Famed custom car from the 1950s and ’60s was suddenly hidden away for 50 years
A stunning custom car that could be driven by remote control and drew huge crowds when it toured the country in the 1950s, and then suddenly disappeared for half a century, has been rediscovered at its hiding place in Ohio and will be offered up for bidding at Dana Mecum’s 31st Original Spring Classic auction May 15-19 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis.
The car is the Golden Sahara II, which owner James Skonzake, who became known to the car community as Jim Street, put into storage without explanation in Dayton, Ohio. It remained there until being rediscovered after Skonzake’s death late last November.
The story of the Golden Sahara begins with a highway mishap involving George Barris, who was driving his new 1953 Lincoln Capri hardtop home from a car show in Sacramento, California. Also making the drive was Barris’ friend Dan Landon, in his 1949 Chevrolet. Along the way, the Chevy’s engine blew so the cars were rigged together, bumper-to-bumper for the rest of the route.
At some point, the tandem collided with a hay truck, submarining beneath the truck and peeling off the roof of Barris’ Lincoln in the process. Rather than scrap the new car, Barris got Skonzakes to underwrite its resurrection as a dream car-style prototype with a dramatic new front end, wraparound windshield and custom half-bubble top, tail fins and with gold-anodized lower body panels and glittered pearlescent paint.
“The one thing I wanted to get was that gold pearl,” Barris once explained in an interview. “You can’t just take white and put gold in it.”
So he and his wife went to a fish market, then scraped scales of sardines and mixed those with a natural cellulose clear lacquer and toners.
“I based it in a very dull white and then sprayed that all over and it came out really pearly gold,” he said, noting that “The only problem was it smelled like a fish.”
The interior matched the two-tone exterior with gold-and-white brocade fabric and plush-white mink carpet. Accouterments included a television in the dashboard, tape record and cocktail refrigerator in the rear.
The Golden Sahara made its public debut in 1954 at the Petersen Motorama at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, Mecum notes, “the star of Barris’ extensive lineup of custom-built cars at the show, and it was displayed on a large turntable so every one of its gorgeous custom curves and angles could be admired, glittering under the big lights with its stunning pearlescent fish-scale paint.”
Skonzakes took the car on tour through 1956, visiting dealerships and other locations, in part to recoup the $25,000 it had cost to transform the topless Lincoln.
In 1956, Skonzakes spent an estimated $50,000 more to “take the car to the next level,” Mecum said, with Delphos Machine and Tool of Dayton adding stacked quad headlamps, reworking the windshield, hood and roof and adding gold plating and new twin-V tail fins and, among other changes, Goodyear outfitted the car with tires that glowed in the dark.
Also new was an electronic control system that featured automatic braking should antenna-style sensors encounter an obstacle, and that allowed the car to be driven by remote and even voice control. The remote-control driving was featured when Skonzakes and the now Golden Sahara II appeared on the I’ve Got a Secret television show in 1962.
Even before that appearance, however, the car was featured in a movie, Cinderfella, starring Jerry Lewis.
“The car’s automatic operation features proved to be key in the film as well, allowing Jerry Lewis to dramatically descend the red-carpeted steps of the movie mansion and be welcomed in the grandest fashion by handle-free doors that opened on their own as he approached,” Mecum reports in its online auction catalog.
Skonzakes’ wife at that time was a former Miss Florida and she would add to the car’s spectacle at various appearances by wearing gold body paint.
The car continued to draw crowds. But suddenly in the late 1960s, it disappeared from public view.
It will be offered for sale at Mecum’s Indy auction as part of the Jim Street Estate Collection. Mecum has yet to reveal what all is included in that collection, but when Skonzakes’ trove of cars was opened, the Golden Sahara II wasn’t the only vehicle parked inside his storage facility.