Custom car

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Arguably the most famous custom car in the classic style, the Hirohata Merc NHRA Museum.jpg
Arguably the most famous custom car in the classic style, the Hirohata Merc

A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been either substantially altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission; made into a personal "styling" statement, using paint work and aftermarket accessories to make the car look unlike any car as delivered from the factory; or some combination of both. A desire among some automotive enthusiasts in the United States is to push "styling and performance a step beyond the showroom floor - to truly craft an automobile of one's own." [2] A custom car in British according to Collins English Dictionary is built to the buyer's own specifications. [3]


Although the two are related, custom cars are distinct from hot rods. The extent of this difference has been the subject of debate among customizers and rodders for decades. Additionally, a street rod can be considered a custom.[ citation needed ]

Custom cars are not to be confused with coachbuilt automobiles, historically rolling chassis fitted with luxury bodywork by specialty body builders.


The iconic "T-bucket" custom, with characteristic exposed engine, flat windshield, headers, and open pipes. Soft top (shown) is optional. Also features chrome five-spoke wheels, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ). T-bucket.jpg
The iconic "T-bucket" custom, with characteristic exposed engine, flat windshield, headers, and open pipes. Soft top (shown) is optional. Also features chrome five-spoke wheels, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).
"Rat rodded" Model A with Edelbrock head and chrome carb hats on late-model flatty Rat rod flatty.jpg
"Rat rodded" Model A with Edelbrock head and chrome carb hats on late-model flatty

A development of hot rodding, the change in name corresponded to the change in the design of the cars being modified. The first hot rods were pre-World War II cars, with running boards and simple fenders over the wheels. Early model cars (1929 to 1934) were modified by removing the running boards and either removing the fenders entirely or replacing them with light cycle fenders. Later models usually had fender skirts installed. The "gow job" morphed into the hot rod in the early to middle 1950s. [4] Typical of builds from before World War II were 1935 Ford wire wheels. [5]

Many cars were "hopped up" with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads, and dual exhausts. Engine swaps were often done, with the objective of placing the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination. [6] The suspension was usually altered, initially by lowering the rear end as much as possible using lowering blocks on the rear springs. Later cars were given a rake job by either adding a dropped front axle or heating front coil springs to make the front end of the car much lower than the rear. Immediately postwar, most rods would change from mechanical to hydraulic ("juice") brakes and from bulb to sealed-beam headlights. [7]

The mid-1950s and early 1960s custom Deuce was typically fenderless and steeply chopped, and almost all Ford (or Mercury, with the 239 cu in (3,920 cc) flatty, introduced in 1939 [8] ); a Halibrand quick-change rearend was also typical, and an Edelbrock intake manifold or Harman and Collins ignition magneto would not be uncommon. [9] Reproduction spindles, brake drums, and backing based on the 1937s remain available today. [8] Aftermarket flatty heads were available from Barney Navarro, [10] Vic Edelbrock, and Offenhauser. The first intake manifold Edelbrock sold was a "slingshot" design for the flatty. [10] Front suspension hairpins were adapted from sprint cars, such as the Kurtis Krafts. [11] The first Jimmy supercharger on a V8 may have been by Navarro in 1950. [12]

Much later, rods and customs swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear, often from Jaguar. Sometimes the grille of one make of car replaced another; the 1937 Buick grille was often used on a Ford. In the 1950s and 1960s, the grille swap of choice was the 1953 DeSoto. The original hot rods were plainly painted like the Model A Fords from which they had been built up, and only slowly begun to take on colors, and eventually fancy orange-yellow flamed hoods or "candy-like" deep acrylic finishes in the various colors. [6]

