ORIGINAL KUSTOMS of AMERICA
1954 the Custom Car business was booming Nation wide. Time for George Barris to take the Custom Car Club to a new level. Kustoms Of America was founded, and would attract members from all over the US. The Original Kustoms of America.
by David E. Zivot
George Barris, ever mindful of the monetary possibilities inherent in mass marketing, decided in late 1953 to take the Barris Kustoms mystique nationwide. And, if all went as planned, a worldwide association to spread the word, was certainly not out of the question. The term, “Kustoms”, was now going to be applied to a much wider audience than the mostly informal one loosely organized around a small group of pals that had coalesced in the mid 1940’s as “Kustoms Los Angeles”. Now, a formal organization, that would have an executive director, Ben D. Martin, and of course a president, George Barris would be created. With formal dues, newsletters, and the pride of exclusive identification; membership cards, decals, plaques, and club jackets = national bragging rights and standing. It should not be assumed that this new undertaking had a direct lineage or connection from the 1947-53 era “Kustoms Los Angeles” club, as there really wasn’t. The officially Barris sanctioned club would be known as “Kustoms of America”.
The club had two basic purposes or goals. One was to promote the sport of tasteful automobile restyling and customization. This was summarized in the first roll out of the new club’s membership drive advertisements in early 1954, “The club’s goal is a sound program with aims and purposes to publicize the sport in its true light of fellowship, craftsmanship, and ingenuity.” The second purpose, and clearly a main driver for George, was the opportunity to promote the shop and its services, make a percentage on dues, membership and promotional materials, and especially a sizeable piece of the action on sales of speed parts, chrome accessories, and services provided by other related businesses, such as Gaylord upholstery, Belond Exhaust, etc. The first “KOA” ads, some of which were full page, appeared in Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Rod & Custom, Motor Life, and Car Craft.
What would a prospective custom enthusiast get after sending in his membership form and two bucks (I should say his or her, as the club was open to women as well, and “no car necessary”)? Mailed directly to you would be an introductory letter on formal “KOA” stationery signed by George himself, a beautiful windshield decal, a membership card with your name and member number, and sometimes an Ansen’s speed equipment decal. In subsequent mailings you would receive the special discount catalog and monthly newsletter KOA Klub News. The club newsletter, which made its debut in early 1955, was then changed to a bi-monthly newsletter renamed Club News sometime in mid-1956. Members were encouraged to send in photos of their cars and report on their activities. In the first edition of the newsletter in 1955, Milton Curtis was listed as editor and William Stecyk as associate editor.
Once you singed up to be a KOA member, you would receive an envelope in the mail including an introduction letter, a personal Member Card (Charter Member Card in the photo above) and the Kustoms of America decal. (Ronnie Dragoo’s “KOA” Letter and envelope– Courtesy Bill Layman.)
A note on the membership cards and decals: When first launched a charter membership timeline was offered to those who joined up prior to the cutoff date of August 1, 1954. Those who took advantage of this would receive the special charter member card in light pink, as well as the charter member decal, which also had “Barris Sanctioned” at the top of the crest. Those who joined after this date were supposed to receive the standard card in white, and the standard windshield decal with the “KOA” acronym on the crest. When each year’s dues were received, a new card would be issued with 2nd year, 3rd year, etc, printed, then later ink stamped, so as to indicate the member’s seniority. In actual practice, the Aug 1 ’54 date was largely ignored, as there are numerous examples of charter memberships well into 1956.
Windshield Decals– The Charter Member version on the left and the regular non-charter member window decal on the right. These window decals as well as club jackets, patches, plaques, pins, etc, were all manufactured by “Sylized Emblem Company” in Los Angeles.
Don Coulter Barris Restyled Oldsmobile was photographed in 1955 with a dark red painted Kustoms of America Plaque on the front bumper. The plaque was painted maroon. (Ina Mae Overman Collection)
The “Special Discount Catalog”, which was printed January 1955, consisted of a special edition of the standard Ansen’s speed parts catalog, featuring a “Barris Kustoms of America” front and rear cover. There were eighty-eight pages of the usual hot rod and speed parts offerings. Added to the middle of the catalog between pages forty-four and forty-five are fourteen additional pages alphabetically arranged from A thru P. All the items in this special “KOA” section, including all the other Ansen’s stuff were supposed to be offered at 10% and greater discounts. In actuality the discounts only applied to very select items. (Interesting note is that the KOA catalog, at least the version we had access to, had both the top and bottom of the pages cut too short, cutting off parts of the text and photos. This indicates that the ANSEN Speed Equipment catalog might already have been printed and cut and later the KOA material, based on the Ansen catalog size was added to it. To make it all look like one catalog the three sides of the catalog had to be cut once more, hence the cut off text and images on some of the pages)
Besides several pages of “regular” Custom Car products that was offered to the members with a 10% discount, there were also a few pages devoted to the Kustoms Of America Club. Including these pages for shirts and jackets, and trophies, and special KOA plaques.
