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1982 Road Trip to Des Moines




In 1982 Phil Waters makes the trip from Manchester, England, to the US, to visit the Lead Sled Spectacular in Des Moines Iowa.

By Phil Waters

Driving The Rebel to the KKOA Lead Sled Spectacular, 1982.

Ever since I was a young kid I have been mad about cars. Back in the early 1960s when I was around ten years old I came across a copy of ‘Custom Cars Annual 1959’. It was in a pile of old US magazines for sale in a department store in my home city of Manchester, England. The one with Larry Watson’s panel painted ’58 Thunderbird on the cover. The magazine cost me very little money to buy and I still have it! Inside were photographs of the top custom cars of the day and a major feature on one of the guys that built such cars: Joe Bailon. I was very struck by the design and look of his wonderfully restyled cars even though the black & white photographs obviously did not show the ‘Candy Apple’ colours for which Joe is famous.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-A55-phil-watersMy old 1958 Austin A55 chopped sedan I created. 

Many years later, when I had started to mess around with real cars, I put together a traditionally styled roof chopped custom car based on a 1958 Austin A55 sedan. The influence of that old magazine was still strong! Then I saw a photograph in the British magazine ‘Hot Rod & Custom UK’ that showed an old Bailon built 1950 Mercury that was owned by a guy called Sterling Ashby in Minneapolis/St Paul. I decided to make contact, managed to track down a mailing address, and wrote a letter about my admiration for Bailon built custom cars.

A short time later I was delighted to receive a reply from Kathy Ashby, little did I know at the time that this would be the start of a long lasting transatlantic friendship…


CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-03-phil-watersMike Key took this photo while I was driving Kathy & Sterling’s 1950 Mercury “The Rebel”. The photo ended up in Mike’s famous LEADSLEDS book. Mike gave me this print of the photo.

Some time after this Hot Rod & Custom UK magazine decided to organise a visit to the Street Rod Nationals to be held in St Paul, July 1982. I must have mentioned in one of my letters to Kathy that I was considering going on this trip. I received a very quick reply inviting me to come and stay at their home, extending my visit so that we could also attend the Lead Sled Spectacular the following weekend. Not only that, but Joe Bailon was scheduled to be the guest of honour at that event!

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-02-phil-watersOn our way to Des Moines, Iowa.  We met up with other members of the Crusin’ Customs at our breakfast stop in Albert Lea.

And so it was that whilst all the other guys on the magazine trip were taken to their hotel for a week…I was met at the airport by Kathy & Sterling in The Rebel, a 1950 Mercury custom, and taken to their home. I was obviously quite tired and jet-lagged, but we managed to watch ‘American Grafitti’ on the VHS player that evening…a great start to two weeks of hot rod heaven!

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-16-phil-watersLead Sled Spectacular at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-04-phil-watersRick Schnell’s 1950 Mercury ex-coupe “Misty Blue”.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-05-phil-watersCecil Proffit’s silver and scalloped ’51 Merc with continental kit and Truman Nelson’s red 1951 Mercury.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-06-phil-watersMercury Grilles…

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-07-phil-watersGeorge Beluscsak’s bright yellow ’50 Mercury, a nice flame and primer chopped 51 and Jim Grinlimton’s flamed, but un-chopped ’49 Merc.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-14-phil-watersTom Philpot’s ’48 Ford “Artic Gold” cloned after a ClarKaiser custom from the 1950’s and Bob Drake brought his restored Jack Stewart 1941 Ford originally built in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s by the Ayala’s and the Barris Shop.

Our first weekend was spent at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals, which is a whole other story and photograph album. Suffice to say it was fantastic! During the week that followed I was asked what I might like to do and replied that I would really love to go to a drive in-movie. We didn’t have such things back in England…there would be no point as the movies would have to have weather-appropriate titles such as ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ or ‘Rain Man’! But I digress.

So Kathy, Sterling and myself climbed into The Rebel and went to the local drive-in movie theatre, hung the speakers on the window and enjoyed cherry cokes whilst watching the newly released movie ‘E.T.’…fantastic!

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-08-phil-waters“So Fine” candy red and scallops 50 Mercury, Jeff Johnson’ hammered school bus yellow ’50 Merc showing off the engine and a mean looking perfectly chopped gray primer ’51 Merc.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-09-phil-watersThe old Barris Employee’s Frank Sonzogni’s 1950 Mercury, which was created in the early 1950’s, was brought to the event by Larry Dames.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-10-phil-watersDuane Flaherty’s orange and white with Buick Riviera side trim ’51 Merc, Ed Lepold’s white with DeSoto grille ’49 Mercury used some odd looking wheels.

We also went to an ’emergency cruise’ one evening with the Crusin’ Customs car club, probably to make arrangements for the convoy of customs to Des Moines. Plus lots of other interesting stuff during my stay which included visits to various folks’ homes to see what they had stashed away in their garages, and an expedition to a junkyard in Fountain City Wisconsin to rummage around the vintage tin and view the yard owner’s collection of classics, muscle cars and even a Model A Ford that lived in his sitting room.

