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LIFE magazine photo shoot at Barris


LIFE Magazine photo shoot at BARRIS


In the early 1950s several non car related magazines did some magazine features on Custom Cars. One of them was Life Magazine, or at least they sent out Loomis Dean to take some photos for a possible feature to the Barris shop in 1953.

A number of years ago Life magazine started to share some of their used, and none used historic photo material thru Google Images on the internet. Including those photos were some really unique photos taken around 1952 on the Hot Rod and Custom Car subject. Photo’s taken at the drag races, the 1952 Petersen Motorama show, some outdoor photos at an unknown location and some very interesting photos taken at the Barris Kustom Shop. Some of these photos might have ended up in an 1953-54 issue of Motor Life magazine, but so far I have not been able to find any of those actually being published.¬†It might have been possible that the editor planned an article about Hot Rodding and Customizing, and send out the photographer¬†Loomis Dean to take some photos for a possible future article.

The great thing about these Life Magazine photos taken my Loomis Dean is that he most likely was not a real car guy, so he took the photos with more than just the cars as the subject. It resulted in some very unique photos, that have helped clear some mysteries, and gave us a much better look at how things were, especially at the Barris Kustoms Shop. I have already used some of these Life Magazine photos in the article I did on the Barris Shop Wall, identifying the things on the shop wall at the Barris Kustoms Shop.

I have always been very interested in everything that goes on in the background at the Hot Rod and Custom Car photos from the 40’s to the 60’s. And these Life Magazine photos gave use some really great “unwanted” information from everything that was going on in the background.

The idea for this article started when I looked carefully at one of the photos taken by Loomis Dean in 1953 at some guys pulling off the frame of the Chet Herbert’s Streamliner so that the guys at the Barris Shop could start the rush job on creating the streamlined all custom body panels for it. The photo is of course very interesting for the land speed fans, but everything that goes on in the background of this photo is very interesting for the Custom Car fans.

The Life magazine photo that started the idea for this article with the car inside the Barris Shop hidden in the dark shadow of this photo.

The most obvious things in the background are the rear fender of a 1940 Ford on the left, next up is a sectioned Shoebox Vicky, that has been mentioned and shown in the Barris 50’s Techniques books. (a bit more on that one later) Followed by a nosed 1951-51 Oldsmobile, a 1951 Cadillac Convertible with padded top, an freshly painted Jaguar, a 37-38 Ford coupe and one or two more cars behind that. In the shop there was one car pretty much in the dark, and when I lightened that part of the photo I noticed that it was the Earl Wilson heavily restyled 1947 Studeabaker “Grecian” in progress, and a custom grille sitting just in front of the shop sitting on some stands. On closer inspection it turned out the grille was the custom grille the Barris Shop had created for Fred Rowe’s 1951 Mercury.

After I lightened the right section of the photo I was able to identify the in progress 1947 Studebaker, chopped and sectioned and heavily restyled Grecian. And on the left side of the photo we see the, possibly freshly chrome plated custom grille for the Fred Rowe 1951 Mercury Convertible.

Finished 1947 Studebaker “Grecian) for Earl Willson.

When I was looking at some of the other photos taken around the same time as the first one posted in this article. I noticed a chopped convertible sitting in the open office door all the way on the right of the photo below. The main subject of the photo was the¬†Frank Sonzogni 1950 Mercury being hand sanded getting it ready for paint. A fantastic photo showing how some of the dirty work at the Barris shop, like the wet sanding of the many coats of primer, was done outside, in front of the shop by multiple guy, including Sam Barris. The convertible I was spotting in the open Office door was interesting, and after I had spotted in the background of a few other photos, I had to conclude that it must be the nearly finished Fred Rowe 1951 Mercury, awaiting the custom grille that was sitting in front of the shop in the first photo. The photo below might have been taken before the one we started this article with. The ’51 Cadillac convertible is sitting closer to the street, (now in front of the “Auto Painting” building).

