[Number Nine] — Isamu Kondo's 1949 Mercury Custom
Words: Craig Metros Photography: Luke Ray
On the last full day of our whirlwind tour of Japan, Luke and I were on a train… again, bound for Yokohama. We were meeting the builder of a custom ’49 Mercury at the Mooneyes shop. The ’49 Mercury is known as ‘Merc 9’. From the photos I had seen, it looked to be quite something.
Isamu Kondo is the talented builder and proud owner of this sensational custom Mercury. He and the car were already at the shop when we arrived. In person, the car is so striking and the execution and attention to detail is mind blowing. As Luke began shooting the car in front of the Moon shop, I started a conversation with Kondo-san with the help of an interpreter.
My first question to Kondo-san was regarding the name. What does the 9 stand for in Merc 9? Kondo-san had done his research into the history of the Lincoln-Mercury brand. “The Mark name stopped at Mark 8,” the interrupter quickly translated. Given that the Mark name plate signified a special series within the Lincoln-Mercury brand, I thought the Merc 9 was a pretty clever idea.
Kondo-san’s ’49 Mercury is definitely a special car, I believe even more so in Japan. Obviously, the Mooneyes show judges felt the same since Merc 9 won Best Automobile at the 2012 Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show.
This journey didn’t just happen overnight. The car was purchased in 2002 and was already chopped. “The quality of the chopped top and body was bad,” Kondo-san points out. “I have redone the car four times within ten years.” During a 2008 cruise night, the Merc was involved in a pretty bad traffic accident. Kondo-san was OK however, the passenger side of the car was wiped out.
Kondo-san, who spends his days working as an industrial metal fabricator, decided to completely rework the car again. His first priority was to repair the damaged caused by the collision. He proceeded to straighten the body and re-chop the top. The front of the roof was lowered four inches and the rear portion came down six inches. A ’50 Mercury back glass panel was used to complete the new sleek roof profile.
Other mods to the body include hand made custom sheet metal fender skirts, ’49 Chevrolet side mouldings, and a punched louvered hood. Kondo-san points out a few more details such as the oval shaped side pipes that he fabricated and the initials T.D.T.K. that are pressed into the hub of the wheel covers. The initials stand for “Tokyo Down Town Kids”, Kondo-san’s car club.
Contrasting to the traditional ‘50s custom exterior, the interior showcases modern conveniences. The hand built custom console houses a navigation system and a B&M automatic floor shifter. The dash panel was modified to accept a digital display and a set of digital gauges. Other appointments include power seats, power windows, and air conditioning.
The drivetrain and suspension were completely updated for practicality and convenience according to Kondo-san. “I wanted a car to drive and to cruise often.” Power comes from a small block Chevy 350 mated to a Corvette 700R4 transmission with a GM 10 bolt at the rear end. The original steering was replaced with a Cadillac STS rack and pinion. Also replaced, front and rear suspension gave way to hydraulic.
My compliments to Kondo-san for setting up the car to his needs, and absolutely nailing the proportions, stance and all the subtle sheet metal refinements. At this point, the car would have held up to any colour or finish; grey primer would have turned heads. Instead, Kondo-san turned to Caltrend and let owner, Matt-san come up with the paint scheme. The paint job is one of the key features that takes the Merc 9 to another level. The intricate pattern of blended fine flaked warm shades of black to silver harks back to Southern California Customs of the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, yet compliments the body lines with sophistication.
After several shots of the car at Mooneyes, it was time to find an alternative backdrop. Luke and I jumped in the Merc with Kondo-san and I was so impressed with how solid the car felt on the road. We drove to the top level of a parking structure. Given it was Sunday, the place felt almost abandoned. The open space gave Luke much more flexibility than the congested streets and parking lots in Yokohama.
Continuing my conversation with Kondo-san, I was interested in his influences and inspiration. “I like American Graffiti, looking at American hot rod/custom cars in magazines and the Internet.” After further conversation, it became apparent that Kondo-san has never travelled to the US. Given how authentic American custom Merc 9 looks, I just assumed he spent some time soaking up the car culture, and buying parts there.
Merc 9 is a perfect example of how serious automotive enthusiasts are in Japan. After I asked Kondo-san numerous questions regarding his pride and joy, he asked me a question. “How does my car stack up to some of the latest customs you have seen in the US and Australia?” My answer was short and sweet. “Extremely high!” I went on. “I’m sure there are enthusiasts and builders in other parts of the world who are referencing pictures of Merc 9,” I explained.
In my universe, Merc 9 is World Class.
This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 18 'The Japan Issue'.