This has been a short week because I spent the last five days at the Goodguys Pleasanton bash helping Bill collect trophies. I put about 1500 miles on the ’33 sedan driving up and back, which it did beautifully. And I appreciated meeting several of you who stopped by the South City R&C booth to say hi. So, I’m going to broach a topic here that’s been rolling around in my head for several years now. It’s short. It’s relatively simple. But I’m actually surprised by how many people don’t think it’s sweet…or just haven’t thought of it at all. Son Bill told me bluntly not to do it. The NSRA, the KKOA, and (amazingly) even the WCK won’t allow it. Goodguys will admit them on Sundays only, but so far I haven’t seen any show up.
What turned the rolling in my head to a rattle was this cover of Hot Rod magazine that I saw in their 20/40/60 Years Ago column a while back. It wasn’t the Offy engine, the Indy roadster, or even Mamie Van Doren that caught my eye. It was that simple, smoothed, and slammed ’58 Impala. Of course I was looking at it as a traditional mild custom: lowered, lakers, Lancers, wide whites, mild shaving, and subtle scallops over deep Titian Red lacquer. Then it hit me. Wait! This is a 1958 magazine! That’s a brand new car! Very little work has actually been done to it, but it is striking, it’s on the cover of Hot Rod magazine, and it got a full 2-page feature inside. The sub-title of that feature was: “Hardly had the ‘fifty-eights hit the showroom floor when Bill Morse began…” Yes, we used to customize new cars. In fact, we had since 1936 when customizing began. It was a matter of taste and style. You could hop it up to go fast and maybe look wild and menacing, or you could drop it down, clean it off, add luscious paint and a plush interior to make it look sleek, smooth, and inviting. Rods and customs. Two schools of thought within the same frame of mind: modifying and personalizing the car you drove. You wanted your peers to approve, or even applaud, when you cruised Main and/or pulled into the drive-in. And you wanted something different–better–than the sea of mass-produced vehicles surrounding you on the freeway. It didn’t matter at all whether your car was old or new. Old ones were cheap to start with, but took a lot of time, talent, and money to fix up. New ones were relatively expensive, but could be dropped, shaved, spotted-in, or even repainted in a weekend. Snap on some cooler wheelcovers and maybe some chrome pipes and you’re ready to cruise in personalized style. Plus you could pay for it on the installment plan.
I happened to find this one color photo of Bill’s Impala in my old files. The only body mods were shaving the nose and deck. It was quickly lowered 4-inches by cutting coils all around. No credit was given for the full, buffed Titian red lacquer and modest gold scallops and striping. He did add new upholstery in fairly simple gold and white. But the only other modifications were Lancer wheelcovers and lakes pipes. It says the whole job took 8 weeks. This got me thinking that back in those days age had very little to do with rodding or customizing. Everything got modified to one extent or another. I won’t go into detail here, but think of the automotive cast of American Graffiti, circa ’62: old to near-new, lots of cruising, a little racing.
So this also got me curious, and I started thumbing through my collection of old Hot Rods, finding more late-model customs on the covers (let alone inside) than I had remembered. The Dec. ’58 issue sported John Pierce’s mildly customized ’57 Bel Air hardtop and Triumph bike, both painted Matador red with scallops and striping by Dean Jeffries. Besides nosing, decking, and lowering, the only mods are bolt-on: Lancer caps, dummy spots, bullets in place of hood “gunsights,” and a Corvette grille. Inside this issue are four pages with 17 ways to customize ’55-’57 T-Birds, including four complete cars. These were 1 to 3 year old cars.
The first issue of Hot Rod I subscribed to, March 1960, had this dark blue, significantly customized ’59 Buick by Darryl Starbird prominently on the cover, along with a pinch-waist, busty model that probably got more of my attention at that age (12). But knowing what I now know about magazines and lead times, that ’59 had to have been customized and finished in ’59 to get on the March ’60 cover. Going back through previous issues, I found that from ’53 through ’60 there were at least 2 or 3 near-new customs on the covers each year, even including a very customized ’56 Ford F-100 pickup in May ’58. My point being that in the field of rods and customs–and in Hot Rod magazine–there was no cut-off year for modified vehicles involved.
As for new cars during the ’50s and ’40s, they lent themselves more to the custom treatment, while the older, lighter coupes and roadsters made for hotter rods–but with plenty of cross-over each way. Don’t forget that many of the famous full customs, especially ’49-’51 Mercs, were cut and fully customized right off the showroom floor. Of course (and I say unfortunately), 1961 brought us jacked-up 409, 4-speed factory hot rods, and a near-complete shift in focus to these new muscle cars and drag racing, especially in magazines, pushing custom cars to near extinction for many years. But that’s a topic I addressed, fortunately with some success, in my early days at Street Rodder magazine in the mid-’70s. I ignored the pre-’49 street rod dictum, suggesting that traditional-styled ’49-’60 mild customs could be a more affordable, plentiful, and practical addition to the mix.
