The Milhous Collection

24-25 February 2012

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Lot 825

1951 Mercury Custom Coupe

  • Chassis no. 51LA39108M

Sold for $423,500

Model 1CM. 255.4 cu. in. L-head V-8 engine, three-speed manual transmission, coil spring independent front suspension, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 118"

• A period custom by George Barris
• Trendsetting cosmetic modifications and styling
• Built for Universal Pictures film Running Wild

Certain cars, like the 1957 Chevy, have broad appeal across the collector community, while others, like the Deuce coupe or 1936 Ford, capture the hearts of hot rodders. Among the custom car hobby, however, it’s the 1949-51 Mercury that holds broad sway, perhaps because of a single icon: the 1955 Warner Brothers film Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean. In that film a very mildly customized 1949 Mercury coupe, Dean’s ride, became symbolic for a generation of teens who came of age during the 1950s. The custom car movement was near its zenith, and thousands of California youth were eager to take their Mercurys to such gurus as Gil Ayala, Darryl Starbird and George Barris, in search of individuality.

George Barris is rightfully known as the “King of the Kustomizers.” With his brother Sam, he began modifying cars in their native Chicago before World War II. After the war, they set up shop in Los Angeles, building “kustom kars” for private customers. By 1950, their fame had spread, and the movie industry came calling. It is no surprise, then, that Universal Pictures came to Barris for a signature car to use in their upcoming film Running Wild, starring William Campbell, Keenan Wynn and Mamie van Doren, who of course was one of the famous Hollywood sex symbols alongside Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. The film is a fun crime drama focusing on the battle between the police and young car thieves—a perfect background for the hip subculture of car customizing that this stunning Mercury coupe owes its creation to.

Like many custom Mercurys, this car began life as a Los Angeles-built coupe. At Barris Kustoms it was lowered, nosed, decked and given frenched headlights in preparation for its use in the film. A single grille bar, with Cadillac-like center section, replaced the Mercury “comb” motif. Full skirts were added to the rear fenders and side scoops to the hood. The original roof was dispensed with and replaced with a white Carson padded top. The doors were converted to solenoid operation with hidden buttons. Side trim from a 1953 Buick was added, along with chrome wire wheels and twin Appleton pillar-mounted spotlights. The car was painted in a single hue of mauve, repeated on the stock dashboard, which carries a correct Mercury AM radio mated to a power-operated antenna. It also has Mercury’s fresh-air heater.

The interior is upholstered in grey leather with white pleated inserts, harmonizing with grey carpet on the floor. The pleated theme is repeated on the headliner. Although the customizing was done many years ago, both the body and interior remain in very good condition. The Mercury flathead V-8 engine was treated to Edelbrock heads, dual two-barrel carburetors and Fenton exhaust headers. Dual exhausts exit through the rear bumper. The provenance of the car is substantiated by Barris Kustom emblems on the front fenders and similar decals on the vent windows. B.F. Goodrich Silvertown whitewall tires on the Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels complete the picture.

With such famous television cars as the Munsters’ Koach to his credit, the work of George Barris is highly sought after by collectors. This ’51 Custom Mercury, with its telltale modifications, is an excellent example of his trendsetting work.


Please note this car was in fact built new by the Barris Brothers in 1952/53 for Fred Rowe, after which it was modified with several cosmetic changes, including the distinctive hood louvers, paint, and side trim to be leased by Barris to Universal Studios for the Running Wild movie, which also featured the famous Bob Hirohata Mercury Coupe.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

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Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

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Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

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David Swig joined RM Sotheby’s West Coast division as a Car Specialist in May 2015. He is a life-long automobile enthusiast and ... read more

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Don joined RM in 2006 after several years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputation as a noted... read more

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Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

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Having worked for Bonhams’ Automobilia department for over 10 years, Kurt Forry joined RM Sotheby’s with more than a decad... read more

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A long-time car enthusiast and Southern California native, Matt studied Automotive Technology at San Diego Miramar College and complet... read more

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Michael Squire joined RM Sotheby’s European Division in the summer of 2016. He comes to RM with a prestigious racing background ... read more

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As one of the three founding partners of RM Sotheby’s, Mike has a long-standing interest in the classic car industry. Graduating... read more

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With an extensive background in exotic sports car history and sales, a particular passion for American curves, and fluency in three la... read more

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Paul Darvill joined the RM Sotheby’s European team at the beginning of 2015. Paul holds a degree in French and Politics from the... read more

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Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. He att... read more

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Peter Wallman joined RM Europe in 2007 following nearly two decades in the international advertising industry, where he was based out ... read more

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Shelby Myers grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to watch the R... read more

Tonnie Van der Velden

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Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more