With the change in automobile design to encase the wheels in fenders and to extend the hood to the full width of the car, the former practices were no longer possible. In addition, tremendous automotive advertising raised public interest in the new models in the 1950s. Thus, custom cars came into existence, swapping headlamp rings, grilles, bumpers, chrome side strips, and taillights as well as frenching and tunnelling head- and taillights. The bodies of the cars were changed by cutting through the sheet metal, removing bits to make the car lower, welding it back together, and adding lead to make the resulting form smooth (hence the term lead sled; Bondo has since largely replaced lead.) Chopping made the roof lower [13] while sectioning [14] made the body thinner from top to bottom. Channeling [15] was cutting notches in the floorpan where the body touches the frame to lower the whole body. Fins were often added from other cars, or made up from sheet steel. In the custom car culture, someone who merely changed the appearance without also substantially improving the performance was looked down upon. Juxtapoz Magazine , founded by the artist Robert Williams, has covered Kustom Kulture art.

Customization style

'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice Fuzzy dice 2.jpg
'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice

Custom cars are distinct from cars in stock condition. Builders may adopt the visual and performance characteristics of some relevant modification styles, and combine these as desired. There are now several different custom themes, including:


The Reactor (show rod) by Gene Winfield shows paint fade style blending from one color to another Reactor by Gene Winfield.jpg
The Reactor (show rod) by Gene Winfield shows paint fade style blending from one color to another


'32 three-window with a classic-style flame job and Moon tank, reminiscent of Chapouris' California Kid '34 3-window flame job.JPG
'32 three-window with a classic-style flame job and Moon tank, reminiscent of Chapouris' California Kid

Paint was an important concern. Once bodywork was done, the cars were painted unusual colors. Transparent but wildly colored candy-apple paint, applied atop a metallic undercoat, and metalflake paint, with aluminum glitter within candy-apple paint, appeared in the 1960s. These took many coats to produce a brilliant effect – which in hot climates had a tendency to flake off. This process and style of paint job was invented by Joe Bailon, a customizer from Northern California.

Customizers also continued the habit of adding decorative paint after the main coat was finished, of flames extending rearward from the front wheels, scallops, and hand-painted pinstripes of a contrasting color. The base color, most often a single coat, would be expected to be of a simpler paint. Flame jobs later spread to the hood, encompassing the entire front end, and have progressed from traditional reds and yellows to blues and greens and body-color "ghost" flames. One particular style of flames, called "crab claw flames", which is still prevalent today, is attributed to Dean Jeffries. [16]

Painting has become such a part of the custom car scene that now in many custom car competitions, awards for custom paint are as highly sought after as awards for the cars themselves.

Engine swaps

Engine swaps have always been commonplace. Once, the Ford flathead V8 engine was the preference, supplanted by the early hemi in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, the small-block Chevy was the most common option, and since the 1980s, the 350 cu in (5.7 l) Chevy has been almost ubiquitous. [17] The 325 cu in (5.3 l) Chevrolet LS has begun replacing the 350.[ citation needed ] Flatheads and early hemis have not entirely disappeared, but ready availability, ease of maintenance, and low cost of parts make the Chevrolet V8, in particular the first and third generation small block, the most frequent engine of choice.[ citation needed ]

Once customizing post-war cars caught on, some of the practices were extended to pre-war cars, which would have been called fendered rods, with more body work done on them. An alternate rule for disambiguation developed: hot rods had the engine behind the front suspension, while customs had the engine over the front suspension. The clearest example of this is Fords prior to 1949 had Henry Ford's old transverse front suspension, while 1949 models had a more modern suspension with the engine moved forward. However, an American museum has what could be the first true custom, built by Cletus Clobes in 1932, among its exhibits. [18] With the coming of the muscle car, and further to the high-performance luxury car, customization declined. One place where it persisted was the U.S. Southwest, where lowriders were built similar in concept to the earlier customs, but of post-1950s cars.

