May 7, 2013 in City

Is this Mercury a star?

Though in a state of disrepair, one vintage car could be tied to legendary customizers
By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

Tom White of Glenn Vaughn Restoration Services talks Thursday about the classic Mercury street rod, right, that is suspected to have been built by car designer George Barris or protege Dick Dean at the shop in Post Falls. They are investigating the car’s history to determine where it came from and how to proceed with the restoration.
(Full-size photo)

Far from drivable, let alone showroom quality, a vintage car is presenting a Post Falls restoration shop with an intriguing challenge.

The 1950 Mercury convertible may have been modified half a century ago by custom-car legends George Barris or Dick Dean, whose reputations would inflate its value.

The previous owner says he has a certificate linking it to Barris, whose status surged after the Batmobile he built for the 1960s TV series sold for $4.6 million at auction in November.

The owner of Glenn Vaughn Restoration Services sees reason to proceed cautiously. “I’m very skeptical of stuff like that. But there are some signs that are pointing toward George Barris,” Vaughn said last week.

Gene Winfield, another well-known customizer, visited the shop recently, took one look at the ’60s-style custom and said the top was a typical Dean construction.

“My hunch is that this is a Dick Dean car,” said Tom White, the body man taking on the job for Vaughn. Dean was just as good as Barris, White said, “he’s just not as well-known.”

Richard “Dick Dean” Sawitskas, who died in 2008, was known as the Sultan of Chop. He worked for Barris off and on beginning in 1959, and he customized more than 1,000 cars, around 400 of them 1949-51 Mercurys.

In 2011, a Dick Dean-chopped 1950 Mercury 2-door coupe sold for $330,000 at a Barrett-Jackson auto auction.

Whatever the pedigree probe turns up, restoration could take years and cost more than $100,000.

Hugh Craig, a Montana chemist and inventor, bought the Mercury a decade ago and embarked on a restoration in a Las Vegas shop. But the job fizzled and he recently tapped Vaughn to take over the project.

“I’ve been very patient for 10 years. We’ll spend the time to get it the way we want it,” Craig, 75, said from his winter home in Sedona, Ariz.

The key question, he said, is whether the value of the car will be substantial enough to go through with a full restoration.

“And as a Barris, it would be,” Craig said. “If it turns out it’s not a Barris, then we’ll do something and we’ll turn it into a fun driver.”

It will sport a candy-apple red exterior, a tuck-and-roll red-and-white interior and a removable Carson top – the look of the original custom job, based on what a previous owner knows.

For Craig, it’s a sentimental pursuit. “My first car was a ’50 Mercury. It was a hand-down from my dad,” he said. “What I remember most is when I took off to go to Gonzaga, my dad said the car stays in Butte.”

He also remembers fondly the hopped-up ’49 Mercury coupe that James Dean drove in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.”

“That’s what everybody wanted when I was growing up,” Craig said.

Back at Vaughn’s shop, the sleuthing begins by scouring the Internet for hints and posting photos of the car to invite leads on its origins.

And it involves searching the car itself for clues. Right now, the puzzle pieces are a jumble. The car came in with a spare motor from a Cadillac, which Barris used, and caked-in Bondo body filler, which Barris never used, White said.

It has a ’56 Cadillac drive train, seats from an early ’60s Thunderbird, frenched headlights and taillights, and spare parts that include an extra dash and grill.

“So we have all these weird things that show people had different plans for it at different times in its life,” White said. “It’s a nightmare.”

But he looks forward to unraveling the car’s history and pursuing the course of restoration.

“This does have definite signatures that we’re going to be able to track down to a builder,” he said.

“And if we find out it was just some guy in his garage that built it, then heck, I might be able to have some fun with this and do something like my own style. So either way it turns out, it’s going to be a really fun build to do.”

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