doug if he was into building a replica of the Hirohata Mercury.

Doug Thompson did an amazing job on the recreation of this famous Custom, working with basically nothing more that the magazine features from the early 1950’s and a few photos from private collection. Scale drawings were made to figure out how to do all the body changes, and get the proportions right. Especially the extended front fenders were hard to figure out, since this body change was never written about in the old magazines. In 1985 the car was finished, and presented to the public. I have heard stories that everybody stared at the car and stopped what ever they were doing when Jack cruised the car at outdoor cars shows. People were stunned, some thought it was the original, others had already given up the hopes they would ever see the Hirohata Merc in person. And now the recreation enabled people to see the full beauty of the most famous custom cars of all time.


CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-new-owner-Hot-Rod-MagThe first time most people saw and read anything about the amazing Hirohata Mercury recreation was in the June 1986 issue of Hot Rod Magazine. Pat Ganahl did and article about Custom Cars, “Is it time to rethink the Custom?”. The article showed a full page of pictures of the amazing custom. The car was an instant HIT, made a huge impact on the scene and inspired many to create news, vintage styled customs. Kudos to builder Doug Thompson and owner Jack Walker.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-clone-doug-thompsonDoug Thompson has been building many Custom Cars since the 1950’s. This photo shows Doug surrounded with a few of the cars he created in the 1980’s, including the Hirohata Mercury recreation.
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In the August 1989 issue of Rod & Custom, Pat Ganahl announces that the original Hirohata Mercury has been “found” and that the car will undergo a full restoration. With the original car restored we were able to compare the two. The recreation by Dough Thomson is amazingly accurate, still there are a few things that will help you tell the real one from the recreation. The most obvious differences are;

  • The original Hirohata Merc has sectioned front bumper guards, the Recreation has stock height bumper guards (Bob Hirohata’s Mercury had stock height cards for a very short time, later Barris sectioned them to fit better with the Custom grille)
  • The color of the Original Merc is more brilliant and bright, and was matched from actual paint found on the unrestored car. The color of the recreation was based on faded photos and magazine cover images
  • The rear bumper has a v-notch cut out to flow around the Lincoln taillights better. The recreation has a stock rear bumper.


We are looking forward to see the Hirohata Mercury recreation pop up all around the world. I think John will be making a lot of custom car fans very happy. People who might otherwise never have the opportunely to see the Hirohata Merc or the second best thing, the recreation in person. I’m very happy for Doug Thomson and Jack Walker as well. More recognition for the amazing effort they did back in 1985.


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Vintage Photo Backgrounds

 

VINTAGE PHOTO BACKGROUNDS

 

Adding vintage color photos to recently taken Custom Car photos gives the image a whole new feel, like they were photographed in the Golden Years of Customizing.



Some time ago I was asked if I had a good photo showing the original Carson Top Shop created headliner in the Bob Hirohata 1951 mercury. Well I had a few nice photos taken of the interior when Jim McNeil invited me for a short drive inside the Merc at the 2011 GNRS Customs Then & Now event. When I was looking at the photos, that were taken at the parking lot of the NHRA Museum, the background distracted me from looking at the topic of the photo, the headliner. Then I got the idea to find a suitable vintage Los Angeles color photo and see if I could past it in the photo so that the modern parking lot background would appear to be vintage Los Angeles. Almost like you would step back in time, like Jim was taking the Hirohata Merc for a spin in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s.

Visualizing Custom Car day-dreams…

CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-07The first Vintage Photo Background project was this headliner photo of Jim driving the Hirohata Mercury at the NHRA parking lot in 2011.
It now looks like Jim drives the Mercury in vintage Los Angeles.

