Custom Car Builders

May 11, 2017

Johnny Zaro 1941 Ford




Originally created for John Vara by George Barris. This radical full fade away fendered 1941 Ford padded topped Convertible is best known as the Johnny Zaro 1941 Ford.

Johnny Zaro is a well know name in the Custom Car world, his two Barris brothers restyled Custom Cars had a huge impact on the Custom Car world. Johnny’s Custom Cars have been well featured in the magazines and books back then, and in more recent year. Both Customs, a 1940 Mercury Coupe, and a 1941 Ford Convertible have miraculously survived all these years and have been fully restored by their new caretakers a number of years ago. They now can be enjoyed for many more decades by enthusiast from all over the world. We will be featuring both these Zaro Custom Cars here on the Custom Car Chronicle, especially since both cars have played a big part in the history of the Custom Car. This article is about Johnny’s second full Custom Car, “The MERC of ZARO” 1941 Ford Convertible full Custom, one of the wildest, of not the wildest early Barris Custom.

Robert Ruiz shared this photo of the ’41 Ford still in progress. This is the earliest photo of the John Vara, Johnny Zaro Ford that we have come across, and was still owned by John Vara when this snapshot was taken. According to Robert Ruiz, the writing on the back of the photo says “1948? Elmer’s muffler shop. It was my friends dad’s shop in L.A. 139 E.Manchester blvd.”


This full Custom 1941 Ford Convertible is known as the Johnny Zaro Custom, since his name has been attached to it since 1948, and this is how the car was featured in the magazines and books ever since. But the car was actually built as a finished Custom Car for John Vara. Usually a historic Custom Car is named by its original owner (if known) but in this case the car is named by its second owner, Johnny Zaro, The Johnny Zaro 1941 Ford.

First Version

George Barris built this 1941 Ford convertible-based custom for John Vara in around 1947 perhaps early 1948. Most of the work on the car was done by George Barris. George had created his own personal 1941 Buick with full fade away fenders, and for John’s Ford they wanted to go even more extreme. Full fade away fenders on a channeled body with raised front fenders creating a totally unique look. Where most of the Barris Customs from this era had at least some sort of shiny trim on the body, John’s 41 Ford was free of any exterior trim or handles, apart from the chrome plated grille bars.

1952 Ford Times magazine showed this photo of the Ford and named it the Barris-Vara car.


According the 1951 issue of Motor Trend magazine the car was channeled 8 inches over the frame which was modified with a straight rear crossmember allowing the rear to drop another extra 3 inches. The front axle was replaced with a dropped unit to get the front nice and low with a slight speed boat stance. To be able to steer the wheels after the channeling, the front fenders were raised to about an inch under the hood line. The bottom section of the hood sides were cut off completely and the the hood was welded to the raised front fenders. At the rear the fenders were welded to the body and using sheet metal the sharp edge was rounded with a nice radius. The trunk was shaved and combined with the molded in rear fenders the rear of the car looked super smooth.

With the new much higher position of the front fenders George set out to hand shape some sheet metal to form the full fade away fenders, creating a smooth line from the front fender’s all the way to the rear fenders. With the sides all level, not showing the front edge of the rear fenders, like how it was done on the stock ’42-48 Buicks. This created an unique smooth looks for the sides. The molded-in shape of the rear fenders was repeated on the fade away fender as well as the fender to hood lines. Creating one smooth flow from front to rear. George decided to create a smaller hood opening, leaving the front portions of the hood with the front fenders. Another innovative idea helping with the overall smooth feel of the car. The headlights were frenched with molded in bezels.

Take at the same location as the image above. This is how the car looked like in its first version back in 1948. Notice that this version of the car, most likely still owned by John Vara had a license plate on the front as well. (Colorized black and white photo.)


From an early (late 40’s)Power &  Customizing Manual.


When creating the full fade away fenders the bottom door line, which was on top of the running board on the stock Ford, was now all the way at the bottom of the body. The lower portions of the new body line was rounded inwards to give the lower edge of the car a nice finished look. To accentuate the long fade away fenders George Barris installed a set of his favorite long 1941 Ford/Mercury fender skirts.