As the supply of usable antique steel bodies has decreased, companies such Westcott's, [19] Harwood, Gibbon Fiberglass [20] and Speedway Motors [20] have begun to fabricate new fiberglass copies, [21] while Classic Manufacturing and Supply, for one example, has been making a variety of new steel bodies since the 1970s. [22] California's "junker" (or "crusher") law, which pays a nominal sum to take "gross polluters" off the road, has been criticized by enthusiasts (and by SEMA) for accelerating this trend. [23] Starting in the 1950s, it became popular among customizers to display their vehicles at drive-in restaurants, such as Johnie's Broiler in Downey, California. The practice continues in Southern California.


Examples of notable customizers include George Barris, Vini Bergeman, Bill Cushenberry, the Alexander Brothers, Gil Ayala, [24] Darryl Starbird, [25] Roy Brizio, Troy Trepanier (of Rad Rides by Troy), Boyd Coddington, Darryl Hollenbeck (working out of at Vintage Color Studios; winner of the 2016 America's Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) trophy with a custom Deuce) [4] Harry Westergaard, [26] Dave Stuckey, [25] Dean Jeffries, Barry Lobeck, Phil Cool (who won the 1978 AMBR trophy with a bright orange Deuce, cover car for the July 1978 issue of Hot Rod), [27] Troy Ladd of Hollywood Hot Rods, Doane Spencer (builder of a 1940s Deuce considered the template for the hiboy), [28] "Posie", [29] Ron Clark and Bob Kaiser (of Clarkaiser Customs), [30] Joe Bailon [25] (inventor of candy apple paint), [31] Gene Winfield, Rick Dore [32] Joe Wilhelm, "Magoo", [33] Chip Foose, [34] and Pete Chapouris.

Others, such as Von Dutch, are best known as custom painters. Several customizers have become famous beyond the automobile community, including Barris, Jeffries, and Coddington, thanks to their proximity to Hollywood; Barris designed TV's Batmobile, while Chapouris built the flamed '34 three-window coupé in the eponymous telefilm "The California Kid". Another Barris creation, Ala Kart (a '29 Ford Model A roadster pickup), made numerous appearances in film (usually in the background of diner scenes and such), after taking two AMBR wins in a row. Some customizers have become well-enough known to be referred to by given name alone. These include Boyd (Coddington), Pete (Chapouris), and Jake (Jim Jacobs).


The highest award for customizers is the AMBR (America's Most Beautiful Roadster) trophy, presented annually at the Grand National Roadster Show since 1948 (also known within the customizer community as the Oakland Roadster Show until it was moved to Southern California in 2003). This competition has produced famous, and radical, customs.

Another is the Ridler Award, presented at the Detroit Autorama since 1964 in honor of show promoter Don Ridler. With one of the most unusual of car show entry requirements, winners of the prestigious Ridler Award are selected as the most outstanding from among cars being shown for the first time. This prompts builders of many high-end roadsters to first enter the Autorama first and then the Grand National show in order to have the chance to win top honors at both shows. Few cars and owners can claim this achievement.

Notable customs

'Big Daddy' Roth 'bloodshot eyeball' shift knob was a 1960s craze. Ed Roth 'bloodshot eyeball'.jpg
'Big Daddy' Roth 'bloodshot eyeball' shift knob was a 1960s craze.

Some customs gained attention for winning the AMBR trophy, or for their outlandish styling. Notable among these is Silhouette and Ed Roth's Mysterion. Some of these more unusual projects turned into Hot Wheels cars, among them The Red Baron.

Other custom cars became notable for appearances in film (such as Ala Kart {1958}, [35] The California Kid three-window {1973}, [36] or the yellow deuce from "American Graffiti" {1973}) or television (such as The Monkeemobile , the "Munsters" hearse, or, more recently, Boyd's full-custom Tool Time '34, or Don Thelan's [37] '33 three-window, Eliminator, built for the ZZ Top video [38] ). Specialist vehicles, such as the T/A, KITT, from Knight Rider, are not usually considered customs, but movie or TV cars, because they retain a mostly stock exterior.

