Beauty, it’s been said, is in the eye of the beholder. In the world of custom vehicles, aesthetic beauty is admittedly subjective, but one thing that can’t be disputed is a vehicle’s historical significance. To follow-up the center-stage appearance of the Hirohata Merc at this year’s Cars at the Capital in Washington, D.C., this month we decided to take a look at five more of the interesting customs from the heyday of the trend.
Among those not fully in the know, there’s often a bit of confusion surrounding the difference between hot rods and customs. Both are clearly modified to varying degrees, often for speed as much as for looks. But here’s the deal:
The custom car culture came about as a direct result of the hot rod movement that began in the late-1920s and saw its boom years in the decade immediately following WWII. Hot rods then and now were more concerned with modifications to enhance speed, whereas custom cars tended to place an emphasis on style. Following in a similar vein to the more upmarket custom coach work built on Duesenbergs and the like that came before, customs were all about unique aesthetic designs dictated by individual owners and fabricators. Sitting low with chopped tops, skirted rear wheels and smooth, often seamless flowing lines, custom cars—when you get right down to it—are essentially rolling works of art perfectly suited for cruising—not speeding—along the local strip. Here are five that helped set the standard for what a custom car could be:
Often cited as the pioneer of the customized movement, Sacramento, CA., resident Harry Westergard was one of the first to take an almost artistic approach to vehicle modification. The “Westergard look” is said to primarily consist of a ’36 Ford coupe or roadster with chopped-top, ’40 Chevy headlights molded into the fenders, bubble skirts, solid hood sides and, generally, a LaSalle or Packard grille to complete the look.
Just how influential was Westergard? Consider that a young George Barris—a man who would later be known as “The King of the Kustomizers”—used to visit Westergard regularly just to see what he was working on. These regular visits no doubt planted the seeds for Barris’s later career. In fact, Barris’ first custom job—a 1936 Ford Coupe—was purchased with the money earned from doing odd jobs for Westergard.
Beginning work at a time when hot rods were the predominant trend among modifiers, Westergard started customizing cars in a manner that wouldn’t become fashionable until well after the war in the late 1930s. He helped usher in the practice of shaved door handles and smooth body lines—something to which few hot rodders gave little thought. According to Kustorama, the 1940 Mercury that would come to be known as the Westergard Mercury was purchased new by Butler Rugard in 1940.
Wanting the car restyled, he took it to Westergard who proceeded to make a number of alterations to the car over the course of a few years. By the time all was said and done, the car featured the trademark chopped top, peaked hood that resembled a Graham, 1941 Packard bumpers, teardrop fender skirts, 1941 Chevy taillights, stock wheels with Packard hubcaps and a lowered rear end to give the car a tail-dragged look. While it may not be the very first custom, it certainly set an early precedent for what a custom could be.
Sadly, Westergard would die in a wreck behind the wheel of his brand new 1955 Ford Thunderbird that was, at the time, awaiting a custom Iskendarian cam. His legacy would live on, however, as the Westergard Mercury was featured in the August 1960 issue of Custom Cars and, more recently, made an appearance at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance as part of a special Custom class.
Harry Bradley’s La Jolla
Another highly regarded early innovator of the custom look, Harry Bradley, worked not only on his own custom designs but also as a designer for both General Motors and Hot Wheels. His most famous work from this period was the 1967 Dodge Deora, a design he initially came up with in 1964. Long before this, however, Bradley was a car-obsessed teen with an eye for design.
Named for his hometown, the La Jolla was Bradley’s first custom design AND his very first car. Working with a friend (Herb Gary), Bradley took the 1951 Chevrolet and, first, pancaked the hood and trunk, resulting in the hood and rear deck lid being modeled into the adjoining fenders. From there, the car’s roof was chopped three inches, resulting in the need for lowered and modified windshield moldings, as well as reshaped doors, custom one-piece side windows and refashioned A-pillars. The car also featured frenched headlamps, a 1949 Mercury grille opening (with a striking, handmade copper grille insert), a Chevy small-block V8 and hand controls for the throttle and brakes (Bradley had contracted polio in his youth).
Despite the car’s near-complete cosmetic overhaul, the one feature that proves most unique are the floating rocker panels, the result of Bradley and Gary cutting new rocker panels mounted to 1-1/2-inch thick frosted-white Plexiglas. By installing the Plexiglas with the cut rocker panels, the car features more flowing line into the rear fenders. Lights were installed to illuminate the bottom of the body at night.
Bradley would own the La Jolla for more than 45 years, leaving it largely intact. When purchased in the late-1990s by custom collector Jack Walker, the car was fully restored to Bradley’s original design with the help of its creator.
