Custom Car Builders

April 29, 2018

Larry Watson T-Bird Vino Paisano




Larry Watson Personal car based on a brand new 1958 Thunderbird with only minimal amount of body work. It was the unique paint design and use of color that made it a Trend Setter.

This article shows a selection of photos of Larry Watson’s 1958 T-Bird. Most of these photos come from the Larry Watson Personal Photo Collection. More on Larry’s personal collection can be found in the Larry Watson section on the CCC-Site. Or on the Custom Car Photo Archive. Special thanks to Roger O’Dell for scanning this amazing material and sharing them with us on the Custom Car Chronicle.

In the summer of 1958, shortly after Larry Watson had sold his 1950 Chevy “Grapevine” Larry went shopping for a new car. In the past years he had come up with some new paint ideas, and he wanted to try them out on a new car. The original plan was to find a slightly used ’57 Cadillac, but when he arrived at the Cadillac dealer his eyes were drawn to a one year older Cadillac Eldorado brougham, it was love at first sight. But Larry did not have the $11,000.- the limited production Brougham cost. After the initial disappointment, he later decided he wanted to have an ’58 Ford Hard-top and try out his paint ideas. When he arrived at the Ford dealer he spotted a brand new 1958 Ford T-Bird, and ones again he fell in love with a new car. He had to loan some money to make the deal happen, and told the dealer he would get the first one they would get in with an black and white factory tuck & roll interior.

A few weeks later the a black and white interior T-Bird had arrived at the dealer, and Larry was called to come and pick it up. The car turned out to be factory pink… but Larry did not mind that at all, since that color would not stay visible for very long. Soon after all arrangements had been made and Larry drove it off the dealer’s lot he drove it to have the suspension lowered at Lindy’s Muffler Shop. They also added dual pipes with mufflers and stock chrome tailpipes. But with the car now so low, the tailpipes scraped the road so much that soon the bottom half of them was pushed in and something needed to be done. They then added new tailpipes from chrome plated ’36 Ford drive shafts, mounted as high as they could and extra skid plates were welded to the bottom of the pipes.

The pink factory paint is covered in platinum silver by Larry Watson at the Barris Shop.


Next Larry took the car to the Barris Shop where he rented shop space, and had Bill Hines and his good friend Bill DeCarr shave the handles and the trim on the bulge on the doors shave the emblems and ad push buttons to open the door. They then finished the body work with some primer. The de-chromed body looked already really amazing with all the emblems and handles removed, but Larry had something in mind that would make it look even better, and make the car look longer and lower. Larry added a set of Appleton Spotlights, 1957 Dodge Lancer four bar hubcaps which he bought brand new from the Dodge dealer, and lake pipes with unique Dave’s Home of Chrome finned end caps.

Then it was time for Larry to do his magic, all this was done at the Barris Atlantic Ave shop in Lynwood, where Larry rented a booth from Barris. Larry wanted to try out an idea he had to create an ultra fine platinum pearl. He ordered 2 gallons of pre-mixed, according his own specifications, platinum pearl nitrocellulose lacquer. Larry first covered the car in a few coats of fine metallic silver and followed that with a few coats of the translucent platinum pearl. After the car had dried overnight he took it out of the shop, and parked it across the street, where he could view it good from the shop. The already huge ’58 T-Bird looked enormous with the new light bright paint. It was just too loud, and too bright. People were actually honking their horn letting them know the reflecting sun in the bright paint, acting like a mirror, was hurting their eyes. So Larry decided to get the Bird back in the shop and do another, his second, panel paint job.

The First Larry Watson panel Paint-job

Larry’s very first panel paint job he developed was after he was asked by Renegades member Zeno Stephen’s, who owned a mildly customized pure white 1956 Mercury. To paint his car with something different than flames or scallops. Zeno’s Mercury looked so great already, and Larry really loved the lines on the car, so he came up with the idea to highlight these body lines. He masked off all the body lines, side trim, belt line, door handles, basically all the main body lines that your eyes capture first when you look at a car. He used 1 1/2 inch masking tape to make sure the outlining was even all around. He then pained the the inside panels in GM Tahitian Red. When he had removed the masking tape it looks totally amazing. Larry striped the panels in gold, and Zeno took off, cruising to the Bellflower Clock where everybody was staring at his brand new Larry Watson outline paint job. A new trend was born.

