Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

| 9 Apr 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

Stars that go out at the top of their trajectory always shine brightest in the memory.

Jackie Stewart won more, but it’s Jim Clark that first springs to mind when pub chat turns to the greatest drivers of all time.

And while there have been beautiful screen sirens since, few can match the effervescence and charisma of Marilyn Monroe.

The Golden Sahara II occupies a similar place in the minds of custom-car enthusiasts; a glittering combination of electrical wizardry and jaw-dropping decadence, with a future cut short when the limelight burned fiercest.

And just like Norma Jeane, the Sahara came from humble beginnings.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The initials ‘GS’ are emblazoned across the headlamps

The year was 1953, and barrelling south through the California countryside was legendary customiser George Barris, travelling home to Los Angeles in convoy with his friend Dan Landon from a car show in Sacramento.

Midway through their journey a thick fog rolled in, blanketing the highway in a scene that could have come straight from a Hitchcock movie.

As if on the director’s cue, Landon’s 1949 Chevy sputtered and stalled before coasting to the side of the road. The pair lashed the car to the rear bumper of Barris’ 1953 Lincoln Capri before again striking south.

Conditions worsened, and from the gloom a hay truck suddenly lurched into their path. The Lincoln slewed beneath its trailer, smashing the driver’s-side roof and opening the coupe like a tin of beans.

Both men ducked beneath the dash, but Barris caught the worst of it and had to walk to a nearby bar, where a doctor (also worse for wear, by all accounts) treated the cuts to his face.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

Those wheels still have serious wow factor today

Where mere mortals would have seen disaster, the ‘King of Kustomizers’ saw opportunity.

His low-mileage, lightly modified daily driver’s bodywork was destroyed, but the chassis and running gear were sound.

Instead of scrapping the Lincoln, Barris and friends Bill DeCarr and Jim Skonzakes – better known as Jim Street – hatched a plan to turn it into their vision of the future.

The work would be carried out at Barris’ shop in Lynwood, California, with DeCarr taking lead on spanners and finances coming from Ohio-based enthusiast Street.

The trio quickly embarked upon a series of wild modifications, creating something more akin to a high-end concept than a traditional custom.

After months in his workshop, the finished car bore almost no resemblance to the ill-fated Capri, with towering front wings looming over the headlamps, bullet-style protrusions at each end in place of the bumpers and a wide, fish-like mouth.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The Plexiglas roof panel was rarely fitted

The cabin was covered by a T-top Plexiglas roof with partial gullwing sections for driver and passenger, while the long rear wings ended in flamboyant fins topped with futuristic tail-lamps from a Kaiser Manhattan.

Inside, white leatherette and gold brocade adorned the seats, with a decadent curved rear bench split by a central cocktail cabinet and fridge, and white mink carpets across the floor.

The lower sections of the rear wings were finished in 24-carat gold, giving rise to its name, while the elements that would conventionally be chrome were plated to match.

The combined effect was like nothing on Earth and the car caused a sensation when it was unveiled in 1954 at the Petersen Motorama in Los Angeles, where the Golden Sahara took pride of place on Barris’ stand atop a revolving turntable.

The project was said to have cost more than $25,000 – enough to buy three Jaguar XKSSs, with change to take them racing – and, in order to recoup some of the money that he had spent, Street embarked on an epic tour of the USA, showcasing the car at dealerships and drawing a crowd wherever it went.

In May 1955 it even graced the cover of Motor Trend.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The interior was very much a labour of love

Buoyed by its reception on the show circuit, Street decided to invest further in the Golden Sahara and, with the help of Delphos Machine and Tool in Dayton, Ohio, set about turning the car into an even crazier version of itself.

Lashings of gold was added to each flank and the Plexiglas T-top was reworked to a more elegant open dome design with a vee-shaped roll bar, while outlandish twin-fin wings were added to the rear, capped by unique lenses cooked up in pal Henry Meyer’s oven.

The paint finish was breathtaking. The luscious, shimmering pearl was said to be achieved by grinding up fish scales from the underbelly of sardines – “the true, genuine pearlescence”, according to Street.

But some of the car’s most innovative ideas stemmed from Street’s passion for electronics.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The trick pearlescent paint turned yellow over time but has now been brought back to best

The Golden Sahara was already advanced, with a black-and-white TV set into the dashboard at a time when having one in your front room was still a luxury, but the car’s second incarnation was truly remarkable.

The conventional steering wheel was replaced by a Batmobile-style yoke, complemented by touchpad steering that could be operated from either side of the car.

Most fascinating of all was a central joystick – dubbed the ‘Unitrol’ – that was connected to a steering box mounted in the frame and stuck straight up through the floor.

Moving the control from side to side turned the wheels, while fore and aft motions were linked to the throttle and brakes.