That was fine. It worked. The problem was that we didn’t even consider new cars as viable rod or custom material because, starting in the ’70s, smog controls, fake gas shortages, sharp rises in fuel prices, and safety mandates like 5-mph rubber bumpers quickly had Detroit completely spun out. Cars designed to attract customers with their style and beauty (and horsepower) were immediately replaced with small, square econo-boxes marketed for their fuel economy and safety. We had K-cars and Fox Fords and front-drive GMs that no rodders could care to customize or modify, plus an invasion of even smaller front-drive mini-cars from “offshore” that many of us had never heard of. These were followed by mini-trucks and mini-vans. Ford tried adding some kinda weird new design with “soap bar” Taurus sedans and wagons. But these soon morphed into bigger, bulky SUVs aimed at moms bringing groceries home and kids to soccer. OK, you know all that. SUVs have now grown to the size of cruise ships to keep the family safe and new pickups look like earth movers. Consequently Rods and Customs have now become the “Old Car Hobby.” Why?
Have you looked around when you’re cruising the freeway or stuck in traffic lately? New cars aren’t ugly anymore. Sure, lots are, as always. But more and more boxy SUVs are being replaced with lower, sleeker, actually streamlined sedans. Look around. I think you’ll be surprised. Yes, most of them are 4-doors, but that doesn’t seem to matter much these days. Cripes, we have 4-door Porsche sedans now, and Jaguars and Maseratis. But most of these newer sedans have fastback styling with tops that couldn’t be chopped much more than they already are. What I’m seeing are new cars today that remind me of something like this: And what I’m suggesting, what I think we as car hobbyists need to consider, is giving these new cars–yes, our daily drivers–what Gray Baskerville used to call “a shave and a haircut.” Or what I’m now calling Shave it, Slam it, Paint it. I’m not talking show car. Not even a Goodguys trophy-winner. I’m talking daily drivers. Or, I’m talking Watson-era street customs.
Larry Watson was the king of “Kustom by Paint.” The key was to start with a good-looking car–’55 to ’60 hardtops especially–lower it, add custom wheelcovers, remove some chrome (hood, deck emblems, maybe door handles), possibly add minor bolt-ons like lakes pipes or a tube grille, then coat it in some of Watson’s luscious candy or pearl paint. Maybe add some scallops, panels, or a Metalflake top. In the photo above (ignoring the ugly one on the left), nothing more is done to any of these striking new, or near-new cars. My favorite is the ’57 Plymouth. The gold ’57 Pontiac, or the Ford in front, are even closer to what I’m suggesting.
This one wasn’t even by Watson, nor is it a hardtop. Dick Jackson quickly built it from a new ’57 Ford, shaving the nose, deck, and handles, spraying it with custom paint, adding mild scallops and striping, and slightly altering the side chrome. Other than simple upholstery redo, the rest is bolt-on: headlights, taillights, Chevy grille, etc. The really significant part is that Buddy Alcorn traded his Barris chopped-top, full custom ’50 Merc straight across for this much simpler–but brand new–very mild custom.
One thing I want to make very clear. This new ’57 has flipper hubcaps, medium whitewalls, lakes pipes, and dummy spotlights. I am NOT suggesting you customize a new car by adding similar ’50s bolt-on parts. The methodology may be traditional–lowering, removing emblems, changing wheels and tires, then spraying some striking custom color. But I’m not talking about making a new car look like a traditional ’50s custom. I’m talking about doing some simple customizing to newer cars to enhance their good looks, personalize them, and hopefully make them look better than, and certainly different from, the herd on the road. It’s what customizing has always been about. The big problem is that I don’t have any good examples to show you. I don’t think there are any (yet). Quite reluctantly, my only exhibit is my own daily driver.
It’s certainly not new. But it’s not old, and it exemplifies most of what I’m espousing. It’s a Honda Accord wagon, which Anna bought new in ’93, noting that it was designed by an Art Center graduate and “It looks like a mini-Nomad.” They only made them two years, so it’s pretty rare. I’ll also note the I.D. tag in the door jamb states “Made in the USA,” if that matters to you. We drove it across country annually, besides her daily work trips and errands. She kept it in excellent condition (as did I), the only caveat being I couldn’t modify it. Believe me, with a computer and fuel injection, I didn’t want to touch anything under the hood. We found a good mechanic to do that. At 200,000 miles she decided she needed something newer. So I found a slightly used, dinged, and crunched white ’02 Toyota Camry in ’03, fixed it, dechromed it, spotted-in the white, then sprayed it with a white pearl coat, and finished with a touch of pinstriping and a custom grille. I show this in my “How to Paint your Car” book. No lowering, no modifying. But better than stock.
