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Early autonomous car goes to auction

Ahead of its time, Golden Sahara was most expensive custom of early '60s

Published: March 19, 2018, 2:30 AM
Updated: April 30, 2018, 5:52 PM

Golden Sahara II

The Golden Sahara II, one of the world’s most distinctive and original custom cars, is going under the hammer at Mecum Auctions’ Annual Spring Classic at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis over the week of May 15.

Golden Sahara II promotional shot with gold-painted model

The Golden Sahara started life as a 1953 Lincoln Capri (ironically owned by world-renowned customizer George Barris), which was damaged in a crash and sold to Jim Street, who got Barris to customize it for him, creating a full glass canopy whose rear section could be removed to turn it into a convertible.

Polarizing in its design, it was a rolling tribute to excess and garishness but also ahead of its time, with its pearlescent paint job (reportedly made from pulverized fish scales) with gold-plated lower body panels, auto opening doors, massaging front seats, rear seat cooler and cocktail bar, instrument panel television screen, cabin phone, and reel-to-reel tape player (since cassettes wouldn’t come along until the mid-’60s) and FM radio capable of reproducing high-fidelity (Hi-Fi) sound.

Golden Sahara II interior in garage-find shape

Street added an electronic control system that allowed the car to be braked automatically (through front radar sensors) and steered through remote control, earning the designation of an autonomous vehicle. The steering wheel could be removed and the car controlled by a floor mounted stick shift, similar to a helicopter control (move the stick side to side to steer, forward to accelerate, rearward to brake), or using voice controls.

Although there is only one Golden Sahara, the additions prompted the moniker Golden Sahara II, to distinguish it from its original customization. The car was reportedly valued at $75,000 (the equivalent of $616,310, today), making it the most expensive custom car of its day.

Golden Sahara II in one of its promotional appearances

Street toured the car extensively for promotions at shows and other events, including appearances on the long-running TV show I’ve Got a Secret, and in the 1960 comedic film Cinderfella, the Jerry Lewis reworking of the Cinderella fable. He reportedly retired it from public life some 50 years ago.

With his death late last year, Street’s car collection (which also includes the Kookie car — the T-Bucket hot-rod from the 1958-62 series 77 Sunset Strip) was rediscovered and will be heading to auction. The Golden Sahara II was found in a sorry state, and will cross the block in garage-find status, carrying no reserve.

Golden Sahara II as found in garage

It is expected that the new owner will restore it to its original glory and donate it to a car collection or museum.