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custom cars

March 30, 2016

History of the Chopped Top part 1

 

CHOP TOP HISTORY part 1

 

The most transforming of all custom body changes, if not the most beautiful, is lowering of the top. Better known as the Chopped Top.


One of the best known, perhaps most desirable Custom techniques of them all is chopping a top. For this CCC-Article I will concentrate on the history of chopping metal-tops from coupe or sedan models of cars typically used for customizing 1933 and up. It is generally accepted that chopping the windshields of convertibles and roadster style bodies – with or without a matching padded top – was done earlier than chopping the metal topped coupes and sedan’s. The reason the convertible tops were done earlier is obviously, the relative easy modification of removing a few inches from a  straight window pillar compared to removing a few inches from a cone shaped top of a coupe of sedan. But who was the first to tackle the coupe or sedan chop, when and where was it done first on a custom. In this first part we will concentrate on the early beginnings of chopping tops, done mostly on cars from the 1930’s up to 1940, restyled in the period till around 1950.

Influences

I think it is fair to say that we most likely will never find out who actually chopped the first top on a custom. Customs as we see them are based on the 1933 and up cars. And as far as I have found out it took a few years before the first body guy started to experiment with lowering the top on one of these cars. So far the first chopped metal top custom I have been able to find was a 1937 Ford sedan that had a lowered and reshaped top to be a mix between a sedan and coupe. The top portion of the roof was covered with canvas making it looks a bit like a padded top custom, but it was in fact an all metal top. We do not have an exact date when this car was build, but from the things we have found it looks to have been done 1-2 years after it came from the factory. Sadly in those years not many photos were taken. The work done on the early customs was not considered to be very special, worth documenting, or even remembering. Still it is interesting to see how much we can find out, how far we can go back. And perhaps, or hopefully some of our readers will remember more and will fill in some gaps, and add details to the story.

CCC-early-custom-37-ford-sedan-a-drakeOne of the earliest cars with a chopped top we have been able to find was an 1937 Ford sedan with a cut down and vinyl wrapped top. We are not 100% sure when this car was chopped, but it was most likely in either 1937 or ’38. More photos of this car can be seen HERE.

 



Coach-building and design studies
There are several direction we can look at that inspired the early custom car builders to start chop the top on cars. One of the directions is the design sketches from designers from the 1930’s. Both independent as well as those working for the big car companies. The design sketches made to find directions the next model was hinting to were often drawn with low stance, long wheel-base, and small size windows with low tops. This way the car looks more sinister, longer, more powerful, faster, and above all more attractive. When the designs were approved the design was mostly adapted to the real life situation and more than often the request was to create an automobile in which the owner could keep his hat on, demanding a tall top. The beautiful design sketches however did have its influence, and the designs on them were often combined with the real life cars for the sales ads, and brochures, to make the cars look more attractive.

CCC-chopped-top-history-art-ross-designsArt Ross created many design sketches for the Duesenberg and other high end automobiles in the mid 1930’s. Many of his sketches show car bodies, coupes and sedans with vary small side windows and raked back windshields giving the designs a what we now would name a chopped look. Many other designers came up with similar chopped top designs in the mid to late 1930’s.

 



Cars that did not have to meet public standards were Coach-build cars. These however were mostly based on high end cars, like Duesenberg, Packards and Cadillacs. When these cars were special ordered by the mostly rich clients, the finished looks were often more important that the practical effect of the cars. Designers working with the Coach builders could create new more streamlined roof tops, much lower and more atractive than the production stylist from the bigger car companies. The Coach-builders only had to please one client. In was in the early/mid 1930’s that these coach-builders started to come up with cars with smaller windows, leaned back windshields and more streamlined rear portions of the roof.

Since the car bodies were mostly build from scratch we cannot really call these chopped cars, but they sure had the looks of what we later would call chopped cars. These low roofed streamlined cars looks so wonderful, and must have influenced many young car enthusiast in the mid to late 1930’s. Most of this coachbuilding happened in sunny California where the people were more car loving than in other parts of the US at the time. One of the reasons was of course the great all year round weather, but also the great new roads that did not suffer from strong winters causing many holes and bad surfaces. However the year-round decent weather in California did not make the choice of a coupe or sedan to be your next Coach-build or Custom a logic step. Perhaps financial reason might have played a roll in choosing a sedan or coupe, which were cheaper than the more desirable convertible and roadsters.

