Kustom Kar impresario George Barris has been gone for three years now, but his legacy of kool kustoms and TV cars live on forever. One of his most famous builds from the early ’50s, the exotic “Golden Sahara,” created a worldwide sensation, and then abruptly disappeared for decades.
The “Golden Sahara” has surfaced in a garage in Ohio from Jim Street’s estate and will soon go on the block at Mecum Auctions this May in Indianapolis, IN. The question now is, how much is a priceless piece of long lost Americana worth?
Let’s go back in time to the early fifties and trace the origins of the swanky Golden Sahara and how it came to be. George Barris was piloting his brand new 1953 Lincoln Capri home from a Sacramento car show with his friend Don Landon following behind in a 1949 Chevrolet. Landon’s engine gave up the ghost, so Barris lashed the old Chevv to the rear bumper of his Lincoln and off they went.
Barris recounted the story in an interview with Jonnie King in his “Hall of Fame Legends” series. “I was towing a guy’s car back because he blew the engine, and we just bumpered it together and back over to Ridge Route—that’s all we had, we didn’t have trailers in those days,” he explained. “Regretfully, we slid under a hay truck with it, and we came out of it alright, but the hay truck bed went over the top and peeled the top off, so the rest of the car was good, but the top was gone.”
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade and Barris did just that. With the Lincoln now topless, Barris and body man Bill Carr decided to go all out and make a custom to end all customs. With the financial backing of Ohioan James Skonzakes, better known as Jim Street, they tore the old Lincoln down and got to work.
Barris and Street put their heads together and conjured up a real whopper of a sled. When they were done it looked nothing like the Lincoln they started with. They added almost every postwar design flourish–with heaping helping of styling MSG–and troweled it on the car. Wraparound windshield, a bubble top, gold bullet bumper, gold-anodized panels on the lower section of the rear fenders, and Kaiser tail lights.
The best part is the low and lean contours of the sectioned body. Barely belt buckle high, it looked a block long with “hips” and curves. Although not built for Liberace, “Lee” would have looked perfectly at home behind the wheel of this gaudy, gold encrusted chariot.
The resulting slip stream design of the reshaped metal body boasted a stunning two-tone finish of 24-karat gold in place of chrome, and paint that twinkled like no other car ever did. According to Barris, he says, “It was one of the first pearlescent paint jobs.”
Here’s where it gets real crazy. According to Mecum, Barris wanted a special kind of paint for the car, “The one thing I wanted was gold pearl, and there was no pearl in those days, so where would I go to get gold pearl? You can’t just take white and put gold in it. So Shirley and I went down to the fish market, and I remember fish were very ‘pearlish’ looking.
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. 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. The only problem was that is smelled like fish…”
Glen Hauser’s Carson Top Shop stitched the interior in 50’s baroque splendor. Gold and white brocade fabric graced the seats, padded dash, door panels, with white mink carpeting. It was equipped with a television in the dash, radio, tape recorder and even a refrigerated cocktail lounge in the rear. Be sure and check out the round, fitted back seat.
Barris christened the thing “The Golden Sahara,” and it made it’s public debut in 1954 at the Petersen Motorama held at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. If there were ever the perfect venue, it was at this long gone, mythical Los Angeles arena. It was the stand out of Barris’ custom-built cars and twirled on a big turn table so all it’s curves and angles could be admired, twinkling under the big lights with it’s crazy, pearlescent fish-scale paint.
The car wowed ’em on the national show circuit as well. Street took it around the country to various shows and rented it out for displays at dealerships to attract curious crowds that might be converted to customers. The tour helped Street recover the costs of the car’s build, which had come in at a unheard of for the time, $25,000.
It created a huge buzz. Dealerships and companies clamored for the opportunity for publicity. “Motor Trend” named the Golden Sahara “The $25,000 Custom” on the cover of its May 1955 issue, and the Seiberling Rubber Company commissioned its use as the “face” of the company’s “Tires of Tomorrow” campaign. All of the attention served to convince owner Jim Street that investing in the car even further would surely pay off.
Transformation to Golden Sahara II
Then, around 1956, the car metamorphosed again, This time without Barris at the helm. Remember, Jim Street was from Ohio, so maybe he wanted to stay close to home or maybe he wanted a new set of eyes on the project.
Back east, Street commissioned Delphos Machine and Tool shop out of Dayton, Ohio, to take the car to the next level. Bob Metz took the lead on the rework, altering the windshield, hood and roof, and adding stacked quad headlights with frosted covers.
