Custom car

"Modified car" redirects here. For the American oval track automobile racing series, see modified racing.
'32 3-window with a classic-style flame job and Moon tank, reminiscent of Chapouris' California Kid.
Custom '51 Merc with red "ghost flames" and Appletons
"Rat rodded" Model A with Edelbrock head and chrome carb hats on late-model flatty.
A pre-war custom car by Coachcraft
The iconic "T-bucket" custom. Exposed engine is virtually mandatory, as are flat windshield, headers, and open pipes. Soft top (shown) is optional. 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).
Front suspension of yellow lowboy Deuce roadster. Note color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, vented disc brakes.
'41 Willys. Note the non-stock one-piece windshield.
'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice
'Big Daddy' Roth 'bloodshot eyeball' shift knob was a 1960s craze.
'28 A roadster with Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels

A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been substantially modified in either of the following two ways

  1. a custom car may be altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission
  2. a custom car may be a personal "styling" statement, making the car look unlike any car as delivered from the factory.

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.


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 very light cycle fenders. Later models usually had fender skirts installed.

Coachcraft Ltd. in Hollywood, California, built several modified cars that are generally regarded as the first examples of "custom cars", in contrast to a custom-bodied coachbuilt car that was commonly purchased new by wealthy people in the 1930s. The firm was started by ex-employees of Howard "Dutch" Darrin, who had designed and built the custom-bodied luxury cars that came before.[1] Strother MacMinn called the "Yankee Doodle Roadster" by Coachcraft the “first American custom sports car." Many pictures of this car can be seen by looking at the web pages in these references:[2] [3]

Many cars were "hopped up" with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads and dual exhausts. Engine swaps were done, the object of which was to put the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination.[4]

The suspension was usually altered. Initially this involved lowering the rear end as much as possible with the use of lowering blocks on the rear springs. Later cars were given a rake job either adding a dropped front axle or heating front coil springs to make the front end of the car much lower than the rear.

Much later some hot rods and custom cars swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear axle, often from Jaguar. Sometimes the grille of one make of car replaced by another; the 1937 Buick grille was often used on a Ford. In the 1950s and 1960s, the grille swap of choice was the 1953 De Soto.

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.[4]

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, there was tremendous automotive advertising and subsequent public interest in the new models in the 1950s. Hence custom cars came into existence, swapping headlamp rings, grilles, bumpers, chrome side strips, and tail lights, 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 a lot of lead to make the resulting form smooth (hence the term lead sled; lead has since been replaced by Bondo). By this means, chopping made the roof lower;[5] sectioning[6] made the body thinner from top to bottom. Channeling[7] 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.

More recently, Juxtapoz Magazine, founded by the artist Robert Williams, has covered Kustom Kulture art.

Customization style

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:



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.[8]

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 flathead, or "flatty", 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.[9] More recently, the 325 cu in (5.3 l) Chevrolet LS has begun replacing the 350. 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.

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.[10]

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 dried up, companies such Westcott's,[11] Harwood, Gibbon Fiberglass[12] and Speedway Motors[12] have begun to fabricate new fiberglass copies,[13] while Classic Manufacturing and Supply, for one example, has been making a variety of new steel bodies since the 1970s.[14] 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.[15]

Starting in the 1950s, it became popular among customizers to display their vehicles at drive-in restaurants. Among the largest and longest lasting was Johnie's Broiler in Downey, California. The practice continues today, especially in Southern California.


Examples of notable customizers include George Barris, Bill Cushenberry, the Alexander Brothers, the "legendary" Gil Ayala,[16] Darryl Starbird,[17] Roy Brizio, Troy Trepanier (of Rad Rides by Troy), Boyd Coddington, Harry Westergaard,[18] Dave Stuckey,[17] Dean Jeffries, Troy Ladd of Hollywood Hot Rods, "Posie",[19] Ron Clark and Bob Kaiser (of Clarkaiser Customs),[20] Joe Bailon[17] (inventor of candy apple paint),[21] Gene Winfield, Rick Dore[22] Joe Wilhelm, "Magoo",[23] Chip Foose,[24] 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

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},[25] The California Kid three-window {1973},[26] 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[27] '33 three-window, Eliminator, built for the ZZ Top video[28]). 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.[29] The same year, Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen built Polynesian for Jack Stewart, starting with a '50 Olds sedan. Polynesian made the cover of Hot Rod in August, and saw 54 pages of construction details in Motor Trend Custom Car Annual in 1954.[30]


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 musclecars have used the 1972 model year as the cutoff since it is considered the end of the musclecar 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

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.


  1. ^ Rod Action, 2/78.
  2. ^ Street Rodder, 8/99, pp.202, 204, & 205.

