Lee Pratt is an artist. He didn’t know it for a long time. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, back in those days when young boys talked cars, read Hot Rod magazines, and fantasized about “how they did it out in California,” Lee figured he was a typical kid who just happened to like the smooth customs a bit more than the nasty, fast rods and paid special attention to paint colors and styles as well as creative upholstery trends. He dropped out of high school. He got jobs in gas stations and started learning how to paint cars. At one point he even worked in Ray Fahrner’s custom shop with friend/artist Tom Davison, painting some cars and taking them to shows.
In the meantime Lee built several cars for himself, and actually made several trips out to California where he not only saw what they were doing, but actually fit right in with the cruising crowds from San Jose to Harvey’s Broiler. He was undoubtedly the first in Iowa to have a fully hydraulic-dropped custom–a ’55 Nomad–fitted with Skylark wire wheels and painted in multiple shades of lavender to purple pearls with seaweed flames. And he drove it to California and back. Not only that, but he also enrolled in San Jose State college, built more customs, traveled back and forth between California and Iowa, got married, eventually entered Drake U. in Des Moines where he found out he had a talent for abstract sculpture, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a scholarship for an MFA at Claremont College back in California. Around that time Lee moved into a “loft” at a large art complex called The Brewery near downtown Los Angeles. This actually was once the large Pabst Blue Ribbon beer brewery, but the complex included several other large warehouse/factory-type buildings, most made of rusting corrugated metal.
Lee’s loft was actually a warehouse space in which he built a 2-level apartment, with a well-equipped shop on the ground floor big enough to construct sculptures, cars, and even build temporary spray booths when needed. The reason I’m mentioning all this is mainly to explain not only these two beautiful, tasteful, artful automobiles, but also the location for these photos, which was one of the Brewery complex buildings just across from Lee’s. We weren’t supposed to take photos there without a permit, but it just took a few minutes each time, and the light and the setting were just right. I shot the Impala, on film, in ’03. The shoebox came later and is digital. But I’ve never shown any of these photos anywhere before.
As stated, I’m showing them because I think these cars are beautiful, and a perfect palate cleanser to remove any lingering taste of ugliness from my last column. I will also mention (quietly) that, despite being exceedingly talented and accomplished, Lee is one of the nicest, most unpretentious, non-self-important people I know, and that in itself is a sort of palate cleanser during these times of agitation, hubris, and angst.
Not too many car-builders, like Lee, have garnered the cover of The Rodder’s Journal three times. And I would direct you to issue No. 13, which not only had Lee’s gold Forty coupe front and back, but also tells much of his life story as well as shows several of his early custom creations. For much more specific information on the ’58 Impala shown here, I would direct you to issue No. 24, which featured not only 14 pages of Steve Coonan photography of this car, but also my article which detailed its construction, as well as discussed the ’58 Impala as the singular “factory custom,” as well as an anomaly in the Chevrolet line.
Briefly, this two-owner Impala, which Lee found in Georgia (through Hemming’s) with 48,000 miles, a 348, and a good black paint job, was supposed to be a quickie-custom with wheels, lowering, a lace-painted top, and some tuck-and-roll inside. The lace-painted top you see above was probably the easiest part, with purple ‘flakes and candies. The interior, which you can see is a tour-de-force of sculptured rolls and pleats in the Joe Perez/Eddie Martinez ’60s style, took the better part of a year to accomplish, to Lee’s design…in San Diego. Being a starving art student at the time, Lee had to work on a budget. That’s why he didn’t take it to Martinez or Perez in the first place. But through a friend in San Diego he found Frank Gonzales, a talented 50-yr. old who had experience working in several shops, but was doing single jobs out of his garage. Lee showed him several photos of the type of interior he wanted, sketched out some patterns for his ’58, and asked if he could do it. Gonzales said he’d never done anything quite like this, but he thought he could do it. So Lee made more exact designs of what he wanted, and Frank went to work. As you can see, he figured it out quite well. The only part he had a problem with was the unique headliner design, which took two tries. And it did take a while. But the price was right.
