Speedhunters, this is a rare time we’re living in.
While it might seem like ages since hot rodding was born on the dry lakes and city streets of California, it was really only a few generations ago. The amazing part – and the part that we really need to embrace right now – is that we’re living in the same time as some of the guys who started the hobby we all love so deeply.
Think about how far the automobile has come in 100 years. Now consider that Gene Winfield has been here for 87 of those years, and customizing cars for nearly all of them.
He was one of the first few guys to look at a car, re-imagine it as something better, then proceed to hack it to little bits and create a one-of-a-kind vehicle. I don’t take it lightly that I can call Gene a friend. The fact that our lives have overlapped and even better, that I’ve had the opportunity to bend tin with the guy, is flat out amazing to me. Gene has too much to share for us to keep it a secret, so I spent some time with him to bring you this interview, which exposes just a tiny sliver of what Winfield wants to share from his life-long career customizing cars.
KC: Tell us in your own words: Who is Gene Winfield?
GW: Well, I’m Gene Winfield and I’m a custom car builder. I’ve been building custom cars all my life. I started my first shop when I returned from World War II in late 1946, and I’m still having fun doing it today.
KC: So you were there when the custom car thing started. Actually, you were one of the people who started it. What do you think about the revival of traditional custom cars today?
GW: Well, I think it’s great! What it is, is some of the older people can finally afford a car now that they couldn’t afford when they were in high school, so that’s part of it. But then there are lots of young people getting into it now too. I just see it going up, up, up all the time. I think the muscle car thing and street rods have kinda leveled off, but they’re always going to be building them because people have a need for speed and power and all that. But the custom car thing is developing rapidly and going uphill all the time.
KC: Do you think this is the strongest period of growth you’ve seen for kustoms? How does it compare to the ’50s when the style first became popular?
GW: In the ’50s and ’60s it was very strong, and you could build a car with a lot less money. There have always been people who want to make ‘em different. I always like to say people should make a statement with their car, and each owner likes to outdo the other guy and come up with something for his car that nobody else has done. What we all strive to do is build a car that is different, whether it’s several small things or a very big change. The whole point of custom cars is for the next one to be different than the last one, and that’s definitely going on in a big way even today.
KC: Do you think we’ll ever run out of things to do to cars?
GW: Oh no, no, no. We will never run out of things to do, because we create. You know, I look at a car and sometimes it will take me 20 or 30 minutes, but I’ll be able to say, ‘Well, I can change this and that, and make things a little different, a little better.’ It used to be that I would go to the new car shows and look at the cars and pick them apart. I would say, “Well, I can use that antenna, or part of that grille or bumper guard,’ but you can’t do that today with all the new cookie cutter cars that look the same. There are very few things that you can take off a new car today and put on a custom car. So instead we look at a customized old car and see the shapes, and take parts from other old cars and mix early and late a little, so there’s always going to be customizing going on. We’re always going to be creating things that are different.
KC: Do you think we should be modifying new cars the way we did with old ones?
GW: The new cars don’t lend themselves to the same style of customizing we did on the early ones, but someday we’ll have to get into some of that. We’re gonna have to because little by little the old cars are running out. That’s why I make a fiberglass Mercury, because the old ones are getting harder to find. You know, people are doing the tuner cars and hopping them up, but I don’t think anything will match the craze of early kustoms, that’s just been going on for so long.
KC: So what do you think of the import scene?
GW: Well, I think it’s all good. You know, people want to go fast, they want to have some horsepower, and there are many, many companies making parts for the new import cars to do that. You can get stroker cranks, camshafts, throttle bodies and this and that. There’s so much aftermarket support now, and it’s what I would call the new hot rod generation.Hi-Jinks & Stunts
KC: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done with car?
GW: One time I pulled a train with a rental car for a commercial. Another time I froze a car in a block of ice for 30 days for a gasoline commercial. I actually have a new book that just came out about all the movie, television and commercial cars I’ve done over the years. It shows you all those crazy things I did back then. When you see a commercial, there aren’t any credits, so you have no idea who did the work. Fortunately I took pictures of all that stuff and saved all the stuff I’ve done so I put it in a book. It’s only available directly through my shop so it’s in small numbers.
KC: You have to tell us the story about pulling the train with a car!
