Kustom Klassics

 George Barris’ Golden Sahara.

George Barris’ Golden Sahara.

In Southern California just after World War Two, balmy nights were perfect for cruising in a cool ride. Returning veterans, defense plant workers and restless teens wanted to drive something with more pizazz than the warmed-over pre-war crates hastily rushed into production at the close of hostilities. Their tastes ran to sleeker, tougher-looking versions, modified customs that menaced the streets with a deep-throated rumble that lent a basso counterpoint to their sleek, made-over bodywork. The ideal came to be a gleaming coupe that was smoothed out, stripped naked of trim and lowered until it nearly scraped the pavement—an ass-dragging sin of a car.

Veterans used their war time skills to fashion sculptures capable of rocketing down a highway at a hundred miles per hour. Picking up traces left by proto customizing pioneers like Sam and George Barris, welding torches began flashing from open garages, accompanied by clanging of hammers beating in time with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly wailing from transistor radios. Teenagers in white T-shirts and cuffed jeans shaved off chrome, leaded-in seams, and fired up torches to chop tops and rearrange fenderwork. A modified-car culture burst forth mighty enough to demand its own name—and kustoms were born.

Newsstands soon devoted shelves to magazines featuring hopped-up dreamboats, spreading styles and techniques nationwide. Soon, a big bang of kustom kulture, as loud and rude as a Ford flathead V-8 backfiring on Main Street rocked America back on its hightop sneakers from coast to coast.

Stars of the scene soon emerged, artists hell-bent on showing the world what wild dreams they were able to create, ready to risk Herculean effort with little promise of payback. This new breed of artisans had the energy, dedication, and skill to build wild show cars just for the hell of it. They were the kustom kings.

As the ’50s progressed, kustomizers Daryl Starbird of Kansas City and Californians Ed “Big Daddy” Roth of Maywood, George Barris of Lynwood, Gene Winfield of Modesto, Bill Cushenberry of Monterey, and Dean Jeffries of North Hollywood garnered massive publicity from magazines and car shows. Profits from renting kustoms to show promoters and royalties from model kits based on their cars soon provided budgets to build increasingly imaginative show cars. But it wasn’t all about the money, not to guys who sweated in dirt-floor garages cobbling together junkyard parts to build futuristic kustoms rivaling million-dollar dream boats ballyhooed by Detroit manufacturers. They were all-American artists, armed with cutting torches and paint guns and they left a uniquely American legacy unlike anything the world had ever seen. 

The last couple decades have given birth to a revived kustom kulture, with old, nearly forgotten classics being restored and new creations built in the spirit of the 1950s and 60s pioneers. They’re best seen at local cruise nights and regional shows where they continue to dazzle onlookers just like they did in the days of the kustom kings.

Written by Jim Cherry