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Even after replication, Ed Roth’s Mysterion remains, well, mysterious

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by Karissa Hosek, courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

Replicating long-lost cars is difficult; replicating Ed Roth’s Mysterion is, perhaps, a fool’s errand. Aside from Roth’s eyeball-it measurements, his casual concern over the show car’s structural integrity doomed it to a short existence. Jeffrey Jones, however, took on that errand and though the end result – which he will put up for auction this December – doesn’t hew perfectly to the original, it’s likely the last word in Mysterions unless the original magically re-appears.

As Jones pointed out in his book on the Mysterion, the show rod is at the same time the most famous and least documented of the artist’s show rods. Tens of thousands of custom car show attendees in the mid-Sixties saw it, it received a good deal of magazine coverage, and it already spawned a replica independent of Jones’s own effort. Yet, in true Roth tradition, the car emerged entirely from Roth’s imagination – blueprints were unheard of in Roth’s studios – and few photographs exist of the Mysterion before its demise.

In addition, Roth never meant it to touch tire to road. A follow-up to the Outlaw and Beatnik Bandit, the Mysterion was intended to fulfill the same purpose as its predecessors: Promote Roth’s t-shirt business on Bob Larivee’s circuit of indoor car shows. If it could roll into the show under its own power, great; if not, Roth would have it trailered to the next car show anyway.

Roth created the Mysterion in 1963 for the 1964 show season, originally intending to use a pair of Oldsmobile V-8s. Ford, however, offered him a trio of FE-series V-8s shortly after Roth began construction; one went into Roth’s 1955 Chevrolet, while the other two replaced the Oldsmobile V-8s.

According to Jones’s research, Larivee – who had previously obtained both the Outlaw and Beatnik Bandit – traded them both to Roth for the Mysterion sometime in 1965 and then a year later traded the Mysterion back to Roth for another car. The Mysterion, then stored in Kansas City, never made it intact to Roth’s shop, reportedly because Roth said he only wanted the front and rear axles and didn’t care about the rest of the car. Local kid Doug Wright then bought the remains, but parted them out a year or so later when his parents wanted the bits and pieces out of their basement.

Jones, then a teenager heavily inspired by Roth’s creations, vowed to build his own replica of the bubbletopped asymmetrical Mysterion, but wouldn’t get around to starting the project until sometime in the early 2000s. His intense research uncovered a number of widely reported inaccuracies about the car, some of which Roth himself perpetuated. The drivetrain, for instance, long held to be a pair of 406s backed by a pair of C6 or Cruise-O-Matic FMX transmissions, actually consisted of twin 390s and MX automatics.

His research also shone a light on the numerous failings of Roth’s design for the Mysterion. By analyzing images he obtained from Revell, he quickly saw that Roth made nothing on the Mysterion square or uniform. “Ed, like all great artists, did not rely on tape measures for his creations,” Jones wrote. “This emphasizes that Ed was not a car customizer as his contemporaries were. He was an artist who used the automobile as his medium.”

In addition, while a number of accounts blame hydrogen embrittlement for the frame cracks that plagued the Mysterion during its time on the show circuit, Jones instead points to the lack of crossmembers in the C-channel rectangular ladder-style frame as the real reason for its chronic failures.

“I was forced to make a few tough decisions on some big changes to several details,” Jones wrote. “The first obvious decision was, do I honor Ed’s blatant refusal to use a tape measure and build in the huge variations from symmetry he built into the body, or succumb to the urge to make them uniform? The next big difference in the cars is I wanted mine to run and be somewhat drivable.”

Jones decided to build the body with some of Roth’s flair but also with the aid of a measuring tape. “It was hard enough matching Ed’s design accurately without taking on the even harder task of matching subtle but  substantial variances in body panels,” he reasoned. As for the chassis, Jones located all the correct pieces but placed them around a stiffer street rod-style rectangular tube frame. He also hollowed out the passenger-side engine and elected not to install the passenger-side transmission to make more room for himself in the already tight cockpit of his replica.

When Dave Shuten debuted his replica of the Mysterion – based on a project that Mike Scott started – in 2005, Jones said he didn’t let that deter him from finishing his own replica project. “Rather, it excited me more to do my own version,” he wrote. A version that, he noted, relied less on the Revell model kit of the Mysterion for details and more on his own study of the original.

As for the pieces of the original, various sightings have been made in and around Missouri, but to this day nobody has come forward with any of the parts Wright sold.

By the time Jones published his book in September 2016, he had only a few small details to finish. “Don’t ask me what I did this for; it is just a lifelong dream, bucket list thingie,” he said. “No plans to do anything but build it and drive it. Have always wanted to see Mysterion driving down the road.”

Since then, Jones has decided to consign the replica to RM Sotheby’s auction at the Petersen Automotive Museum with no reserve. The pre-auction estimate for the Mysterion ranges from $100,000 to $150,000.

The RM Sotheby’s Petersen auction will take place December 8 in Los Angeles. For more information, visit RMSothebys.com.