When it was not in use, the system could be disconnected so it didn’t get in the way.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

From a car crash was born an incredible creation

Street’s sponsorship drive had led to the car fronting Seiberling’s ‘Tires of Tomorrow – Today’ campaign in its original guise, and it was a later tie-in with Goodyear that gave the Golden Sahara II its most striking feature: translucent tyres that could be illuminated from the inside.

Originally designed with safety in mind, the use of urethane was pioneered by Goodyear in the 1960s under the brand name Neothane, with a full set adorning Street’s creation for its second spell on the show circuit.

Having no banding whatsoever, the ‘Gold Glass Slippers’ were created using a device that resembled a front-loading washing machine.

A mould was filled with molten synthetic rubber before being spun and tilted from side to side, depending on the required thickness of tread and sidewalls.

The tyres were lit from within using 12W bulbs more commonly found in aircraft and elevators, the hubs capped with crystal that flashed in time with the indicators.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The car disappeared from public view when at the height of its fame

Such was the car’s star status that it soon appeared on film in the 1960 Frank Tashlin flick Cinderfella, serving as the futuristic carriage for lead man Jerry Lewis.

Dashing from the ball before the clock strikes midnight, Lewis skips down a flight of red-carpeted stairs, only for the Golden Sahara II’s door to swing open automatically before he climbs in.

Norman Leavitt played the gold-skinned chauffeur for the close-ups, while Street himself is said to have operated the car when it was on the move.

At around the same time, and perhaps in a nod to the car’s cameo on the silver screen, Street demonstrated the Golden Sahara II with the help of his wife Gloria, who accentuated the car’s curves with one or two of her own. The former Miss Florida draped herself over the bodywork while painted head to foot in gold.

When Gloria wasn’t available, the task was left to an army of Robby the Robot toys, positioned as if they had just arrived from outer space and spun the Sahara from the ‘angel hair’ Street arranged around the car.

Fittingly, Robby the Robot, star of the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, was one of the most expensive movie props ever made at a reported cost of $125,000.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II
Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

Some of the detailing still appears futuristic, even in 2020

By that stage the Sahara owed Street $75k and its star continued to rise, making a memorable appearance on the panel show I’ve Got a Secret in 1962, where Street showcased some of the abilities of his ‘laboratory on wheels’ in front of a live studio audience.

As if by magic, the car drove on stage via remote control, and there were demonstrations of starting its engine at the push of a button, the massage seats and the automated braking system.

Then, just as it seemed as if the Golden Sahara II was at the height of its fame, the car abruptly disappeared from public view without warning.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, rumours swirled as to the Sahara II’s whereabouts, with many believing that it had been destroyed or dismantled by its owner.

As the decades rolled on it became almost mythical, claiming a similar place in the memories of custom fans as the lost Bullitt Mustang had to the wider car community.

Like the Mustang, the Golden Sahara II would eventually resurface, following Street’s death in 2017.

The car had remained in his possession all along, a closely guarded secret in his Ohio garage alongside Norm Grabowski’s legendary Kookie Kar.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The Golden Sahara II returned to the show scene at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show

The Sahara first saw the light of day in the estate sale, offered at auction to great fanfare by Mecum in May 2018 before being snapped up by collector Larry Klairmont.

A half century of inactivity had not done the car any favours: though solid, it had suffered cosmetically.

The once pearlescent white paint had discoloured with age, becoming yellow and stained, while the gold leaf had tarnished and flaked; the urethane tyres are said to have disintegrated almost instantly.

“We discussed preservation, but there was a 95% consensus on restoration,” says Klairmont Kollection’s Robert Olsen, who led the renovation effort.

“Pieces of the paint were missing; if we had preserved it, the car wouldn’t have looked as special.”

By chance, regular Klairmont Kollection visitor Gregory Alonzo owns a small shop in Chicago called Speakeasy Customs & Classics, and expressed an interest in carrying out the repairs.

He won the work after arranging a meeting with Keith Buckley at Goodyear in nearby Akron, Ohio, having recognised that recreating the Sahara II’s trademark illuminated tyres would be crucial to the project.

Eager to once again share the car with the world, Klairmont and Goodyear hatched an ambitious plan to put it on display at the Geneva Motor Show in 2019.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The glowing tyres were a big challenge to recreate

But it quickly became clear that the costs of recreating the pneumatic Neothane tyres would prove prohibitive.

Unbowed, and with just 40 days to find a solution, Buckley and Streetsboro, Ohio, firm The Technology House devised a way of creating five bespoke tyres that were capable of being driven on.

“We formed the recreations using an eight-piece silicone mould made from a vintage Kelsey tyre, and cast solid – rather than pneumatic – urethane tyres on reproduction Golden Sahara II wheels,” says Buckley.