Three guys, including Sam Barris are wet sanding¬†Frank Sonzogni’s 1950 Mercury. On the right is another mystery Barris Custom based on a 1941-48 Ford Coupe body with more modern fender added. (we will get back to this car at a later date) The chopped convertible can be seen thru the open Office door.

Taken from another angle we can see Sam Barris filling an old tin bucket with water for the wet sanding, and two guys sanding the¬†Frank Sonzogni ’50 Merc roof. ¬†The Fred Rowe ’51 Mercury can be seen here just to the left of Sam Barris, all the way on the left side of the photo.

Fred Rowe 1951 Mercury

The Fred Rowe 1951 Mercury was customize at the Barris shop in 1952, first in a milder version, chopped windshield, Chrysler taillights, Custom grille and molded grille surround. a little later it was back at the Barris shop for an update including ’52-53 Buick side trim, and subtile hood scoops. In 1955 the car was featured, along side the Hirohata Mercury in the movie Running Wild straring Mamie Van Doorn. In this series of photos from Life Magazine the car appears in the background of several photos being in progress from the first round of Custom Restyling.

I have enlarged two sections of the last two photos to show the in progress Fred Rowe ’51 Merc a little better. It is hard to tell how much more work still needs to be done on the car. It looks like it is almost ready. The low mounted Chrysler taillights can be seen in the photo on the right.

When the guys arrived with the¬†Chet Herbert‚Äôs Streamliner there had to be made some space to be able to unload it from the trailer. It looks like the Fred Rowe Merc (on the left side just behind the guy on the left) was moved forward, towards the street, and the ’51 Cadillac is gone in this picture, but in the first image we could see that it was moved more to thwards the back of the shop.

Enlarged section shows the Fred Rowe Mercury with possibly a stock grille installed, Appleton Spotlight and the stock Mercury side trim which was used on the first version of the car. Later the car would be outfitted with a ’52-53 Buick boomerang side trim.

Running Wild Fred Rowe MercuryFinished Fred Rowe 1951 Mercury, George Barris was able to get the car in the Running Wild movie, some extra exposure for the Barris Shop.

1940 Ford Chopped Coupe

In the openings photo of this article we could see a small portion of a rear fender of an 1940 Ford on he far left side of the photo. In several other photos taken by ¬†the Life Magazine photographer we can have a better look at his custom. I t appears to be an heavily¬†and¬†well proportioned chopped 1940 Ford coupe. One photo of this car in progress appeared in the Barris Kustoms Techniqes of the 1950s book¬†Vol 1 book. The car is shown there with the chop being worked on, and the last photo shows the car getting ready to get a coat of primer. It appears that the Life Magazine photographer visited the Barris Shop shortly after that when the car was in fresh primer sitting outside the shop waiting to be finished. I have, so far, never been able to find any photos of this car as a completely finished Custom. This is another Barris Kustoms from the early 1950’s that has survived, and a couple of years ago it was offered for Sale, completely redone with an rake, ¬†5-spoke wheels, making it look very odd.

This photo shows the guys shortly after arriving with the¬†Chet Herbert‚Äôs Streamliner. Behind the trailer we have a great look at the ’40 Ford coupe with a very well proportioned chopped top. Angled back windshield and a perfect flow. On the right we can see the sectioned Shoebox Vicky.

This is the photo of the same ’40 Ford Coupe that appeared in the Barris Kustoms Technique book. It shows the car ready for primer. The Barris book did not mentioned the name of the owner, and if and how t was finished. So that remains a mystery for now.

Cropped Life Magazine photo gives us a better look at the great flow on the chopped top. Rounded door corners, molded in fenders, and rounded trunk corners.

The Barris ’40 Ford how it looked in 2009. At this time it was being offered for Sale at a Barrett-Jackson auction. Not a very attractive look for this well done Barris Kustoms ’40 Ford Coupe. But it could be saved, and redone with a proper speed-boat stance, proper wheels and hubcaps, and teardrop bubble skirts, which would change the look dramatically.