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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-11The Hirohata Mercury being driving to the Pan Pacific Auditorium in early 1955.
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-12A Steve Stanford design that I recreated with Digital Restyling, and then added it to the late 40’s Los Angeles color photo. How this 1940 Ford pick up with DuVall windshield and padded top was created can be seen here.
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-02For King Kustoms I created this poster with King Kustoms Rob Radcliff’s nearly finished Shoebox pasted into the famous Motor Trend cover photo of the Sam Barris Mercury taken in 1951.
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-01For our own 2015 Christmas Card I created this image based on an late 1940’s Los Angeles color photo. I removed a few of the signs on top of the building and replaced them with my own signs. Then I added the Jim Skonzakes 1949 Buick and Tim Kirkegaard’s Kevan Sledge created 1939 Mercury to the photofor the right Custom Car touch.
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-03Brian Holden shared a photo of his nearly finished 1936 Ford coupe, including one of the custom dash created by Laurie Peterson. I could not resist to add a nice late 1940’s California street scene to give the whole picture the perfect feel.
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-06Ron Martinez Dick & Keith Dean built, and later redone by Scott Guilder’s 1939 Mercury taking off in an early 1950’s Los Angeles photo.
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-09I took a photo of Tim Kirgekaard driving his chopped 1939 Mercury on a trip to Sweden, and was day-dreaming how it would have been driving this car in vintage California… 
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-05In the summer of 2015 Palle Johansen invited me a trip to Sweden in his chopped padded topped 1947 Cadillac. Palle had just finished his restyled dash with a center positioned 1948 Cadillac gauge cluster. On our long journey we wondered how the Kustoms of Los Angeles car club would have felt driving their Customs in San Francisco in the early 1950’s…
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-10Perfectly proportions sectioned, chopped and padded topped 1940 Ford from Ralph Jilek was photographed at the Rodder’s Journal show in 2015. I was wondering how it would have looked in a more period perfect setting…  
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CCC-digital-restyling-vintage-background-04After having don the first image of the Hirohata Mercury headliner with showing only a small portion of vintage Los Angeles, I wanted to do one that showed a bit more of the Hirohata Merc, as well as the Los Angles background. Although the small windows in the Mercury do not allow to see much for the vintage view. The image does bring you back in time…. daydreaming of these beautiful Customs d around in vintage California. 
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CCC-digital-restyling-originalsSome of the original “recent” taken photos I used as base.
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Hirohata Merc Hawaiian Badge

 

HAWAIIAN BADGE

 

Since the Hirohata Mercury was restored it always had an oddly shaped and located brass badge with the name The Hawaiian on the door… Lets find out the story behind the badge.


Howard Gribble recently send me an email including a photo of the Bob Hirohata Merc which he took at this recent visit (January, 2016) to the new Petersen Museum. He noticed that the “Hawaiian” badge on the door, which had been part of the restored Hirohata Mercury for years, was missing. He wondered when this badge was removed from the car, especially knowing this would have involved a paint touch up. Howards email reminded me that I still wanted to do an CCC-Article on this controversial Hawaiian Badge that was part of the restored 1951 Mercury, but as far as we could tell, it was never on the car when Bob Hirohata owned the car.

CCC-barris-hirohata-2016-petersenHoward took this photo of the Hirohata Mercury at the Petersen Museum in January 2016, no sign of the drivers door mounted Hawaiian badge.
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I took this photo of the Hirohata Mercury in 2011, and the Hawaiian badge is mounted on the drivers door, just below the vent window.
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CCC-barris-hirohata-hawaiian-badge-02The Hawaiian badge was made of a hand shaped and polished piece of sheet brass with the letters engraved and painted the sea-foam body color.
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The Hawaiian Badge was recently removed from the car, when the Mercury was cleaned, fine tuned, updated and made ready for the prestigious Mercury Gathering at the 2015 Pebble Beach Concourse D’Elegance. The car spend some quality time at Junior Conway’s House of Color Shop in Bell Gardens, Ca. for an full update. The restoration of the car was completed in 1998-99 and since then the car had traveled to many shows including all the way to Sweden. So it was time for some touch-ups etc to be in excellent condition for the Pebble Beach show. While the car was in Conway’s shop and body sections had to be touched up, it was decided it was a good time to remove the Hawaiian badge as well. On a visit with Roger O’Dell to the Junior Conway shop John Denich took some photos of the Hirohata Mercury being fine tuned for the Pebble Beach event.

