Last weekend I had my Iacono dragster at Steve Gibbs’ third successful Nitro Revival, this one at the “new” Irwindale Raceway. And by the time you read this, Anna and I will be just back from another highly enjoyable long Memorial Day weekend with the West Coast Kustoms in Santa Maria. That doesn’t leave a lot of time in between, so I decided this time to do a “quick” column based on photos pulled from my files. I was thinking of doing another round of early model cars, but as I opened that file drawer, right in front was a folder tabbed “Oakland Museum.” Ah, perfect. These were proof sheets with negatives of some 200 photos that Phil Linhares had copied and blown up to 16×20 black and white prints that he hung on the walls of the Oakland Museum of California for a huge special exhibit he staged there in 1996 (as Chief Curator of Art) titled “Hot Rods and Customs: The Men and Machines of California’s Car Culture.”
These photos, including many copied from my own collection, depicted rods, customs, race cars, shops, builders, and scenes from the ’40s to the present. But they were simply background enhancement for this ground-breaking art/history museum show that featured more than two dozen very significant vehicles including several former AMBR winners, the first showing of the restored Barris Hirohata Merc next to ZZ Tops’ Cadzilla, Boyd’s Vern Luce Coupe, Tom Prufer’s Cop Shop Coupe, The California Kid, the Champion Speed Shop dragster and ’34 Ford push truck, and the American Graffiti Coupe in a rodder’s garage diorama constructed by installation artist Michael McMillen, just to name a few. As stated by Linhares in the show’s catalog, “The hot rods, custom cars and the men who build, drive and preserve them form the substance of this exhibition,” and this was reflected in the photos he chose to display. However, given the title of the museum and its location in nearly the same place where the original Oakland Roadster Shows were held, it featured strictly California cars and stressed NorCal builders. I’d tell you more, but this column is more show than tell. Look and see.
So let’s start with a scene from the first Oakland Roadster Show in 1950. That’s Ken Fuhrman’s black, highly chromed ’29 in front, complete with its full clear Plexiglas hood. The sign in front denotes these as Street Roadsters, to distinguish them from a whole bunch of equally colorful and chromed track roadsters that also populated the show. But note there’s nothing but roadsters visible in this photo.
This is a closer, much higher angle on the Fuhrman roadster, showing the fully chromed Deuce frame. The Plexi hood is so clear, however, you can barely tell it’s there. Fuhrman kept this car, hardly changed, his whole life.
Speaking of high angles, I’m not sure how an unknown photographer got this photo of Joe Bailon’s crowded shop in Hayward, sometime around ’49 or ’50. I assume that’s Joe leaning on the hood of his primered Miss Elegance full-custom Chevy coupe at far left.
And here’s Miss Elegance in its ruby maroon finished form at the ’52 Oakland show. Joe didn’t invent Candy Apple Red until two or three years later. I’ve shown this photo before, commenting how much I love the low Hall top on the Chevy convert behind it, with the mail slot back window.
Sacramento’s Harry Westergard is generally acknowledged as the godfather–or grandfather–of traditional custom cars as we know them. We don’t have many photos of his work, especially in finished form. This ’36 Ford Cabriolet is one from my collection, built in the late ’30s or early ’40s, and it deviates a bit from his classic LaSalle grille and sunken headlight style with the lights molded into the fenders and a Packard grille under the clamshell hood. The ’34 Pontiac hood vents were a Sacramento thing, but the dual Appleton spots, ribbed DeSoto bumpers, teardrop skirts, single-bar flipper ‘caps, and molded-off running boards–not to mention the padded chopped top–set enduring trends. He collaborated with Dick Bertolucci and taught a young George Barris.
OK, this is supposed to be a quickie, so I’m not going to try to put these photos in chronological, or any other kind of logical, order. This is a photo I took of Robert Kittila’s black-primered, 6-carb, Hemi-powered, totally cool ’32 roadster that was one of the first “throwback” hot rods. I took the pic at the dead-end of the Long Beach freeway in East L.A. for a special “primered” section in the first It’s Back! issue of Rod & Custom in ’88. Yes, this is the car young Bill drove across El Mirage in the opening of my one-time video. And Robert was the talent who did all the camera-work and editing.
Get comfortable because there’s plenty more. This is another from my files I’ve never shown before. I have no idea whose T-bucket that is, or what became of it. But that’s Art Chrisman in Chrismans’ Garage (Art, dad, and uncle Jack) in the Willowbrook area of So. L.A. around 1955. Either he’s just installed the quickchange rear in the T, or he’s mounting the T body onto an existing chassis. Note the Hemi-powered roadster next to it, probably Ed Losinski’s.
