BONNEVILLE via CUSTOM
In 1953 Car Craft editor Dick Day joined Chuch DeWitt on his trip in his Barris Custom 1950 Ford convertible to the Bonneville Speed Trials. Custom Car Road-Trip, Bonneville via Custom.
Taking a long road trip in a full Custom Car has always been something special. We know that most of the Custom Cars – up to the rise of the major car shows in the mid ’50’s – were often used for daily transport, and also for the longer trips. I have heard personal stories of Jim Skonzakes who took his ’41 Ford convertible and ’49 Buick full customs on trips all across the US and several times from Dayton Ohio to Los Angeles. Jim also drove the Jack Stewart Ford from Los Angeles to his home in Dayton. Jimmy Summers drove his full Custom 1940 Mercury all over the place together with his friend Doane Spencer in his famous 1932 Ford Roadster. We have heard about Marcia Campbell driving here ’42 Ford Coupe long distances, and many more stories that were told about these long full Custom Car road trips back in the ’40’s and ’50’s. Great stories about these guys and girls driving their dream cars, enjoying the cars in their natural habitat. Sadly only very few of these stories were published back in the time these trips happened. The most famous road-trip story in a full Custom Car must have been the Kross Kountry trip in the Hirohata Mercury as it was published in the October ’53 issue of Rod & Custom Magazine. This published stories most likely inspired many young guy to go on similar road trips with their friends and Custom Cars.
One other published Road-trip story in a full custom that made an impact, but is often overlooked these days was in the December ’53 issue of Car Craft Magazine. Car Craft Associate Editor Dick Day documented a road trip he took with Chuck DeWitt and a friend in Chuck’s Barris Kustoms created 1950 Ford convertible from Los Angeles to the ’53 Bonneville Speed-Trials. A 1600 miles round trip documented in 6 pages, with some nice on-the-road photos of Chuck DeWitt’s beautiful Fuschia-Orchid-Metallic painted Carson topped convertible.
Chuck DeWitt’s 1950 Ford Convertible was restyled at the Barris Shop in ’52-early ’53. According the Barris Kustoms Technique book Chuck had already replaced the stock Ford engine with a hopped up Mercury unit and he had driven the car up to 118 mph before he took it to the Barris brothers for the full Custom treatment. Chopped windshield, ’53 Pontiac taillights in modified wind-splits, custom grille surround, typical Barris built grille, custom side trim using ’52 Buick and ’53 Olds component, a beautiful deep organic purple paint job and a white perfectly shaped padded top by the Carson Top Shop.
The Car Craft Article
Bonneville via custom
– Transcript of the December 1953 Car Craft magazine article –
By Dick Day
What happens when you take a radical customized car away from it weekly mooring at the local drive-in, and head it out onto the open highway for a sixteen-hundered mile trip? These weremy personal thoughts as I slid into the plush interior of Chuck deWitt’s beautifully restyled ’59 Ford convertible and departed for the Bonneville National Speed Trials.
As I sat wondering what experience lay in store for use, considering the car’s roadability, comfort and the reception it would receive from the neighboring states, CHuck began relating some of the car’s technical points. The body itself has undergone some very extensive alterations by the Barris Custom Shop of Lynwood, California. The top has been chopped three and three-quarter inches and replaced with a beautiful white padded Carson type lid. Inside, the little jewel is one mass of soft airfoam, covered with black and white rolled and pleated leatherette upholstering, which at the time was providing itself most comfortable. A quick overall summery of the car could be it has the distinction of being one of the “Ten Best Customs in the Country”.
Our first stop for gas proved to be a ritual that was to follow us throughout the entire trip. It was the question and answer routine that every radical custom owner goes through with the average gas station attendant and his assistants. It runs like this: “Where’s the gas filler spout? How come you got it positioned in the trunk? How do you get inside without door handles? What color paint do you call this? The most pointed comment of all referred to the ground clearance, which was four-and-a-half inches all the way around, “What happens when you drive over a piece of gravel?” Once back on the highway again, we checked out the added weight necessitated by the trip and figured that the already taxed suspension was supporting approximately seven hundred punds. This included the passengers, as limited amount of camera and clothing gear and thirty gallons of gasoline. A third of this weight was towards the rear of the car. Chuck has installed in the rear deck compartment a thirteen gallon auxiliary tank for just such trips as this. When combined with the stock tank’s petrol capacity, the car is able to travel an average of Five-hundred miles without stopping for gas. This for non-stop purpose works out wonderfully, but for a car that has been drastically lowered, the extra pounds of the gas added to the rear of the car, can spell the difference between a comfortable ride and one that feels as though the body was bolted to the rear axle.
We negotiated about every type of road surface conceivable, except possibly one of a muddy nature (thanks, but no thanks). The car responded differently with each one. On a smooth surface the car’s response to bottoming was nil, but herex as larger amount of rocking and pitching from side to side was encountered at speeds in excess of fifty miles per hour. This action could be suppressed considerably, in Chuck’s case, by installing a sway bar at the rear of the car to counteract the radical side sway ad spring twisting action. On a tar-strip road the car averaged out a ride nearly equal to that of any standard production model.