CCC-barris-hirohata-2015-update-03Apparently there were some fit problems on the rear window lower stainless trim. 
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CCC-barris-hirohata-2015-update-04The Hirohata Mercury was cleaned and detailed inside and out.
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CCC-barris-hirohata-2015-update-02John Denich took this photo which shows that the badge was now gone.
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CCC-barris-hirohata-2015-update-01The Hirohata Mercury at the Pebble Beach Concourse with painter Junior Conway on the left, owner Jim McNiel in the center, and Rob Radcliffe on the right.  
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The Hirohata Merc Hawaiian Badge

Lets take a step back and look at the history on this The Hawaiian badge on the Hirohata Mercury. Ever since the Mercury was restored by Jim McNiel the Hawaiian badge was part of the car. But none of the old photos I had seen on the car show this badge. At this time we are not 100% sure Bob ever named his Mercury “The Hawaiian“. Some people have referred to the car by that name, possibly even before Jim McNiel restored the car, but we do not have any proof for the name connected to Bob. We do know that Bob named his Mercury the “Mercillac” after he had installed brand new Cadillac engine for his cross country tip in 1953. And as far as we know there was never a badge or emblem with this name added on the out or inside of the car when Bob owned it. It might be possible that Bob renamed the car in the mid 1950’s when he was about to sell it, but agian there are no photos or info to proof this.


CCC-barris-hirohata-mercillacThe October 1953 issue of Rod & Custom magazine featured an article by Bob Hirohata on the cross country trip he made in his 1951 Mercury which he named “Mercillac”
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There are several photos of the Hirohata Mercury, after it was repainted by the Barris Kustom Shop in lime green, that show a side view mirror on the drivers door, mounted just below the vent window. This was on the same location as later the Hawaiian badge would be at. When I asked Jim McNiel about the Hawaiian badge and also about the side view mirror he mentioned that most likely Bob was stopped a lot by the cops, and perhaps even ticketed for having no side view mirrors. So in the end the mirror was added and screwed to the door. There are also stories that the mirror was added to the Mercury requested by the Movie company when the car was hired for the Running Wild movie. And judging all the photos of the Mercury after it was repainted, the later might actually be the real reason why there was a mirror on the Merc. After Bob Hirohata sold the car in 1955 the new owner installed a hitch and used the Mercury to pull his speed boat, for that the mirrors must have come in handy.

CCC-barris-hirohata-mamie-van-dorenMamie Van Doren poses with the Hirohata Mercury painted lime green at the Running Wild Movie set. The side view mirror can be clearly seen in this photo.
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CCC-barris-hirohata-mercillac-mazza This photo from the Barry Mazza Collection shows Bob Hirohata’s Mercury after it had been repainted Lime green (after the Running Wild Movie) with some three bar flipper hubcaps. The photo was taken at an unidentified outdoor show, most likely in 1955. The most interesting about the photo is that the car has the mirror mounted, and a show card mounted on the front bumper with on the lower section Kustoms of Los Angeles, and on the top the “MERCILLAC” name. Unsure is if Bob Hirohata still owned the Mercury when this photo was taken, most likely it was.
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CCC-barris-hirohata-mirror-01Close up of the mirror which appears to have a teardrop shaped base.
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Jim mentioned that is was one of the previous owners of the Hirohata Mercury, most likely Dirty Doug Kinney, who removed the mirror in the late 1950’s. Most likely he did not want to fill the holes and repaint the doors,  so he decided to create a badge that would cover the holes left from the side view mirror. He shaped the brass badge in a similar shape as the mirror base to cover up all evidence of the mirror. He then engraved the “The Hawaiian” name into the brass badge. When Jim bought the Hirohata Mercury for $500.- in late 1959, or early 1960 the Hawaiian badge was on the car.