Still others exemplified a trend. One of these is the '51 Merc built by the Barris brothers for Bob Hirohata in 1953, known forever after as the Hirohata Merc. Even without an appearance in film ("Runnin' Wild"), it is iconic of 1950s customs, and of how to do a Merc right. [39] The same year, Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen of Valley Custom Shop built Polynesian for Jack Stewart, starting with a '50 Holiday 88 sedan. [40] Polynesian made the cover of Hot Rod in August, and saw 54 pages of construction details in Motor Trend Custom Car Annual in 1954. [41]


'28 A roadster with Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels '28 A roadster.jpg
'28 A roadster with Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels

Certain linguistic conventions are followed among rodders and customizers:

The "cutoff year" as originally promoted by the National Street Rod Association (NSRA) is 1949. Many custom car shows will only accept 1948 and earlier models as entries, and many custom car organizations will not admit later model cars or trucks (also with some imports - this has been a gray area of what's acceptable e.g. an aircooled VW Beetle, a Big Three product manufactured overseas e.g. a Ford Capri built in the UK or a General Motors - Holden's product, not to mention captives), and/or a vintage import automobile with an American driveline transplant but this practice is subject to change. Modern day custom car shows which allow the inclusion of muscle cars have used the 1972 model year as the cutoff since it is considered the end of the muscle car era prior to the introduction of the catalytic converter. The NSRA has announced that starting in 2011 it will switch to a shifting year method where any owner with a car 30 years or older will be allowed membership. So in 2011 the owner of a 1981 model year vehicle will qualify, then in 2012 the owner of a 1982 model year vehicle will quality, and so on. Additionally, the Goodguys car show organization has moved the year limit for its "rod" shows from 1949 to 1954 in recent years.


Common terms

Front suspension of a lowboy Deuce roadster, with color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, and vented disc brakes. Also features chrome five-spokes, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ). Yellow Deuce front wb.jpg
Front suspension of a lowboy Deuce roadster, with color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, and vented disc brakes. Also features chrome five-spokes, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel (probably a QJ).

Some other common terms:

Some terms have an additional, different meaning among hot rodders than among customizers: NOS, for instance, is a reference to nitrous oxide, rather than new old stock.

See also

Related Research Articles

1932 Ford Motor vehicle

Ford produced three cars between 1932 and 1934: the Model B, the Model 18, and the Model 46. These succeeded the Model A. The Model B had an updated four cylinder and was available from 1932 to 1934. The V8 was available in the Model 18 in 1932, and in the Model 46 in 1933 & 1934. The 18 was the first Ford fitted with the flathead V‑8. The company also replaced the Model AA truck with the Model BB, available with either the four- or eight-cylinder engine.

Chevrolet Bel Air American full-size automobile

The Chevrolet Bel Air was a full-size car produced by Chevrolet for the 1950–1975 model years. Initially, only the two-door hardtops in the Chevrolet model range were designated with the Bel Air name from 1950 to 1952. With the 1953 model year, the Bel Air name was changed from a designation for a unique body shape to a premium level of trim applied across a number of body styles. The Bel Air continued with various other trim level designations, and it went from a mid-level trim car to a budget fleet sedan when U.S. production ceased in 1975. Production continued in Canada, for its home market only, through the 1981 model year.

Hot rod American car with a large engine modified for linear speed

Hot rods are typically old, classic, or modern American cars that have been rebuilt or modified with large engines modified for more speed and acceleration. One definition is: "a car that's been stripped down, souped up and made to go much faster." However, there is no definition of the term that is universally accepted and the term is attached to a wide range of vehicles. Most often they are individually designed and constructed using components from many makes of old or new cars are most prevalent in the United States. Many are intended for exhibition rather than for racing or everyday driving.