The Blue Danube
It’s nearly impossible to go through the history of custom car culture without the name Barris featuring prominently. And while he was not directly responsible for the next custom, it did come out of his Barris Kustom Autos shop in Lynwood, CA.
Created in the mid-1950s by Barris Kustoms shop foreman Lyle Lake and the Barris team, the 1951 Buick Riviera ended up being something of a novelty in the world of customs by holding the unofficial title of “Most Thoroughly Documented Custom of All Time.”
The car was originally set to be Lake’s own personal vehicle built by the shop. But aiming to get more exposure for Barris name, it was ultimately decided that the full customization would be documented, priced out and published so that those considering a custom job could have a better idea of what all they could expect.
Running down the list of everything the Barris team used to create the car, one runs across the usual assortment of popular customizations: a chopped top; shaved doors; custom skirts; reworked side trim; frenched taillights; and a 1953 Olds bumper. There’s also the custom paint job featuring three shades of blue (which helped give the car its name) and lowering job that resulted in the need for rollers to prevent the rear bumper from scraping the ground. All told, the full job cost $2,000, roughly $18,500 in modern dollars.
Over the years, the Blue Danube would appear on the cover of Trend Book 143 – Restyle Your Car, within the pages of the March 1958 issue of Custom Cars, and even on an episode of The Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, the car was crushed and no longer in existence. Undeterred, Jack Walker had a clone built in 1998 that is still shown today. This, coupled with the meticulous records of the original’s customization, provide a glimpse into the world of 1950s customizing at its finest.
The Pisano/Ogden Buick
Unlike their contemporaries who were increasingly relying on the newer, more stylish Mercurys for their custom creations, brothers Tony and Joe Pisano used a 1941 Buick convertible for their memorable project.
Drag racers at heart, the Pisanos kept the overall modifications to a smoothly stylish and subtle minimum. As with the majority of customs, the Pisano/Ogden Buick featured a radical chop, frenched headlights, removed door handles, taillights and fuel-filler door, among other customizations. The chop proved to be the car’s defining feature, however. At five inches, it offered a severe slung back look that gave the car a prominent low profile, made all the more so by the Carson top courtesy of Gaylord’s Upholstery.
After passing through the hands of the Pisanos, the car was purchased by Herb Ogden in 1956. Enlisted in the Army and stationed in Southern California, Ogden brought the car to Barris Kustoms to be worked on. Naturally, with the Barris name now attached to the car’s legacy, it appeared in several custom car publications of the day before heading east to Ogden’s native Virginia.
As with many cars of this era, there’s a big blank spot in the chronology until the early 1980s when the car was discovered by Barry Mazza in Washington, D.C. Here Mazza had the car undergo a full restoration, making a few period-correct changes along the way. In all, the restoration took 10 years to complete and now featured molded rear fenders, fender skirts and a longer sidespear trim on each of the rear quarter panels from a 1941 Buick Roadmaster coupe.
Returned to its former glory—with a few extra touches here and there—the Pisano/Ogden Buick was once again turning heads. In 2005, it appeared as part of the first gathering of historic custom cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The Grecian/The Modern Grecian
As no list of this nature would be complete without a full Barris Kustom, we end with the car that the late Barris’ website has dubbed “one of the most radical 4-door Barris Kustoms.”
Known more today for his work in television and films (Barris created the Batmobile and Munster Koach, and worked on countless others), George Barris and his brother Sam were at the vanguard of vehicle customization in southern California in the late 1940s. Their redesigns and innovations virtually helped write the modern book on vehicle customization.
Using a 1947 Studebaker, Barris set about making what would become known as the “Grecian” for Earl Wilson in the early 1950s. To start, the top of the Studebaker was chopped four inches, while the body was channeled and sectioned five. Barris had the rear fenders of a 1951 Mercury molded to the rear of the car and fitted with functional air scoops. The grille opening was created using a great deal of sheet metal and two 1949 Mercury grille shells, while the grille itself was made out of two conjoined 1951 Lincoln grilles and other assorted vehicle parts. The front of the car featured frenched headlights, while the rear sported frenched DeSoto taillights and vertical exhaust pipes cut into the corners of the rear Lincoln bumper. Upon its completion in 1952, the “Grecian”—complete with Carson Top and green velvet and white leather interior—was thought to be one of the most highly customized car in the country.
Some years later, the car would return to Barris when it was needed for a film. The Kustom King added twin extruded aluminum fins on either side of the rear of the car, a new grille, a pearl yellow paint job with green diamond dust panel scheme and four swiveling bucket seats trimmed in yellow and green upholstery. After a television set and rotary telephone were also added, the car was rechristened the “Modern Grecian.”
We know it’s impossible to make a truly comprehensive list of any type that appeals to everyone, so we encourage you to share your thoughts on your favorite customs or even a custom of your own in the comments below or over on our Facebook page.