Purple Reign: Custom Pinstriped Merc Coupe

Brian Omatsu’s 1951 Mercury Coupe: Blending Styles from Classic and Modern Custom Car Eras

By Stephan Szantai   –   Photography By the Author

During the early ’50s several custom car builders became enamored with the ’49-51 Mercury coupes, a series they deemed ideal for their creative endeavors. A range of factory styling features appealed to these craftsmen, including thick lower body proportions combined with relatively small windows, along with a long roof and short deck.

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02 Brian Omatsu s 51 Mercury Coupe a tribute to custom car culture

Customizers appreciated the V-shaped windshield, too, as it was much easier to chop than a curved window. In fact, once the roof was sliced, the heavy car, weighing over 3,300 pounds, with thick pillars, suddenly appeared more sinister. We should also point out that the Mercury coupes modified through the same era were made with single colors and, occasionally, two-tone paint jobs.

03 The 51 Mercury Coupe with a chopped top and custom window frames

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Brian Omatsu is one of these ’49-51 Mercury Coupe aficionados, though his own coupe somewhat differs from the project cars built during the early ’50s by the most prominent customizers like the Barris brothers … more on that subject in a minute. The Southern California native’s interest stems from “hanging out with my uncle, my older brother, and, of course, my late dad who was also a hot rodder,” he explains. Visiting the major local dragstrips at an early age and watching the movie American Graffiti a hundred times cemented his love for automobiles, realizing along the way that he likes “all styles of cars.” He became especially fond of muscle cars, with a ’66 Chevelle turning into his first street machine at age 16, followed by a couple of Chevy Novas (’67 and ’70) and a street/strip ’55 Chevy with a red plexiglass hood scoop.

Read More: David’s Dream 1938 Ford Coupe Build

04 Brian Omatsu s Mercury Coupe nicknamed Purple Reign

Yet he decided to concentrate on a vehicle of a different kind a few years ago: the ’51 Mercury coupe unveiled within these pages. Why the change of heart? “I still like street machines and drag racing, but when my friends stopped racing, I did too,” Brian adds. Proof of his vast range of automotive interests, his stable currently includes a hot rod Ford Model A coupe and a rotary-powered ’72 Mazda RX-3. In a way, embarking on a custom project car would not be out of his league.

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05 The 51 Mercury Coupe inspired by the famous Bob Hirohata custom car

The Merc Coupe was originally owned by his friend Yonny Koyama, who died suddenly in 2012. By then the vehicle, nicknamed “Purple Reign,” had already received a range of alterations typical of early ’50s custom cars: chopped top with custom window frames, shaved door handles, chrome trim, and emblems removed from the hood and rear lid (aka nosing and decking). Some modifications, such as the flush-mounted fenders skirts and fadeaway fenders, were inspired by arguably the most famous custom car of all time, the Bob Hirohata ’51 Mercury Coupe completed by Barris Kustom in 1952. Koyama’s family ultimately saw fit to sell the car to Brian, knowing that he would finish it as a tribute to his longtime friend.

06 Eggplant purple basecoat on the 51 Mercury Coupe at Dreamex Body and Paint

Work on the vehicle moved at a crawling pace during the next few years, as Brian needed to focus on other projects. But in March 2022 he finally delivered his Merc Coupe to Kraftsman Autoworks (Torrance, CA). The shop, led by Jack Fields, has gained quite a reputation within the hot rod and custom scene. Fields gladly took on the job, with the goal of having it completed less than a year later for the Grand National Roadster Show 2023.

07 The 51 Mercury Coupe featuring a 52 DeSoto front bumper and 54 Pontiac grille

Once Julio at Dreamex Body and Paint got the various panels in flawless shape, Fields could get involved with the paintwork. Brian explains, “I told [Fields] that the basecoat of the car needed to be eggplant purple, as the chassis was already painted that color. Other than that, no flames!” That’s right, you aren’t looking at an intricately covered black base on these handsome bodylines but a very deep purple.

Read More: Under The 1965 Buick Riviera Detroit Speed Chassis

08 The 51 Mercury Coupe with 670R15 whitewall American Classic tires

Although the modifications are rooted in the early ’50s custom car scene, Fields and talented craftsman Chris Mageno imagined a daring paintjob based on the following concept: What would the Hirohata Mercury look like if Larry Watson had repainted it in the late ’50s? Watson (1938-2010) made a name for himself as a mega-talented painter and pinstriper who preferred customizing cars with paint rather than using heavy body alterations during the later part of the ’50s. He is best remembered for his panel paint jobs as seen on the subject of this article.

09 Custom car builders favorite the 49 51 Mercury Coupe with V shaped windshield

Brian liked the idea of mixing elements from the early and the late ’50s, thus Fields and his team went to work in the paint booth on December 23, 2022. “They basically worked non-stop until it was done and stripped on January 4, 2023,” comments the happy owner. Notice the neat pinstripes by Malex Pinstriping, too.

10 Brian Omatsu s Mercury Coupe with neat pinstripes by Malex Pinstriping

When Brian became the caretaker of the vehicle, he also picked up a stash of parts that Koyama had planned to install, including several that have become favorites within the early custom car scene. The crew at Kraftsman Autoworks used several of them, from the ’52 DeSoto front bumper and ’54 Pontiac grille to the ’54 Lincoln taillights and dual ’61 Ford Falcon center console (residing front and back). The latter required some TLC, as Fields stripped off the original vinyl material, painted both units, and fitted custom lights that integrate the distinctive Mercury logo on each side.

10 Brian Omatsu s Mercury Coupe with neat pinstripes by Malex Pinstriping

More vintage bits and pieces equip the interior, such as a ’63 Cadillac steering wheel, ’64 Ford Thunderbird front seats, and a ’49 Mercury dashboard filled with Auto Meter gauges. Check out the superb custom upholstery stitched by Chuy’s Auto Interior, with silver graphics that dress the headliner. They mirror the chrome fins found on the ’61 Falcon center consoles; the outside paint also integrates matching silver stripes. With custom windows cut by Chito’s Glass, the car was finally starting to take shape.

11 Custom car painter and pinstriper Larry Watson s influence on the 51 Mercury Coupe

Read More: 2024 Barrett-Jackson Cup First Look At Competitors

Though Brian has had a long-lasting love for high-performance V8 engines, he exercised restraint by installing a Chevy ZZ4 350 crate engine, perfect to reliably cruise around the SoCal boulevards. Under that Cadillac “batwing” air filter hides a FiTech fuel injection system, while the engine’s rumbling tune emanates from a combination of Sanderson headers and custom mufflers. Additionally, Brian enjoys the use of a Vintage Air AC kit, power windows, in addition to a Chevy 700R4 transmission. When parking in car shows, he can lay the chassis closer to the asphalt courtesy of an Air Lift Performance 3H airbag suspension kit, complemented with a compressor and tank hidden in the upholstered trunk. A set of 670R15 whitewall American Classic tires and center caps made by Fields for the hubcaps add a touch of class to the exterior.

13 Custom upholstery by Chuy s Auto Interior in the 51 Mercury Coupe

With only one day to spare, Brian managed to enter the Mercury in the Grand National Roadster Show 2023 where visitors raved about its good looks. So did the event’s judges, who awarded him the Radical Early Custom ’49-54 trophy. This coupe deserved it, being innovative yet traditional in many ways, making it memorable within the tight knit custom car community. MR

Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of Purple Reign.

mr december 2023

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