Buick Electra Motor vehicle

The Buick Electra is a full-size luxury car manufactured and marketed by Buick from 1959 to 1990 over six generations — having been named after heiress and sculptor Electra Waggoner Biggs by her brother-in-law Harlow H. Curtice, former president of Buick and later president of General Motors. The Electra was offered in coupe, convertible, sedan, and station wagon body styles over the course of its production — with rear-wheel drive (1959-1984) or front-wheel drive. For its entire production run, it utilized some form of GM's C platform. The Electra was superseded by the Buick Park Avenue in 1991.

Dodge, an American automobile brand, produced three separate vehicles with the name Dodge Charger Daytona, all of which were modified Dodge Chargers. The name is taken from Daytona Beach, Florida, which was an early center for auto racing and still hosts the Daytona 500, one of NASCAR's premier events. The first use of the Daytona name on a car was on a version of the Studebaker Lark. The Daytona was the performance model of the compact Lark and it was produced from 1963–1966. The Dodge Charger was made to beat the competition in NASCAR, Americas Premier Racing Series.

Rat rod

The modern definition of a rat rod is a custom car with a deliberately worn-down, unfinished appearance, typically lacking paint, showing rust, and made from cheap or cast-off parts. These parts can include non-automotive items that have been repurposed, such as using a rifle as a gear shifter, wrenches as door handles, and old saws as sun visors. A rat rod may or may not have extraneous decorations, but will always exude a great deal of personality due to the imagination required of the builder.

Cadillac Series 70 Motor vehicle

The Cadillac Series 70 is a full-size V8-powered series of cars that were produced by Cadillac from the 1930s to the 1980s. It replaced the 1935 355E as the company's mainstream car just as the much less expensive Series 60 was introduced. The Series 72 and 67 were similar to the Series 75 but the 72 and 67 were produced on a slightly shorter and longer wheelbase respectively. The Series 72 was only produced in 1940 and the Series 67 was only produced in 1941 and 1942. For much of the postwar era, it was the top-of-the-line Cadillac, and was Cadillac's factory-built limousine offering.

Cadillac Series 62 Motor vehicle

The Cadillac Series 62 is a series of cars which was produced by Cadillac from 1940 through 1964. Originally designed to complement the entry level Series 65, it became the Cadillac Series 6200 in 1959, and remained that until it was renamed to Cadillac Calais for the 1965 model year. The Series 62 was also marketed as the Sixty-Two and the Series Sixty-Two.

1957 Chevrolet Make of US auto

The 1957 Chevrolet is a car that was introduced by Chevrolet in September 1956 for the 1957 model year. It was available in three series models: the upscale Bel Air, the mid-range Two-Ten, and the One-Fifty. A two-door station wagon, the Nomad, was produced as a Bel Air model. An upscale trim option called the Delray was available for Two-Ten 2-door sedans. It is a popular and sought after classic car. These vehicles are often restored to their original condition and sometimes modified. The car's image has been frequently used in toys, graphics, music, movies, and television. The '57 Chevy, as it is often known, is an auto icon.

A glossary of terms relating to automotive design.

Dodge Charger (B-body) American specialty car model by Dodge

The Dodge Charger (B-body) is a mid-size automobile that was produced by Dodge from 1966 to 1978, and was based on the Chrysler B platform.

Mercury Eight Motor vehicle

The Mercury Eight is an automobile that was marketed by the Mercury division of Ford between 1939 and 1951. The debut model line of the Mercury division, Ford slotted the full-size Mercury Eight between the Ford Deluxe model lines and the Lincoln. In total, Ford assembled three generations of the Eight.

Ford Model A (1927–1931) Compact car

The Ford Model A was the Ford Motor Company's second market success, after its predecessor, the Model T. First produced on October 20, 1927, but not introduced until December 2, it replaced the venerable Model T, which had been produced for 18 years. This new Model A was designated a 1928 model and was available in four standard colors. The vehicle was also sold in Europe, but was replaced by local built cars such as the Ford Model Y.