CCC-chopped-top-history-b-s-32-duesenburgThis Duesenberg was originally built in 1932 as a short-wheelbase four-door sedan. The owner Dr. Seeley Mudd sent the car to Bohman & Schwartz for a complete new body. it was finished with the new chopped looking top inn 1937. The design of the car employed aerodynamic principles that were only experimental in the 1930s. Body panels were covered with leather-like Zapon cloth.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-LeBaron-LincolnThis is what LeBaron came up with in 1937 when they did coachwork on a Lincoln Model K chassis. It looks very much like an oversized chopped 1935 – 36 Ford 3w coupe. (thanks Per Webb)

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-phantom-corsairBohman & Schwartz also created the Phantom Corsair. This very streamlined car finished in 1937 had a wonderful chopped like roof and small windows.

 




Sales Illustrations
Another influence for the first chopped tops on customs most likely were the sales ads and car brochures created for the mid/late 1930’s cars. In this period, up to the late 1940’s (and even later) most of the car magazine ads and sales brochures used illustration of the cars rather than actual photos. One of the reasons to do this was that it was easier to slightly alter the cars in the illustrations to make them look longer, lower, more attractive than in a photo. Today all this is done in Photoshop, but back then creating an better than real life illustration was the way to go. Many of the illustrations used back then show cars with a much lower top than the actual production car. The low top gives the car a much longer, and lower appearance, which makes the car look more attractive than when the illustrator showed the actual height of the top. Most likely this lower look must have influenced the young car-builders from the late 1930’s early 1940’s in experimenting with the cut down tops.

CCC-chopped-top-history-car-ads-01This sample shows an ad for the 1935 Ford coupe and the 1936 Ford sedan. Both image illustrations show the cars with a much lower top than the actual production car. The low top give the car a much longer, and lower appearance, which makes the car look more attractive in these sales ads than when the illustrator had used the actual height of the top.

 



Padded topped convertibles
The Carson Top Shop created the padded Frensh top design in 1935, and around 1937 the first chopped padded top was produced by the Carson top shop. We will come back on the chopped padded top in a separate article at a later time. As mentioned before lowering a convertible top was a lot easier than to lower an all metal top. But the looks of these lowered padded toped customs might have inspired the first person to lower the top on the metal top cars.

Carson Top Shop

Dry lake racing
In the early 1930’s there were a lot of young guys who took their model A’s to the California dry lakes to go racing on the immense lake beds that turned out to be absolutely perfect to go fast, and faster. Some of the cars racing there had cut down windshields to reduce air flow and make the cars faster. Some of these cars even had their convertible tops cut accordingly creating a nice low profile. The lowered windshields gave these cars a whole different, more tougher, longer, powerful look. This looks most likely helped some of the customizers later on when they started to think about lowering the top on their metal top coupes and sedans. Perhaps at first to use them on the dry lakes to increase speed, and later for the looks.

CCC-chopped-top-history-35-ford-ed-hagthropEd Hagthrop’s chopped 1935 Ford Coupe at one of the mid 1940’s dry lake events. 

 


About chopping tops in early publications

The earliest publications I have been able to find listing the lowering of the top on Custom Cars technique dates back to 1944. Dan Post published a series of typed “Mimeographs” in the 1940’s names Remodeler’s Manual for Restyling your car Informal Notes and Observations of Body Alterations to Bring Your Auto Lasting Style. The first one of these was published in 1944. The technique was however not named Chopped Top yet, at least not in the publications. It was named Lowering Hard Tops, meaning metal tops in contrast to lowering convertible tops. The first time the technique was named Chopping Tops was published in 1949 as far as I have been able to find it. Edgar Almquist also produced a series of Custom Styling Manuals, and the first one he did in 1946 has a nice write up on the technique as well. As far as I have been able to find out the name Chopping Tops has been used since around 1946, perhaps even earlier, but the first time it can bee seen used is on the early photos of the Barris Compton Avenue shop from around 1946.

