I think what this column needs right now is a splash of color. And what better way to do that than to show a bunch of custom cars? Now, when I mention customs, we immediately turn our brains back to the ’40s and ’50s when craftsmen like the Barrises and Ayalas were turning out slinky-low and streamlined chopped, channeled, and sectioned Fords, Chevys, and Mercs coated with many layers of block-sanded and hand-rubbed “organic” lacquer colors. And when I think of photos from my archive, that’s my first thought, because I have several hundred such images, both in really old black and white, and slightly more recent large-format color film. But what I tend to forget is that I have binders full of 35mm color slides and B&W negs that I’ve taken myself during a pretty long career. Two are labeled Color Customs, containing some 1200 such slides, more or less beginning with the first KKOA Lead Sled Spectacular held in the summer of 1981 in Wichita, Kansas.

Cars lined up for the first KKOA Lead Sled Spectacular, 1981 in Wichita, Kansas

This seems recent to me. But, good grief, that was 38 years ago! I covered it as a freelancer, and sold it to Hot Rod magazine (amazingly enough), but it didn’t run until the December issue, just after I’d joined the HRM staff full-time.

I don’t want to rehash custom car history here (I wrote a whole book on it, The American Custom Car, in ’01). But there are a few things we should remember. First, ’50s-style hot rods–coupes and roadsters–had pretty much disappeared from the streets until Rod & Custom mag and a couple of die-hard car clubs staged the first Street Rod Nationals and formed the NSRA in 1970. But customs weren’t part of that mix. They were long gone. Consider that Jim McNiel bought the Barris Hirohata Merc off the back row of a used car lot in 1959 for $500, after Dirty Doug Kinney traded it in on a new Cadillac. When we published our first Special Chopped Merc Issue of Street Rodder mag in Nov. ’74, attempting to revive interest in ’50s-style customs, we could only find one such Merc anywhere in SoCal to feature on the cover.

So when Jerry Titus, with support from zealots like the Fundamentals car club and Darryl Starbird, was able to found the Kustom Kemps of America and stage this inaugural “Nats” in Wichita in 1981, this was a landmark.

Bob Johnson's custom '40 Carson-topped Merc and chopped '50Both the wine-colored ’40 Carson-topped Merc and the candy red chopped ’50 were brought by Bob Johnson from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and both were new builds. Several hundred traditional ’40s-’50s-style customs showed up, including 50 chopped ’49-’51 Mercs, driving from New York, Florida, Minnesota, all over. I didn’t see a trailer anywhere. And of course this was well before the advent of air bag suspensions. The best part is that this event continues today. We’ll talk more about the current state of custom cars later. But for now let’s dig on some custom color from a groundbreaking event that is now not-so-recent history.

Don Boeke's custom '57 Ford hardtopDon Boeke is a pinstriper/painter/customizer from Dayton, OH, known as The Egyptian who gets less recognition than he should. This candy tangerine ’57 Ford hardtop was his personal ride, and exactly my favorite kind of mild custom: shaved, slammed, ’58 DeSoto headlights, earlier DeSoto grille, louvers and luscious paint, but no spotlights, sidepipes, fender skirts, fuzzy dice, or other trinkets.

Custom '49 Chevy fastbackYou’ll have to excuse me on some names and other I.D.  Termites ate my notebooks from events of this era (for real). But this is the first time you’ve seen a rear angle of this candy green ’49 Chevy fastback from Utah, showing the sleek, smooth top chop and filled rear fenders. Chopping one of these, including slicing and dicing the trunk to fit, is a metalman’s challenge. Check the white “tarp” over the back seat.

Sonny Daout's chopped custom '50 ChryslerI also have to admit that a few of these photos might be from the second KKOA Nats in Des Moines, because the slides are mixed in the binders and have no I.D. on them (I wasn’t thinking about any “archive” back then). But this is Virginia customizer Sonny Daout’s personal ride, a fully show-chromed, painted, and detailed candy blue, chopped ’50 Chrysler with a ’57 Pontiac engine, that he and his wife drove out.

Mickey Ellis' custom '40 Merc "hardtop" and Larry Purcell's custom '41 FordUnquestionably the most-cloned or copied early custom is the Barris Nick Matranga ’40 Merc “hardtop” with the curved side window frames. This candy brandywine version–one of the first–was built from a totaled wreck by illustrator Mickey Ellis from Utah. The ’40s-period-perfect chopped and molded black ’41 Ford was Larry Purcell’s from Colorado Springs. Note the single-bar flippers on both cars.

Darryl Starbird's custom '50 El CaminoNever seen this later-’60s-style, deftly customized and candy red ’59 El Camino before? This was Darryl Starbird’s current shop truck, which he drove regularly around Wichita. He’s the customizer who never quit, and wasn’t afraid to try new trends on new cars, as well as preserve the old. He invited everybody over to his local shop/home, where he had the restored bubble-top Predicta T-bird on display.