Lee found the deep purple carpet. And one of the pluses of a ’58 Impala is that it comes with the best custom steering wheel, stock. He didn’t change anything in the interior other than the upholstery. And pretty much the same goes for the engine and driveline. Despite low mileage, the 4-bbl. 348 and Turboglide trans had both been rebuilt and detail painted when Lee got the car. The only thing Lee did after these photos were taken was add the quintessential factory Tri-Power intake manifold and carbs. As for the rest of the driveline, the first order of any Lee Pratt car is lowering. But the all-new ’58 GMs came with coil spring at four corners, and cutting is quick. Lee also opted for a set of new, repro Buick Skylarks. The only hassle there is redrilling axles, hubs, and brake drums to the Buick bolt pattern.
So, other than the time the upholstery took, this is sounding like the “Quickie Custom” Lee had planned, right? Of course not. Here’s another look at the long, black, beautiful–and flawless–body. You might have to look up some stock Impalas to see what exactly Lee did. It’s all subtle, but it’s quite a lot. Of course he nosed and decked it–beyond what the factory did–removing not only the V emblems, but the trunk lock as well. Same for door handles (all now solenoid operated). And how about those three little chrome pieces in front of the back bumper? Or the gunsights on the front fenders? Or the Impala emblems under the “fin” behind the door? Lee even removed the lower, protective, rocker molding strips. On the other hand, he left just enough: the trim around the side and roof “vents”; the defining strip around the rear “fins”; even the complete, stock side spear. As I said, Lee is an artist. And I’ll add my small carp that I think makes a subtle, but large, difference. I’m talking about what Lee didn’t add. No lakes pipes. No Bellflower tips. No dummy spotlights. No skirts. No bullet grille. No hanging dice. It’s just right.
What I haven’t told is what led to all the little body mods. It was just going to be custom paint on the roof, remember? It already had a nice black repaint. Well, new paint on an old car more often than not hides some sort of sins–large or small. Lee thought he could touch-up or spot-in some of the minor flaws he saw. But then he noticed some small rust bubbles around the corners of the rear window. And as he tried to sand them out, of course he found more. Time to strip the whole body. Thankfully he found no major cancer, bondo patches, or wreckage repair. But this meant straightening and smoothing the body better than stock, the minor trim removal, multiple coats of primers and block sanding, and then many coats (and more block sanding) of Lee’s longtime paint of choice–lacquer. That’s what’s on the top, and that’s what’s on the body, and that’s why it looks so beautiful.
OK, second treat. Same place. Just a few years later. I can’t give you as much detail on this car, in words or pictures, because I never wrote a magazine feature on it. And I just grabbed these quickie photos of it when it was done because Lee was getting ready to move to Austin, Texas. Of course I was around when Lee was building it, but I wasn’t paying strict attention because (a) Lee was always working on two or three cars at a time and (b) this one kept morphing in terms of grille, taillights, side trim, and driveline as it progressed. The final color combo was the big surprise–and I think a wonderful one. I recently asked Lee if he was copying the second paint job on the Rev. Ernst Barris Chevy, and he said, “No, I was just using some paint I had left over from another project that didn’t get used–the bronze. And I just thought the green would look good with it. He also came up with the idea of using ’56 Chevy 210 side chrome, turned upside down, to separate them. One thing I do remember was watching Lee cut, shape, gas weld, and grind those rear bumper guards with the exhaust tips running through them. They complement the round, bullet tail lights he molded and frenched in from a ’53 Olds–one of the better replacements I’ve seen for the cat-eye Shoebox Ford’s. You’ll also notice all seams have been filled on the rear, but Lee retained the chrome ’49 trunk hinges.
