For several years it toured the country claiming a Guinness world record for “world’s most expensive automobile,” and it very well may have been, given the extensive modifications and futuristic technology that went into building it. But then its owner inexplicably hid it away 50 years ago, leading to an exile that will only be broken this spring when the Golden Sahara heads to auction.
Considered one of George Barris’ most iconic customs, the Golden Sahara actually went through three major iterations, two of which Barris directly had a hand in. Originally a 1953 Lincoln Capri two-door hardtop, the car underwent a mild nosing and decking when new and served as Barris’ daily driver until a foggy rendezvous with a hay truck left Barris bloodied but otherwise uninjured and rendered the Capri a total wreck.
Rather than scrap it, Barris held on to the remains of the Capri and, with the backing of a customer from Dayton, Ohio, used the Capri as the basis for his most radical custom to date. That customer, Jim Skonzakes, aka Jim Street, already had the Barris brothers chop a 1949 Buick for him. According to David Fetherston’s The Big Book of Barris, Barris approached Street with some concept sketches of his inspired by contemporary European coachbuilders, and Street agreed to fund the transformation of the Capri into a radical custom.
That initial version of the Golden Sahara, largely built by Bill De Carr in Barris’ shop, reused the Capri’s chassis, drivetrain, floorpan, and what body panels Barris could salvage. From its shrouded headlamp/parking lamp/bumperette combination up front, it flowed down to a dip just behind the doors and then zigged back up to again flow down back to its Kaiser taillamps. A lift-off transparent roof included hinged panels above each door and a tinted T-bar that kept it from becoming a full-on passenger-frying bubbletop. Gold-dyed aluminum panels along the center of the hood and the lower half of the rear quarter panels — not to mention the golden hue to the headlamp trim and the full wheelcovers — gave it the Golden Sahara sobriquet.
Inside, according to Kustomrama, the Golden Sahara boasted a complete refrigeration unit with cocktail bar, a dash-mounted television and hi-fi stereo, a tape recorder between the front bucket seats, gold-plated trim, and seats stitched by Glen and Bob Houser at the Carson Top Shop.
The Golden Sahara debuted in 1954 at the Petersen Motorama at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles and toured the country over the next two years reportedly so Street could recoup the $25,000 he invested into the car (estimated to be $313,000 in today’s dollars, according to MeasuringWorth.com‘s calculator). It appeared on the cover of the May 1955 issue of Motor Trend, dubbed “The $25,000 Car,” at a time when the most expensive Cadillac sold for about $6,500.
Regarding the paint, everybody seems to agree that the Golden Sahara was the first custom car to feature pearlescent paint. However, who to credit with the idea and for which iteration of the car seems to be in dispute. Barris claimed he came up with the concept of a gold pearl paint and visited an Los Angeles-area fish market to get the supplies necessary for a gold pearl.
“I had the fish guys turn all the sardines over so their bellies were showing till I found the right belly that had the gold,” he said. “So we took it and scraped the scales off the belly and put it in a jar and took it back to the shop and mixed it in with a natural cellulose clear lacquer and toner lacquers. And then I based it in a very dull white and then sprayed that over it, and it just came out really pearly gold.”
However, Rik Hoving at Custom Car Chronicle contradicts Barris’ story with the version that Street told him. Reportedly inspired by a waitress’ faux pearl necklace while trying to come up with ways to outdo the original Golden Sahara for its next iteration, Street tracked down the maker of the necklace, which in turn put him in touch with its paint supplier, The Mearl Corporation, based out of New York.
“The people at the Mearl Corporation told Jim how they used imported fish scales from the orient, a by-product, as base for their paint,” Hoving wrote. “The scales were bought in bulk, washed and cleaned, then dried and carefully pulverized. The powder was then mixed with special resin to form a paste. This raw paste was the product that was sold and which could then later be mixed with clear nitro cellulose and sprayed onto the plastic pearls at the necklace company.”
Whoever came up with the pearl paint, it was just one of several notable features that Street came up with in 1957 for his revision of the Golden Sahara. This time, he enlisted Delphos Machine and Tool in Dayton for the work. Specifically, Bud West worked with the Mearl pearl paint and applied it on the body, now incorporating resculpted headlamps with deeper hoods and bifurcated taillamps between a twin-fin design, while Henry Meyer and Joe Rote worked with Street to come up with a complete electronic control system for the car straight out of a sci-fi film.
The control system tapped into the brake, throttle, and steering systems, thus allowing the car to be controlled via one of multiple means: by steering wheel, by joystick, by pushbutton, by remote control, autonomously via radar guidance and magnetic tracking, or by voice. Street showed off the control system’s features on a 1962 episode of I’ve Got a Secret.
One feature he didn’t show off was the light-up tires, which Goodyear developed using translucent rubber and which Street and Meyer took advantage of with lights wired into special hubs that blinked with the turn signals. Street also apparently didn’t divulge much detail about the engine, which, as he claimed on show placards for the car, now put out 525 horsepower via some sort of “hybrid” system.
Street re-debuted the car in 1958, this time under the name “Golden Sahara II,” claiming an investment of $75,000 (about $780,000 in modern dollars). It appeared in the 1960 Jerry Lewis film Cinderfella amid a touring schedule that lasted through the next decade, employing Street’s wife as a spokesmodel for the car. Touring recouped some of Street’s build expenses, but according to Hoving, Street and Meyer redeployed much of the technology they developed for the Golden Sahara II for their business Radar Security.
And then, with the car’s touring days over, Street pulled it into the Radar Security shop. He had to repaint it once during its second tour to correct a yellowing condition caused by exposure of the paint to light, and in latter years, according to Hoving, kept the car on blocks and literally under wraps to minimize light exposure. Still, what photons had already struck the car began a yellowing process that led to the car’s current deep-gold hue.
Only after Street’s death in December of last year did the wraps come off the Golden Sahara in anticipation of its no-reserve appearance at Mecum’s Indianapolis auction in May. While Mecum has yet to list the other cars in Street’s collection, the auction will reportedly include them too, including the Norm Grabowski-built Kookie T, much modified from its original iconic version.
Mecum has not released a pre-auction estimate for the Golden Sahara, citing its “unlimited potential.” The Mecum Indianapolis auction will take place May 15 to 19. For more information, visit Mecum.com.