A new grille opening was created and three 1948 Pontiac grille bars were modified to get the same width and installed into the new opening. A ’46 Ford gravel pan was installed at the front at the stock location compared to the fenders. A ’46 Ford bumper was installed and the new location made the front of the car looks far less low than it actually was. One a bit of a design flaw (in my eyes) is that the Pontiac grille bars appear to be dipping down a bit in the center, conflicting with the front bumper, which appears to be pointing up slightly in the center.

At the rear George created the very popular – at the time – in-set license plate. A beautiful shaped opening with the license plate installed from inside the trunk, behind a piece of glass. A ’46 Ford splash pan was molded to the body. With all the body work smoothed George had created a super slick new body, and he did not want to add a set of taillights to it to ruin the overall shape. So he installed two tiny motorcycle taillights on each side of the ’46 Ford bumper guards. The windshield was chopped a few inches. According the early magazines it was chopped 4.5 inches, but I feel it could have been a bit less than that.

Gene Winfield took this photo of the car after Johnny Zaro had bought it. By now the license plate on the front has been removed and curb feelers have been installed to keep the ultra smooth body sides from scraping the high Los Angeles curbs. Beautiful angle shows the real beauty of Johnny’s Ford.


George Barris painted the finished car  with paint based on DuPont Polychromatic Maroon. George custom mixed it and added Venus Martin gold powder into the last layers for some extra sparkle. When the car was done it was send to Louis Chavez for the padded top. As for the interior there is some controversy about who created that. The ’51 Motor Trend magazine feature list Chavez as the shop who did the interior, the Barris book and the Custom Cars Annual interview with Johnny Zaro from 2012 mentioned Bill Hilborn as the upholstery guy. The interior was done in red and white leatherette and had a special shaped rear bench with a small bar incorporated. The carpet on the floor was wine colored.

The car was detailed with wide white wall tires, chrome beauty rings with full moon hubcaps and a set of Appleton Spotlights. During the final stages of the built Johnny Zaro had seen the car at the Barris Shop several times while being there with his ’40 Mercury. Johnny had fallen in love with the car and made a deal with the Ford owner John Vara. John ended up with Johnny’s 1940 Mercury Coupe, plus an extra $300.- and Johnny Zaro ended up with the freshly finished ’41 Ford. Johnny had to trow in the extra $300.- just because his ’40 Merc was a bit more rough around the edges than the Ford. But that did not really matter to much, Johnny Loved his new ’41 Ford. (In at least one early  publication (Ford Times Feb. 1951) the car is listed as the John Vara Ford.)

At the time Johnny was trading the car with the additional $300.- payment he did not have the money for it. He was in his very early 20’s at the time and not making all that much money yet. He loaned the money from his mother, but she also did not have enough. So Johnny and his mother went over to Seaboard Finance Co. in Huntington Park, and he borrowed the money from them. Later when he had trouble paying them back the company confiscated the car. The owner of the Soaboard Co. actually took the car home and drove it. Eventually Johnny got the car back.

In the interview that Justin Kudolla had with Johnny Zaro, Johnny mentioned that he remembered that one day when he was over at the Barris show he saw how George was trying to fit the fadeaway fender on one of the side of the car and the metal did not work with him the way it was supposed to do. George got really frustrated. “He got madder than heck and he took a pick hammer and started punching holes in the fender! He was really upset!” When Johnny visited the shop the next day, George was welding the thing up, brazing it back together, and grinding down.

Another Gene winfield photo of the car taken on a trip into the mountains. Another beautiful angle showing the beauty of the super smooth and molded body lines. Kustoms Los Angeles plaque, curb feelers mounted on the fender skirts and the super small motorcycle teardrop chrome plated taillights. Notice that the hood corners are not rounded on Johnny’s Ford.


Johnny added some personal touches to the car shortly after he had bought it. The dashboard was cleaned up, the base chrome plated and he created hand shaped wine colored red lucite panels to replace the stock plastic panels on the dash. Johnny also added some wine red lights on the dash that illuminated when the doors popped open. The Appleton Spotlights that had been added were customized with hand shaped laminated red lucite handles.