CCC-barris-hirohata-hawaiian-missing-gold-02This photo from the Rodder’s Journal issue number 5 show that both The Hawaiian badge and the Barris crest are missing from the car at this point…  Jim stored the originals in the house, making sure they would not get lost. We can however see the holes drilled for the mirror an later the badge.
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CCC-barris-hirohata-hawaiian-missing-goldJim takes out the Hirohata Mercury for the last time before the restoration starts. 
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CCC-barris-hirohata-hawaiian-badge-01I took this photo of the badge at the 2009 Sacramento Autorama Mercury Gathering. Here I spoke with Jim about many details of the Hirohata Mercury, including the history of the Hawaiian badge.
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When Jim set out to restore the Hirohata mercury in the 1990’s he decided to take the car back to how it looked when Bob Hirohata owned the car in about 1953. But since the Hawwaiian badge had always been part of the car for as long as Jim owned it he decided the badge would be part of the restoration. The Badge has since then always been a great topic of conversation every time the car was displayed. The use of the badge was controversial to say the least. Most historic Custom Car enthusiasts, including myself always felt the badge should not have been used, and the holes should have been filled in to bring the car back to how Bob Hirohata had it in 1953.

Fortunately Jim McNiel decided that when it was time to fix up the Hirohata Mercury for the prestigious Pebble Beach Concourse 1949-1951 Mercury Kustom event, it was time to bring the car back to how Bob Hirohata drove it cross country and entered it in many car shows. The Hirohata Mercury has always been one of my most favorite Custom Cars, and seeing the restored car in person sure was a Custom Car highlight for me, but the Hawaiian badge always bugged me a little… like a smudge you want to clean off. With the badge removed we have Custom Car perfection.

CCC-barris-hirohata-pebble-beachJim McNiel drives the car up to the podium at the 2015 Pebble beach Concourse to receive his best Custom Award…. without the Hawaiian badge on the door! 
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Hirohata Merc – The Trunk

 

HIROHATA MERC – THE TRUNK

 

The Hirohata Mercury was restyled inside and out, many elements on this car, including the fully detailed trunk, started new trends in customizing.



[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver the years I came across more and more photos taken at early 1950’s car shows that show custom cars with their hoods and trunk open. Especially photos taken at outdoor shows in the early 1950’s show custom cars with the open door, hood and trunks. Later in the 1950’s and early 1960’s making points at cars shows was really important and the more details you showed to the judges and public the more points you got. So in those later years, everything was opened to show all the details and gain points for more trophies, even wheels were removed to show undercarriage details. It appears that in the early 1950’s shows the owners would show the cars both closed and opened from time to time at a show. This allowed he public to see both all the details inside as well as the wonderful shapes of the outside of the cars.


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Custom Cars in the 1940’s usually had mostly stock engines, some had some speed parts, but mostly that was done for more power, and not so much for the looks. The trunks were sometimes upholstered, but not really to be shown, just to be practical. Later in the early 1950’s things changed. And more time was spend to detail more and more sections of the cars. In the early 1950’s some, and actually quite a few cars had chromed and detailed engines, and the owners loved to show their car with the hood open. Even more cars with fully upholstered high-end interiors liked to show of the cars with the doors open, and showed cards if the upholstery shop to advertise their work (perhaps for a discount on their own upholstery). If you had a really detailed car with a fully upholstered trunk you also wanted to show off that work and opened the trunk at the shows.



CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-20One of the first photos of the Hirohata Merc I noticed with the trunk open was this one taken at the Custom Car and Hot Rods show held at the Thrifty’s drug store parking lot in Los Angeles May 15, 1954.
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One of the Icon Custom Cars from the early 1950’s that can be seen at shows with the trunk open was Bob Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury by Barris. Bob had a fully detailed trunk (as well as chromed engine) and loved to show-off all the detail work that went into his car. Cars like the Hirohata Mercury with so many details added to the interior, engine and trunks kind of started the later award points craziness. But before the mid 1950’s everything was still “normal” and the awards at the car shows still went to the best looking custom cars, and not to the one that had the most modifications, or the most chrome plated parts. Lets take a look at what Bob had to show in the well detailed trunk of the Hirohata Mercury.



CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-02This photo of the Hirohata Merc trunk appeared in the November ’53 issue of Honk Magazine. It showed a fully detailed and upholstered trunk. Matching spare tire with Cadillac Sombrero mounted. The gas filler was relocated in the trunk, but detailed and the carpet was neatly finished around the base of it. 
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-11I took this photo of the completely restored Hirohata Mercury at the 2009 Sacramento Autorama Mercury Gathering. Jim McNiel did an amazing job restoring the trunk to early 1950’s specs. Eddie Martinez was responsible for recreating the Bill Gaylord upholstered trunk.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-05Bob Hirohata on his famous Kross Kountry in a Kustom trip to the Indianapolis 500 and Custom Car show in 1953. Bob is filling the Merc with gas and it looks like Bob and his co driver did store some stuff in the trunk, but it was filled all the way. Possibly more stuff for the long trip was stored on the passenger seat to try and get the weight  distributed as much forward as possible.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-08Famous model in the trunk photo taken by George Barris. It appears the model is holding an drive-in speaker that can also be seen sitting on the upholstered section in the 1953 Honk Magazine photo. Bob Hirohata wrote a letter in 1956 to Rodding and Re-styling magazine about the car. In his letter he explains that the speakers in his trunk have 50 foot long wires, for picnics (thank you Frank for this info). This photo also shows the Space-Age Antennas Bob Hirohata added to the car. Only very few photos show these. There is one other photo taken at the same location showing that the car is using 1953 Cadillac hubcaps now. The spare tire in the trunk still has the early Sombrero mounted. And the Oil and Gas cans are painted in the sea-foam body color.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-18Taken at an unknown outdoor show, shows the Hirohata Mercury in color again with the hood and trunk open.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-04Another photo of the Hirohata Mercury taken at an outdoor show at the Hollywood park race track in Inglewood showing the car with open hood and trunk. The car has 1953 Cadillac hubcaps now.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-19Photo from the Rodder’s Journal shows the trunk pre-restoration. The photo shows it had a hard live and was not always taken car of as it should have. But most of the upholstery is still there and could be perfectly replicated by Eddie Martinez.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-06This photo taken by Pat Ganahl shows all the original parts re-installed before the restoration started. The oil and gas cans are now located on the right side. This photo also shows that the cans have been re-painted dark green at one point. (Rod & Custom December 1989)
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-07During the restoration Jim Mc Niel used the trunk to store parts in… just like it was done in the old days. (Pat Ganahl photo)
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-12Another looks at the restored trunk with wonderful period looking word by Eddie Martinez who has been doing this kind of work since the 1950’s. These photos also show the one thing that was not molded on the body because the Barris crew ran out of time to get the car finished for the Motorama show… the rear splash pan.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-22Bob Hirohata Checking the fule filler that was relocated in the trunk. He is holding one of the special tools he created with the green and white laminated plastic handle. If you look hard you can see a small portion of the space age antenna next to Bob’s shoulder.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-15The drivers side had a set of tools and the relocated fuel filler. 
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-13Close up of the special tools with Bob Hirohata made laminated handles. 
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-14Close up of the gas filler. Nicely detailed and chrome plated. The carpet was neatly finished with white piping. Also notice the simple rounded bottom edge of the trunk opening. A typical way to round corners in the 1950’s.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-16The trunk handle and emblem was shaved and the lock modified to open electronically. This photo also shows that the whole underneath of the trunk is now painted body color It appears in the 1950’s photos that the inlay sections are either painted a dark color or have been upholstered with dark material. 
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-17A close up of the remote controlled opener. The hand made bracket and not used holes are all left the way it was done back in the 1950’s.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-09The top photo shows the restored cans, with the original paint on it. It is not sure when these were painted, but most likely after 1955 when the car was repainted as well. The cans are now dark green with white lettering, while in the 1953 photo (below) they are most likely sea foam green (the lighter body color of the original version). with dark letters. The early version also look to have hand painted Barris Crests, while the later version have Barris Crest decals. Interesting is the carpet used on the top, as well as the base, which seams to have been reversed in the restoration. Both the cans and the base are the original items.
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CCC-hirohata-merc-trunk-10Close up show the Barris crest decals and hand painted letters in white on the dark green painted cans.
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Cross Country in a Kustom

 

CROSS COUNTRY IN A KUSTOM

 

In May 1953 Bob Hirohata drives his Mercillac from California to Indianapolis. An epic Cross Country trip in an award winning custom, that still fascinates people today.



