Forget Democrat versus Republican. Are you Team Hot Rod or Team Lowrider? You’re a third-party type? How about a chopped and channeled Mercury with a back story that stretches to WWII internment camps?
Whatever your answer, there’s a reason for you to visit Washington, D.C., this spring.
Three exquisite, customized and historic American cars will be on display on the National Mall from April 12 to May 4.
It’s the third year of Cars at the Capital, a show that parks pinnacle moments in automotive history, art and engineering on America’s front yard in the Washington, D.C.’s loveliest season.
This year’s classics:
- Gypsy Rose, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala lowrider, April 12-19
- McGee Roadster, one of the first and greatest hot rods, April 20-26
- Hirohata Merc, a definitive “radical custom” based on a 1951 Mercury coupe.
Each car is a masterpiece, Historic Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler said. The HVA organized the display. It documents the history of significant cars and trucks for the National Historic Vehicle Register working with the U.S. Department of Interior’s Historic American Engineering Record and the Library of Congress.
“Each vehicle in the Register helps tell the story of American innovation, engineering and how the automobile shaped our history,” Gessler said.
The McGee Roadster began as a ’32 Ford coupe, a car that would inspire racers, designers and pop culture for decades. It used both classic engines for do-it-yourself car lovers: first a Flathead Ford V8 engine, later a Chevy Small Block. Bob McGee built the roadster when he came home from World War II.
“It’s iconic and visually arresting,” Gessler said. “It helped create the hot rod ideal.”
The McGee Roadster was one of the fastest hot rods of its time, competing for decades on salt flats and dry lakes throughout the American West.
Mercury’s brief era as a canvas for the work of customizers led to some of the brand’s greatest moments, a class of beautiful cars epitomized by the Hirohata. Just a few years after his family was released from the internment camp where they and thousands of other Japanese Americans were imprisoned during WWII, young Bob Hirohata bought a ’51 Mercury and turned it over to a pair of brothers who had just customized their own Mercury, Sam and George Barris. The Barris brothers would become legendary customizers, creating the Batmobile, Green Hornet, Munster Koach and countless classics for celebrities and everyday car lovers.
The Hirohata Merc was a sensation. It made a cross country tour of car shows, including one in Detroit in 1952 or ’53.
“It came home with a trunk full of trophies. It was one of the most famous cars of its time,” Gessler said.
The Merc went through several hands before 1959, when 16-year-old Jim McNeil bought it for $500. The Merc had been repainted from its famous “ice green” color and gone through other changes. Over the years, McNeil — who still owns the car — found veterans of Barris’s shop to restore the car to its original customized condition.
Jesse Valdez transformed an inexpensive ’64 Chevrolet Impala into the Gypsy Rose as a teenager in Los Angeles. Car culture was a way a newcomer could meet girls and stay out of the gangs when the Valdez family moved from Texas to L.A., Gessler said.
The car’s intricate rose tapestry paint scheme was among the most intricate ever to hit the streets of East L.A. The Gypsy Rose was a hit, landing a starring role in the opening credits to “Chico and the Man,” the 1970s sitcom that was the first mainstream American program to feature Chicano culture.
Jesse met his eventual wife through the Imperials car club. Gypsy Rose is still in the family, now more likely to be driven by Jesse Jr.
Contact Mark Phelan: [email protected] or 313-222-6731. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.