Zeno’s Stephen’s 1955 Mercury with Larry’s first ever panel / outline paint job in GM Tahitian Red over factory white.



Polaroid Insta-Matic photos of Larry’s Vino Paisano in front of the Barris shop at Atlantic Blvd. The photos were taken shortly after the car was finished by by Bob Seiger, and given to Larry. In the background on the first photo we can see Lyle Lake’s 1952 Buick “Blue Danube” sitting in the shop window. This part of the Barris shop was rented by Larry as his shop space for some time. The T-Bird was painted at this shop.


James Potter had urged  Larry to hurry up with the T-Bird, since he wanted to use it on the cover of the 1959 Custom Cars Annual he was putting together. Larry just made the deadline for the photo-shoot at a new bank building on Willshire Blvd. The color photo above was used on the cover of the book, and so was an color photo of Larry’s ’50 Chevy. Two Watson Customs on the cover, that made Larry very happy.


From the James Potter 1959 Custom Cars Annual photo-shoot.


Larry figured that the bright platinum paint could do fine as outlines, as long as the majority of the body would be covered in a darker color. Larry carefully laid out his masking tape (1 3/4 inch wide), following all the major body lines on the T-Bird. Even thought Larry had paneled Zeno Stephen’s ’55 mercury before, on his T-Bird he wanted to do things a little different. The ’58 T-Bird had very distinct body lines, and he wanted to highlight those, and wanted to see how much effect on the overall looks his new design/technique would have. Making sure the platinum pearl outlines would later highlight the beautiful body contours and enhance the low look of the car. Ones Larry was happy with the tape lay-out he show the panels in a beautiful deep candy burgundy wine, mixed by Joe Sheline, straight over the fine platinum pearl. Which created the most amazing sparkle for the Candy paint when the sunlight hit it.

The Vino Paisano parked on the curb at the Barris Shop. This photo shows how the paneling Larry designed enhances the shapes of the Thunderbird body lines. This photo also shows how much difference the car is compared to anything else on the road. Imagine how much impact this had on people who saw it on the road.


Notice that the Spotlights do not have the scallops added at this point.


When the tape and paper were removed the result looks spectacular. After the paint had been rubbed by Dayton “Darkie Bob” Randolph and his crew in Huntington Park, Larry added some bold striping in imitation gold. But he did not like the effect and redid it the same day in a lavender with had the just perfect result, slightly softening the edge from burgundy to silver. The Watson paint design made the T-Bird look longer and lower, it really was customizing by nothing but paint.

Larry also painted the grille mesh and the mesh around the taillights in the Candy burgundy. All four taillight lenses were detailed with chrome plated bullets. And on the front Larry removed the stock bumper/grille guards and modified a set of chrome bullets and mounted those over the holes left from the bumper guards. The bullets were bought at Dave’s Home of Chrome.

As soon as Larry was finished with the car James Potter shot it for the cover of the 1959 Custom Cars Annual. And soon s that book hit the book stores everybody in the US was going wild over the incredible new style paint job Larry had done on his T-Bird. Larry used the car on the road, cruising down to all his favorite places, and in the weekends entered it in many Car Shows, where it won many Best Paint Awards. Since the car was so extremely low the cops really loved Larry’s T-Bird as well, and they awarded Larry with many tickets as well. Later Larry would add a license plate to the front, and remove the lakes pipes in the hope the cops would pull him over less than before.

Shortly after finishing the -T-Bird Larry Watson showed the car on a aluminum foil covered turn table at the Renegades Car Club Rod and Custom Motorama at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium in 1958. The car had been named “The Burgundy Bird”. The Renegades club had honored Larry with a large top location at the entrance of the building.


The Candy burgundy and platinum silver on Larry’s T-Bird looked amazing on the rock salt round display at the Renegades show. The car was a huge success with the crowd, and another Watson trend had been born. Notice that prior to the show Larry had added scallops and pin striping to the Spotlights.


George Barris photo of Larry’s T-Bird at the Renegades Show in 1958. According the signs at the bottom the turntable was created by Gary McNaught.


Larry painted the inside of the engine bay white and added chrome valve covers and air-cleaner. Notice the scalloped and pin-striped Appleton Spotlights.