Custom Cars in the 1940’s and 1950’s were built as daily users. Unlike most show cars today, these early Customs were actually driven to the shows they attended. Even if that show happened to be on the other side of the country.

I had heard about Bob Hirohata’s epic road trip for quite some time. But it would take me a few years before I finally found a copy of the October 1953 issue of Rod & Custom that was reasonably priced, including shipping to the Netherlands. And when it finally arrived in my mailbox 15 or so years ago, I read the story over and over again. I looked at the small photos in the article. Trying to visually how it must have been for the viewers back then, to see a car like the Hirohata Mercury hover by, in your home town, far, far away from California. And how it must have been for Bob and his friend driving a car that low, and with the quality of the mostly two lane roads back then. What an adventure!

I’m so happy that the team at Rod & Customs realized this trip was something special, and they needed to spend as many pages to is as possible. I still hope that Rod & Custom would do a re-run of this article, and goes back into the archives, to see if there possibly are more photos taken by Bob from that trip, that were not used in the article. How nice would that be! But even if they only have the photo already used in the 1953 article, then it still will be so good to see them, larger, and with modern day printing techniques… or perhaps even as an online article. R&C editors… hope you are reading this!

CCC-hirohata-kross-kountry-01-WBob Hirohata protecting the quarter panel scoops and fender skirts with multiple layers of masking tape before the trip started.
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CCC-hirohata-kross-kountry-11-WA brand new Cadillac engine was installed days before the trip begun.
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The story in Rod & Custom was written down by the R&C editor (there was no name listed for this) as how it was told by Bob Hirohata. Every time I read the article I feel like I’m on the passenger seat with Bob, so both Bob did a great job telling the story and the editor did a great job putting it down on paper to get the right feeling.

Bob mentions in the R&C article that the  article “6000 miles in a Custom in the September 1952 issue of Hop Up magazine, has alway inspired him a lot. And ever since he read that article he wanted to do a similar trip. Bob and his navy buddy Azzie Nishi had talked going to the Indianapolis 500 one day. And when the 1953 race was coming up, and it turned out this could be combined with the 1953 Indianapolis Custom Auto show, Bob decided it was his time to go on the cross country trip.


The amazing thing about this cross country trip is that Bob’s Mercury was an award winning custom. by the time Bob went on his trip the car had won many awards, was featured on the cover of Hop Up magazine (March 1953) and Motor Trend magazine (March 1953) and featured in the even more popular Hot Rod magazine (also in March 1953). But all that did not prevent Bob from going on this trip, of which he knew from reading  Spence Murray’s story in the 1952 Hop Up magazine, that it would be full of rough roads and long empty roads.


CCC-hirohata-kross-kountry-14-WThe October issue of Rod & Custom magazine devoted  6 and a quart page to Bob’s travel story. A lot of pages for a single story, especially in those days. The article also mentioned Bob had nick-named his Mercury the “Mercillac”.
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My guess is that the trip of the Hirohata Mercury, or the Mercillac as Bob called it in his article, must have put huge smiles on peoples face. Quite a few car enthusiast who saw the car on its trip must have recognized it from the Hop Up and Hot Rod magazine features. An most likely the Hirohata Mercury was a car they dreamt about, but knew they would never ever see in person. And now this ultimate custom drove thru town… hovering only inches above the pavement. A car with such wonderful lines and bright color contrasting with everything else on the road then.


I’m not sure if this R&C article inspired other people to do similar trips, but my guess is yes it did. Even 60 plus years later I get the urge to go on this same road trip. Cross Country in a Kustom. In 2011 I had the pleasure of being the passenger in the Hirohata Mercury when Jim McNiel asked me if I cared for a short drive in the parking lot of the NHRA Museum in Pomona (see CCC-Article on this experience). This short ride along was already epic for me… So the cross country trip Bob and Azzie taking several days and sleeping in the car, must have been pure heaven.