As for (now) my Honda, the first thing I did was cut the coils on all four easily-removable struts to lower it about 3 inches. Then I picked out some sorta-5-spoke cast aluminum 17-inch wheels, added bullets in the centers, with modern tires to fit. I welded two chrome pencil-tips to the single exhaust pipe. Next I removed all emblems from the tailgate along with the squirter at the top and the wiper, filling holes and spotting-in the paint. I made a chrome bar grille for the front, but that got crunched, so now a stock grille has the Honda emblem ground off and blacked out. The front’s been repaired a couple of times, but from the beltline down it’s factory original paint that I gave a quick clearcoat. The top is coarse red Metalflake, which I did for a chapter in my “Custom Painting” book. It’s a bit much, but it’s fun. Plus I tinted the windows dark gray, added full black carpeting, and an amped stereo system. Since the garage is full, it sits in the driveway with a cover over it. The two smaller photos I took in the last couple days, needing a wash and wax job. It now has 340,000 miles on it.
And the only reason I’m showing this is to demonstrate how you can mildly customize your new, or near-new, daily driver by dropping, shaving, painting, and adding custom wheels. It’s an example of what to do. How about some examples of what to do it to? Whew. There are too many. I see more every day. And I was planning to spend about a week collecting photos. But I flat ran out of time. So, believe it or not, I shot these yesterday during two trips to the store. For real. There are way more, and better, examples. But let’s start with this:
That is not an ugly car. It looks like it has a chopped top, and the fastback line is excellent. You could shave the handles to clean it up even more, but you don’t need to. The headlights, taillights, and grille look weird to us traditionalists, but they’re more understated than many others, and fit the design well. Removing the emblem would give a nice tube-grille effect. Painting the lower part body color would help minimize the look. I like the small scoops ahead of the front wheels. And just as I rule out ’50s trim like spots, skirts, or lakes pipes, I’m also not talking about wings, spoilers, wind-splitters, air dams, or fender flares–or bleating, squawking mufflers. Further, I’m obviously not talking about 800-HP Demons, Chargers, Mustangs, or Camaros, nor the many smaller sporty cars. I’m talking “full size” sedans, like customs have always been. So what is this? I had to get out and look. It’s a Hyundai Sonata. And once you shave the badges off, nobody else will know what it is. That’s always been another element of customizing: lending mystery to a lower-model car, making it look classier, and leading others to think it’s something even better than it is.
So here are just a few more examples I was able to spot yesterday. This by no means covers the field. Look around. There are way more, even better ones. And think like a creative customizer: “What could I do to that grille? Maybe trim down those taillights? Smooth off that rear pan?” The one at right is an Infiniti, and besides the good lines, I really like the smaller grille and headlights. One recent trend in new cars that ruins an otherwise clean, sleek design are gaping, wide-at-the-bottom grilles (Anna calls them “groupers” or “bottom feeders”), the Lexus being the worst. But that’s one of the first things a customizer does–modify and improve the grille, then maybe headlights and taillights. Minor work.
This is an Audi, which is of course pricier. But such cars drop in price pretty quickly if they’re 2-3 years old. And they have some nicer designs. I like this fastback, the thin chrome around the windows, and the clean rear pan. Ninety per cent of cars on the road today are white, silver, or black, but there are some surprisingly good factory candies and pearls, if you look for them, with many more in PPG, House of Color, or Glasurit color chip books.
Our story started with a brand new ’58 Impala. I’m not sure if Chevy still makes those, but the recent Malibu looks like a pretty good mild custom candidate to me, if you’re of the blue bowtie persuasion. I couldn’t find an example of the new Ford that comes with a factory tube grille. I’m not even sure of the model name (the latest have mesh grilles that also look good), but it’s one for Ford-philes. In fact, one of these would look great with a full body section, just like a ’50 Shoebox.
And finally, when is somebody going to customize one of these things? They say you either get a good one or you don’t. But one thing Elon got right when he introduced the Tesla was hiring the right designer. This is a damn good looking car. New ones are quite pricey, but the Model S has been out now nearly ten years, so you ought to be able to find an affordable one. If not, at least figure out how to get a couple of those flush door handles (there are two versions now) and put them into whatever you’re building–say a C-10 pickup maybe?
I said this was going to be short, and I lied again, of course. And Bill, I apologize. But this was something I think seriously needed to be said. I’d truly hate to see customs die out…again.