Revered then, revered now. And with a huge sale to prove it.
The legendary Hirohata Mercury sold for an astounding $2.145 million on Sunday at Mecum’s Kissimmee auction. Arguably the most famous custom car ever built, the Hirohata Merc was the creation of legendary Barris Kustoms and is one of only 30 automobiles listed on the National Historic Vehicle Register.
The Merc is the highest-selling custom not affiliated with a TV series or with a movie. The most expensive George Barris creation is the original 1960s television Batmobile, which sold for $4.62M in 2013.
“The continuing relevance of the Hirohata Merc is amazing,” says John Wiley, manager of valuation analytics at Hagerty. “A car that was customized almost 70 years ago, within the context of an emerging American art form, is still revered today.”
Wiley adds that only three cars in the same genre sold for more than the Merc: a GM Futurliner from the Parade of Progress ($4M in 2006), the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car ($3.24M in 2005), and the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Motorama concept car ($3.3M in 2015).
The Hirohata Merc, which Hagerty Price Guide editor Greg Ingold calls “the quintessential lead sled,” was featured in a four-part documentary last year.
Fresh out of the Navy in 1952, Masato (Bob) Hirohata took his standard 1951 Mercury Club Coupe to brothers George and Sam Barris and requested that they give it a pillarless “hardtop” look similar to what the shop had done to Nick Matranga’s then-famous 1940 Mercury Coupe. Beyond that, Hirohata encouraged the brothers to flex their creative muscle. And did they ever.
Assisted by Frank Sonzogni, the shop modified and customized nearly every square inch of the car, adding frenched headlamps, a custom grille built from three 1951 Ford front fascias, and 1952 Buick side trim. The body character lines were modified, the corners of the doors and trunk rounded, the dash and glovebox pinstriped by the legendary Von Dutch, and the interior decked out in custom rolled-and-pleated upholstery job. Completing the Merc’s head-turning look was a bright “Ice Green” paint job.
“As far back as I can remember, it’s been the car that gets talked about, because it made the new look,” says Herschel Conway, who worked on the Mercury. “The other cars became mild customs alongside this radical custom.”
The custom car community went bananas, and the Hirohata Merc soon graced the covers of automotive magazines from Hot Rod to Motor Trend. Hirohata eventually sold it, and at one point it ended up in a used car lot, where it was purchased by a 16-year-old kid named Jim McNiel. It couldn’t have gone to a better person. McNeil considered himself a caretaker more than an owner, and he preserved and carefully cared for the Merc until his death in 2018.
For comparison, a stock 1951 Mercury Club Coupe in #1 (Concours) condition is valued at $55,000. Clearly, there’s nothing like the Hirohata Merc or its place in custom car history.