When I’ve shown this one in the past I’ve cropped in on the car, but I think the palm tree nicely frames the picture, and if you squint you can just see the Golden Gate in the background. The car is Joe Bailon’s “Mystery Ford” ’51 Victoria, in it’s original Candy Apple Red over gold. One of the early “garage finds,” it was for some unexplained reason restored in candy red over silver, then sold to the Oakland Museum about 30 years ago, where it remains today.
Those of you who’ve memorized early rod magazines will remember an article in Hot Rod (or R&C or Car Craft, I can’t remember) where Barris showed how to roll the rear pan on this channeled ’32. You’ll probably also remember a more recent article in The Rodder’s Journal on Marcia Campbell, an early hot rod builder and Barris custom owner. This is of course in front of the Barris shop on Atlantic Ave. Not sure why she and a girlfriend are sitting in the roadster, but the unusual part is that someone’s taking a picture of her in a Barris car, rather than vice-versa.
I’ve stated before that I think Toby Halicki’s scallop job on his candy red ’56 Buick is the best ever. Here’s a rear angle I’ve not seen before, showing the “doubled” frenched taillights. He’s the guy who later made the “Gone on 60 Seconds” movie, which was reportedly more-or-less autobiographical.
This is the late Frank DeRosa, another NorCal customizer, seen in his small, jam-packed shop in Pittsburg, CA. Not long after this, it all burned to the ground.
Here’s another Oakland Roadster show photo from about ’62 featuring the wonderful, jet black, chopped ’57 Chrysler Joe Wilhelm built for Cliff Inman. That’s Richard Zocchi’s gold Winfield-built Pontiac next to it. Last I heard, the Inman car was in a very private custom collection owned by a music producer in Hawaii.
A postage-stamp color version of this bright red ’34 roadster, with white top in place, was part of the May ’53 Hot Rod cover. The story was that this sharp-dressed couple had just moved in to their first suburban home and the classy hot rod was part of the package (along with a ’50 Merc), and they drove it on their 1000-mi. honeymoon trip, even with a full-race 3-carb Merc flathead. In my opinion, this is a pure class hot rod with its wide whites and Merc caps on chrome wheels, ’41 Ford bumpers, all-white upholstery, and even a gold-tinted grille. A classic photo. Also note how low this rod sits in ’53.
This photo was taken by a teenage Steve Coonan, probably the first week he was on the job at Street Rodder magazine. This was the first (I think) L.A. Roadsters show at the Great Western exhibit center, and Jim Jacobs had recently finished his restoration of the Niekamp roadster. That’s Jake in the also fairly recent Pete & Jake’s T-shirt. And next to him is none other than Bill Niekamp.
C.J. “Pappy” Hart once told me that when they opened the Santa Ana drags in 1950, the biggest problem was that when eager rodders mixed nitro-fed hot lakes engines with low gears and clutch-off starts, it dumped too many broken parts (and oil) on the starting line. So he said they tried rolling starts, as well as an inclined section of the airport taxi strip, as seen here. This was drag racing’s crude beginnings, but also a time of rapid hot rod innovation. And a rare photo.
NorCal customizer Joe Wilhelm of San Jose is one of the under-sung talents. I got to know him pretty well, and he was a truly nice guy. One problem was he stressed quality over quantity. Another was that his design ideas were, shall we say, a bit more creative than others’. He called this purple pearl, T-like roadster his “Wild Dream,” and hand-formed the whole thing out of steel, including the wheels. Although it was fully functional, it was one of a new era of rods built to win big trophies, not drive on the street. Fortunately he quickly realized the front slicks were a mistake. With that, and a few other changes, it did win the big, coveted AMBR trophy at Oakland in 1968 (shared with Bob Reisner’s even wilder twin-engine, 2-time winner).
It’s a shame this photo isn’t in color–not because of the cars in front, but because of the front of Gene Winfield’s shop in Modesto in the mid-’50s, which was bright pink. And the cars that came out of it were even more colorful: luscious candies, pearls, often in Gene’s inimitable fades and blends. The thing is, they didn’t hang around in front. They came in and went out. Gene didn’t overlook quality, and he had an unerring eye for custom design and style, but he also believed in quantity. And the incredible part is that he’s still doing it. The guy is absolutely amazing.
Speaking of building cars to win big trophies, let’s go all the way back to 1956, when Eddie Bosio proudly shows off what he did to Vic Edelbrock’s historic black Deuce roadster to win the Oakland AMBR that year. This included narrowed ’40 Olds bumpers, outside headers/exhaust, a curved custom windshield, cycle fenders (with mudflaps!), and lots of chrome and gold plating. The thing is, there were no “historic” hot rods in 1956. They were outmoded. This was better and up-to-date. It was also the first Deuce roadster to win the trophy. Bosio kept it for decades, refusing to sell it to Vic Jr. Thankfully Edelbrock finally prevailed, and got Roy Brizio to fully restore the car. And then Bosio built a duplicate, just like the one above.