This is strictly a traditional ’50s mild custom, so yes it has spots and skirts, frenched lights, wide whites, and modified ’56 Buick wheelcovers on gold rims. No top chop needed on a Shoebox coupe roof. But Lee did fill the hood, round the corners, and mold-in a ’50 Merc grille surround and splash apron. Then I remember him trying all sorts of grille variations. That nice floating bar you see originated in a ’52 Olds, but Lee did a whole lot of cutting, smoothing, and filling before chroming to make that shape.
I apologize that I don’t have interior or other detail photos of this car. In this photo you can see the pearl white steering wheel. In a prior one you can glimpse a chrome speaker grille and window frames with a bronze dash. The upholstery was pretty simple white with bronze. I should mention that Lee found this straight, stock, unrusted ’49 coupe sitting on a trailer in red oxide DP primer at the Long Beach swap, all there but unrunning. So Lee swapped in a running flathead, added some heads, carbs, and typical detail, using dropped spindles, cut coils, and blocks to lower it to his preferred ride height. Then he drove it to Salina, KS, for the Leadsled Spectacular the year Gary Howard was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Next he was headed to Baltimore, MD, for The Rodder’s Journal’s big one-time car show. However, Lee seems to have a penchant for punching holes in oil pans on his low-slung custom cruisers. This wasn’t the first, but it was the last for that flathead.
What comes next will probably surprise you. It certainly surprised me. First, I’ve already mentioned that Lee and his new wife (and artist) Suzanne moved from the Brewery to a striking new home on the outskirts of Austin, TX. You can see it in the background of the cover of TRJ No. 63, featuring Lee’s restored purple ’55 Nomad. That house included a large shop where Lee built the Nomad, worked on other projects of his own, plus continued working on “customer” cars, such as Mike Young’s gorgeous, Cad-powered, traditional ’33 coupe that deservedly filled the cover of TRJ No. 72. Mike was one of the original Austin gang that hung around Steve Wertheimer’s Continental Club down on South Congress, and who owned the white pearl, purple-flamed ’60 Impala that shared a very memorable Rodder’s Journal nighttime feature shoot with Jimmie Vaughan’s lavender ’51 Chevy and gold ’63 Riv way back in TRJ No. 3. I mention all this because I never knew what became of Lee’s ’58 Impala. It seemed to disappear. When I asked yesterday, Lee said, “Mike Young bought it.” That was the first surprise. The kicker was, “And I don’t think he’s ever driven it.” We can’t really blame him, given Lee’s examples. He’s afraid it’s too low to cruise Texas’ tarred highways, and doesn’t want a hole in its oil pan. So he’s considering a set of air bags.
But the bigger surprise was when I saw Lee, along with most of the Austin crew, at the West Coast Kustoms meet in Santa Maria, CA, about three years ago with his ’49 Ford. At first I didn’t even recognize it. He had the hood propped up, and inside was a startling, much-chromed, beautifully detailed Nailhead Buick engine. I can’t even remember what it had for carburetion, and I didn’t have a camera with me. But then I stepped back and took in the whole car. He had repainted all the bronze in Vanilla Shake which, as its name implies, is a creamy white. The lime green panel stayed the same–but what a change! Of course I don’t have photos. You’ll just have to imagine it. But it completely changes the look of the car. If you want to see, I’m sure you can find it somewhere on the Jalopy Journal. Because that well-known web site’s owner-operator, Ryan Cochran (whose headquarters is also in Austin, TX)), is now the new owner of this excellent Shoebox. As for Lee, he and Suzanne decided to move back to SoCal, and build a new, big shop/art studio around a tiny house, where Lee finally finished the chopped and channeled, Olds-powered, throwback Deuce coupe he’s been piecing together for years, just in time to briefly show it at the last Grand National Roadster Show. Since then, we’ve all just been sort of waiting (patiently or otherwise) to be released from home detention to find out what the next chapter is going to be. Stay healthy. Respect others. And be hopeful.