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Cars and Culture: The Hirohata Merc--So Cool.

I was doing some reading on the concept of "cool" for a course I teach on New York in the 1950's.

I looked at Birth of the Cool by Lewis MacAdams, Cool Rules by Pountain and Robins, Hip: A History by John Leland, The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank, and American Cool by Peter Stearns. And there I found the usual, and not so usual, suspects and subjects from Jack Kerouac to William Gibson, from bebop to hip hop, from existential hauteur to post-modern irony, from the beats to the punks, from Baudelaire to Bob Dylan, from the Bird to Notorious B.I.G., from Jackson Pollock to Andy Warhol, from the trickster to the hipster, from the Bowery Boys to Boyz N da Hood, from reefer madness to heroin chic. What I didn't find in any of the books was any serious consideration or even recognition of the place of cars in the world of cool. No '49 Mercury Coupe that ]ames Dean drove in Rebel Without a Cause or the Porsche Spyder he was driving when he died. None of Elvis's many Cadillacs. Not even ]ames Bond's Aston Martin DB4 or Steve McQueen's Mustang Fastback in Bullitt. No consideration of the array of Bentleys, Escalades and Ferraris owned by any reasonably successful hip-hop artist from 50 Cent and Bow Wow to Huey--a display obligatory in every episode of MTV Cribs. No hot rods were mentioned or low-riders. No Dub. Not even a VW bus, that icon (cliche) of 60's cool. It was as if all these writers lived in a world that didn't extend above 14th Street in New York City where cars are more nuisance than symbol.

I am not going to weigh in much on the various contested meanings of cool or its cultural significance which, if we can judge by these writers, is immense. (According to Pountain and Robins, for example, "Cool is destined to become the dominant ethic among the younger generations of the whole developed world ..."). What I want to do is merely point out that any consideration of the meaning Of cool must at least recognize the importance of the car in any discussion of what it means to be cool. Is it more important than music? Probably not. Than clothing, hairstyles, or illegal drugs? Maybe not. But it is there. Undeniably, I think.

One the coolest cars ever was built in 1952 by the Barris Brothers, Sam and George. George was one of the stars of Tom Wolfe's "The KandyKolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" in 1963. (Wolfe was one of the first cultural critics outside the car culture to recognize that cars were cool.) It was an almost-new 1951 Mercury owned by a 21-year-old Japanese-American named Bob Hirohata, who wanted the Barris Brothers to customize it. According to George Barris, he told them, "I'd sure like to see it a little different." When they were finished the Hirohata Merc, as it is known, became arguably the most important custom car ever built.

What the Barris Brothers did was transform a fairly lackluster car into a gem. The original is a not very beautiful car. It is a modern post-war design in that its envelope body integrates the from and rear fenders and eliminates the running board, but it still has a boxy body with a bulbous roofline that doesn't quite match the bodylines. The side chrome is merely utilitarian and doesn't contribute much to the design. The front end is too busy and the rear is boring. The Barris Brothers didn't merely improve the looks of the original or "individualize" it with bolt-on accessories as is done today; they reimagined it, redesigned it and rebuilt it so that it embodied a culture, a California car culture's idea of what it meant to be completely cool. There are some who argue that the Hirohata Merc, as it is known, isn't the best Mercury ever customized or even the best customized by Barris Kustoms, but it is without doubt the most influential, partly because it was featured in three national car magazines in 1953, especially in an article in the October 1953 Rod & Custom entitled "Kross Kountry in a Kustom," that documented Hirohata's trek to an Indianapolis car show where he won a big trophy for best custom. The trip itself had elements of the Pied Piper. As Hirohata told Greg Sharp in 1977, "We'd drive through town and some of the kids would follow us as far as fifteen miles." Hirohata was like the Ramones, who spawned the creation of punk bands as they toured small towns across the country in the late 1970's. He introduced California customizing to the rest of the country. Says Doug Thompson, a noted Kansas City builder who created a clone of the Hirohata Merc in the mid-'80's, "You have to understand, George and Sam Barris were really why I had become a customizer. When I saw the original Hirohata Merc in the magazines in 1953, I swore that someday I would be that good--good enough to build a car like that." When the car appeared in the 1955 movie Running Wild, the deal was sealed. Word went out among car-obsessed kids across the country that the Hirohata Merc was starring in a movie!


