Exploring the Sundwick Automotive Photo Library: Part II — Customs

Published June 9, 2017 in Warp & Woof

Exploring the Sundwick Automotive Photo Library: Part II — Customs

William Sundwick
What is a “custom car?”  This library will use the following definition:
Custom: any car or light truck that has been altered in appearance significantly from a model available in the manufacturer’s original catalog for that model year. The alterations may be done professionally, or by the amateur vehicle owner. They can include custom paint jobs, sheet metal work, replacement of exterior visual components by non-standard components, or any combination of these things. Custom wheels are not enough, by themselves, to constitute a “custom car.”

Note: this definition is limited to physical appearance of the vehicle. It must be noticeable from the photo.
The obvious question that arises about custom cars is one that still mystifies me – why? Why would anybody want to spend their time, and often a great deal of money, to create a vehicle which most likely will fetch less in resale than a similar vehicle that was restored to “mint” historic condition?

It is not financial reward that motivates the custom designer, although there certainly are custom car shows that the vehicle could enter, with prize money of sorts; but, it will never match what the amateur owner would have spent producing his work of art. On the other hand, buying a custom that somebody else has created, can be much easier than buying a restored “classic.”
Is it the desire to create something? A true artist’s craving? I maintain this comes closest to describing the motivation of custom car builders. And, what’s more, the people who may be bitten by this craving are a very select group – probably rural, non-college educated, with few other opportunities for individual creativity (presumably with some body shop, and sheet metal, skills).
This peculiar (one might even call it “deviant”) fetish about cars has been impressively captured, in the American mid-west and southwest, by the CarNut.comweb site. Most of the entries for custom cars in the Sundwick Library come from that site — specifically: carpicsindex.com.

Let’s look at some representative examples, with commentary on each.
Early Rods – the “Classic” era of the ‘20s and ‘30s 
Chevy, Ford, Plymouth —   many professional custom car builders, like RODriguez, below (photo credit: Frank Filipponio), have used platforms from early Fords for their creations. Likewise, there are fiberglass or aluminum replica customs from several shops based on early Fords from the thirties, like this ’37 “convertible hardtop” … 

 “Hi-boys” and “Lo-boys” refer to fenderless hot rods from the era, which may be chopped (lowered roof) or channeled (lowered body on frame), or both – these two early Fords are good examples, one for show, one possibly a competition dragster.   

Although never as popular with the hot rod and custom demographic as early Fords, the other sales leaders of the thirties, Chevrolet and Plymouth, also have received some attention over the years. Here’s a great example of a “chopped” custom sedan, a ’34 Plymouth, and a Chevrolet sedan delivery from 1935.
Sedan deliveries became popular models for California customizers in the forties and fifties, as “surf wagons.” 

Finally, the category of “street rod” has been popular for conveying the sense of a car which can be driven on the street, attracting much attention, especially with suitably tuned exhaust note, but the best examples, like the ’39 Plymouth here, are strictly for shows.
Other makes — The basic styles of customs and hot rods were also applied to other makes besides the three main market leaders of the thirties. This excellent channeled ’31 Essex sedan is an example (Essex was a popular-priced brand of Hudson).

Or, these two radical customs – an airflow Desoto and a wild chopped Hudson: 

Often, the special characteristics of a certain model might be just what the custom builder is seeking – e.g., the unique radiator/grille shapes on a ’34 Olds, or ’37 Chrysler (below) …

The replica business has not totally ignored other makes, either. The same fiberglass custom replica bodies made for Fords can sometimes be found on other cars, like this Lincoln Zephyr coupe by DeConides:
One final category in this period which bears inclusion in my definition of “custom.” These are the customs built for wealthy customers who could specify a bespoke body designed just for them, and placed on whatever Packard, Cadillac, Rolls Royce, or other expensive chassis, they select. Here is one of these, a very exotic French Delage town car (body by Fernandez, not well known in U.S.):

 “Lead Sleds” and “California Customs” – the ‘40s and ‘50s

Perhaps it was the “New Look” that postwar cars began to take in the forties — elimination of running boards and pontoon fenders, body entirely enclosing wheel wells, more streamlined models – but, for whatever reason, the new look in customs reflected those changes. The primary objective was to make the car as low to the ground as possible, often weighing down the body with lead (hence the slang term “lead sled”). Then, typically, heavy chrome was added, especially from other contemporary makes.
The wilder variations became known as “California” customs, since the Golden State seemed to foster the most creativity in this area. As with many things that originate in California, it soon spread across the country.
Predominant in the period were the “shoebox” Fords and Mercurys (1949-51), but the Chrysler “Forward Look” (1955-59) featuring monstrous tail fins captured some imaginations, as did the similarly befinned ’59 GM bodies. The more discerning types liked the elegant, yet sporty, Raymond Loewy Studebakers of 1953-55. “Step Down” Hudsons (1948-54) and Nash models (1949-54) were, likewise, worthy of note to some customizers.
Here, then, are some examples from this wild and crazy post-war period in car design …
Shoebox Fords (including Mercurys and Lincolns) –  Somehow, the early focal points of custom projects were the “shoebox” generation of Fords and Mercurys (sorry, no explanation found for where the nickname originated). These were not necessarily more streamlined than the competing designs from GM, Hudson, Nash, or Studebaker (they were sleeker than Chrysler products in those years, however). Possibly because of the hot rod legacy of the Ford flathead V-8, they came to dominate the custom field. While the Ford body designs evolved in the fifties (and the flathead engines were consigned to history), the custom builders’ loyalties to Ford remained.