The doors on Johnny’s Ford are operated by solenoid pop-ups. The buttons were hidden under the doors on the outside and push buttons on the dash to open them from the inside. These buttons were only on the drivers side of the dash. Done especially so that the ladies could not open the doors on their own. Johnny also reworked the hood and trunk to have them hydraulic operated. from switches on the dash.

Small updates
Like most of the Custom Car owners, Johnny also made a few minor changes to his Ford along the way. Updates with newer parts that have become available since the car was first finished, or perhaps inspired by other fresh custom Cars. Johnny replaced the moon hubcaps with the smooth beauty rings (most likely a Calnervar product) with a set of Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps. And the small teardrop shaped motorcycle taillights positioned next to the rear bumper guards had to make place for a set of bumper guard taillights. Handmade by, or supervised/inspired by Jesse Lopez into the 1946 Ford bumper guards. A beautiful art-deco shaped cut out was made and laminated clear red lucite was shaped similar to fill the hole.

New bumper guard taillights and Sombrero hubcaps. Johnny needed special wood boards to enter the drive way at home without scraping the exhaust. Johnny’s car was low, very low.


The mildly updated version of Johnny Zaro’s Ford was featured in Motor Trend December 1949. (Still looking for a better scan of this article… anybody? )


Johnny Zaro with his ’41 Ford. Unlike a lot of other owners of padded topped Customs, Johnny liked to take off the top and cruise around topless in the beautiful SoCal summers.


Johnny’s Ford at the Barris Compton Ave Shop in 1949. 


George Barris used Johnny Zaro’s ’41 Ford in several of the Barris Magazine ads, as well as promotional photos at early Car shows. Shown here are two late 1940’s magazine and show program ads.


We are fortunate to have two color slides showing the original deep maroon color added by George Barris. This photo and the one below were taken after Johnny had installed the Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps.


A look at the two tone interior. 


The early version of the Ford used a 1948 Mercury steering wheel. This photo shows how nice the interior was done and also shows (if you look carefully) that Johnny added the letters “KUSTOM” on an angle to the red lucite dash panel. Also visible are the hand made laminated red lucite Appleton Spotlight handles.


Another top view shows the beautiful round and wide read pleats in the interior, as well as the special shaped rear bench.


This photo is really nice, showing Johnny’s ’41 Ford and the ’40 mercury coupe, owned by his friends Al Andril. Al’s Mercury was very similar to his own Merc that he traded for the ’41 Ford.


Tokay Beige Version

After some time Johnny wanted to make some more changes to the car and do a new paint job. A new more modern grille for the car was created from a 1949 Pontiac grille. In the Motor Trend July 1951 feature, as well as in the Barris Kustom Techniques of the 1950′ Volume 3 is written that the grille was made up from ’49 Pontiac and Studebaker part, but as far as I can tell the grille is just a narrowed ’49 Pontiac, with the stock pontiac grille bars below the top bar. The bottom bar is also a narrowed (center bulge removed) bar from a ’49 Pontiac. The grille never fitted very well, sitting lower on the passenger side than the drivers side. The ’48 Mercury steering wheel made place for a new Ford Crestline steering wheel, and an accessory bar was added in between the front bumper guards. The George Barris suggested to paint the car in Tokay Beige which – according to Johnny Zaro – was a slight pinkish tan. He mentioned that the color looked great at night, but during the day not so much.

The new light paint and heavier grille gave the car a completely new look.


Parked at Johnny’s home with the new tokay beige paint. the grille was made from a narrowed and welded together ’49 Pontiac grille. The vertical grille bars are stock ’49 Pontiac and the lower bar sitting on the molded gravel pan is also from the pontiac and narrowed the same amount, deleting the stock center bulge. Notice how the gap above the grille is much wider on the passenger side than the driver side. 