This photo is not from my files, so I have to go by the info I’ve got. Although the banner on the makeshift timing tower reads “Igniters Club, San Jose,” these guys are the Pacers club from the S.F. Bay Area, and the flamed Comp Coupe was Art Balliet’s, circa ’55-’56. I didn’t know there was a San Jose drag strip, but that’s where this supposedly is. And the big guy kneeling front and center is club pres. Jim McLennan, who did more for NorCal hot rodding than most anybody, including Champion Speed Shop, Half Moon Bay drag strip, and unbeatable Chevy-powered dragsters, which his family continues today.
Again, not my photo. But speaking of Half Moon Bay and McLennan, he was savvy enough to invite (i.e., pay) Garlits to come out, early on, to draw crowds. I’m not sure what he called this car, but it’s at least one step beyond Swamp Rat I. What intrigues me is all the striping on the nose (including “lips” and eyes?). This looks like Half Moon Bay. And I don’t think this photo has ever been shown before.
And we’ve been speaking of the big AMBR (America’s Most Beautiful Roadster) trophy a lot, so here’s a dramatic photo of it towering over Andy’s Instant T that finally won it in 1970. Perhaps the best of emerging “kit car” hot rods, I think Andy said they assembled it on the show floor the first year. “Then we just kept rebuilding it and re-entering it until it finally won.” It was Art Himsl’s psychedelic ribbon paint graphics that finally did the trick. Given the extraneous bikini-clad girl, this must be an Andy Southard photo. And speaking of Bay Area hot rod innovators and instigators, Andy (father of Roy) has well-earned his revered nickname, “Rodfather.”
I don’t know if Garlits got the Big Daddy moniker before Ed Roth did, but there was no one larger than life in the rod and custom world than this guy. I was going to say that I didn’t know where this photo came from, but something in the back of my brain told me to check my own Ed Roth book, and there it is on pg. 113, where I say pretty much the same thing in the caption. This was Ed’s biker, German-helmet period in the latter ’60s. Then he disappeared for about 10 years until I found him at Knott’s Berry Farm, a clean-shaven Mormon.
What in the world, you say, is this? Well, the latter half of the ’60s, and into the early ’70s, was a dark age for all forms of hot rodding. Hippie vans replaced hot rods. Customs evaporated. Dragsters went Pro. Then Detroit (and everybody) was hit by the gas crunch/smog control double whammy. Customizers turned to Hollywood when other work dried up. And show promoters went crazy trying to attract an audience (especially kids). I called it the era of Silly Show Cars, which ranged from rolling bathtubs and outhouses to most anything else you could stick mag wheels and multiple blowers on. While Dean Jeffries built the Monkee-Mobiles and Barris did the Munster Koach, this little-known one, called the Vox-Mobile, hit both markets. Built by Dick Dean (for Barris), it was commissioned by England’s Vox Instruments, known mostly for their amps, one of which was mounted on the back. Those are actually 4-string basses on the sides. It wasn’t built for a particular band, but it all worked. Anyone could plug in and play. Where is it now? Do we care?
There was a spate of hot rod B movies in the ’50s: “Hot Rods to Hell,” “Drag Strip Girl,” “Hot Rod Gang,” that sort of thing. Tommy Ivo was in some, Grabowski in others, Mamie Van Doren in several. I can’t remember the name of the one Barris built these twin chopped Chevy coupes for, but one was used in a weird scene with rods racing on dirt around a building. Of course there was a big crash, and one of these two was obviously lifted upside down by a crane, then dropped straight on its roof. Of course all you saw was the impact. Much later the survivor, painted red, showed up in Petersen’s first (short-lived) Motorama Museum on Hollywood Blvd. in the early ’70s. Where it went after that no-one seems to know. Note the signage on the Barris shop, all done by Von Dutch.
We miss Joe Bailon. He was a great character, and did plenty in the custom world. I took this photo in the small garage under his house in Auburn, CA, 20-some years ago. He’s showing me a custom tube grille he was making, similar to the one already installed in the ’47 Chev behind him, and possibly for the chopped ’50 Merc in the next stall.
Best for last? Bill and I both love shoebox Fords, and even owned the same gold one that looked a bit like this. But this one has always blown my socks off. I only saw it once or twice, at the 2nd or 3rd KKOA Spectacular. I don’t remember the owner/builder’s name, and have never seen it since. But it’s just so fine, from the shaved bumper and ’53 Chev grille to the subtly Frenched lights, sombrero caps, and filled and louvered hood. It’s gloss black, with an all-white tuck-n-roll interior (with black piping). It’s an unchopped coupe, which is perfect. No striping, no spotlights, no lakes pipes, no BS. What’s most amazing, though, is its stance. This was well before air bags, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t have hydraulics.
Well so much for a quickie. Hope you got this far, and hope you enjoyed it. If you did, share it with a like-minded friend. Till next time.