Typical “Merc” customs, the most popular by far, were chopped, and had a grille from some different car of the fifties (DeSoto was common), or something with heavy chrome teeth made by a custom shop, often chrome trim from a different car (Pontiac in one example here) was added … and, of course, the mandatory custom paint job. Note the “canted” quad headlights on the ‘50 Ford shown above, maybe from ‘58-’59 Lincoln?

 GM, and Harley Earl – The forties belonged to General Motors. It’s chief designer, Harley Earl, created a classic look eventually shared by all GM bodies – pontoon fenders which, after ’41, included part of the front door (on ’42-’48 Buicks, front fenders presented a continuous ridge all the way to the rear skirted pontoons). The fastback, or “torpedo,” body style in either 2-door or 4-door versions was all the rage. Their elegant lines have been a favorite among classic collectors, as well as customizers – as seen in these examples.

  The Loewy Studebakers, Step Down Hudsons, and Nash– Raymond Loewy was the designer responsible for the very first “new look” postwar car: the 1947 Studebaker. No front fenders were visible on lower body, which entirely enclosed frontal area – and, only vestigial traces of a rear fender line (see the 1950 Stude pictured here).
Hudson introduced its similar “step down” body in 1948, and Nash in 1949. By this time, the fully enclosed lower body was universal in Detroit.
Loewy, however, despite dire financial straits at Studebaker, continued with a truly exotic new design for 1953. It was inspired by Italian body styles on expensive sports cars, both elegant and sporty. Yet, it was made for a popular-priced car in the U.S. Studebakers were intended to be competitive with Chevy, Ford, and Plymouth! The ’53-’55 Loewy designs have long been prized both by collectors and customizers. 
Forward Look Chrysler Corporation –  Suffering from loss of market share in late forties and early fifties, Chrysler Corporation embarked on a rebranding project for its 1955 line – it was called “Forward Look,” new bodies throughout the line, inventing the fashionable “tail fins” in 1956, and carrying it to extremes with a second new body shell introduced for 1957 models. Perhaps the finest example of the Chrysler tail fin is seen on the 1959 Plymouth shown below. DeSotos, Chryslers, and Imperials were nearly as magnificent, though.

An interesting side note: the 1956 Plymouth wagon on the left is an example of a small sub-genre of custom – the passenger car body placed on a 4×4 truck (or Jeep) chassis. Strange, but true, for a few imaginative custom car builders!
General Motors, 1959 – Tail fins, unashamed! Buicks, Cadillacs, and gullwing Chevys – all with soaring fins. 

This Buick convertible also shows another fashion statement of the era: a “continental” spare kit (named after the iconic original Lincoln Continental of the forties).
Many consider the ’59 Cadillac as the most outrageous statement of the age of chrome and tail fins ever dreamed up. That makes them a good source for customs – since little needs to be done to alter the original, save a special paint job, wheels, maybe some de-chroming.
Low-end Chevy models (like this Biscayne) were faves among the street rod set, going back to the classic ’55 –’57 model years. This ’59 maintains a simple minimalist approach to customization, despite the natural gullwing fins.

For the strip –  organized drag racing, under the auspices of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) began during this period. Originally, as the name of the governing body implies, the sport consisted mostly of modified (“built”) early Fords, what we usually call “hot rods.” But, soon there was a proliferation of cars running the quarter mile in various classes, with certain models from the forties becoming early favorites in the free-for-all “gas” classes (only restriction: they run on regular pump gasoline, with normal octane ratings, as opposed to nitrous oxide, or some exotic blended fuel). Among the early favorites on the strip were English Ford Anglias from the late forties, and Willys Americar models from the thirties and early forties (Willys abandoned passenger cars for the Jeep during World War II). 
Later, the popularity of a variety of custom “street rods” forced the NHRA to add other classes to accommodate these customs – they were known as pro-street, pro-comp, or pro-mod. As with the earlier “gassers,” there were no restrictions on engine or drive train modifications. Pro-street machines were allegedly “street-legal,” but, otherwise, anything was allowed.

The early fifties produced further classic dragstrip contenders, like the Henry J (a small car added to the Kaiser line, for a production run of three years, 1951-53), the iconic ’55-’57 Chevrolets (everybody’s favorite street machine), and all the popular makes, given appropriate modifications to stock engines. But, there were limits to body modifications depending on where you intended to compete – pro-mod allowed fiberglass or aluminum body parts as replacement for stock steel. Early gassers did not allow substitute body parts, only removal of bumpers and chrome, cut out wheel wells, and the like. 

