As most of us have probably seen by now, life at the top ain't always so grand. Being the center of media attention, if (or in this case, when) things go bad, they can go really bad-and everyone has to know about it. I'm not sure about you, but the last thing I want to read about or watch on TV is anything having to do with celebrities' personal lives. And I don't think they'd mind if their "affairs" were kept private as well-and right about now, probably none more than Jesse James.

Long before he became somewhat of a household name, Jesse did what most of us have been doing-wrenched on hot rods and motorcycles. And just like most of us, he still does. That's one thing no tabloid can dispute. In a roundabout way, that's how he and I became friends over 25 years ago. (It started with antique bicycles, but as soon as-or maybe even before-we got our driver's licenses, two wheels quickly turned to four.) While the rest of our high school classmates likely went off and lived normal family lives, we stuck to doing what we knew and loved. Obviously, the outcome would take one of us to a higher level, but for what it's worth, the other one's not complaining.

Along with his successes, Jesse has been able to further "enjoy" his motored obsessions, which go well beyond what you might have imagined-among other things, he's revisited our childhood passion of Volkswagens, recently acquiring one of the oldest VW Beetles to exist in the United States (on top of having more Bugs in one collection than any other type of car). Along with a split-window (or two or three), he's also got the other car we both dreamed of owning way back when: a chopped 1951 Merc. Now, while I don't foresee myself ever fulfilling my "air-cooled" fascinations, I would definitely make room in the garage for a Merc-so, yeah, our early rivalry was rekindled when he finished this up a couple years back in Austin, Texas.

Though now residing in Long Beach, California, in his equally enviable shop, the Mercury began both of its lives (stock and customized) in Texas. How he ended up with it, I couldn't tell you. But what I do know is what he immediately did with it-let the crew at Austin Speed Shop do their thing, which turned out to be basically everything, including upholstery, save for the paint. From the roof job (not so much a chop as it was a major transplant seeing that they ended up grafting a '50 Merc lid on) to the Heidts/RideTech-equipped chassis, with a Jeg's 502 big-block no less, it all happened in-house up until Jesse hauled it out west to have his own painter, Pete "Hot Dog" Finlan, add color. But it wouldn't be long before the '51 was back in Texas getting the finishing touches, namely a trademark custom interior by Sean "Fat Lucky" Johnstun.

Since our balloon-tire bicycle days, everything we've owned, no matter what it was, got a personal touch. Whether that translated into a set of wheels or simply a sticker, there always had to be something that set it apart and let everyone know whose it was. As does his chopped '54 Chevy and '36 Ford five-window, the Merc wears exposed painted steel wheels (wearing only spiders as opposed to full hubcaps) with wide whites. There are a few other unique and distinguishing aspects, such as the custom steering wheel done by Pearlcraft in Australia or the hand-engraved valve covers and air cleaner, but overall, the Merc is by no means gaudy or overdone-quite the opposite. The only thing it's really missing is "my" name on the pink slip!

Rod & Custom Feature Car
Jesse James
Long Beach, California
1951 Merc