I don’t want to be like the people who slow down to look at the horrible wreck on the other side of the freeway. So I’m not going to show you grisly photos of torched, melted, crushed, or even evaporated rods, customs, race cars, and rare classic vehicles. I could.
Gary Cerveny, stunt pilot, race-car driver/builder, multi-faceted car collector/restorer, and all-around amazing person, lost 76 irreplaceable vehicles in the recent, devastating Malibu fire. You’re probably still reading, hearing, and seeing reports about this summer’s record-breaking California wildfires, so I don’t need to add to that. But Gary and Diane’s large home compound was located right on Mullholland Highway, which runs along the crest of the Santa Monica mountain range, and was therefore at the very peak–both literally and figuratively–of the Malibu fire. Fortunately they were out of state at the time, so they were in no personal danger. But as I described in my book Lost Hot Rods II, their house, as well as an adjoining guest house, were built atop huge semi-basement garage/storage/construction areas, so not only were all of the vehicles trapped inside, unattended, but as the fire raged, the house structures collapsed on top of them, crushing car bodies and raising fire temperatures to more than 2000 degrees.
The collection included ’60s Indy roadsters, drag machines, rare muscle cars, rods, customs, motorcycles, as well as Ferraris, classic Porsches, vintage Rolls Royces, etc. All were lost, other than a few that were on display elsewhere. And when I say lost, Gary’s description is beyond vivid. “All the gas tanks were full, because we drove them all. Not to mention a 50-gallon drum of nitro for the race cars that exploded like an H-bomb. The fire was so hot, it didn’t just melt aluminum, it evaporated it. It was quite eerie looking at what was an aluminum engine, and seeing just a steel crankshaft with connecting rods, like the charred bones of a skeleton.” The only car he will attempt to rebuild is the one-off, long, swoopy Norman Timb’s Special “roadster,” but he said the hand-formed aluminum body was melted down to a 30-pound lump, and very little of the chassis is salvageable, so it will be largely a recreation project. Everything else was carted off by FEMA as scrap metal to be recycled.
But, as I say, I’m not here to gawk at torched carcasses. I want to pay a farewell tribute to two historic, candy red customs that survived longer and better than most, but are now gone. Toast. Literally.
As I said, I featured both of these cars in my Lost Hot Rods II book, which includes a bit more history on each, as well as more details on Gary Cerveny’s quite adventurous, yet very successful life. Here, I basically want to give a last, respectful look at two pioneering customs that I particularly liked.
The first is generally known as the Dave Cunningham Forty sedan, who is seen standing well above his channeled and lowered beauty in the photo above. In fact, it was NorCal metalman Hal Hutchins who conceived and began the process in 1957 of channeling the sedan body 5-1/2 inches over the stock, but stepped, frame. He then sectioned the hood and raised the fenders a like amount, removing the running boards. At this point (tacked together), Cunningham bought it, installed a full-race 4-carb flathead, and helped Hutchins finish-weld the body, molding all seams, filling and peaking the louvered hood, and flaring the lower fenders into the body. Then Hutchens sprayed the “special-mix, ultra-red lacquer” and even added the restrained white pinstriping. I have to admit I like this version of the car best, and the candy red glowed on the covers of several small ’50s mags, not to mention the April ’58 Hot Rod. And as I mentioned in the book, I don’t think these pleasing proportions have been duplicated on another ’40 sedan. Maybe now’s the time.
By 1958 styles were rapidly changing, so Cunningham took his ’40 to Barris, who added the latest thing, canted quad headlights. He also trimmed and flared the fenders, adding deep coves behind the T-Bird wire wheels. Junior resprayed the candy red with pearl white scallops. Then George added the giant nerf bars, and of course Barris crests, adding to this car’s now-lost provenance.
The car garnered more mag covers and show trophies for Cunningham through 1964, but then disappeared until showman Bill Roach acquired it as a gutted “shell” in 1972. Going for an ISCA Championship, he had Dick Falk strip and redo the body, Brizio’s (Andy, not Roy) install a Cobra-equipped 302 Ford and C-4, Himsl & Haas spray new candy red paint, and finally Kenny Foster stitch an amazing pearl white tuck-n-roll interior.Since it didn’t win the ISCA season points race, Roach drove it to the NSRA Nats in Tulsa and put a For Sale sign on it. It was Pete Ernani back in San Francisco who bought it, drove it, then stored it for 15 years. Finally he took it to Goodguys Pleasanton in 1988 where Dick Falk saw it, bought it, and drove it for another 10 years.
Other than fresh wide whitewalls on chrome reversed rims with beanie caps, everything else stayed the way it was in 1973. Dick and his wife drove it like this another 14 years before finally deciding to sell it, which is when it joined the Cerveny collection, where I took these photos–on the mountain-top.
My second tribute is to another personal favorite, Ray Goulart’s very tasteful ’50 Oldsmobile. To quote myself: “Although it doesn’t get the full credit it deserves, it is one of the best-designed, best-executed customs of the early ’60s.” It was predated, and overshadowed, by brother LeRoy’s lime green ’50 Ford that was customized twice by Gene Winfield (and Ray). Consequently many attributed this classy Olds to Winfield, but Gene very emphatically told me, “No, no. All I did was paint it [first candy copper, then gold-to-red ‘flake fade, then candy red]. Everything else Ray did himself, in his home garage.” This includes the design as well as the fabrication.
Beginning work in 1959, this included obvious things like the oval tube grille, canted ’59 Chevy headlights, handformed bumpers, and radiused and flared wheelwells. Then you notice things like the filled and rolled rockers and small front fender scoops. What you probably can’t tell are the ’58 Olds taillights frenched in ’53 DeSoto rear fenders. And how about this–it was a convertible when Ray got it. But by ’59 hardtops were cooler. So Ray skillfully sliced one off a ’51 Chevy and grafted it onto the Olds ‘vert, adding a smaller sedan window at the back. Wow.
Inside Ray split the front and rear bench seats into buckets himself, fabricating the center console. Then he grafted a new Olds gauge pod (with S-W gauges) to the dash and topped it off with an Olds “spaceship” steering wheel. And in the latest early ’60s style, he had it upholstered in black diamond tuft with silver buttons.
Nearly all Oldses came with Hydromatic transmissions, including this one. But hot rodders wanted a stick shift, so Ray added a clutch pedal and console-mounted floor shift for one he swapped behind the original 303 Olds V8. But then the undaunted Goulart also swapped in a bigger, 401-inch, dual-quad Nailhead Buick engine, claiming it was primarily because he loved the vertical valve covers.
This was a unique, tasteful, ahead-of-the-curve custom that hardly appears dated in these last photos. Perhaps because of this, yet truly amazing, is that despite a succession of different, largely undocumented owners over the 60 years this car was in this form, not one of them changed anything on it. The candy red might have been resprayed a couple of times, but everything else is just the way Ray built it. Or was.
The cruelest of ironies is the summation I wrote in my book in 2012: “Given the number of vehicles he currently has to tend, drive, or race, there’s no telling when you might see either of these famous candy red customs. But at least now you know where they are, saved and safe.” Oh…Ooh…Ouch. R.I.P.