Muscle cars and “tuners” – the ‘60s and beyond

Custom cars continued to be built, both by amateurs and professionals, through the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and aughts. Only recently have manufacturers begun to compete directly with the performance “tuners” who had been building limited run high-performance versions of popular (or exotic) cars.
Perhaps the amateur customization market has faded out due to costs, but also fewer old car platforms survive – people keep their cars and trucks much longer now than previously, replacing them simply costs too much. In case you haven’t noticed, the demographic most active in the custom car market is not getting richer!
Detroit iron –  while the amateur customizing styles started in the fifties continued through the end of the century, the popularity of trucks and SUVs started a new style of tough-looking off-road vehicles, including “monster trucks” in the eighties. And, “muscle cars,” light-weight mid-sized sedans with large displacement V-8s, then the “pony cars” (Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, Barracuda and Challenger … and AMC Javelin) also contributed their bodies to customization.
Here are some examples:
This Corvette follows the show/strip custom style started in the fifties …
But, the advent of the big-block V-8 muscle cars in the sixties supplied a wide range of cars for customization not seen in the previous decade. 

And, some purely artistic renderings continued to be built, like the ’70 Camaro below. 
On the professional side of the customization world, there were entrepreneurs who specialized in conversion of coupes into convertibles, since Detroit decided to stop building most convertibles as production body styles, in the early seventies. The ’86 Capri drop-top here is an example of this.
First, pickup trucks, then SUVs became very popular in the period. Custom builders wasted no time finding ways to modify the stock appearance of these popular vehicles. Often, the look desired was a tough, off-road appearance, like this early Jeep Wagoneer, but the more familiar custom sheet metal and outrageous paint jobs also continued to draw some practitioners …
The “roadster pickup,” like this GMC, is a throwback to Model T and Model A Fords. It is something which is perpetuated by the Jeep Wrangler in production, but hasn’t been offered by too many Detroit truck makers.
Another institution that made its appearance in the sixties was the “stretch limousine.” These were always custom bodies, often produced in limited numbers by “coachbuilders” … much like those of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Some are really bespoke, others are from catalogs.    


This Stutz is a truly bespoke vehicle built for the President of Gabon, in Central Africa. 
Finally, there appeared in this period some elegantly designed luxury coupes … Thunderbird led the way, followed by the Buick Riviera, Olds Toronado, and Lincoln or Cadillac versions of same. Buick and Olds versions, especially, have lent themselves to some visually appealing reworks:

This T-bird was cleverly designed to look like a “shoebox” Ford of about 1950! Apparently, built by a real retro fan.
Japanese “rice burners” – Not yet apparent in the sixties (or even seventies), but by the early eighties, we had an entirely new source for custom cars – Japan.
Because many models were popularly priced, affordable by the many, builders soon popped up specializing in these “rice burners,” to use their early colloquial nickname. Parts, both for alteration of physical appearance and getting increased performance from the little 4-cylinder engines, became available from domestic specialty shops. Customizing of the imports followed the same pattern as they had in the previous generation for Detroit iron. 

As the East Asian imports became popular, the globalized U.S. automakers acquired some of the Japanese manufacturers, or at least had cooperative marketing agreements with them, so they could sell the Japanese cars here, branded as Chevrolets or Dodges … and, of course, custom builders would get hold of them, and modify them. Look at the Chevy Aveo (Korean Daewoo) and Dodge Colt here (Chrysler had controlling interest in Mitsubishi for a time, later sold it). 

Mitsubishi found that some of its models, in the nineties, were popular in the U.S. market under their own moniker … like the Eclipse sports coupes and cabrios. 

But, the Japanese market leaders were also the leaders in amateur and “tuner” modifications. Honda and Toyota dominated, with Nissan (formerly marketing its products under the “Datsun” brand) not far behind. Then came Mazda (Hyundai, too, after it entered U.S. market in the nineties).



The design study of a Datsun “Z-car”(above) is what an earlier generation would call a “radical” custom. And, the popularity of small trucks from Japan beckoned the custom builders just as did their bigger Detroit cousins.
Other imports – of course, European imports continued to be popular after the arrival of the Japanese on our shores. Volkswagen had a long history of customization, going back to early days of the “beetle” in the fifties. Dune buggies were especially popular in the sixties and seventies, based on beetle chassis, but other creations could be found as well – like this “hi-boy” sedan from 1969.

In the sixties, there were also British sports cars, in the eighties and nineties, Volvos and BMWs … all had their adherents among the custom builders. If a car was popular, somebody would build a 
custom from it.

The bespoke world for the ultra-wealthy did not ignore German or Italian exotics, either. This Ferrari 456 “shooting brake” for the Sultan of Brunei is a good example … 
Or, the odd case of a car with a clearly foreign provenance, but an American branding as a custom, like this Pontiac “sport truck” (really an Australian Holden, like the Pontiac G8, itself) …
Then, there is the case of the popular-priced American car (Pontiac Fiero) styled to look like exotic Italians (Lamborghini/Pantera mix) …
All these cars were crafted by enthusiastic and skilled hands, all involved considerable expenditure of resources … both temporal and financial.
One might ask: to what end? The only thing they all have in common, over multiple generations now, is that their owners considered them to be works of art.
Tastes may differ, but to the artist, the only tastes that matter are his own!

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