The Golden Sahara II is restored to its original glory

On paper, the Golden Sahara II would only need the addition of electrified powertrain to seamlessly blend in with the most advanced cars displayed at the 2019 Geneva International Motor Show. It’s equipped with state-of-the-art-technology features like voice commands and sensor-based automatic emergency braking. The main difference is that the Golden Sahara II was built 65 years ago, in 1954.

The Herculean task of turning a wrecked 1953 Lincoln Capri into a rolling embodiment of the Jet Age initially fell into the capable hands of George Barris, the celebrated designer and builder who later created the 1966 Batmobile. Work began in 1954. The second, current, and most famous version of the car was born in the Delphos Machine and Tool shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1956. All told, collector Jim Street spent about $75,000 (nearly $700,000 in 2019 dollars) to turn his dream into a running and driving reality. What a helluva dream it was.

No visual evidence suggests the Golden Sahara II started life as a stately Lincoln. Styling cues like long fenders with slanted ends, a wrap-around windshield, a bubble-shaped open roof, and quad tail fins make it look like it levitated its way to the 1950s, UFO-style, straight from the 22nd century. Barris and his team mixed ground-up fish scales into the paint to create a pearlescent effect, and they added gold-plated trim parts on both sides and on both ends of the car to make its presence even more dramatic.

Golden Sahara II interior
Ronan Glon

The Golden Sahara II originally sat on translucent tires custom-made by Goodyear as part of a broader experiment. At the time, the company’s research and development department was studying tires that lit up in inclement weather, or when the driver applied the brakes. Turn signals integrated into the wheels accurately previewed the mirror-mounted repeaters commonly seen on modern-day cars. The innovations found in the cabin were even more impressive, especially during the 1950s.

The driver could steer, brake, and accelerate using an airplane-like control yoke. Alternatively, a remote control could start or stop the engine, open the doors, and accelerate and brake the car. This technology made the car driverless, and several automakers offer similar solutions to facilitate parking in 2019, but the Golden Sahara II wasn’t exactly autonomous. That didn’t make the car less appealing; passengers could watch their favorite show on a black and white television integrated into the dashboard, or sit back and relax by making a cocktail using ingredients stored in a refrigerated compartment installed between the sofa-like rear seats. Drunk driving? Distracted driving? Who cares? It’s the future! Besides, a pair of short antennas integrated into the front end automatically hit the brakes if they detected an obstacle in the car’s path.

Street proudly took the Golden Sahara II on a heavily-publicized tour of the United States. It sent crowds into a frenzy everywhere it went, and it became one of the most famous custom cars in America. Its star continued to rise as it landed a role in the 1960 movie Cinderfella, and made an appearance with Street on a game show called I’ve Got a Secret in 1962. Life on the road took a heavy toll on the car, however, and Street suddenly pulled it out of the spotlight in the late 1960s. No one heard about the Golden Sahara II—let alone saw it—until Street’s death in 2018. For nearly 50 years, many assumed the car had been cut up for parts, or destroyed entirely. It had simply vanished.

Golden Sahara II taillight detail
Ronan Glon
Golden Sahara II bubble top
Ronan Glon

Golden Sahara II rear
Ronan Glon

In hindsight, Street knew better than to destroy his futuristic convertible. He parked it in his Ohio garage when it started looking worse for the wear, and never took it out again. It reappeared when the car went to auction along with several other selections from Street’s estate. Chicago-based Klairmont Kollections purchased the custom classic in a deteriorated condition for $385,000 in 2018. At the time, enthusiasts wondered whether it would be restored to its former glory, or kept in its decrepit state as a tribute to the genius of the men who created it. Larry Klairmont decided to give the Golden Sahara II its sparkle back. Chicago-based Speakeasy Customs and Classics painstakingly carried out the work.

Goodyear contributed to the restoration by re-creating a set of urethane tires. While the originals could be filled with air the new ones are completely solid, meaning the car is only drivable at low speeds. They’re equipped with LED lights—the wonders of modern technology—to look like the originals. The hub-mounted turn signals are once again functional, and the Golden Sahara II’s pearlescent paint shines like it did in 1956.

It beat high-dollar, high-horsepower supercars like the Bugatti La Voiture Noire to capture the attention of everyone who meandered from stand to stand in Geneva’s Palexpo convention center. We wonder which car introduced at the 2019 edition of the show we’ll be able to say this about in 2084.

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