SHAVED DOOR HANDLES
Shaving the door handles of your car for that Ultra Smooth Custom Look was one of the major trends in the early to mid 1950s. The history of Shaved Door Handles
Shaved door and trunk handles is one of those Custom Car Techniques that we are all familiar with. For many decades a majority of the Custom Car had its door and trunk handles removed, the remaining holes welded shut and smoothed for that very desirable Ultra Super Smooth Look. But when did the Custom Restylers started to remove the door handles, and where does it originate?
Like with so many of these early Custom Styles and Techniques we can only guess where they originated, and by researching old photos we can guess when the style started to become a trend. None of the early Custom Builders kept track of what they were doing, and when they started with a certain style or technique. In the case of the removed door and trunk handles we have a few leads to go by.
Like a lot of the Customizing techniques the removal of any extra trim was done first on the lake racers, to save weight, and make cars more aerodynamic. The lighter a car, the faster it could be driven. Some of these weight and aerodynamic modifications looked so good on these early lake racers, that the techniques were copied by the Custom Car Builders. Removing the handles is a perfect sample for this. Several early Coachbuilders also used hidden door handles, that might have been another inspiration source. One important lead we have on this subject comes from – who else – George Barris. He has mentioned that when he was working with Harry Westergard, when George still lived in Sacramento, CA., that Harry was using solenoids on one of the cars he was building. The (starter) solenoids came from an Buick, and Harry Westergard used them to remote activated the door mechanism, to be able to open the doors on the car he had removed, shaved the door handles from. Sadly it was not mentioned which specific Custom Car this was.
George Barris gives credit for the first use of GM solenoids with door poppers on shaved door customs to Harry Westergard. Harry must have been doing this before 1943, since this photo, showing George Personal ’36 Ford, with shaved door handles, and Gene Garrett’s ’36 Ford done by Harry with door handles still in place was taken in 1943.
George Barris mentioned that when he moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles around 1943, the Solenoid controled door openers on his 1936 Ford, which he had built while working with Harry Westergard, made a huge impact on the car guys in LA. Apperenly the way to open the doors for most of the guys was to just pull hard on the door, and George pushing a button was like a new technique from outerspace. Something that also made a huge impact on the girls. george started to add these remote door openers to client cars in LA soon there after.
Bob Fairman’s 1936 Ford was built at the Jimmy Summers shop in the very early 1940’s. One photo shows it with 1940-41 California License plates. This photo shows the car with 1942 tags on the plates. The door handles were shaved, but we have no information on how the doors were opened on this car. Perhaps an hidden handle under the front fender popped the door open.
A lot of the early Californian Custom cars built in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s were based on convertibles. When they started to remove the door handles, they would remove only the outside handles, the interior handles were left in place, so in most cases these convertible doors could be opened from the outside just by using the interior door handle. But in case of a Coupe or Sedan with the door handles removed a solution needed to be found to open the doors. These electronic activated door openers could be hidden out of sight, in the cars side trim, underneath an Appleton spotlight, inside the fender, and even under the runningboards were the activation button could be hit with the top of your feet.
Jesse Lopez 1941 Ford was finished in 1948. Jesse had installed push buttons in the running board covers to activate the solenoids to pop the door open. As the photo from Popular Science shows, Jesse used his feet top activate the button. This must have been a spectacular sight in 1948.
Later on in the 1940’s the guys started to experiment with door opening buttons on the inside as well. And then especially for the passenger doors. Then when the guy was cruising around trying to pick up a girl, he could pop open the doors while sitting looking cool behind the wheel. With the interior door handles removed from the inside of the passenger side of the car, it made it also more difficult for the girls to just leave the car… giving the guy some more chance to make a move or two.
Two 1940 Mercury coupes getting Restyled by the Barris Custom Shop around 1947. The one on the left, owned by Al Andril, has already been chopped and its door handles shaved already. The one on the right, owned by Johnny Zaro still has its stock height top, and the door handles in place. Photo taken at the Barris Compton Ave Shop.
In the later part of the 1940’s the aftermarket industry started to offer special products to make it much easier for the custom car builders, and especially the home shop builders to do the shaved handles door popper modification. Among others Cal Custom started to offer solenoid sets specially aimed toward the use on Customs with the door handles removed. It became a very well selling product. Thru-out the mid 1950’s and up a year or two, shaving door handles on Custom Cars remained extremely popular.
Cal Custom, (also known as California Customs, or Eastern Auto Supply Co.) offered a complete Electric Door Kit in the late 1940’s. Alongside with a kit to open the trunk after the trunk handles had been shaved. Very rare products today, but Tomas Alcen from Sweden has been able to find both kits!