CCC-chopped-top-history-dan-post-1945-01The first time chopping the top on customs was described in a publication was, as far as I have found out, the Dan Post Remodeler’s Manual for Restyling your Car first published in 1944. The above sample comes from the 1945 version of this manual which had a few minor corrections added. The technique was not yet listed as “chopping”.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-Almquist-1946-01Edgar Almquist published a series of Custom Styling Manual’s in the 1940’s. In the 1946 edition of this Manual he described the Lowering Metal Tops technique. The picture 9 mentioned in the text showed a Barris build 1941 Chevy coupe with filled in rear quarter windows. We will discuss this car in part two of this series.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-dan-post-1947-03This written description of cutting down the top comes from the 1947 Dan Post “Master Custom-Restyling Manual”. The “Photo 10 mentioned in the text is shown below.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-dan-post-1947-01Photo 10 in the Dan Post “Master Custom-Restyling Manual” shows a 1934 Ford Vicky with chopped top, an unknown Mopar sedan in the back and an unknown 1939-40 Mercury coupe with chopped top very vague in the foreground. It appears that the Mercury coupe in the foreground has the windshield raked back, a different technique than listed in the text.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-dan-post-illustrationThe Dan Post “Blue book of Custom Restyling from 1949 shows this illustration guiding the reader how to cut the top on a “hard-top” coupe. This is the first time I have found that the technique was named CHOPPED in a publication.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-george-barris-1950George Barris was interviewed for the April 1950 issue of Motor Trend magazine about Custom Restyling. This is what he said about chopping tops.

 

CCC-chopped-top-history-barris-40-ford-chop-01A photo of a heavy top chop in progress on a Barris created 1940 Ford coupe was used to illustrate the Chopped Top technique in the April 1950 issue of Motor Trend magazine. The car in the photo has the windshield angled back a lot and looks to be far from finished in the back.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-custom-car-an-1951In 1951 Motor Trend magazine produced the first of the Custom Cars Annuals. Trend book No. 101. To describe chopping the top technique they used the George Barris text from the Motor Trend April 1950 issue, with more explaining added to it.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-dan-post-collageThis photo collage of customs appeared for the first time in the Dan Post Blue Book of Custom Restyling published in 1949. Most of the photos had already been used in his publications from 1947. It shows how few metal topped cars were actually chopped, compared to the convertible chopped and non-chopped cars.

 



One of the things I have noticed in my research on the chopped top subject is that in general the chops on the early customs is less radical than those done in later years, more towards the end of the 1940’e and early-mid 1950’s. The main reason for this I believe is because of balance. From the early beginning of customizing, at least customizing with the reason to improve the looks of an automobile, there has been the realization that the customizing needs to be done in balance with the rest of the car. There is a balance between the amount of chop and stance of the car. Early customs usually had a higher stance, so the top was lowered proportional. Later in the 1940′ the cars were often more lowered, which could be done because the roads got better. Therefor to stay in balance with the side view of the car the top needed to be chopped a bit more than before. Of course there are always exceptions to these rules. But over all the chop amount on the early customs was a bit less than later on.

Another thing that I noticed is that in most cases the cars that have been chopped have remained the drip rails. In some cases the drip rails were shortened and ended just after the door openings. But they were rarely completely shaped as we are so familiar with from the late 1940’s early 1950s. Another thing that I have noticed is that the early chops appear to be a bit more boxy, less streamlined than how they were done in the later part of the 1940’s and early 1950’s.



The 1936 Fords

From all the photos of the early chopped custom cars I have come across it looks like the first chopped metal topped body must have been a 1936 Ford. There are early samples of the 5-window coupes as well as the two door sedan bodies as chopped customs. It looks like, and I’m not sure why this is, that the now more popular 3-window coupe was not amongst the first body styled that were cut.