Ford Model 48 Ford car introduced in 1935

The Model 48 was an update on Ford's V8-powered Model 40A, the company's main product. Introduced in 1935, the Model 48 was given a cosmetic refresh annually, begetting the 1937 Ford before being thoroughly redesigned for 1941. The 1935 Ford's combination of price, practicality, and looks vaulted the company ahead of rival Chevrolet for the sales crown that year, with 820,000 sold.

1941 Ford Motor vehicle

The Ford car was thoroughly updated in 1941, in preparation for a time of unpredictability surrounding World War II. The 1941 design would continue in an aborted 1942 model year and would be restarted in 1946 and produced until 1948 when the more modern 1949 Fords were ready. During the initial year of this car, it evolved considerably. The front fenders came in three pieces, the theory being that small damages could be replaced easily. During the year, it evolved into two pieces with the lower front and back sections being joined. The hood risers changed, the early ones being the same as 1940 Fords, changing during the year to the better later version. The 1941 Convertible had no rear side windows, the only side windows being in the doors; in 1942, quarter windows were added so the rear occupants could see out. Five different coil/distributor arrangements were used during 1941, causing confusion for mechanics. Other variations were: two different positions for the generator, and three for the cooling fan — front of the crankshaft, front of the generator (rare) and on a bracket. This is thought to be the first Ford to offer a replaceable cartridge oil filter as an option. The two interior heaters were a "Southwind" gasoline burner, which had the advantage of keeping one warm in winter at drive-in movies, and a more ordinary hot-water type. Both had window defrosters. It had an excellent radio, which could consume the battery in about two hours. Electric windshield wipers were available in addition to the vacuum-powered wipers. Three different convertible power top mechanisms and two different header bar latching systems were used. Rear suspensions sometimes had a sway bar, most did not. It had excellent brakes and among the best handling of ordinary cars of the time. It served a transitional role in Ford’s lineup.

Ford Thunderbird (eleventh generation) Motor vehicle

The eleventh generation of the Ford Thunderbird is a two-seater grand touring convertible manufactured and marketed by Ford between 2001 and 2005 for model years 2002 through 2005. It was designed to evoke the first generation Thunderbird that had been made from 1955 to 1957, coming with a removable hardtop with prominent circular glazing, a power folding top, and a vinyl tonneau cover. Mechanically borrowing heavily from the Lincoln LS, it was built on the Ford DEW platform with a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, and was powered by a 3.9-liter V8 engine with a five-speed automatic transmission.

Hirohata Merc Motor vehicle

The Hirohata Merc is a 1950s custom car, often called "the most famous custom of the classic era". Setting a style and an attitude, it had a "momentous effect" on custom car builders, appeared in several magazines at the time and has reappeared numerous times since, earning an honorable mention on Rod & Custom's "Twenty Best of All Time" list in 1991. The impact may be measured by the fact that, after more than fifty years and numerous owners, it is still known as "the Hirohata Merc".

Ford F-Series (seventh generation) Motor vehicle

The seventh generation of the Ford F-Series is a range of trucks that was produced by Ford from the 1980 to 1986 model years. The first complete redesign of the F-Series since 1965, the seventh generation received a completely new chassis and body.

Ala Kart is a custom car, a customized 1929 Ford Model A roadster pickup, built by George Barris, Richard Peters, and Mike "Blackie" Gejeian in 1957. Originally owned by Peters, it is a two-time winner of the Grand National Roadster Show "America's Most Beautiful Roadster" (AMBR) trophy and Hot Rod cover car in October 1958. Featured in hundreds of car shows, Ala Kart has won more than 200 trophies. It has also made numerous appearances in movies, usually in the background of drive-in shots, and dozens of magazine articles since. It is considered by many to be "one of the most iconic hot rods ever built."

The Stallion is a customized 1934 Ford 3-window built by Chip Foose for Ron Whiteside. It won the Ridler Award at the 2003 Detroit Autorama.


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  83. Rod & Custom, April 2000, p.154 caption.
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  88. Hot Rod, 10/80, p.61.
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