Activation buttons were hidden on all kinds of places. Ed Sloan demonstrates the small glove-box button that was hidden in the custom side trim on the door of his Barris Kustoms restyled 1953 Plymouth. The use of glove box buttons allowed the guys to actually lock the buttons.
The 49-51 Ford glove box door button was a very popular button to use on the Custom Cars in the early and mid 1950’s. The actually button was very small so it could be hidden very good, but the main plus was that it came with a lock. The push buttons could not be operated without the key for it.
After that, in the Watson era, a lot of the customizing was done with bolt on accessories, and paint. Hoods were shaved, trunks as well, but for practicality reasons often the door handles remained. And during the outline and paneling era of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, these door handles were often even accentuated with painted outlines. Quite the opposite as what happened in the decades before.
Fortunately several of the early Customs from the mid and later part of the 1940’s with shaved door handles have survived. When these cars were restored in recent years we had a chance to take a good look how the Custom Car builders from the 1940’s handled the shaved door handles and push button doors. Some of the work, especially that was covered up by upholstery was kind of rough, to save time and money. But it worked, and that was all that counted. And as long as is looked perfect from the outside nobody was complaining.
Snooky Janich 1941 Ford
The Snooky Janich 1941 Ford short door Coupe was created by the Barris brothers around 1947. All the work, including the shaved doors and push button
Close up of the solenoid and the hole that was created in the door to make room for it. The work was done rough, by todays standards. But it was all covered with upholstery, so nobody would ever see it, and it did work, and hold up at least 60 years.
The restored Snooky Janich 1941 Ford shows how super smooth these cars are with their shaved trim and door handles. If you look hard you can see the push button to open the drivers door on the bottom of the rear quarter panel that covers the former running boards, just behind the door. On Snooky’s Ford this button was mounted behind the doors, while Jesse Lopez had the button on his car on the actual door bottom.
Jack Stewart 1941 Ford
The second sample of original installation of the push button door openers on a shaved door handle custom is the Jack Stewart Ford. Jack’s Ford was started back in 1947, and one of the first things Jack did was removed the door handles along with the rest of the exterior trim for that desirable smooth look. Sadly I have never asked Jack about this specific feature on his car, and especially how he opened the doors in the years he drove it before it was finished as a full custom in 1951. It was after Jack had passed away I discovered that the solenoids that are now mounted inside the doors of the Ford are not installed yet when the car was fully customized at the Ayala hop in 1950. The Electric door openers must have been installed by George Barris when he finished the car for Jack in 1951.
The inset photo shows Jack Stewarts Ford before Jack and friends first chopped the car taken in 1947. By then the door handles had been shaved, but as we can see in the open door photo, the solenoid door opener had not been installed yet (compare with the photo below). Most likely Jack could only open the doors by reaching in thru the open window.
The drivers side door on the Jack stewart Ford, before the restoration was tarted, shows that the solenoid was mounted on the the lower right corner. To make place for the cable a hole had to be cut into the reinforced panel, this hole was not created in 1950. This was added by George Barris in 1951, when he installed the Electric Push Button Door Openers.
In the magazines
The shaving of the door handles was a Custom Restyling technique that for some reason was not mentioned in the very early Custom Car manuals. Even though it could be seen on many Custom Cars on the street, the only thing that was mentioned in the Custom Restyling manuals is that the door handles could be turned around to flow more streamlined with the car. Later it was mentioned that the door handles could be replaced with Lincoln push buttons. But completely remove the door handles and adding hidden push buttons as a Restyling technique did not make it into the mainstream Custom Car and Hot Rod publications until much later in the later part of the 1950’s, as far as I have been able to find out. Oddly enough the May 1947 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine mentioned the removal of door handles and how the doors could be opened after this in the May 1947 issue as part of the “They Tailor Their Own Cars” article.
The Dan Post books mentioned the use of 1946-48 Lincoln Push button even before they mentioned shaving door handles. The fact was that only very few of these Lincoln buttons ended up on Custom Cars. It appears that their use on Custom Cars in the last couple of decades has been far more frequent than back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I did however found one restyled Buick, done partly by Barris that uses the Lincoln push buttons.
Motor Trend magazine, December 1952 featured an article on the cost of Customizing. Motor Trend’s Nick Alexander interviewed George Barris, and one of the aspects of customizing they talked about were installing push button door handles.
Shaving door handles became very popular again with the resurrection of the Custom car in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. And once again the aftermarket saw its opportunity and offered several different kits to make it easier for the professional builder as well as the back yard shop builders.
In some countries it is not possible to own and drive a Custom with the door handles removed. Some country laws insist of a door handle on the outside of a vehicle so that in case of an emergency somebody can open the door easily from the outside.
One of the best ambassadors for shaving door handles must be the Ayala’s restyled ‘1949 Mercury for Louis Bettancourt. The car is so smooth and slippery with most of its exterior chrome removed, including the door handles.
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