Second version

The custom paint that was available back in the later part of the 1950’s and early 1960’s was very bright, colorful, and the hues very brilliant, but most of these products were experimental and not tested very good. In fact Larry helped develop a lot of new custom paint products, and was testing material for his suppliers. It turned out that a lot of these early custom paints started to fade or crack after just a few month in the sun. This also happened with Larry’s ’58 T-Bird, so after half a year he the candy burgundy had faded so badly that he really needed to re-paint the whole car.

Karen Beach, Larry’s girlfriend at the time is posing with the T-Bird for this night shot at the Long Beach Circle. The photo was taken by Lowell Helms and according the stories two police car were using their headlights to dd some extra light for the photo. It worked pretty good to me. Notice that Larry also added a license plate to the front of the car, being sick of getting too many tickets for not having one.


After having studied the paint and how it had faded on his car he noticed that the panels looked still good on the outside, but the further into the panel, the worst the fading became. He decided he could fix the paint with another round of paneling. He taped of the panels with 2 inch tape, making sure the outlines would be even all around. He then sprayed the inside panel with silver, let it dry and taped off the outside of the silver panel. He then fogged in the inside of the panel in Candy grape. When he removed the tape the new panels had a nice silver outline, and the inside was candy grape fading to silver. Larry covered it all with many clear coats before having Dayton “Darkie Bob” Randolph do the complete polishing on it. Another new, trend setting Watson Paint Technique. Larry would later create many paint designs based on this T-Bird paint.

Larry drove and showed the car like this for some time and then he updated the car with a set of chrome revere wheels detailed with shallow moon hubcaps, which possible are 1950 Mercury units, detailed with another chrome bullet. And later Larry decided to remove the lakes pipes. The car was extrmely low already, and the pipes, which were mounted below the body, made it even lower, and often hard to drive. After having owned and enjoyed the car for about a year Larry decided to sell his T-Bird to a young Bob Finley of Long Beach, who absolutely loved the car. Bob needed his father to finance the car. Larry moved on and bought an 1959 Cadillac which he customized again right after he got it to his shop. Bob owned and really enjoyed the car until late 1961, when he sold it to a principal of Long Beach Poly High School.

The T-Bird at the Compton Drive in photographed most likely by George Barris.


Closer look at the panel, outline and fogged in paint on Larry’s T-Bird in front of the famous Watson’s shop wall.


Every time I see one of the photos taken in front of the Larry Watson Rosecrans Blvd shop wall I wonder if Larry had this in mind when he designed the wall.  Posing his creations in front of the wall was a genius promotional action.


Low angle photo shows the white painted under carriage, and it also shows how extremely low the car really was. No wonder Larry later removed the lakes pipes making driving the car a bit easier.


Larry mounted chrome plated bullets on the stock T-Bird taillights. The exhaust tops are ’36 Ford drive shafts cut to size and chrome plated, they created a very nice mellow sound. The gas tank was painted white.


This photo from the Larry Watson Personal Collection has seen better days, but I wanted to include here anyway since is has a nice birds eye view showing the panel work on the top and hood so nice.


Great black and white photo taken late in the day creating long shadows.


We could not find a clear photo  of the interior in Larry’s T-Bird, so here are two cropped images that show a little bit of the factory stock black and white tuck & roll interior.


Larry proudly posing with his T-Bird in front of his Rosecrans Blvd shop in Artesia. The photo shows that not to long after Larry had done his personal T-Bird many customers had requested similar panel and outline paint jobs.


James Potter made a few close ups of Larry posting with his T-Bird.


Another George Barris photo-shoot at an unknown location that George used several times. By now Larry had removed the lakes pipes, which make the car look a little less lowered.


Larry pointing out where the push buttons for the door solenoids was hidden.


Two close ups photos showing the different wheel/hubcap set up used on Larry’s T-Bird. 1957 Dodge Lancer four bar hubcaps detailed with burgundy paint on burgundy painted steel wheels on the early version. And later after the car had received the paint update, Larry mounted chrome reverse wheels with shallow moon hubcaps (possible 1950 Mercury units?) with Bullet centers. The wheel wells were painted flat white, a big trend back then. As these photos show the white did not stay clean very long. Note the missing lakes pipes on the right photo.