Finally the second weekend arrived and we hit the road at a very early hour, bound for Des Moines, Iowa. Myself and Kathy were in The Rebel and Sterling was in his pickup truck towing the Bailon Merc on a trailer. We met up with other members of the Crusin’ Customs and drove for a couple of hours before a breakfast stop in Albert Lea where the first of my photographs were taken. Mike Key, the British photographer had joined the convoy to cover the event for the UK magazines and at some point on the freeway came past the line of customs to get the driving shots that appear in his ‘Lead Sleds’ book. Kathy had invited me to drive The Rebel for a few freeway miles and so that was how I came to appear in Mike’s book driving the car. She has been constantly quizzed about who the driver was in the photos ever since!

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-15-phil-watersKathy and Sterling Ashby with Joe Bailon talking about the Sonny Morris Mercury Joe built in 1956. This was the first time Joe saw the car in a long time. Sterling found the car in 1973. Joe Bailon would help with the restoration a couple years later.

We reached Des Moines in the early afternoon and went to the event headquarters hotel to register, although we weren’t staying there. Kathy had arranged for us to stay at a nearby friend’s house for the weekend…I’m not too sure about the name but it may have been Bob Butterley the pinstriper. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.

Then onward to the State Fairgrounds to help unload the Bailon Merc and begin to take photographs. I even took my turn on the entry gate welcoming attendees and the like. In the evening we went back to the headquarters hotel to hang out, look at the cars in the sunset and generally have a great time. I was introduced to Pat Ganahl, a writer for whom I have a huge amount of respect having enjoyed his many thoughtful and informative hot rodding articles over the years. Another time we went to George the Chilli King’s drive-in restaurant where they had car-hops on roller skates serving food to your car just like in ‘American Grafitti’…wonderful!

I spent a lot of the time at the show wandering around taking photographs, and some of the best ones were taken when Joe Bailon was reunited with the Merc custom he originally built for Sonny Morris back in the 1950s. My pictures show him chatting with Kathy and Sterling, possibly discussing the eventual restoration of the car. There was so much to see and do, copies of old car magazines to be bought and more Mercs to look at than I’ve seen before or since! Another outstanding car was the Sam Barris Buick, and I managed to get a few shots whilst Mike Key had his professional shoot set up! Sorry Mike!

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-01-phil-watersKurt McCormick brought the Sam Barris 1950 Buick that had been freshly restored about three years prior to this event.

At the close of the event Joe presented trophies to the winning exhibitors, and everyone present had the chance to get a signed print of his iconic Chevy custom ‘Miss Elegance’. Then the long return journey back thru’ the fading evening light in convoy once again, tired but blissfully happy!

Before my flight back home to England I decided to have all my photographs printed to avoid any possible damage en route, some 25 film cassettes in all and over 500 prints. Kathy kindly took them to a local photo store and promptly almost brought the place to a standstill with all the pictures coming through! I hope you all enjoy looking at a selection of them and maybe those of you that were also at the event will have your own great memories and stories to tell.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-11-phil-watersYELLOW… Ken Fenical’s Posies 40’s styled 1936 Ford, super smooth chopped ’50 Merc, Marv Englert’s chopped ’50 Chevy Coupe, and Donnie Malinkovich interesting looking darker yellow Shoebox with Caddy taillights.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-12-phil-watersMark May’s ’49 Mercury “Earth Angel” with 53 Buick side trim, Gold and maroon  ’50 Merc, and Roger Lund’s very nicely restyled ’49 Merc with ’55 Chevy side trim.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-18-phil-watersDave Crook’s Harry Bradley designed Firebird,  George Dorr’s maroon ’48 Chevy coupe, and a wild restyled Chevy with full fade-away fenders, chopped top and canted headlights.

CCC-82-des-moines-kkoa-13-phil-watersBright yellow stripes on heavily chopped red ’50 Merc, Jim Musgrave’s candy red ’51 Mercury,   The “Green Flame” Mercury in wonderful purple with, what else green flames,  Ron Dolson’s unique “Nascar themed” ’50 Merc in red with yellow to orange flames.

Finally I cannot close this article without paying tribute to Kathy and Sterling Ashby, better known to some as ‘Mr. Merc’, for the kind hospitality freely given, their great sense of humour and fun and the enduring friendship I now have with these wonderful people as a result of all this. Special thanks also to Kathy for letting me drive The Rebel, truly a dream come true…

Go to PART TWO of the 1982 Road Trip to Des Moines.


(this article is sponsored 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)

6 thoughts on “1982 Road Trip to Des Moines

  • Thanks for sharing, Phil. Your descriptions of your experiences and the friendships you made take us all back. But your treasure trove of all those customs: priceless. Where have all the customs gone?

  • Great story, I visited the show in 1988 and it made huge lasting impression on me. Thanks for sharing your memories and photos, looking forward to part 2.

  • What a great show, I was only 17 years old and thought I had died and gone to kustom heaven. I remember all of those cars very well and think I took all the exact same photos. I also wonder where all those kustoms have gone? Leadsled Spectacular the last few years has had a lot of cars but the number of kustoms showing up seems to be less every year. Thanks for the memories!

  • Wow, some cool Mercs at this gathering…nice chop on the “So Fine” Merc…very cool to see some historic kustoms like the Sam Barris Buick and Larry Dames’ Sonzogni Merc 🙂

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