1951 Cadillac

In this series of Life Magazine photos a 1951 Cadillac convertible pops up as well. And I think that this car is one of George Barris’s personal cars. I have heard some people mention an early 50’s Cadillac as being George his personal ride in the early 1950’s. But so far I have not been able to find any published material on that. The Cadillac shows up in the photo shoot at the Barris shop at the time the¬†Chet Herbert‚Äôs Streamliner was photographed, and also at an later, or earlier photo shoot at a different location with a few Barris Kustoms. The Cadillac is a very mild restyled car with no visible body modifications. Most likely it had a new paint-job, and all custom is the panoramic rear window padded top,¬†customized Cadillac hubcap¬†and Barris Crest on the front quarter panels.

A good look at the ’51 Caddy’s padded top with wrap around (panoramic) rear window. Not sure why the rear portion of the door and front section of the rear quarter panel was masked off. Perhaps to repair some minor damage? The open door int he front is from the¬†Frank Sonzogni ’50 Mercury.

The George Barris ’51 Cadillac on the right, and behind it we can see the nosed Oldsmobile. So far that is another car we are unable to identify.

In one of the photos taken at an different location we can see George’s Cadillac in the background.

Loomis Dean also took some photos of just the Caddy, of which this is the nicest one. Custom spinners in the center of the Cadillac hubcaps, which must have been a brand new item at the time this photo was taken somewhere in early 1953.

1951 Ford Sectioned Vicky

The story on this sectioned 1951 Ford Victoria is pretty sad. The owner took it to the Barris Custom Shop to have them section the body and possibly do other custom work. But after the car was delivered, the first term was paid for, the owner never showed up again to pay for the rest of the work. He left the car at the shop and George never found out what happened to the guy and why he never paid to complete the work, or even pick up the car. George was also not able to find anybody else interested in the project so after it had set outside at the shop for a year or two the car was hauled to the junkyard. In more recent years somebody claims to have bought the remains of this car and rebuilt it as a sectioned convertible. So far we have not been able to verify this info.

Really sad to see this party sectioned ’51 Ford sitting outside. This was in 1952, so the car was really new at the time, and must have cost a lot of money. Notice the cut door tops inside the car with the bottoms in the back seat section. The sectioning was done at the height where the side trim would be, saving some time in finished body work… at least that was the plan.

The body at the passenger side had been all welded together already.

There are some more interesting photos from this photo and a slightly later photos shoot from the Life Magazine photographer, some can be seen in the article we did on the Bob Lund 1950 Mercury, and others might be shown in a future article here on the CCC. We are really grateful that Life Magazine has shared these really unique photos taken at the Barris Kustom Shop which gives us an unique look at an ordinary day at the Custom Shop. If any of our readers ever comes across an Life Magazine from late 1953 or 1954 that has any of these photos, or possible other photos taken at the Barris shop used in an article. Please email Rik here at the Custom Car Chronicle. I would love to add that to this article.


(This article is made possible by)




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)

4 thoughts on “LIFE magazine photo shoot at Barris

  • Pretty cool to see multiple perspectives in an everyday setting at the Barris shop. The shadowy-lens pictures from LIFE almost make you feel like you’re in a time machine passing by for a visit…which is elaborated by some of these images being in the vaults for all these years. I’d give anything to go back in time and spend a day or two as a fly on the wall in the Barris shop, but this will be as close as we can get. That sectioned ’51 Vicky was most likely dragged to the scrap heap after the owner went to fight in Korea.

  • Very cool to be able to poke around the background of these great pics. The every-day goings-on in the photos really brings the era to life (no pun intended). Another gem of an article Rik! Thanks!


  • It looks to me with the photo of the driver side of that near new 1951 Ford that either a lot of people walked up to the car to look at it, or some one sat on the floor / sill to eat there lunch in the shade as you can see the clear dirt path were there the grass has died…..

    Id say a lot of people always walked up to it and looked at it….


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