A twisty mountainous road, for approximately thirty-five miles, was under construction and proved one of the most interesting roadability tests of the entire trip. The surface was of a granite gravel substance, just about ready to receive its asphalt top coating. To add a little incentive to the whole bit, a highway construction truck pulled in behind us at the summit. To stay in front of him we had to average a good fifty-five miles an hour or otherwise we’d be forced to eat dust from his rear wheels. Rocks being trown back could easily have damaged the paint on the front of the car. Strangely as it may seem, this was the smoothest ride of the whole trip, but jst a bit clamorous. Small rocks and gravel were bounding off the underneath side of the car like bullets. When we reached the floor of the canyon and the pavement once more, we stopped to examine the lower edge of the body for damages. No dents were visible, but Chuck now owned to of the most beautiful sandblasted rear fender skirts that I had ever seen. The gravel had obliterated all paint from the lower leading edge of each fender skirt.
At this point of the trip we should have realized that all had done too well, for from her on the highway was simulated obstacle course for the custom’s suspension. The ride that we had been enjoying without any aches and pains for the last four or five hundred miles went sour. The road pattern went something like this: sharp turns with wrong cambers, straight stretches had tapers from the middle of the road down to the shoulder that made us think we were running on the outside of an amusement park motordrome. Then to test Chuck’s driving skill without the price of a nickel, every fifteen or twenty feet a small knoll or slight pocket would appear for either the left of the right side of the car to go skimming over or dive into. By placing one hand up against the headliner, the left leg around the steering column and stuffing the right foot into the heater I could retain my position without too much hassle. We didn’t mind this too much because we knew it could have been worse. I could have lost the freedoms of my right arm which would have been cut off our supply of cigarettes and matches!
At Bonneville the car attracted almost as much attention as the famous 256 mph Kenz streamliner. It also gave many out of state spectators their first opportunity to see a radically customized car in the flesh.
The return trip home was repetitious of the first eight hundered miles, except for a slipping fan belt that necessitated repairs shade tree style. From this point it was only a matter of hours ’til we were rolling into Los Angeles and the cross-country trip in one of America’s outstanding restyled custom cars was coming to an end. The big question was “did the custom fail for roadability?”
This writer interpretation could be summarized possibly like this: the roadability and comfort depended largely on the condition of the road and at what speed we were traveling. This particular cars’s handling qualities were below average because drastic sacrifices were made on the front and rear suspension units to lower it to the desired level. At the same time comfort was destined to suffer from the fact that the car bottomed easier. Lately there have been some revised devices for lowering a car to a maximum degree without sacrificing handling qualities, and bottoming troubles have proved practically nil. In the near future Car Craft will feature these stories in a step-by-step version of ho they were performed.
The question, “did the car meet with any reception”? is fairly east to answer. I ‘ve never until now, found anything that would attract the attention of a die-hard gambler at a hot die table, nor anything to sway the one arm bandit friend to pear away from a triple plum, but DeWitt’s Ford had ’em falling out the doors from one end of Nevada to the other.
The Barris Kustom technique book shared this really great photo of Chuck driving the Ford in Las Vegas watched by a young kid on the side walk. Who knows seeing Chuck’s deep purple custom might have changed this kid forever…
Dick Day and Chuck made many photos of the Ford during the road-trip, some of them were used in Dick Day’s published article. This side view shows the low stance of the car and the beautiful shape of the Carson Top Shop created padded top.
From my own personal collection comes this rather faded and discolored photo taken at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1953. The deep purple paint must have looked absolutely stunning on the white salt.
This is one of the best color photos of the Chuck DeWitt’s Ford that we know about. It was also taken at the ’53 Speed Trial event at Bonneville. It shows that the car sure made an impact with several photographers.
Several more glamour photos were also taken to accompany the road-trip photos in the article. Some made it to the final cut, others not. This low angle front view gives us a great look at the well designed front end on Chuck’s Ford with the molded in round tube grille opening and unique Barris grille. Notice the Southern California letters in the windshield, a typical trend in the 1940’s and early 1950’s when the car owners proudly listed the school they were at, or went to.
Barris created the stunning looking rear of Chuck’s Ford using 1953 Pontiac taillights set into extended and reshaped wind-spilts. Both front and rear bumpers are 1951 Ford an use Kaiser overriders. The rear units were modified with exhaust tips in the bullets.
I wish there were many more articles published like this Bonneville trip and the one of the Hirohata Mercury Cross Country trip to Indianapolis. Road trips in the 1940’s and early 1950’s with Custom Cars. Road trips with many snapshots taken during the trip. Snapshots from people admiring the cars along the trip, snapshots taken from the car capturing the experience these guys had back then. And of course the stories about the trip itself. If you have ever been on a long road trip in a Custom Car, or know about some of the old guys who took trips like this back in the 40’s or 50’s. Please let us know. We would love to hear them, and share them here on the Custom Car Chronicle in our Road-Trip section.
Resources and more info
- Car Craft, Magazine December 1953
- Barris Kustoms Techniques of the 50’s, Book volume 2, 1996
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