If cool means anything it has to do with being in control, with making the right moves, not sweating or showing emotion regardless of the circumstance. It is never cool "to blow your cool." It has to do with concealing rather than revealing--so shades are usually cool. Hats sometimes. Cool is not connected to one lone attribute, but, rather, it is a construction--a balance of traits: language, style, attitude, skill and mastery that must in the end seem natural and unstudied. The clothes can't be too extreme, the language can't seem too calculated or self-consciously hip, and the mastery should not be obvious. Quentin Tarantino, obsessed with cool--his Reservoir Dogs is about little else--will never be cool. He's just too frantic. Too geeky. It is easy to slip, to lose cool, otherwise being cool would not be much of an accomplishment. Whatever residual cool Tom Cruise might have had from Top Gun, he lost it forever the day he jumped on Oprah's couch. Not just because he was jumping on a couch, but because it was Oprah's couch. To be really cool everything has to work in sync.


An error that is made often in discussing cool is to confuse cool with mere pose. There is a necessary component of exceptional skill always embedded in cool. A Miles Davis would be a hipster joke if he couldn't play. But the skill must be demonstrated in a way that makes it seem effortless and without evident strain if it is to be truly cool. Joe DiMaggio was cool. Pete Rose, not so much.

The Hirohata Merc is cool because the ideas the Barris Brothers had did not exceed their ability to execute them. There are no false steps or mistakes. The metal work is flawless. The paint exceptional-like nothing that ever came out of Detroit in the '50's. Unlike many contemporary customs, there is nothing strained about it, nothing done to excess like a nine-inch chop or big fins grafted to the fenders or headlights tunneled six inches into the fender. The design blends several different elements together seamlessly.

The first thing that is apparent when the original coupe is compared to the Hirohata is how low it is. That's because the top has been chopped 4 inches in the front and 7 inches in the rear, not only creating a lower roof line but a completely different line that transforms the whole body into a more.streamlined rear-sloping mass. The chop is the automotive equivalent of sunglasses. One of the key elements in the roof design involved removal of the center post and replacing it with a chrome channel to hold the rear window. The result was to create a hard top, a style unavailable from Mercury. Sam Barris, who was the first to chop a post-war Mercury, executed the difficult maneuvers required to make the lower roof look like it was designed that way with multiple cuts and many welds. Just reworking the window glass was a major job. His work set the standard.

To lower the car even further, coils were cut from the front springs and two sets of 1 1/2" lowering blocks were added to each de-arched rear leaf spring. To accommodate the modifications the frame had to be C'ed or notched. Lowering a car was one of the key elements in making it cool. Customs, as opposed to hot rods, are about going slow. Cars as low as the Hirohata Merc are not about speed. They are not drag racers. They are about cruising through town. They are about how cool they looked parked. They are about display. About the look. "How low can you go?"

The Barris Brothers, with much help from Frank Sonzogni, went even further in their redesign of the Mercury. It wasn't enough just to be low. They simplified the front end by removing the grille and constructing a new floating bar out of pieces of a 1951 Ford grille. They housed the hand-formed parking lights in extensions taken from a 1951 Ford grille. They de-chromed the hood (nosed) and extended it into the grille shell to create a smooth and seamless look. They sealed the '52 Ford headlight rims (frenching) in front fenders extended several inches.

In the rear they extended the rear fenders and added large frenched '52 Lincoln tail lights that made the rear as distinctive as the front. The rear bumpers were drilled and exhaust tips added. The trunk was de-chromed (decked) and the corners rounded. Antennas were tunneled into the tops of the rear fenders. Along the side they added '52 Buick side trim--the first time this trim was used on a custom. It has since become a cliche. The Barris team reworked the fender skirts to fit flush in the wheel well and, in one of their most innovative touches, fitted them with functional scoops accented with grille teeth from a '52 Chevy. Hubcaps from a '49 Caddy were mounted on the front wheels. The look from the side--the sweeping side trim, the curving scoops, the slant of the body itself (essentially hidden in the original)--reinforce the rearward tilt of the design and the repeated curves of side trim, scoop and window channel add a rhyming element to the design that locks all the disparate elements from three or four different car models together in one unified vision.

