One of the frustrating ironies of life is that as you age, your memory cells tend to grow weaker. But also as you age, the older things you’re trying to remember are slipping farther and farther away. In my case, I’m glad to say–so far–my memory seems to be as good as it ever was. The big problem is that it was never very good to begin with. That’s why I always wrote notes in a little pocket notebook, for years, and then switched to a small tape recorder. As I mentioned once, termites ate many of my oldest notebooks. But I do have about 100 90-minute tapes of interviews with many rod and custom luminaries, which we’ll discuss further in the future.
But the topic here is Miles Masa, and more specifically some quite surprising and crafty custom model cars that he built before kits for any of them existed. Hardly anybody knows about his model cars. And, I’m afraid, not too many remember Miles as a customizer, either.
Miles Masa was one of the first inductees into the KKOA (Kustom Kemps of America) Hall of Fame. He had a body and paint shop in Downer’s Grove IL, just east of Chicago, that was known for great collision repair, along with some traditional customs as well as contemporary plastic Corvettes. I can’t remember when or how I met Miles, but it was well before the KKOA was founded. I was scouring the country trying to find examples of traditional chopped ’49-’51 Mercuries to feature in the Aug. ’77 “Special Chopped Merc Issue” of Street Rodder magazine, and I remember driving out to Miles’ suburban home to photograph the burgundy convertible, which featured front fenders, rear quarters, grille shell, rocker panels, splash aprons, fender skirts, floors, and top all made in fiberglass from molds formed by Miles from N.O.S. parts. This was his daily driver. The blue coupe, powered by a Chrysler Hemi, wasn’t quite finished so it was photographed by local freelancer Bill Temesy a couple weeks later.
I would think he showed me his models then, because this was something I was involved in and promoted in Street Rodder (RIP) early on. But I think it was in ’82, when I was freelancing, that I went back and spent some time with Miles, and he took me on a tour of the Chicago area to show me several old customs hidden away in various garages, including the still-original, but aging, Trendero pickup under a plastic tarp in the back of the old Trend Custom shop (which I photographed and showed in my Lost Hot Rods book). It was then that I spent some time photographing his custom models, built in the ’50s and ’60s, on the green felt of a pool table in his rec room. I know it was ’82, because I then followed Miles, his wife, son, and daughter in their bright red ’60 Chevy Bel Air hardtop, with red-and-white interior, to the KKOA event in Des Moines that year.
Actually, these two models I photographed on Miles’ back porch, and I should have included something to judge their size. They’re obviously models of his two real Mercs seen above, and they’re about 1/8th scale, if not bigger–about 18 inches long. How? Believe it or not, they’re completely hand-carved out of wood. I think it’s pine, not balsa. While the coupe is solid, the ‘vert has a full, naugahyde-upholstered interior. This is just for starters. The guy was obviously very talented. And I use the past tense because Miles left us far too soon, in the summer of ’91. The obit said M.S., but Miles told me it was from a neck injury he got racing dirt track TT motorcycles (another RIP), and the reason why he’s not well remembered today.
The rest of these models are made of plastic, in 1/25th scale. But none were sold as 3-in-1 kits. AMT’s line debuted in 1958, but only in the various brands and models (hardtop, convertible) of new ’58 cars. Each successive year they did the same. But these models are from the ’50s, such as Miles’ version of a Moonglow chopped ’54 Chevy, above. Where did they come from? Before I get to that, I have to admit I don’t remember what I did with these photos after I took them nearly 40 years ago. I scanned most of these from negatives, but there were prints with numbers on them, so I think I used them for an article in Scale Auto Enthusiast, another good magazine that is long gone. But all I have now is an envelope marked “Miles Masa’s Model Cars” that was in a thick file folder simply marked Model Car Material. Just proofs, negs, and a few 5×7 prints. No notes. Just foggy memory.
