Aside from a few cars built for racing, the National Historic Vehicle Register has yet to include any modified cars, an omission that the Historic Vehicle Association will reverse next month when, ahead of joining the register, three of the most widely recognized lowriders, hot rods, and customs will go on display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“The register celebrates automotive heritage as well as automotive culture, and modified vehicles are a distinct part of our culture,” said Mark Gessler, the president of the HVA. “These three cars are all works of creative talent, and the craftsmanship and passion that has gone into them is unparalleled.”
The first – and certainly the most colorful – of the three to go on display will be Jesse Valadez’s Gypsy Rose, the 1964 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe that the Petersen Museum once described as the most influential custom ever built. The third iteration of a theme Valadez had set out to build in the early Sixties – inspired by burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee – Gypsy Rose was once considered too radical with its elaborate multicolored rose motif extending down its sides and filling every inch of the roof.
“The detail, craftsmanship and vision were there, but the minds of fellow lowriders weren’t up to pace,” Lowrider magazine wrote. Constant cruising along Los Angeles’s Whittier Boulevard during the Sixties, along with nationwide exposure in the opening credits to “Chico and the man” and in the 1979 movie “Boulevard Nights” helped inure the lowriding community to Valadez’s vision.
These days, just about every lowrider builder takes cues from the flawless paint – preserved since 1969 – the hydraulic suspension, and the highly ornamented interior featuring hot pink upholstery, lit chandeliers, and a cocktail bar.
“Individual lowriders typically resist ‘best of’-type generalizations (it’s about the culture more than the individual cars), but when it comes to the Gypsy Rose, the distinction of All-Time Greatest is all but unanimous,” LA Weekly wrote.
Following Valadez’s death in 2011, Gypsy Rose passed down to his son, Jesse Valadez Jr.
Like Gypsy Rose, the Hirohata Mercury also pushed plenty of boundaries when it first hit the spotlight. Bob Hirohata bought the 1951 Mercury Club Coupe in 1952 and immediately took it to Sam and George Barris with instructions to chop it and create a radical custom.
According to Kustomrama, the idea to create a hardtop out of it had been tried once before, on Nick Matranga’s 1940 Mercury, and thus greenlit by Hirohata. However, many of the rest of the modifications – the laid-down rear window, the V-butted windshield, the reworked body side sculpting to fit the 1952 Buick trim, the frenched headlamps and 1952 Lincoln taillamps – were likely the result of the artistic license the Barris brothers took with the car.
“When Bob picked up the car he could have sworn that it wasn’t the same car that he had left three months ago,” Kustomrama wrote. “Every square inch of Hirohata’s car was modified.”
Not long after its debut the Hirohata Merc began appearing in hot rod and custom magazines and accumulating show trophies. The latter came from its status as one of the first chopped 1949-1951 Mercurys and the first hardtopped leadsled Merc. The former likely came as a result of George Barris’s incessant promotion and of Hirohata’s readiness to pen articles on it, the most famous of them the chronicle of his road trip from Southern California to Indianapolis in 1953, just a week after swapping out the original Mercury flathead V-8 for an overhead-valve V-8 from a 1953 Cadillac.
After Hirohata sold the Mercury in 1955, it went through a few iterations, one due to a sideswiping, another due to aging paint. Four years later, Jim McNeil bought the Mercury for $500 from a used car lot to drive to high school, and though he put it in storage in 1964, he held on to it and eventually restored it to its original Barris appearance. It has since appeared at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2015, when it won Best in Class.
The third of the trio, Bob McGee’s 1932 Ford roadster, had just as much of an influence on hot rods as Gypsy Rose on lowriders and the Hirohata Merc on customs. Intending to run it on the street as a daily driver as well as at the Southern California dry lakes, McGee began work on the Deuce in 1947 after returning from World War II, lowering the front end with a drop axle and the rear with a Z’d frame. He then filled and boxed the frame and installed the 237-cu.in. 1934 Ford flathead from the Deuce roadster he had built before the war. The body itself received a number of modifications, from the three-piece aluminum hood to the concealed door hinges to the 1946 Pontiac taillamps.
McGee did race it on the dry lakes – recording a best of 112 MPH at Harpers Dry Lake – but it was his daily commute through the University of Southern California campus that landed his roadster on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1948. By the mid-Fifties, McGee sold it, and it eventually ended up in the hands of Dick Scritchfield, who reportedly applied the first metalflake paint to a car using the roadster. While that metalflake paint might account for its appearance in several TV shows and B movies during Scritchfield’s tenure with the car 9and Scritchfield’s status as an L.A. Roadsters member might account for its use as the car in the club’s logo), Scritchfield continued to race it, recording a speed of 167.21 MPH at Bonneville in 1971.
“Every ’32 Ford hot rod has something borrowed from this roadster,” Hot Rod wrote decades later.
The roadster passed through a couple more owners in the Nineties before Bruce Meyer bought it and commissioned a restoration back to its McGee configuration. It too competed at Pebble Beach, in 1999, coming in second in class.
Similar to the HVA’s display of Reagan’s Jeep and Taft’s White on the National Mall last year, the three cars will each take their turn in the HVA’s glass case, located between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Gypsy Rose will go on display April 12 to 19, the McGee roadster will go on display April 20 to 26, and the Hirohata Merc will go on display April 27 to May 4.
The three will then become the 16th through 18th additions to the National Historic Vehicle Register. Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.
For more information about the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit HistoricVehicle.org.