GW: Yeah, Sunoco Gasoline had an ad agency in New York and they would call and ask me if I could do something. I would always say ‘YES!’ – then I would hang up and figure out how I was gonna do it. But I knew I could pull the train, because I watched them for years. I knew that before they took off they bumped the cars backwards. Just a little bump and it goes from car to car to car. What they’re doing is they’re creating slack, so when the engine takes off forward, it pulls each car with a little jerk. So I knew that was how to get it going instead of trying to pull the whole train all at once, and I figured I could do the same thing with a car. Of course I burned up the tranny doing it, because they had me do it over and over and over!
KC: What kind of car was it?
GW: It was a Ford or a Mercury station wagon, brand new.
KC: And that was a rental car, right?
GW: Yeah, I got the insurance. No problem.
KC: So you drove the car too?
GW: Oh yeah, I drove in every commercial. The most interesting commercial I did was for Shasta Cola. I built two Model A trucks, and I painted one of them blue and one of them yellow. The blue truck was the Cola truck, and the yellow one was the Cherry truck. It was a flatbed and we put boxes of cherries on there. We were out on a ranch and they would have us drive around and we would have near-misses and so forth, and then we were supposed to have a crash. The idea was that after the crash, we would now have Cherry Cola. I got residuals on that for 18 months, it was really good. It won an award and everything – it was a lot of fun.
KC: Wait, did you actually crash the trucks?
GW: Oh yeah, they wanted it to roll up on the side and dump the cherries, but the first time, I’m drivin’ the truck and I hit it and it didn’t roll over. I dug a trench and got it all figured out so I could hit it in a certain place and a certain way, but it didn’t roll. It just bent the heck out of the axle. But from my old jalopy hardtop days I knew how to straighten it. Everyone was panicked, but I said ‘Give me an hour.’ I straightened the axle and I went back and dug the trench a little deeper and I hit it again and it rolled right over and everything went just fine.
KC: I never knew you were a stunt driver too!
GW: Yeah, I did all kinds of stunt driving. This was back in ’70 or ’71. The custom car field went really down in the dumps in the late ’60s because of the muscle cars. When the muscle cars came out they were doing things in Detroit that we had done on our custom cars. They would put bucket seats and four on the floor and dual exhausts and lower silhouettes. They did all that from the factory, so when you could go into the dealer and buy that car on the spot and drive it away, it just made the custom car scene really go down. So I started doing commercials and movie work for a while. For 18 months straight I did nothing but Goodyear commercials.
KC: So you found a way to stay busy for a couple decades there while the kustom scene was flat?
GW: That’s right. In the ’80s it started coming back and I didn’t realize it started on the East Coast. Usually the trends start here in California. But all of a sudden it started back up in Ohio and Florida and the Mid-West, and these guys mailed me a car show flyer and I threw it in the trash. Then they called me up and asked me to come to their show, and I still wouldn’t do it. The next year they sent plane tickets for me and my wife to go back to Ohio. I got back there and I said, ‘Oh my god it’s happening all over again!’ So I got back on it and started making parts and pieces, tail lights and things like that for kustom cars. I’ve been in it ever since.
KC: Do you like building custom cars more than doing movies and commercials?
GW: Oh yeah, that’s how I got my start and I have way more fun doing it. When I do a kustom job and put my Winfield blend on there, I can stand back and say, ‘Wow, there it is, I created a piece of art’. Then lots of people get to see it and it’s very gratifying to stand back and look at what you’ve created and enjoy it.The Winfield Blend
KC: Can you explain how you developed your paint style?
GW: When I developed the blending of paint, first I did a couple motorcycles and I blended them from the bottom up, creating different colors. I could see how you could blend the colors from dark to light, and I just experimented and found a way to create something new. The first car I did a complete blend job on was a 1957 Chevy, brand new in ’57. We left most of the side chrome on, it was a mild kustom, and I created this paint job where I blended around the edges and around the chrome and I highlighted what was there.
Then little by little I got more into blending of the actual colors, and in ’59 I built the Jade Idol (Jade Idol recreation pictured above getting a fresh repaint – KC) and I put a radical, radical paint job on it where I blended the whole car top to bottom and used many, many different colors. Jade Idol hit the show car circuit in 1960 and we took it back East and all over and it won everything at every show. It would win three or four trophies, best paint, best engine, on and on. Some of the trophies were five or six feet tall and we had to take them apart to haul them all home. That was the most radical blended job and it put me on the map because I went all over the nation, and it’s just continued to go uphill ever since the Jade Idol.
