Maybe 50 years ago I met a dude in white suit at a bookstore in Hollywood hawking his book, titled something like Candy Colored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby, based on his visit to a custom car show.
I invited him to lunch over on the Sunset Strip and he told me of this sub-niche of the car world he had discovered, one peopled by such people as George Barris and Gene Winfield and the Alexander Brothers.
Well, Tom Wolfe may be an Old Dude now, but last word was that he is still writing books, and I am happy to say that the Kustom Cars (for some reason customizers spell a lot of names with a “K” instead of a “C”) are still with us, pretty much ignoring all the so-called “progress” that has happened in cars in the last fifty years.
I just went to Bo Huff’s Rockabilly Car Show in Ontario, CA and I saw a few customs, though they shared billing with some “Rat Rods”-custom cars that eschew fancy paint, fancy upholstery, and chrome and look more or less like they were thrown together one night after everybody and his brother got good and drunk and went to it with welding torches.
The show I was at seemed to stop at the Sixties cars, as if anything built afterward was too new, too gadgetry. These owners wanted ‘30s, ’40s, ’50’s and 60’s.
Another type of rat rod breed, when applied to Fifties cars, is to not only not paint them but to strip them down to bare metal and then lay on a clear coat so it’s a car that perpetually looks like it is about to be painted. Those are outnumbered by those with a coat of primer, a flat gray, usually, as if they are one step closer to being painted.
I did see some of what I remember from the Fifties such as:
Pin Striping—a pleasant arrangement of slim lines painted with a single long brush that, when wet, resembles a knife blade. Usually on the center of the hood on a car that’s had its hood ornament removed.
Skirts—to cover the rear wheels, to be more aerodynamic and to make the car look lower.
“Spinner” hubcaps. I think these were mostly stolen from Olds Fiestas in the ‘50s before they became available on the aftermarket. They are blades crossing a hub cap and spin with the hubcap and attract the light.
Bullet centers—these are hubcaps with huge pointed bullets coming out of the centers
bullet center plus wire wheels
Open exhausts—Now I know, I know, California has all sorts of noise laws but the only thing I can say is cops are human too, and cops like hot rods, and why can’t a boy have some fun? Hence the only explanation I can see for no sign of a muffler on the open pipe cars. Praise God.
Chopped tops—they look natural on the Thirties through the Fifties but not so much on the Sixties cars. I think it’s a lost art, actually.
Flames—Now in the Fifties there was “full flames,” i.e. the color of real flames, yellow and red, but since they there is the pinstriped “ghost flame” in which flames are merely outlined.
This scribe’s favorite car was actually a ‘60s remnant—a 1961 Caddy ragtop (seen below), stock bodied, but tastefully lowered, with dark blood red upholstery matched by a top that almost matched the shade. The rear window had been made smaller, a chrome framed window within a window to so speak for more privacy. The paint was lavender, can’t say it was a factory shade but real purty with that top and that leather. It had a Continental wheel added to the rear deck, but it looked kinda small for the size of car and wasn’t really needed. The fins said it all. Kind of reminded me of the same model I saw in my buddy Bill Mitchell’s driveway in ’61—‘course his had gold-plated trim on account of he was a biggie in GM management, the King of the Tail Fins for a couple years there.
The Rockabilly participants ranged in age from early 20s to 60s. I saw a lot of Levi jackets bearing the club colors, not so many leather jackets which I expected to see. Some of the guys had spiked hair that was aided by a generous dollop of pomade, which was being marketed there (I can just see trying to get somebody to invest in a pomade company …) A couple of the ladies were wearing ‘40s or ‘50s style clothing with appropriate era hair styles, which sort of evoked in me dim memories of Carmen Miranda….another heroine there, going by t-shirts, was Lucy Ricardo, uh, played on tee-vee by Lucille Ball.
The enthusiasm of the show-goers halfway tempted me to consider going to the Biggie show in this niche, an event called Viva Las Vegas, scheduled for April 14-17th, 2016 which will feature, according to their website, http://www.vivalasvegas.net, a Fashion Show , a Guitar Geek Show, Jiving Classes & Contest ,a Pin-Up Beauty Academy, a Tattoo Lounge , and a Tiki Pool Party & Swimsuit competition. Oh, did I mention there would be cars there?
Though the Ideal Women portrayed in much of their T-shirt and metal art (on metal plates, the better to hang up in an auto shop) were clones of brunette Betty Page, essentially the first Pin-Up model, the most beautiful young lady I ran across at the Huff show in Ontario was a very Germanic-looking blonde, who it turns out was none other than the daughter of Mr. Huff, the late Utah-based founder of the rockabilly car show events, which she assured me will continue in her father’s honor. She looked pure Fifties in her style but maybe her appeal was that she was pure “country,” untainted by the Evils of The Big City.
After meeting her, I could kinda see the appeal of having a car that is ‘Fifties or ‘Sixties, a car that eschew computers, Limited slip regulation, GPS , electronic dashboard displays and all that. There’s something to be said for being able to wake up one fine summer morn’, throw on your jeans, and cowboy boots, jump into your chopped top flamed James Dean Merc , Johnny Be Good playin’ on the radio and your gal cuddlin’ up alongside, as the three Stromberg 97s gulp air and pipes rappin’, you head out yonder on an arrow- straight stretch of two lane blacktop, foot to the floor, bound for glory.
That’s Pure America, buddy.
I think I’ll write Tom, ensconced far too log out there on Beekman Place in New Yawk City, and tell him that the world he described to me a half century ago is still out there waitin’ on his return. Com’on, Tommy, believe me, you can go home again…..
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss, co-host of Autotalk, a talk show on KUCR-FM radio, Riverside, is working on a book on the eternal appeal of the Porsche 356, due out this summer from Enthusiast Books, Hudson, WI.
A ADDITIONAL REPORT FROM THE FIELD FROM CARLOS RODRIGUEZ, A WALLACE WYSS PROTEGEE WITH A FRESH VIEW:
The Rockabilly show seems to have a lot of names, many of the involving its founder, Bo Huff.
The Huffarama Bo-Huffs Kustom Car festival was an event for Rat rods, low riders and custom cars from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Also there were some custom Harley’s, Boppers, and low rider bikes.
The crowd was of all ages. It was definitely not a snobby “Concours” type of type, with many of the participants and viewers dressed in the style of the 50′, which meant blue jeans, white t-shirts, and Chuck Taylor’s as the normal attire. In fact, I saw many Elvis Presley-type hair cuts. It really felt like being in the 50’s here. I wouldn’t term it a “costume” event, because, for many people, looking ’50s isn’t a one day thing but rather a life style choice.
The Rat Rods (if you don’t know) are cars that are usually put together with anything you can find in your backyard. Usually a rat rod starts with an old junk car. Normally a 50’s Ford truck, a 30’s era Ford or even some old Buicks, a few cars that I had to read the nameplate to figure out what obscure brand they were representing–Hudson, Desoto, Nash and the like.
No matter what brand they were on the outside, almost every one of them had a hot-rodded Chevy or Ford engine.
I plan to explore the ’50s car activities more. Seems to me his is a cultural thing as well as a car thing….