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CCC-hirohata-kross-kountry-02-WThis is the only photo we have been able to find of the Hirohata Mercury at the Indianapolis Custom car show in 1953. Hopefully more like this will show up in the future.
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CCC-hirohata-kross-kountry-17-WBob Hirohata behind the steering wheel of his “Mercillac”. A name he gave the car in the 1953 article after the Cadillac engine was installed. But nobody really knows the car by that name. Everybody calls the car the “Hirohata Merc” (photo from the March 1953 Hot Rod feature)
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Hirohata Merc Chair

 

COMFORT STYLE

 

Day dreaming about the Hirohata Mercury at shool resulted in this Art Deco design the Hirohata Merc Chair.

In the mid 1980’s I was in art-school. Around that time news about the revival of the custom cars in the US, from a few years earlier finally made its way to the Netherlands. The little spare money I had was spend on Hot Rod magazine from the US, Wheels magazine from Sweden and Custom Cars from the UK. These were the only magazines that had some custom car info in them that I was able to get my hands on where I lived. I absorbed everything I could find about customs in these magazines. One cars name that kept popping up was the Hirohata Merc, and was often revered to as the “grand daddy of all customs” in the magazines. Everything about that car was pure magic for me back then (and still is today)…

For a school assignment we were asked to design a chair, create some work drawings, build a scale model and a way to display the chair in a furniture shop. I knew immediately that I wanted to design a chair based on the lines of the Hirohata Merc. I made some sketches of a chair inspired on the art deco launch chairs from the 1940’s and some newer chairs created by De Sede, combined with elements of the Hirohata Mercury. The Buick side trim boomerang trim was an excellent shape to be used for the sides of the chair. After sketches the perfect chair, I created a side, front and rear views that would help me build the scale model.

Building the scale model
I wanted this chair to have some car elements like the body panels done in metal. But painted a satin pastel color to make it fit better inside a comfortable home. The basic shape of the model chair was created by laminating foam board together and cut and sand it to shape. The “metal” shaped panels were created from sheet styrene and made as separate units so that they could be painted easily. The seat needed to have a real leather look. I found some very thin imitation leather that was used to create shirts. The leather was cut to size, slightly over sized, with the ends carefully folded and moved under, then glued to the shaped foam base. The side panels were painted satin pastel turquoise (a very popular color back then) and the frame pastel blue.

The Buick style side trim and art deco lines on the front were cut from sheet plastic and covered in aluminum foil to make them look like chrome. Once assembled the chair looked really nice and very comfortable. And I planned to create one in 1/1 scale. But I was never able to find the funds to do so back then. Sadly these photos shown here are all left from the Hirohata Merc chair project. The sketches and drawing have been misplaced many years ago and on one of my last moves the chair was damaged beyond repair. I had not thought about the chair for several years, until I came across one of the photos on a recent hunt for something else.

These photos show the scale model I created of the Hirohata Chair. I named the chair Streamline 51 back then, because I figured nobody at school would understand the real name of the chair. The photos were taken many years after the model was first constructed. And parts were already falling off and others were damaged. So the model does not look as good anymore as it used to do when I first created it.

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CCC-Hirohata-Chair-04I created the (corner) display from colored card stock and foam board.



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1955 damage to the Hirohata Merc

 

HIROHATA MERC SIDESWIPED

 

In October 1955, not to long after Robert Waldsmith had bought the Hirohata Mercury, the car was sideswiped, and the entire left side was severely damaged.



Like most car people, I always feel sad when I see this photo of the wrecked Hirohata Mercury. It’s hard to believe that something like this happened to such a wonderful custom car. But it does show that these custom car icons were part of everyday traffic back then. More than often they were used for daily transport. When looking at this photo, one has to have a lot of respect for the body man, who was able to fix the car like nothing had ever happened to it.

Today, when you look at the Hirohata Mercury, and tell people the entire left side was once severely damaged, nearly nobody would take you seriously. Nothing from this tragedy can be seen on the car anymore. This 1955 photo however, makes you wonder how the people at the Barris shop must have felt when they saw the damage on the car. Only three years previously, the Barris team worked so hard to create one of the most stunning custom cars in a very short time. And now one side was wiped out.