Santa Monica ’36 Ford 5-window Coupe
The earliest chopped Custom Car I have been able to find that can be dated with a license plate is an beautiful restyled 1936 Ford 5-window coupe build in the late 1930. I know of two photos of this car, and both show the car with 1940 California license plates. According Dean Bachelor who took one of these photos of this car has mentioned in the past that the car had been restyled by the Santa Monica Body Works company. We have not been able to find out anything about this shop, but most likely it was a regular body shop and the owner of the Ford might have requested the shop to perform the custom body work. A common practice on early customs. The car has the top lowered a few inches, well balanced with the stance of the car, not to much, just perfect.

CCC-36-ford-5-window-1941-02Santa Monica Body works restyled this 1936 Ford 5-window coupe in late 1930’s or early 1940 with a chopped top, removed running boards, smooth hood sides, narrowed grille and separate grilles in the front fenders. One of the most beautiful ’36 ever done.

 


CCC-36-ford-sedan-mark-murray-00Mark Murray shared this photo of a 1936 Ford Sedan from his grandfathers photo albums. Mark always heard his grandfather say that this one might have been the first 1936 Ford sedan to be chopped. This side profile shows how much the top was chopped.Sadly we cannot see a license plate or date on the photo to help us identify it. It does look to have been done in either the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-murray-chop-progressMark Murray also shared these two photos of an 1936 Ford coupe getting chopped. Pretty rare photos, since there are not to many early photos of these cars getting worked on. These two photos were taken around 1948.

 



Tommy Jamieson ’36 Ford 5-window Coupe
Howard Fall restyled this 1936 Ford 5-window coupe (below) for Tommy Jamieson in 1939-1940. The car is much more radical than most of the custom from this period. The body has been channeled over the frame and 1937 Ford front fenders raised so that the bottom edge would be level with the lower parts of the main body. The hood was replaced with an modified 1938 Ford hood, top chopped with vertical pillars and rather upright rear of the top. Custom made grille and sollid hood sides. The rear fenders are stock and use 1938 Ford teardrop taillights, the license plate is set in in the rear valance and the bumpers are replaced by 1940 Mercury units. Howard Fall painted the car two-tone green.

CCC-chopped-top-history-tommy-jamiesson-01Tommy Jamieson heavily restyled 1936 Ford 5-window coupe with chopped top in 1941.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-tommy-jamiesson-02Tommy’s ’36 Ford is an unique custom with a lot of restyling going on, especially for the time it was created. Notice how upright the rear of the top is. This was done before the streamlined style would be favored. 

 



Bob Fairman / Jimmy Summers ’36 Ford coupe
Bob’s ’36 Ford 3-window coupes with the full fade away fenders is one of the first chopped coupes I have been able to locate. Together with George Barris his ’36 Ford 3-window they both appear to have been build in 1941. We are not sure if it was Jimmy Summers who chopped the top on Bob’s Ford, or if he perhaps did it himself or together with Jimmy while he worked in his shop. The chop on Bob’s coupe was a relatively mild chop, especially if you compare it with some of the others like George Barris or Bob Pierson’s coupes.

CCC-fadeaway-fenders-summers-03Bob Fairman’s 1936 Ford chopped 3-window coupe with full fade away fenders was created when Bob worked for Jimmy Summers. The earliest plates we have seen on this car are from 1941.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-36-ford-filled-windowEven thought these photos were taken in 1949, the car in the photos very much appears to have been restyled in the early 1940’s. The chopped top is rather square, with is further enhanced by the filled in rear quarter windows. From what I can see no part on the car is newer than 1941.

 



George Barris ’36 Ford Coupe
The first real full custom George Barris created for himself was a 1936 Ford Coupe in 1941. It shows a typical Nor Cal style we often associate with as the Harry Westergard Style. Long, sleek, high small nose and a speed boat stance. However I do not think we have ever seen a early chopped coupe of sedan done by Harry Westergard. George chopped the top on his personal ’36 Ford a few inches, nothing really radical, but from the photos we do have of the car it looks to be very well balance. with the highpoint in the center of the door.