See also


  1. "The customs & woodies made by Coachcraft". Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  2. "Philip Ward's article on Yankee Doodle Roadster" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  3. "The Yankee Doodle Roadster by Coachcraft". Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  4. 1 2 "The evolution of custom cars". Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  5. Rod Action, 2/78, p.64.
  6. Street Rodder, 2/78, p.15; Custom Rodder 1/97, p.29.
  7. Jezek, George. "The All Deuce Round-Up", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.58.
  8. Hotrod magazine, 1999.
  9. See any issue of Street Rodder, for instance.
  10. "1932 Clobes". Wheels Through Time Museum. Retrieved 2010-10-31.
  11. Street Rodder, 2/78, p.44.
  12. 1 2 Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 43.
  13. See, for instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, p.183.
  14. Street Rodder, 7/94, pp.132-4.
  15. See, for instance, Dick Wells column "SRMA Update", Street Rodder, 8/99, p.234.
  16. Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.60.
  17. 1 2 3 Street Rodder, 1/85, p.56.
  18. Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.55.
  19. Rod Action, 2/85, p.5.
  20. Fetherston, David, "Detroit Dreams", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.58.
  21. Ganahl, Pat, "The Candy Man", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.81.
  22. Street Rodder, 12/98, p.206.
  23. Bishop, Mike, "The 45th Grand National Roadster Show", in American Rodder, 6/94, p.27.
  24. Hot Rod, 12/86, p.29 sidebar.
  25. Hot Rod, 12/86, p.29.
  26. Gingerelli, Dain. "Jake's '34". Written on June 23, 2005 Hot Rod Magazine online (retrieved 19 June 2015)
  27. Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (2007-09-20). "The ZZ Top Eliminator: Profile of a Hot Rod". Retrieved 2010-10-31.
  28. Rod & Custom, 8/89, pp.8 & 10.
  29. Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.68.
  30. For instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, passim; Rod Action, 2/78, passim.
  31. American Rodder, 6/94, pp.45 & 93.
  32. Geisert, Eric. "Tom's Fun Run", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.149cap.
  33. Street Rod Builder, 7/03, p.126.
  34. PHR, 7/06, pp.22-3.
  35. Fortier, p.53cap.
  36. Fortier, p.54cap.
  37. Fetherston, David, "Track Terror", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.35; Emmons, Don, "Long-term Hybrid", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.52; & Baskerville, Gray, "Tom Brown's '60s Sweetheart", in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.162.
  38. Bianco, Johnny, "Leadfest" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.86.
  39. Rod and Custom, 12/91, p.29 caption.
  40. Hot Rod, 12/86, p.85 caption.
  41. Ganahl, Pat, "Swap 'til you Drop", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.68 & 70.
  42. Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17.
  43. 1 2 Street Rodder, 12/98, p. 212.
  44. Geisert, Eric. "The California Spyder", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.34; Mayall, Joe. "Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, p.26; letters, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.10.
  45. Fortier, Rob. ""A Little Pinch Here, A Little Tuck There", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.136.
  46. Hot Rod, 2/87, p.38.
  47. Hot Rod, 12/86, p.52 caption.
  48. Burhnam, Bill. "In Bill's Eye", Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17; reprinted from Goodguys Gazette.
  49. "Mr. 32", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.40.
  50. Fortier, p.51cap; Bianco, p.82.
  51. Ganahl, p.70 & "Coupla Cool Coupes", p.74.
  52. Mayall, Joe. "Joe Mayall's Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, pp.28 & 29; Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, p.6.
  53. "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16, & Fortier, "Jr.'s Highboy", p.98.
  54. Contrast "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16.
  55. Hot Rod, 2/87, p.43.
  56. Coonan, Steve. "Who's Chicken", in Street Rodder, 2/78, pp.56-7; 1001 Rod & Custom Ideas, 1/76, pp.24 & 25.
  57. Bianco, p.82.
  58. Rod & Custom, 8/89, p.70.
  59. Popular Cars, 12/85, p.51.
  60. Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, pp.46 & 50.
  61. Ganahl, Pat, "Coupla Cool Coupes", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.74cap.
  62. Hot Rod Magazine's Street Machines and Bracket Racing #3 (Los Angeles: Petersen Publishing, 1979), p.33.
  63. Hot Rod, 10/80, p.61.
  64. Clausager (1994), p. 25
  65. Jalopy Journal.
  66. Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  67. Hot Rod, 4/95, p.8.
  68. Yunick, Henry. Best Damn Garage in Town: The World According to Smokey.
  69. Street Rodder, 12/98, p.292.
  70. Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.26-7 & 33.
  71. Tann, Jeff, "Two-Timer" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.58.
  72. "Kustoms and Hot Rods Gallery: Hirohata Merc". Retrieved 2010-10-31.
  73. Hot Rod, 4/95, p.36.
  74. Fortier, Rob. "25th Salt Lake City Autorama", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.51cap, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  75. Hot Rod, 2/87, p.47, & 12/86, p.33 caption.

External links

Media related to Custom cars at Wikimedia Commons

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