The story

Most people had never heard about this wreck with the Hirohata Mercury until a photo of the damaged Hirohata Mercury appeared in the Rodder’s Journal #8 article on the Hirohata mercury. And the story about it was almost not told at all if it had not been for Tim Cunha bumping into a Robert Waldsmith at an Salinas, Ca. hospital. Robert Waldsmith was the administrator at this hospital and Tim was the regional manager for a contracting company for Rehabilitation Services in hospitals etc. When Tim and Robert were talking in the hospital office Robert started telling Tim about this Custom Mercillac he once had. He said it was in the Running Wild movie with Mamie van Doren.

Tim told him to prove it……….. Well he did, the next day he brough a box of photos. Also the bill for the repair of the Merc from Sam’s Auto Body Works after he got it side swiped.  Sadly non of this material was copied or scanned at the time. But Tim Cunha did call Pat Ganahl who later got in touch with Robbert Waldsmith and was able to get one photo of the car showing the damage and one of the Hirohata mercury towing a boat from Robert. These photos ended up in the Rodder’s Journal article, and we really have to thank Tim Cunha for getting in touch with Robert, and passing on the information so that this sad part of the story is part of the history of the Hirohata merc and not lost for ever.

CCC-Hirohata-Damage-01-WTim remembered that the photo Robert showed of the damage was just a very small snapshot.
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The photo above was taken in front of the Barris Kustom shop in October 1955, the car was then owned by Robert Waldsmith. Robert had bought the car, shortly before or after it was used in the movie ‘Running Wild’. Bob Hirohata had been advertising the car for sale for some time. When George Barris made the arrangements to have the car in the movie he was asked to repaint the car so it would show up better in the black and white movie. The Mercury was repainted lime green metallic, and dark green below the Buick trim, and that is how it was when the accident happened.

After the movie shoot, Robert put his new custom in several shows, but he also used his new car a lot as daily transportation. In October 1955, he was hit by a car that left his lane, and crossed the center line on Riverside Drive in Burbanks. The two cars got in contact, and most of the drivers side was pretty beaten up, as can be seen in this photo. Robert wanted Barris to fix the damage for him, but in the end, they asked too much money to do the work. He brought the car over to Sam Gates Sam’s Auto Body Works in Pasadena. Sam was known for his fine work on the R&C Dream Truck. Sam did the repair work on the drivers side, and ended up repainting the car in bright gold with a dark gold under the Buick side trim.

In the photo of the Mercury from the movie as well as the accident we can see the car has a door mounted side view mirror. This mirror was not on the car when Bob Hirohata owned the car, nor when he advertised the car (See photo). The mirror was most likely put on by Robert, to allow him to tow his boat. But it could also be possible that the mirror was added to help the actors in the movie Running Wild to improve viability in the chopped car.

When Jim McNiel bought the car the side view mirror was removed by a previous owner (most likely Dirty Doug Kinney). He never filled the mirror mounting holes left in the door, and created a brass plate with a new name for the car. A brass crest with the name “The Hawaiian” has been covering the former rear view mirror holes. This Hawaiian crest is still on the car today. When I saw the Hirohata Mercury for the first time in 2009 I could not detect any signs of this body damage on the completely restored car what so ever. Sam Gates did a fantastic job repairing this Milestone Custom in the mid 1950’s.

CCC-Sam-Gates-Auto-Body-Works-WSam Gates working on the top of the R&C Dream Truck which he chopped. On the left his business ad he ran in Rod & Custom Magazine.
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CCC-Hirohata-MT-May-55-FSADOne of the magazine ad’s Bob Hirohata ran to try and sell his 1951 Mercury custom. This photo in the ad shows the car has already been repainted for the movie. It also ran 1953 Cadillac hubcaps then, but there was no side view mirror.
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CCC-Hirohata-Mamie-Van-Doren-WActress Mamie Van Doren posing with the Hirothata mercury during the time the movie Running Wild was shot. Note that the side view mirror has been added at this time. Also note that the car was now running ’48-’50 Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps again, similar to when the car was first build in 1952.
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CCC-The-Hawaiian-crest-WThe Hawaiian crest that was created in the early 1960’s hides the mounting holes of the side view mirror. This photo was taken in 2011.
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Sources and more info;

  • The Rodder’s Journal magazine #8 (Pat Ganahl)
  • Motor Trend magazine, May 1955

 

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