Johnny drove the Ford around in Tokay Beige or for some time, and then decided to go back to maroon again. He liked the color much better on the first version. So George Barris custom mixed another batch of Maroon including the Venus Martin gold powder. Another plus effect of the new dark paint was that the bit poor fitting grille looked a lot better, with the dark paint hiding the slight gap above the grille on the passenger side. The new darker paint changed the look of the car again. But the new grille still made sure the car was more up to date than with the old three bar grille.

Barris Bell ShopJohnny’s Ford with the new Maroon paint on it at the Barris Bell Shop.


The Zaro Ford was not only a great looking Custom Car, it also performer pretty well. Johhny Zaro mentioned in his Kuddola interview that the car hauled ass as well. When the car was first built it had the a regular V-8 engine, But later Johnny got a 3 and 5/16th bore, Weiand heads, a Spalding ignition, Howards cam, and an Edelbrock manifold. The new updated engine really went! In 1951 George Barris wanted to take my car up to the Oakland Roadster Show and offered to drive the car there himself. Johnny told him “No, not unless you put the car on a trailer and take it up there.” Johnny didn’t want to put any miles on the new engine, he just had the full engine put in the car. So, he ended up bringing a trailer and he took it up there. Johnny took a plane and flew to Oakland and after the show he drove the car back home to Los Angles, very carefully.

George Barris took Johnny’s Ford to the 1951 Oakland Roadster Show. The trophies displayed with the car show that the car was well liked.


Another unique color photos was taken by Walter Wyss at the ’51 Oakland Roadster Show. George Barris kneeling on the right, Jack Stewart hanging over the drivers side fender, Johnny Zaro polishing the hood and an unknown friend on the left.


Johnny’s Ford at another (unknown) show. Notice the large sign on the hood of the car.


Johnny and Fay Zaro on their honeymoon with Johnny’s ’41 Ford nicely dressed up for the occasion.


Johnny’s Ford was featured in color on the cover of the July 1951 issue of Motor Trend magazine. Inside was a one page feature on the car with photos taken by none other than Marcia Campbell.


Marcia Campbell loved to show the cars at full profile, giving a very good impression of the overall look of the car. I can’t help but wonder if a slight angle on the B-pilla of the padded top might have helped the overall flow of the car even more.


Cover image of the Motor Trend Magazine. “Merc of Zaro” is not a far-fetched pun. John Zaro’s striking convertible is powered by a highly-tuned Mercury engine. The car’s attractiveness is completed here by beautiful June Burroughs of Glen Ellen, Illinois, pleasantly clad in a swim suit by Rose Marie Reid and accompanied by Bill Evans of Los Angeles Photo by C.A. Peterson.


Fay, Johnny’s future wife, posing with the Ford.


Selling the car

George Barris introduced Johnny’s future wife Fay to Johnny around 1951. He would cruise with Fay oat night on the little alleys, since cruising the main roads would attract to many cops who loved to ticket him for being to low, loud or whatever they could think off. When Fay and Johnny decided to get married Johnny decided to let go of the Ford, to be able to pay for a new house. He put the car up for sale on the D&B Auto Sales car lot in Hollywoon. The lot was specialized in selling Hot Rods and Custom Cars. The Ford had not been on the lot for 24 hours, when it was stolen off of the lot. After some time the FBI called Johnny to mention they had found the car in Kingman, Arizona. The FBI was involved since it had become a federal offense once the car got across the California border. Johnny and his soon to be father-in-law went down there. Turned out a couple guys from Boston had stolen the car, and they got stranded in Arizona when they ruined the motor. They towed the car it back home to Marywood California. Johnny pulled the damaged engine and put another full engine in it.

Johhny’s Ford at the D&B Auto Sales on Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood. According to Johnny the car was not even on the lot for 24 hours when it got stollen.


In 1952 a guy from Lincoln, Nebraska bought the car. The guy was still in college and after a while he send Johnny a letter that the car was doing fine, but that he tried to take it to college one day. But after everybody at school was all over the car he decided he could not use it as daily transportation anymore. Next thing we know was that in the August 1952 issue of Motor Trend magazine, Springer Jones of  Mitchell, Nebraska put up an For Sale ad.  The asking price was $2345 or best offer. We are not sure if Springer Jones was the guy who bought it from Johnny, since Johnny could not remember his name anymore.