Just before the cross-country trip to Indianapolis, Hirohata had Dick Lyon replace the stock Mercury flathead engine with a brand-new 1953 Caddy 331-cubic-inch OHV engine with many touches of chrome. The engine ran through a Ford clutch and Mercury three-speed transmission.

The stock interior was covered in green and white Naugahyde. Green carpets were added, as were pleated white kick panels and headliner. They installed an optional Mercury steering wheel customized with a chest crushing center bullet. The dash was eventually pinstriped in 1955 by Von Dutch, the most notorious of hot rod artists. Hirohata's major contribution was constructing the laminated green and white plastic knobs for the dash, gearshift and spotlights. Junior Conway finished the cars with many coats of lacquer--sea foam above and dark organic green below. A two-tone color scheme was rare on stock cars (usually contrasting roof and body) and customs before 1952. Barris tended to paint his cars dark metallic maroon or blues. The use of the chrome strip to mark off color areas became a signature move of Detroit later in the '50's, reaching absurd levels with three- and four-color schemes by the end of the decade. Industry also copied the bright colors of the Hirohata Merc not only for its cars but also for stoves and refrigerators. The Hirohata Merc invented the palette of the 1950's.

In 1955, after its appearance in the movie, Hirohata sold the Merc to Robert Waldsmith, who used to cruise the Van De Kamp Diner in Glendale almost nightly. In that same year the car was sideswiped and sustained a lot of damage to the driver's side. By this time it was a lime gold metallic over a different darker green. The car was repaired by Sam Gates and sold several times before Jim McNiel bought it off a used car lot in '59 or '60 for $500 when he was sixteen.

Then the story gets a little weird. After driving the car for a while McNiel put the car in his garage where it sat for more than 30 years. In a short time the car's history was virtually forgotten. There were rumors that the car had been destroyed. For most rodders the car was certainly missing. McNiel contributed to the mystery by not letting anyone even see the car. He even tried to hide the fact that he owned the original Merc. In the mid'80% Doug Thompson built an almost perfect clone of the original for Jack Walker. They had to rely on magazines for specs since they couldn't see the original. Then writer/editor Pat Ganahl offered McNiel support from manufacturers if he would agree to let him document the restoration of the original, but McNiel resisted. It wasn't until 1996 that McNiel began in earnest to restore the car because it had been promised to an Oakland show. Much of the original team worked on the restoration along with McNiel who is, himself, a skilled craftsman. George Barris, Frank Sonzogni, Junior Conway, Bill Larzelere and Eddie Martinez all made contributions. Conway applied the specially mixed PPG lacquer paint that was matched to the original. Martinez did the interior in exchange for a Jaguar. One of the ironies of historical restoration is how memory colors perception. In 1996, there were few people around who had seen the original in person. Most had seen the Merc in old magazine pictures that tended to wash out the color. Consequently Walker's clone is much less brilliant in tone than McNiel's original. Many felt that McNiel's was painted the wrong colors despite the fact that original unfaded paint found on the car was matched exactly by PPG.

Even after more than fifty years the Hirohata Merc looks good. Unlike many customs that are tied to an era and look silly outside it, the Hirohata Merc transcends its time. It is an exceptional example of pure automotive design. Nevertheless, it still evokes an era when driving a chopped Mercury slowly along the streets of Southern California past diners and drive-ins was the coolest thing in the world.

Bob Hirohata never saw the rebirth of his car. On May 14, 1981 he was shot and killed in his parents' driveway while he was changing the oil in his mother's car. The murder has yet to be solved.


Much of the factual information in this column was obtained from Pat Ganahl's articles in The Rodder's Journal and his The American Custom Car (2001).

Pictures courtesy of Jim McNiel and the Ford Motor Co.

JACK DEWITT teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His study of hot rod culture, Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2003. His fourth collection of poems, Almost Grown, was published this year by Paper Kite Press.
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Title Annotation:APR: A Column; 1951 Mercury
Author:DeWitt, Jack
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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