More gold plating was ladled on the the sides of the fenders, and the car was fitted with new twin-V tail fins and bumperettes. Jim Rote was brought into the mix to design an electronic control system for the car that would allow for a plethora of steering options, including manual or standard (the steering wheel for which was completely removable—column and all), pushbutton steering on both the driver and passenger side, and a centered, aircraft like “uni-control” lever that could also regulate acceleration and braking.
An automatic braking unit using antennaz to “look” for things in the car’s path was installed in the front bumperettes, and the wheels were made with glass elements that illuminated and acted as turn signals, while the tires boasted a revolutionary rubber compound developed by Goodyear that allowed them to actually glow in the dark.
The electronic control system included voice command and a remote that could open the doors as well as start and stop the motor. The same remote could be used to accelerate and brake—effectively categorizing it as the first autonomous car, with no need for a driver.
The entire affair was straight out of a Buck Rogers comic book and the total cost swelled to a whopping $75,000. The buzz about the new car exploded, now christened the Golden Sahara II. A self-driving, remote-controlled car with futuristic styling and a exotic appearance was an exceptionally sensational thing that transfixed the nation. People couldn’t get enough of the car. Everywhere it went, breathless declarations about the “$75,000 Car of the Future” we plastered on the radio and newspapers.
Next stop, Hollywood
The Golden Sahara II was featured in a 1960 fantasy-romance film “Cinderfella” starring Jerry Lewis, Ed Wynn and Judith Anderson. The Golden Sahara II was so over-the-top, it translated well onto the silver screen. The film highlighted the car’s electronics including handle-free doors that opened on their own as Lewis approached.
Captured on celluloid and celebrated as one of the most futuristic and flamboyant vehicles of the decade, the Golden Sahara was a celebrity in it’s own right. Street continued to display the car on the show circuit and in the late ‘50s, he added mechanical toy “Robby Robots” and displayed them with capitalizing on the space age theme of the car.
Another trick he employed as bait to generate a buzz, was enlisting his wife at the time, Gloria, a former Miss Florida, to demo the car’s various features completely covered in gold body paint, adding another element of intrigue to the spectacle. These displays embedded the car even deeper into the hearts and minds of millions of showgoers.
In 1962, the car was featured on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” during which Street was asked by host Gary Moore to demonstrate a selection of its impressive capabilities, including its ability to travel sans-driver.
Gone Without A Trace
Despite the car’s fame and stature, as the ‘60s winded down, Street abruptly withdrew it from the show circuit. Without explanation, the car simply disappeared—never to be seen again. But while it may have been lost, it was not forgotten, and as the years rolled by, car historians and fans wondered “Whatever happened to the Golden Sahara?”
With the advent of the internet, social media and forums, many conversations about the car and its whereabouts ricocheted around the web with most speculation ending with the same hypothesis, the car was likely stored away somewhere or possibly even destroyed.
Alive And Well, Hidden Away in Ohio
Now, nearly 50 years after the car’s disappearance, the elusive kustom has surfaced. Tucked away for years at Jim Street’s home, the Golden Sahara will cross the auction block at Mecum in May 2018.
Found largely untouched, but weathered from the hands of time, the car will be available for public viewing in its as-discovered condition as it graces the stage of Dana Mecum’s 31st Original Spring Classic Auction.
According to Mecum, “For the first time in decades, the car will be available for public viewing in its as-discovered condition as it graces the stage of Dana Mecum’s 31st Original Spring Classic Auction. Certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the car’s appearance will not only mark its reentry into the world that has long vied for its return, but it will also mark a momentous occasion for one fortunate and ambitious collector as it crosses the auction block in search of someone to carry on its unparalleled legacy. To own the Golden Sahara is to own possibly the most memorable and certainly the most interesting car born of the 1950s, spawned from the ingenuity and talents of the eccentric but brilliant Jim Street, George Barris, Bill De Carr, Bob Metz and others. There is nothing like it in the world, and there will never be another like it again.”
What the hell is this thing worth? We’ll soon find out. For those interested in bidding, the car has no reserve.
More importantly, what do you do with a car like this? Like unearthing Tutankhamun’s chamber, how do you restore it without disturbing it’s provenance?
Like an autograph, the hands of Barris, Street, Jerry Lewis, Bob Metz and Jim Rote are all over this thing and significantly, it’s all that remains of their toil–and commensurately–their existence on this planet.
What say you? Is this the “barn find” of the millennium?
What would you do with this car? Restore it to it’s golden, technicolor splendor? Or leave it as is, a faded starlet frozen in time?