KC: Let’s shift gears. What advice would you give to guys who want to start building cars?
GW: Young or old, if people want to build cars, what they should do first is learn how to weld and do some metalwork. There are good metalworking classes all over the US now, and there are also lots of good DVDs that teach you how to work with metal. The main thing is to have patience and stick with it. Some people, when they try something new, they lose interest too easily. So my advice is to hang in there. Even if your work doesn’t look as good as you want it to, you have to continue to hammer away at it because that’s what will make you better. Stick with it and work hard, that’s the best advice I can give.
KC: Which basic tools should someone have to start off in metal fabrication?
GW: Number one, get a sandbag. That’s easy to get and doesn’t cost hardly any money. You’ll need some hammers too. The best ones around are probably Martin hammers. Snap-on has a good one that was originally designed by a company called Plumb and Snap-on bought the cross peen design – that’s very good. The cross peen is one of my favorite hammers. You can get them at Eastwood. They say Eastwood on them but they’re made by Martin.
Then probably an English Wheel – there are lots of options for those now. A shrinker stretcher doesn’t cost very much money either, and possibly a bead roller once you start getting into equipment.
KC: Okay, and what about for welding?
GW: For welding I recommend a small torch. The Smith AW1A is my favorite torch. It’s a chrome-plated little torch and it’s beautiful. You can start with an 0 or a 00 tip and learn how to gas weld.
KC: So would you recommend starting out with gas welding instead of MIG?
GW: No, they both have their place. MIG welding is a lot easier – I can teach a 10-year-old kid how to MIG weld. There are lots of places where MIG works easier than gas welding. Each has its advantages, you just have to learn by trying both and figuring out what works for each situation.
KC: Where do you get your inspiration to do certain things to cars?
GW: Well, when I was young Harry Westergard was in Sacramento and I was raised 70 miles away in Modesto. Harry Westergard and Dick Bertolucci were both in Sacramento and Joe Wilhelm was in San Jose, and those were the builders who I looked up to when I was learning. Then I finally went down to the LA area and Valley Custom, Clayton Jensen and Neil Emory, they were doing the best work in LA doing hammer welding and leading.
KC: Did you ever end up working with any of those guys?
GW: No, no I never did, but when Valley Custom closed down I invited Clayton Jensen to come up to Modesto and work with me, and he drove all the way up there, 400 miles, and we talked about it but he decided he didn’t want to move his family so far away. So he went on to rebuild Ferraris and stuff like that. He was a fabulous craftsman. There were no classes back then so we were all self-taught. One of my favorite expressions is ‘Everyday is a school day!’
KC: I think you should tell us about your time in Japan.
GW: Yeah, I went to Japan with the army in 1950 as a cook in the MP battalion. The first day I was there I found this body shop and it had a dirt floor and the guy had a chunk of steel three inches thick and eighteen inches square. He only had two hammers and a couple dollies. Of course the hammers were double sided so he really had four choices of hammers to use. He would get down on his haunches and pound on these little pieces of metal, and I watched him shape the metal by pounding it with a hammer, and he made a complete fender for a ’39 Buick. All the little pieces, welded together with no filler whatsoever.
I asked him about lead and he said they knew about it but they didn’t have any. Of course, plastic filler didn’t come out until 1955, and so they mixed this primer that came in pellets, almost like rabbit pellets, and they would mix it with thinner. So if they wanted a putty to fill with they would leave it thicker, or take the same material and thin it out and spray it. That was their primer and filler – that’s all they had. It was a really great experience. I watched the guy all day and went back the next day and watched for hours, and that’s how I learned to hammer weld.
Then later four of us GIs got together and rented a little shop so we could build cars, and we hired a Japanese guy who we called Hammer Happy because we couldn’t pronounce his name. We paid him 10 dollars a day and he was a tremendous fabricator, welding and everything, just amazing.
KC: What kind of cars did you guys build in Japan?