The general list of things that could be purchased were common but still desirable fare; custom grille bars, connie kits, skirts, electric door and trunk kits, spotlights, push button window lifts, hubcaps, club jackets (in the official maroon and white colors of “KOA”), a couple of blank order forms, approved plaques, lapel pins, special trophies, Gaylord “Kustom Karpets”, and so much more. The last page in the special “KOA” section had a selection of glossy 5 x 7 or 8 x 10 photo prints, featuring twenty of the more well-known Barris shop subjects.
Now, having joined and received the membership package and attendant privileges, what activities would club management promote and recommend to its members? According to the few club newsletters that I have access to, the general focus was on the latest Barris automotive restylings, new accessory offerings, some simple and cursory customizing techniques, and interesting mentions of foreign membership from exotic places, such as Hawaii, Cuba, Argentina, the Panama Canal Zone, and Scotland. Photographs of member’s cars, projects, ideas, activities, and shows were popular. There were ambitious plans to award trophies every year for the best custom automobile in each state, concluding with a nationwide competition for the official “KOA” national champion.
The Kustoms of America Club Newsletter is very rare, the one on the left is the first issue Vol 1 – No 1. This comes from a photo taken at the special Barris Kustoms Exhibit at the NHRA museum in 2007 Only part of the newsletter was visible at the time. Originally the newsletter was named KOA Klub News with a “K”, but later it was renamed KOA Club News with a “C”.
I spoke with a few fellows that were original members. These are some of their remembrances. This is all I could find as these guys are getting scarce.
- Bart Bartoni – California charter member. “Well, I joined up in 1954. One of the first ones. Put the neat decal on the windshield of my car. Pretty proud of that. There were no meetings or activities that I remember. Just the Pride of being a member.”
- Milt Goodman – Nevada active member. “I think it was late ’55-early ’56 when I became a member. Got all of the paraphernalia, decals, “KOA” plaque, club jacket. I had a semi-custom ’53 Mercury. Two other fellows from my class at Las Vegas High School joined up as well. We had one official club meeting. Two of us got girlfriends, and that was the end of the meetings. The Barris name was great status.
- Junior & Herb Conway – California charter members. “My brother Herb and I heard about the club early in 1955. Didn’t fill in a membership blank. We went down personally to the Barris shop and gave the two dollars for the first year directly to George. There was no actual office or clubhouse where meetings took place. I think there was someone hired at another address to handle the mail and business. I’m pretty sure George sold the rights to the club after a few years.”
My research on the origins, activities, and ultimate purpose of “Kustoms of America” requires and warrants further investigation. There remains precious little information and documentation regarding this club. Who really ran or administered this organization is open to question. The club envelope return address is the 11054 Atlantic Ave Los Angeles location. Hershel Conway tells me there was no office or desk that took care of club business. The letters were perhaps sent over to the first “KOA” address of 5880 Hollywood Blvd, or the later (as of November 1954) 5864 Hollywood Blvd. And who was Ben D. Martin, listed as executive director, who disappears by March of 1956? It also appears that the membership figures were inflated. The number of actual dues paying members is not known.
Anne DeValle was a member of the Kustoms of America Club, and she had one of the Kustoms of America plaques on her Barris Kustoms created 1942 Ford. (Anne’s Ford was previously owned by Marcia Campbell.)
There is also the question as to how long the club was in existence. The latest year on a membership card I have encountered is 1959. The couple of newsletters that I have examined have dates between 1955-58. Former members have told me that the newsletter just stopped arriving in the mail… no explanation. I must also mention that there have been a couple modern attempts to revive or reclaim the original “KOA” identity and traditional reputation. They are “Kustom Kemps of America” (KKOA) estab 1980, and the modern “Kustoms of America” estab early 1980’s. Both of which are fine clubs, but according to my research have no direct lineage or connection with the original “KOA”. One curious aspect of the promotional material of the modern “KOA” is the claim of being descended from the original “KOA” starting in 1949. That date is nebulous, as the original “KOA” was established in 1954. The earlier “Kustoms LA” origins can be traced to 1947.
I would encourage and appreciate any further information or input concerning the original “KOA”, please email Rik here at the Custom Car Chronicle with any info you have concerning the Original KOA Club. All cynicism aside, I must conclude that ultimately George Barris was sincere in his efforts and motivations with regards to the club and its purposes. As quoted in the Big Book of Barris, George said that he wanted to, “Bring together anyone interested in custom cars, have power of association, gather like minds together for shows and events, a place to communicate news on activities in the customizing world, and generally focus attention to the achievements and contributions customizing has made to automotive design and engineering.” Indeed a worthy sentiment.
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