Lee Pratt's custom '41 BuickUntil I went through the slides, I forgot that customizer/rodder/artist Lee Pratt had his striking candy purple and lavender ‘flake ’41 Buick torpedo-back there. It was also the only car on hydraulic suspension. My son, Bill, is building a duplicate of this beautiful car…right, Bill?

Wayne Jones' custom '51 FordYou’ve probably seen photos of Wayne Jones’ full-custom candy-red and blue ’51 Ford from Indianapolis, but not from this angle, showing ’54 Lincoln taillights, twin ’53 Stude rear pans, and even a ’58 Impala roof scoop. Up front it had canted quad headlights, tube grille, and a dual-quad Chrysler Hemi under the hood. He first customized it in ’56-’59, chopped the top in ’80, and still has it–like this–today.

Doug Reed's custom carIs it a rod? Is it a custom? Yes, and Wichita local Doug Reed has owned it–I think–since before he was born. KKOA pres Titus painted the scallops. Doug has rebuilt the J-2 Tri-Power 372 Olds V8 and Hydro at least once, and still drives it to KKOA events.

'50 Olds custom fastbackNo, this isn’t the interior in Doug’s car. It’s a very similar, but non-scalloped, metallic green ’50 Olds fastback, upholstered like this in the mid-’50s, and preserved with it’s original V8, 3-speed stick, and even a moon gas pedal by a Minnesota street rodder whose name I’ve lost. More recently it ended up at the doomed Winnemucca car museum, got auctioned for cheap, and hasn’t been seen since.

Chopped custom MercsThank goodness CB antennas and Western wagon wheels are things of the past. But where and when have you ever seen two chopped Mercs stopping to chat like this?  Supposedly 50 of ’em showed up at this event. Where are they now?

Conrad Winkler's '51 Olds custom convertibleOne surprising part is that very few original customs from the ’50s showed up at Wichita. This scalloped mild custom ’51 Olds convert with the striped tuck-n-roll belonged to Conrad Winkler and still looked the same as it did on pocket-size ’59 magazine covers. And I’ve never seen it since. Kinda weird.

John Wilkins' custom '51 VictoriaSectioned shoebox Fords with uncut tops look so good, how come there aren’t more? Mainly because it’s such a big job, is my guess. John Wilkins found this ’51 Victoria half-finished from the ’50s and rusting in a yard before he saved and further modified it in bright red paint and matching interior. I saw it everywhere for a few years. But then–poof–disappeared.

Richard Glymph's custom '54 ChevySpeaking of much-cloned customs, the Moonglow ’54 Chevy is No. 2. However, East Coast custom painter extraordinaire Richard Glymph decided the top needed to be a bit lower, then–of course–he had to spray it in his choice of custom color. That’s Diehards Gary Minor’s long-time wife Mary smiling out the window (as always). Richard claims this photo caused his divorce. Ummm, doubt it.

Chopped Merc and custom '53 HudsonBack in the day, a standard joke among customizers was unknowing admirers asking chopped Merc owners “Hey is that a Hudson?” Well the beautiful candy red sled on the left is for sure a lowered-lid Merc with a standard ’54 Pontiac grille, while the one on the right is–yes–a custom ’53 Hudson (4-door in fact).

Custom shoebox '50 FordJust another sectioned shoebox ’50 Ford, with requisite radiused rear wheel arches, plus rolled pans and a Corvette grille. I haven’t seen it in 30 years. Have you?

Custom '60 PontiacThe ’57-’60 finned and flattopped new cars actually helped kill customizing, because the factory had learned the tricks and already done the work. Larry Watson kept things alive for those with paychecks who could buy new cars by the month, knowing all they needed was lowering, maybe a mild shave, and some bright, luscious custom paint. The Astro Supremes and pinwalls on this bubbletop ’60 Pontiac hearken to that era, but it goes a bit further with frenched lights, quarter-panel louvers, and modern suede upholstery. I love this car, and it’s still very doable today.

Custom chopped carWhen’s the last time you saw something like this just cruising through your neighborhood? If not, why not?

Blaine Kauffman's '56 Mercury customThe late Blaine Kauffman, KKOA’s Eastern Director from Pennsylvania, owned this super-chopped ’56 Mercury his whole life, and drove it everywhere. I even rode in it a few times, which wasn’t easy. But it was fine for Blaine, who stood about 5’2″. Perfect for him, and certainly striking.

Custom ChevysEven though this is from the second “spectacular” in Des Moines, I’ll end with this because it’s, well, a perfect “end” shot. I have no idea if these guys knew each other, or even who they are. But they obviously built their ’55-’56 Chevys in similar fashion and parked together for effect. Two have ’56 Packard taillights, while those boomerangs on the middle one came from a ’60 Chrysler. Did you notice that all three have chopped tops? And only the closest ’55 coupe uses the stock rear window.

Well, hope the color brightened up your day. Maybe we’ll delve into some old(er) stuff again next time. Til then.