“Like concrete, urethane produces heat as it cures – 209ºF [98ºC] in this case. The LEDs were rated to 194ºF [90ºC], so we installed three strips in case they failed – that’s why the tyres are so much brighter today than they were in period.”

With a similarly tight schedule for reviving the rest of the car, a full nut-and-bolt restoration was out of the question.

“Getting it to Geneva was a repair – we were putting lipstick on it,” says Olsen. “We thought we could get away with just cleaning the interior, but it was mouldy and damp so it wasn’t to be – it had to be completely redone. We managed to match the material with a period fabric, but we had to totally remove the paint and the wiring was really bad.

“Customisers back in the day tended to use materials that were not initially intended for cars, so the type and gauge of wire varies wildly – it was a delicate balance between trying to preserve the way it was done originally, but still having those features demonstrable today.”

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The jaw-dropping cabin of the Golden Sahara II in its entirety

The further the team went, the clearer it became that some of the gadgets touted during its time on the show circuit had been talked up – unsurprising given Street’s flair as a showman.

“Whether he was testing things, or whether he had the vision but simply hadn’t done it yet, some features just weren’t there,” says Olsen. “For example, the front bumper cones with antennae on them. Street had talked about the car having radar but there was no such system, though he may have applied for a patent.”

Street had also widely boasted of a 525bhp ‘high-octane’ engine, but beneath the bonnet lay a seized-solid 318cu in ‘Y-block’ V8 with a two-barrel carb, as found in a standard Lincoln Capri.

“There was a little bit of showmanship involved, but that’s part of the car’s allure,” says Olsen. “It’s 80% accurate, 20% showmanship.”

Speakeasy Customs managed to turn the job around in just three months to be ready for Geneva, but not everything went according to plan.

The car was damaged in transit and the bumper cones had to be hastily recreated using filler and metallic vinyl, leading to a second restoration at Danrr Auto Body in Lake in the Hills, Illinois, once the Sahara II had been repatriated from Switzerland.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II
Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

The cabin tech is amazing – and so is how it is upholstered

As well as being repainted, the shape of the nose was altered to more accurately reflect period images from the early ’60s – Speakeasy’s faithful restoration seems to have included a dent in the front valance, after the car bottomed out on a kerb at some point during Street’s ownership.

In addition to conventional restoration techniques, technology that was inconceivable in the 1950s – even to Street – played a key part in both rebuilds. Alonzo kicked things off by using a 3D printer to replace the hubcap fins that had gone missing during the car’s internment.

“First they were 3D scanned, then printed from a material that could be buffed and polished,” explains Buckley, who played a vital role in the project.

“They resembled the originals so closely it was almost impossible to tell them apart.”

Recreating a damaged tail-light lens required more intricate work, says Olsen: “All four look the same, but they are all completely different. We had to scan one by hand and 3D print it in solid white plastic. That piece was then used to create a mould, into which we poured acrylic that matched the colour of the lens.”

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

Getting the Golden Sahara II to Geneva was quite a task, given its as-found condition

Perhaps the biggest challenge during the ongoing restoration has been deciphering and reviving the complex electrical systems, which had been created without thought to future repairs and, crucially, without a schematic drawing.

The team started where it felt most comfortable, with the television. “When we got it out, it had the same UHF/VHF connectors I remembered as a kid – I had flashbacks to hooking up my Atari games system,” laughs Olsen.

“As well as powering the TV, we were able to feed a signal via a small, hidden DVD player, so we can loop period footage of Jim Street displaying the vehicle.”

Some of the more intricate gizmos are still on the to-do list, including the touchpad steering with its hydraulic solenoid pack and separate power-steering pump, not to mention a fearsome wiring harness.

“It isn’t currently hooked up, but all the parts are there to restore it,” says Buckley.

Klairmont, Olsen and Buckley’s enthusiasm for the project is palpable, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the car’s out-of-this-world gadgetry is once again wowing the crowds.

Classic & Sports Car – Queen of the Desert: Golden Sahara II

This custom creation can now shine again

The Golden Sahara II’s enduring appeal is no doubt partly due to its disappearance while at the peak of its power to amaze, yet the reason why remains a mystery.

“The paint deteriorated so badly it was probably due for restoration when Jim put it into hibernation,” suggests Olsen, “and the availability of tyres may have played a part.”

Goodyear’s experiments with urethane ended in the ’60s – despite their breathtaking looks they lost traction in the wet, became unstable at more than 65mph and melted under heavy braking.

“Also, Street had travelled across the US for three or four years, and I’ve been told by people who knew him that he was just tired.”

In the end, perhaps technology caught up with Street and, rather than see his beloved ‘car of the future’ become a relic of the past, he chose to quit while he was ahead. Whatever the reason, now at last his legacy lives on.

Images: Olgun Kordal/Goodyear

Thanks to Goodyear; Klairmont Kollections


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