The extraordinary effort to restore the legendary Hirohata Mercury
The 1951 Hirohata Mercury was an instant legend when it rolled out of Barris Kustoms in 1952, and in the nearly seven decades since, its iconic status has steadily grown. As for the Merc itself, it was simply growing older and stood in desperate need of a restoration. Not to worry—not with Jim McNiel as its caretaker.
While many in the custom car community wondered where the car had gone and were concerned about its fate, the Mercury’s second owner always had big plans for the priceless custom icon, which he purchased for $500 as a teenager. He just didn’t have the money to return it to its original glory. That all changed when Rod & Custom magazine editor Pat Ganahl reached out to McNiel in the late 1980s after a friend reluctantly shared McNiel’s phone number.
Ganahl proposed a restoration of the Hirohata Merc that would be fully documented in the magazine. McNiel was hesitant until Ganahl told him the magazine would pay for it.
“It was like a weight off (my shoulders) that I’d been carrying around with me,” McNiel says. “And that’s what got me going finally.”
In the fourth and final installment of The Hirohata Merc: Custom Legend, a video docuseries produced by the Historic Vehicle Association, we learn that McNiel did most of the work himself, but some legendary hands helped finish it off.
“Jim’s son was still at home at the time, and he was like 16, and the two of them would do the work and I’d take the pictures and run the stories,” Ganahl says. “I never thought I’d see the Hirohata Merc again, let alone be able to cover it and have it in my magazine and make it my project car. I spent a lot of time at Jim’s, and he did everything himself, other than I got a guy to build the transmission. Jim rebuilt the engine himself.
“He was adamant that it be restored to the way it looked in 1952. When he took the dash apart, there were Bob Hirohata and George Barris business cards that were keeping the speaker from rattling, and he put those back in there when he put it back together.”
For McNiel, it was all about preserving history. “I wanted it to stay that way because you have to see where you used to be before you can see where you are now. That was my whole idea of doing everything myself.”
The work went on for nearly seven years before McNiel decided that he wanted the Merc completed in time to be unveiled at “Hot Rods and Customs: The Men and Machines of California’s Car Culture,” a 1996 exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. Suddenly, the project kicked into high gear—much like it had in ’52, when Bob Hirohata wanted the Merc done in time for Motorama.
After scraping off the old paint—Jim’s wife, Sue, saved the chips and turned them into earrings—McNiel received an offer he couldn’t refuse: Herschel “Junior” Conway wanted to paint it for him. Conway had worked at Barris Kustoms for decades but joined the shop after the Hirohata Merc was completed. For McNiel, it was a no-brainer. “Junior was a Barris guy—a 100 percent Barris guy,” so he immediately said yes.
Conway couldn’t wait to get started, which was a good thing, since the show was only a couple of weeks away. “It was such a big piece of history, it needed to be salvaged and brought forward,” Conway says, “and I felt like it was my job to do it.”
He immediately began making calls to bring others on board.
“When I called up and asked all of my friends to come over and help get the car done because there was a deadline, nobody said no. There was no money in it for anybody … [but they responded with] ‘I’ll be there to help ya.’ It was an honor.”
They used a spectrograph to match the original paint colors, and Conway insisted on lacquer paint to duplicate the look that Barris Kustoms had created. Since you can’t buy lacquer paint anymore, Ganahl reached out to PPG Industries in Detroit and asked for a favor. PPG agreed to do it if Ganahl sweetened the deal with a free magazine subscription. Done.
“I was there when the cans arrived,” Ganahl remembers, “… Junior opened it, [sniffed it,] and goes, ‘Ah, the real thing.’”
The Merc’s stunning paint job wasn’t all the work that Conway’s friends contributed. For instance, Frank Sonzogni removed one of the exhaust tips and built another one with the same tools he used to create the original. It was an emotional moment for McNiel.
“I was holding it and he was tapping on it—same guy with the same tools, 60-some years later,” he says. “I had tears in my eyes … it was pretty cool.”
George Barris even stopped by to check on their progress.
The team barely beat the deadline. “What we did in one week would have taken two weeks any other time,” Conway says.
The Hirohata Mercury, seen in public for the first time in decades, was a hit all over again. People flocked to it everywhere it went, and eventually it was even a class winner at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
“I don’t think anything will ever be on the level of this,” Conway says. “To be part of a project like the Hirohata Merc … Money can’t buy it. It comes from here.” He points to his heart.
McNiel is moved by how many people are touched by the car. It’s why he has vowed to keep showing it, sharing it, and caring for it.
“The Hirohata Merc isn’t mine,” he says. “I mean, I own it. But it has to do with the people.”
After 59 years of devoted stewardship of the Hirohata Mercury, Jim McNeil passed away on May 7, 2018. His beloved car is still owned by the McNeil family and is displayed at The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
The four-part Hirohata Mercury documentary was created as part of the HVA’s Drive History video initiative, which features vehicles in the National Historic Vehicle Register and also showcases veteran preservationists, historians, and automotive experts. New videos are released every Wednesday.