Custom cars have a habit of coming and going in this hot rod world we’re all involved in. I don’t have to recount the history here (I wrote a whole book about it, called The American Custom Car, if you’re really interested). But when I came on this scene in the early ’70s, as editor of Street Rodder magazine, I looked around and noticed that custom cars of any kind–other than lowriders–had virtually evaporated. Not only were there no chopped bathtub Mercs or shoebox Fords, let alone Carson-topped, bubble-skirted, tail-draggin’ ’36-’48 models, but there weren’t any slammed, shaved, and tuck-n-rolled ’49-’59 mild custom street cruisers that I fondly remembered from high school parking lots. Hell, this new “Street Rod” movement, the return of street-driven hot rod coupes and roadsters, was only a few years old itself, and it was limited to pre-’49 vehicles.
So, despite the magazine’s title, I started promoting the return of classic chopped ’49-’51 Mercuries. I featured the small handful I could find from around the country in a couple of special issues–in addition to the staple street rods, of course. And at the same time I strongly suggested a revival, and inclusion, of ’49-’59 cars (and trucks) done as affordable street drivers done in the traditional mild custom style: lowered, shaved, frenched, tuck-n-rolled, and finished in frosty or candy-like colors, maybe even with some scallops, panels, and pinstripes. Such cars were then (and still are, actually) way more affordable and available than ’32-’34 Fords had become. Plus these cars had usable chassis, suspensions, brakes, and drivelines. All most needed, back then, were cut coils, lowering blocks in the back, and a couple extra carbs on the mill. Since there were very few examples of such cars to photograph in the early ’70s, I got then-neophyte Steve Stanford to illustrate several tasty possibilities.
And you know what? It worked! Pretty soon the Kustom Kemps of America was formed, they held a Leadsled Spectacular in Wichita, Kansas, and I even got Hot Rod magazine to feature full coverage of it. Several old customs came crawling out of the woodwork; many new ones were being built; new clubs formed; and other regional events–such as Paso Robles–became popular and promoted the trend. We even brought back Rod & Custom magazine in ’88, which featured what its title said.
Whoa, what could be the “But” in this story? I’ll try to be succinct. This rebirth of the custom car (or, Kustom Kar) movement of the ’70s and ’80s was very self-admittedly “Lost in the ’50s.” Wide whites, flipper caps, lakes pipes, dummy spots, cruiser shirts, fuzzy dice, and “Peggy Sue” painted on the trunk corner–right? Accompanied by poodle skirts, doo-wop, jelly rolls, and Elvis imitators. And the problem is, some 40 years later, this movement is not just lost, it’s losing it. Face it, those of us who were around in the ’50s, let alone relate to it, are dying off. Rod & Custom magazine is gone–again. So’s Custom Rodder. The one small Customs Illustrated magazine that is valiantly trying to keep the flame alive is, literally, quite small…in large part because it adamantly adheres to the “Die Hard” dictum of strictly ’50s traditional style.
It would never feature a tasteful, understated, excellently mildly customized car like Eric Bracher’s silver ’61 Pontiac Ventura seen here. The Rodder’s Journal would exclude it simply because it has billet wheels. But this car stopped me in my tracks at Roy Brizio’s open house about five years ago, and I snapped these two photos, because its many subtle mild-custom modifications came together in a refreshing new style that–at least to me–was arresting. This is what we need more of. This is the sort of infusion of fresh air, and fresh thinking, that the custom car segment of our hobby (culture?) needs to keep it from withering away–again.
Now anyone who knows me is probably already saying, “Ganahl, you’re blowing it out your pencil tips…again!” Yes, I was very admittedly one of the first promoters of the retro ’50s style for both rods and customs those many years ago. And both my ’32 roadster and my more recent ’50 Ford shoebox are strictly traditional from the wide whitewalls to the ’50s tuck-and-roll. My ’32 has no parts newer than ’53, and the ’50 even had Sombrero caps. I love this style (as does Bill), and I am not for a second suggesting that it should be suppressed or eliminated. It needs to be added to.
The hot rod world, thankfully, is wonderfully diversified today. It’s a cornucopia. It’s really fun. But the custom car contingent, umm, not nearly enough. We need fresh blood. We need fresh ideas. We need to open the parameters of what’s invited, what’s accepted, and what can be cool (or sweet, sick, or lit). Initially I was pushing for ’49-’59 models as prime, affordable, and available mild custom material, and there are still several
overlooked, yet highly potential, models in this range (especially in the Mopar line). But let’s open it up, and look around, at least through the ’60s, and hopefully well beyond that. Remember back in the day when customs were made from new cars? I’ll open that can of worms a little later. Where’s Larry Watson when we need him?
The final point I want to make here turns out to be quite ironic. If you read what’s left of print mags, or more modern rodding media, you’d think that modding any of these mid-era machines–from Chevys and Fords, to AMCs, to wagons and C10s, to Cadillacs–requires a full-on Morrison chassis with 14-inch 4-wheel discs, hogged-out wheelwells, the ubiquitous computer-injected LS engine and driveline, peacock hide upholstery, and at least a $100,000 paint job (with an artist’s rendering). Now look at Bracher’s ’61 Ventura. It doesn’t even have airbags. The Pontiac, Buick, and Olds bubble-tops of this vintage are actually more affordable than Chevys (like the one above), and each comes with its own unique, cool, and very usable V8 engine. Eric’s car has a lot more sneaky custom bodywork than you at first notice, but nothing you couldn’t do at home with a MIG welder and moderate bodyworking skills. And none of these ’60s or later cars need anything like a top chop. Just lower it, shave it, french it, try some custom grille and taillight ideas. Add whatever custom wheels and tires you like. Be creative. Be fresh.
The big irony is that Eric Bracher’s mild custom Pontiac actually has all that high-zoot, new-tech stuff. It rides on a Paul Newman all-indepedent C5/C6 Corvette-suspended chassis, with the Vette LS injected engine, multi-speed O.D. auto trans, not to mention Sid Chavers dark green leather custom upholstery and, yes, a simple silver paint job that cost more than $100,000. But you know what? I didn’t know any of this until Eric proudly enumerated it on the phone yesterday. When I stopped, and walked around this car five years ago, I couldn’t see any of that. I saw a generally overlooked ’61 Pontiac, sitting good, with some very tasty and fresh mild custom body modifications, and a slick, smooth paint job. That’s all any of these cars need to be a cool mild custom. And the custom car world needs more of these cars, and their builders, to add new life to a definitive segment of our culture that I, for one, would hate to see dwindle away…again.