Ad from the august 1952 issue of Motor Trend magazine shows the Zaro Ford For Sale by new owner Springer Jones from Mitchell, Nebraska. 


Updated by Russ Erlinger

From 1952 to 1953 at least one other person has owned the Ford, since in 1953 Russ Erlinger of Belleville, Illinois buys the Ford from an unknown person in Wyoming. This unknown person most likely bought it from Springer Jones. Russ used the car and at one point while him and his wife were driving the car he was involved in an accident. According the stories the car rolled over (not sure if it completely rolled, or just one its side). Over the years Russ restored the car, and made some small updates. The mot obvious updates are a set of 1949 Plymouth bumpers replacing the ’46 Ford units. He also added bumper guard taillights in a set of ’49 Plymouth guards. He raplced the Sombrero hubcaps with a set of ’53 Cadillac hubcaps, replaced the long ’41 fender skirts with shorter 46-48 units. It looks like he replaced the front axle with a slightly wider unit. Perhaps he used a 46-48 axle, which is a bit wider than the ’41 unit, or a more modern update. Russ also added an new grille opening underneath the bumper. It looks like he used a Studebaker pan for this, but its hard to tell. Most likely the new grille opening helps cooling the engine. in 2017 Russ still own the car and shows it to the public at local car shows from time to time. And the car still draws a crown where ever it goes.

The Plymouth bumpers, ’53 Cadillac hubcaps changed the look of the car, but it still overall looks very much like how it looked back in the early 1950’s.


The dash and possibly the steering wheel have not changed since the early 1950’s. The chrome plated dash with clear red lucite is still all there, and so are the hand made Appleton Spotlight handles and even the “KUSTOM” chrome letters on the center of the dash.


Close up at the front shows the addition of the ’49 Pontiac parking lights to the Pontiac grille, as well as the new grille opening below the ’49 Plymouth front bumper. The close up photo also shows that the passenger side of the grille is still not fitting the opening as well as the drivers side.


At the rear Russ Erlinger also added a ’49 Plymouth bumper, and created a set of bumper guard taillights into the Plymouth bumper guards. It appears that the rare long ’41 Ford/Mercury fender skirt have been replaced by the shorter 46-48 skirts during the restoration. To bad about the pinstriping, personally I feel the car would look far better without that.


The Johnny Zaro 1940 Mercury Coupe and 1941 Ford Convertible reunited. Both photos show the new grille opening below the ’49 Plymouth bumper, both added in the car latest restoration by Russ Erlinger, really well.


Johnny Zaro Ford also appeared in the Dan Post Books, Motor Trend magazine and the Custom Cars Trend Book No. 101 back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The early publications of these photos of the ’41 Ford has played a huge roll in the development of the Custom Car. Several customs cars from all over the US have been influenced by the Johnny Zaro Ford. Well know Customs as the Jack Stewart ’41 Ford, and the Joe Urritta ’41 Ford have styling elements very similar to this car. It is a real blessing that the original car has survived, been fully restored and can be seen at out door cars shows from time to time. But I do hope that in the future, possibly owned by a new caretaker, the car will be backdated to how it looked back in 1951. Dark maroon paint, ’46 Ford bumpers, Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps, and no pinstriping.



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About the Author

Rik Hoving
Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what's going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)



  1. I love the first version of this kustom…never cared much for the Pontiac “updated” grill. Great to see it still show-worthy and living a good life!

  2. allways loved this kustom what a great story on this car rik, the first maroon paint job was the best for this car, i allso hope the owner one day puts it back like it was back then,

  3. Great story Rik, this is one of my favorite cars! I love the old Robert Ruiz photo.

  4. John Zaro

    Yes,I would like to see the car back to when my dad Johnny zaro owned the car.The color was polychromatic maroon with gold dust in it. One of these days I would like to see both of his cars in person

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