Miles built all of these from what we call “Promos,” which are highly collectible in themselves. This is how AMT, MPC, ERTL, and such 1/25 scale model companies started. Beginning in the late ’40s/early ’50s they made exact copies of each bodystyle in each manufacturer’s line, then painted them in factory-available colors (and combinations), even including some available options, such as continental spares, as seen on examples on the right, above. Why? So that new car dealers, especially in smaller rural areas, could order just a few real new cars to display in the showroom, but then have several of these promotional models to show customers different body styles or colors they could order. Early promos, like the ’51 Stude bullet-nose and the ’53 Chevy, had dark tinted windows with no interior. Most had diecast metal grilles and bumpers, but no chrome, just silver paint, including body trim. Early ones also had flat, steel “chassis,” usually with a coin slot to double as a bank. A few had friction motors. Molded plastic interiors and undercarriages came a bit later.
The 4-door ’50 Plymouth didn’t offer much customizing potential, but that ’54 Nash Ambassador Promo model is pretty cool just the way it is.
Where Miles found a ’48 Ford Promo I have no idea. He not only shaved it, frenched the lights, made his own grille and skirts, but I would assume cut the top off a coupe, and made the white chopped Carson and interior. After ’58 he could pluck dummy spots and whitewall tires with chrome flipper wheels/caps from AMT kits.This much-chopped ’51-’52 Bel Air hardtop was obviously inspired by Rev. Ernst’s Barris job. Note the extended front and rear fenders, and handmade skirts. Interior and wheels probably came from a later AMT kit, but that looks like a ’53 Chev grille. Miles used automotive fillers and paint from his bodyshop, sprayed with a touch-up gun.This ’50 Ford coupe is very tasty, with its Frenched lights, split bumpers, ’57 Plymouth caps, who-knows-what interior, and windows made from clear plastic. Who knows where he found the chrome ’54 DeSoto grille. Note the hand-rubbed metallic lacquer paint. Wish I knew the color.
I have a ’53 Pontiac diecast grille/bumper in my parts box, but never the whole car. Miles added an interior, shaved the side chrome, but saved and hand-painted the distinctive beltline moldings. He also flush-molded the skirts and added fins to the extended rear fenders. The ’50 Olds on the shelf appears to have been made from a Chevy hardtop.
The trickest parts, in my opinion, on this ’56 Ford convertible are the hand-made (I think) ’55 Merc wagon taillights. I don’t know if a ’56 Promo came with an interior–the dash looks correct–but the side pipes and wire wheels came from something later. The Victoria side chrome is masked and painted. You might note that the hoods appear to be cut open on several of these cars. Even the ’58-’60 AMT kits had no engines, so it was a high-level trick to cut hoods, doors, and trunks open and add an engine from, say, the ’32 or ’40 Ford kit. But on this Miles added a firewall, fenderwells, radiator, accurate heater, and what looks very much like an accurate tri-carb Y-Block Ford engine. Nothing like that existed at the time, as far as I know.
These models were all built in the white interior era (pre’62, I’d say), and Miles apparently liked convertibles. Lots of molding/frenching on this ’51 Chevy. Note the pearl hatpin shift knob (a common addition). Who knows where he got a ’49 Merc grille–handmade? Wish we could see these in color.
This ’50 Ford doesn’t have an opening hood, but there are plenty of handmade details: chopped top, interior, grille, side chrome, even sunvisors. Hood louvers came from any ’58 AMT “3-in-1” kit. And the reflection in the lower photo shows the quality of Miles’ hand-rubbed lacquer paint.
If there are any model kit or Promo collectors in the crowd, you know I’ve saved the best for last. Yes, this is a 1954 Buick Skylark, as far as I know the rarest Buick ever made, having a slightly different body than other ’54s. I don’t think a model kit was ever made of it, so I assume this is a ’54 Promo. And given the lack of quality of the paint, both on the body and the hand-painted trim and whitewalls, not to mention the questionable interior, I’d have to guess this was a very early attempt by Miles or, I seem to remember, a rarity that he got from someone else and decided to leave as-is.
So, as usual, I’ve given you more than you need or possibly want. But you’re not going to see this anywhere else. My aim is to please some of you all of the time, or maybe even all of you some of the time. But there’s way more in my archives on rod, custom, racing, and esoteric automotive topics you might not know exist. Hopefully you’ve already clicked on the “Subscribe” heading at the top, and done so. Now feel free to click on “Contact” and tell me what you might like to see. Happy trails ’til then.