GW: I was building a ’41 Ford and I put ’46 fenders on it and did a half chop, half section on it and we made a new pancake hood completely from scratch out of sheetmetal. We were also working on a ’39 Ford convertible and one guy was building a race car because we found a race track over there and they were racing little tiny cars. This guy had a race car with a four cylinder Crosley engine. At the time Nissan/Datsun Motor Company had two gorgeous cars called the DatKing and the DatQueen. They had a full-on race car body just like an Indy car or a Midget, but they had stock Datsun engines that only made 20 horsepower.
Then they upped it to 28 horsepower and I showed them how to shave the heads and we locked the rear ends and I cross-grooved the tires. Now the tires helped, but they didn’t have enough power to break the locked rear ends loose in the turns so it didn’t work. Yeah, that was interesting. So we were building one of those Crosley racing cars and I have a picture of me holding the complete chromoly frame with one finger. Then I lifted up the Crosley engine in one hand! I was also building more of a sports car – I took a ’34 Ford frame and Z’d it and I was going to build a complete sports car body but we never go to finish it because we ended up coming home.
KC: What were all those American cars doing in Japan though?
GW: Well all the GIs were allowed to ship their cars there for free, so we brought lots of stuff over. There were so many American cars that I organized the first Stock Car race in Japan, and there were Pontiacs and Fords racing each other in Japan! I have a NASCAR license from 1954, I used to race all kinds of jalopies and hard tops.
Now I still run a Midget in Ohio every year in the nostalgia race and I have my Sprint car here. I just sold my Sprint car with a stroker Chevy in it, it was really fast. This one had a Flathead in it and also a small block Chevy, so I’m undecided on what I’ll do with it. But I go out and play and run out here at Willow Springs every year for the nostalgia race.
KC: Tell us about the new museum your building.
GW: It’s a picture museum, instead of a car museum. Although last week we put a new door in the side so I can bring one car in there like the Reactor or the Strip Star. My plan is to build it and live in there. It’ll have all the nostalgia stuff, the pictures and posters and articles that I’ve collected over the years. All the magazine articles I’ve been in over the years are going to be on display in chronological order from the ’50s all the way up to today.
One room will be the Star Trek room where you wave your hand and the doors slide open and the light turns on. I have mirrors at each end so it looks a hundred feet long and I have the Enterprise in there and the Captain’s chair and all sorts of memorabilia from the movie.
Then the next room is the hot rod garage. There’s a glass top coffee table with a Flathead under it and I have a Model A pickup coming out of the wall that I painted bright red with chrome wheels. When you take the tonneau cover off it’ll have a bed for someone to sleep over on. The museum is coming along really well and I should be living in there before I have my next car show in October.
KC: I got to meet Ed Iskenderian at your last show. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with him?
GW: Ed is a fabulous guy, he’s 91 I think now and he’s very sharp. He remembers everything and he can talk to you for hours about all the old stuff. He should be there again this year, him and Louis Senter who used to own Ansen wheels, he should be there too. I heard Vic Edelbrock is going to try to make it too.
KC: How long have you known Isky?
GW: Probably 30 or 40 years. I didn’t meet him when I was real young. I met Vic Edelbrock and Nick Arias way back before then. I’m 87 now so I met a lot of these guys a long time ago (pauses). Hey they’re calling me, I have to go paint a car now they just got done getting it ready for me. I’m painting a ’54 Pontiac and I’m gonna blend to roof blue, similar to your Kaiser but I’ll go darker on the sides and I already put white pearl lace on the roof that will come through on the blue. So I’m gonna go do that.
KC: Okay, let me get one last question in – what’s the proudest moment of your career?
GW: Well, that’s hard to say (sighs). I’ve done so many things and met so many beautiful, nice people in the world. You know, I was in New Orleans a couple weeks ago on this series of chopping tops at World of Wheels shows, and this guy had his four-year-old son there. I had him come over and help me work some metal, and it was this nice bonding experience with this young child.
Then yesterday we got a cake in the mail and come to find out this guy works for the FBI and he said he really appreciated that I made that panel with his little boy and he said if I ever need anything, I can call him (laughs). So anyways, it was very gratifying, and he sent a cake for the guys at the shop and a nice letter with a picture of me and his boy. Things like that make me feel good, you know.
KC: Alright well I better let you go paint that Pontiac, thanks so much for your time Gene.
GW: Don’t forget we’re all in this together, for the love of customizing cars, young or old!