The $25,000 Custom Car

SEMA News—September 2018


By Drew Hardin

Photo Courtesy Petersen Publishing Company Archive

The $25,000 Custom Car


It was such an outrageous sum to pay for a customized car in 1955 that Motor Trend used the $25,000 price tag as the main blurb for its May issue. Inside, a story called “Gold in the Streets” featured comments from “a group of people” who were shown photos of the custom car and asked for their opinions. About half the group “admired the car in general while the other half varied down the line toward outright dislike,” said the story’s author, Al Kidd. “Must have been built for Ava Gardner,” said one admirer, while a less generous soul said the car was built “for show and blow rather than utility.”

That last comment may not have been the most flattering, but it was on the mark. In 1953, when George Barris wrecked his new Lincoln Capri hardtop on a trip from Northern California to Los Angeles over the Ridge Route, he decided to radically customize the remains rather than toss them out. Funded by a customer from Ohio named Jim Skonzakas, the result was an otherworldly creation Barris named the Golden Sahara.

It’s hard to put your finger on the most unusual feature on the car, from its stacked headlight/parking light/bumperette treatments in front to the instrument panel that housed a TV, telephone, tape recorder and “loudspeaker” system, to the curved rear seat that wrapped around a refrigerator and was home to many, many cup holders. Always an innovator, Barris took a very bizarre—but effective—tack with the car’s gold paint, mixing in actual fish scales to achieve its pearlescent look.

The result was polarizing, but it wowed the crowds—and the sweepstakes judges—when it debuted at Robert E. Petersen’s 1954 Motorama in Los Angeles. Suddenly the car was in high demand, and Barris and Skonzakas (who would become better known as Jim Street) spent the better part of two years with the car on the show circuit.

In 1956, Skonzakas took the car off the circuit for some upgrades. The Delphos Machine and Tool Shop out of Dayton, Ohio, made the car even wilder. Externally, the front fender pods, windshield, lower trim areas and rear fins were reworked. A raft of remote-control features was added that would do everything from open the doors to power and steer the car. (Could this be the first autonomous vehicle?) Even the tires were redone, with a special rubber compound from Goodyear that glowed in the dark.

As seen here, the Golden Sahara II was an even bigger hit than the original. Skonzakas put it back on the show circuit, and it was featured in the Jerry Lewis film Cinderfella as well as on the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

And then, it disappeared. In the late ’60s, Skonzakas quietly stashed it away with other cars in his private collection, leaving custom-car fans to wonder where it had gone.

Jim “Street” Skonzakas passed away in 2017, and his widow decided to sell the Golden Sahara II at this year’s Mecum Spring Classic Auction in Indianapolis. It would cross the block with another significant car from the collection, the “Kookie” T-bucket first built by Norm Grabowski and used in the TV show “77 Sunset Strip.”

With its paint faded and duct tape on the doors, the Golden Sahara II showed little of its past luster when it crossed the Mecum block. But the car was remarkably intact, right down to retaining its futuristic remote-control boxes. And when the bidding was over, it had found a new home for $385,000.

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