Larry’s T-Bird made it onto the cover and inside the magazines many times back then, and it is still used a lot these days. Larry had a lot of frames (even more than captured in this photo by Roger O’Dell) devoted to his ’58 T-Bird on his Museum wall.



The story of the T-Bird after that is very vague (so far) we know that it has changed hands some more before ending in the hands of Mark Mohoney from Hollywood. In the early 1980’s Mark offered the car for sale in the Recycler and it was bought by Beach Collision Body Shop in Huntington Beach owner Rick Randall. Bill DeCarr had found out about the car being owned by Rick, and had mentioned it to Larry. Larry traced down Rick and looked up the car at his body shop. He sure recognized his old T-Bird which made him very happy to know the car was still around, and in good shape. Rick had started to take apart the car, have all the chrome redone and the car was in primer at the time.

I captured the restored Larry Watson 1958 T-Bird in 2011 outside of the Pomona GNRS buildings. The car was part of a huge Larry Watson display at the Customs Then & Now exhibit.


The rear quarter view of Larry’s T-Bird is my personal favorite view. Here all the outlined panels make the car look so perfect.


Several years later Larry’s good friend Gary Niemie asked Larry about the T-Bird, and contact was made with Rick to see if the project was for sale. Which it was, since Rick had been to busy working on the project since Larry last saw it. Larry helped out Gary restoring the car to its first version, how it was first seen by the world on the cover of the 1959 Custom Cars Annual.

Danny Hull at Corona Custom Shop in Norco, Ca was chosen to do the final paint work. Larry helped mixing the pearl silver and the candy burgundy. Danny spayed the silver, after which Larry did the panel tape work for the burgundy paint. Danny also added the Candy burgundy, but let Larry add one coat as well. Later Larry pinstriped the panels in lavender, just as he had done back in 1958.

Gary Niemie later sold the car to Ralph Whitworth who was putting together a huge Hot Rod and Custom Car museum. When the plans for the museum were canceled the T-Bird ended up at the Icons of Speed & Style Auction where the near entire collection of the museum was auctioned on September 26th, 2009. Roger and Marie O’dell, close friends of Larry Watson ended up buying the car for $55,000. After Roger had purchased Larry’s T-Bird he stored it in Larry’s personal museum, the absolute best place for the car to be displayed.

Detail showing the Thunderbird emblem on the rear of the top. The emblem can be pushed to operate the door solenoids. This photo also shows the fine pearl silver paint, candy burgundy and Larry Watson lavender pin-striping.


Chrome bullets from Dave’s Home of Chrome covering the holes for the factory bumper guards. The grille mesh was painted candy burgundy by Larry back in 1958, the same thing was done on the restoration.


The chrome bullets used on the taillights are restored originals Larry used back in 1958. Notice the Candy burgundy painted mesh.


Appleton Spotlights and candy burgundy paint details.


Watson panel – outline paint

Larry painted a large number of cars with the outline paneling technique he had developed for his personal T-Bird. In fact Larry did at least half a dozen 58 T-Birds in a similar – but slightly different in design and color – outline-panel style as his own T-Bird. The outline and paneling paint technique was a huge success for Larry from 1958 up into the early 1960’s. During this time Larry operating from his Artesia and Rosecrans shop, both in Bellflower California. Cars from totally stock, just lowered cars where he would accent all the body details, to smoothed customs where he would outline just the main body lines.

Larry was a true master when it came to this technique. He started by looking at the car for some time, and finding all the key lines that really mattered for the look of the car. Those where the lines than needed the extra color accents. Or he would choose the widest panels and found ways to make those look longer and thinner, by masking a little more, or less space around the edges. Larry’s designers eye allowed him to do custom work with nothing but paint. The result were cars that not only looked spectacular, they looked longer, lower and thinner. Something that could done only with very expensive metal body work as chopping and sectioning before. And now Larry was able to do this in a matter of hours and days, for just a fraction of the costs.

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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)

One Comment

  1. Rik, this is one of my favorite articles that you have ever done. I still have the 1959 Custom Car Annual and remember how I loved the colors and style of Watson’s 1958 T-Bird. I always thought it was so cool when someone would customize a new car and Watson was the “master” of this style.
    The pictures were great too and you even put in two “curb parked” photos.


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