CCC-george-barris-36-ford-coupe-02


Jack Calori Ford
One of the most influential chopped ’36 Ford’s ever is the the chopped coupe Herb Reneau created for his friend Jack Calori. It is another car done in the typical Harry Westergard style, but on this car we are not even sure if the owner, or builder have actually ever been in contact with Harry, nor any of the customs he has created. The Calori Coupe did however have a huge impact, and one of the reasons was because it was featured on the cover of the November 1949 issue if the Hot Rod magazine. A very popular magazine at the time. Inside the car had a massive three pages including an incredible x-ray drawing by Rex Burnett. The one thing a bit odd for a custom around this time were the black wall tires, but that was how Jack liked it, he was a Hot Rodder, not so much a Custom Car guy.  The car was restyled in Long Beach California in 1948 by body man and good friend of Jack Calori Herb Reneau.  As far as we know this was Herb’s first chopped top on n all metal top. Most likely the picture in this issue of Hot Rod magazine has inspired many young guy to start working on a chopped 36 Ford Custom all over the US.


CCC-chopped-top-history-calori-1949-01

CCC-chopped-top-history-calori-1949-02The set free photos and the X-Ray drawing show the real beauty of the car very well and how much impact the chopped top has on the ’36 Ford coupes. 

 



Bob Pierson ’36 Ford Coupe
Another very famous 1936 chopped Ford Coupe was the one owned by Bob Pierson. The car was originally build as a mildly restyled street custom in 1947 But in 1949 it was decided to chop the top to enter it in a different category at the dry lake races. However the car was not only build to race, everything was made to look really good as well. Bob and Dick Pierson and Harry Jones chopped the top on the car. Harry was a body man from Inglewood who also painted their 2D coupe. The chopped top coupe was well traveled in SoCal in the late 1940’s early 1950’s.

CCC-chopped-top-history-pierson-bros-36-ford-01Bob Pierson’s 1936 Ford how it was originally restyled in ’47. DeSoto bumpers, Appleton spots, a bull-nose, ripple disc hubcaps, and solid hood sides and teardrop skirts. (This photo was given to the current, 2016, owner of the car by Dick Pierson.)

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-pierson-bros-36-ford-02By 1949 Bob drove the car around with a wonderful chopped top.  (photo from the Bob Pierson’s personal scrapbook)

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-michican-36-ford-02We do not know when this photo was taken, most likely in the early to mid 1940’s. It shows a rather badly chopped ’36 Ford 5-window coupe with the rear quarter windows and roof top filled in from Michigan. The engine was replaced by a Cadillac flathead engine1

 




Other early chopped customs

The 1936 Fords might have been the first coupes and sedans from which the tops were cut and lowered. But they sure were not the only ones. In the early years the FoMoCo cars however were dominating the custom scene. But from early one all year models ended up with chopped tops. Some model years turned out to be more popular than others. The 1939 and 40 Mercury coupes have been very popular candidates for the chopped top from around them mid 1940’s. The almost hard-topped looking top was extremely high on the coupes, making it look very odd, and a prime candidate for a haircut.

We have noticed that quite a few of the early chopped cars had kept the drip-rails in place. In some cases the drip rails were shortened, especially on the cars that had the rear quarter windows closed, which was another popular custom style in the early years. Most likely the closing of the rear quarter windows was inspired by the padded tops created for the chopped convertibles.

CCC-barris-dick-fowler-38-ford-01Dick Fowler’s 1938 Ford Coupe was another early chop done at the Barris Shop. The shop was done most likely around 1946. The amount removed from the top was more than on most in this period. The car was also lowered a little more than other. And Barris shaved the drip rails on this one for an ultimate smooth look.

 



Earl Bruce 1940 Ford Coupe
Earl Bruce bought his 1940 Ford DeLuxe business coupe on September 15, 1939 at Al Stuebing Ford on Cahuenga Blvd in L.A. According the story in American Rodder magazine he drove it straight from the dealer to the northwet corner of Melrose Avenue and Fairfax where Jimmy Summers had his shop. He ordered a full chop and filled quarter windows from Jimmy. There are also stories that Roy Hagy chopped the top on Earl’s Coupe for first owner Tommy Winship, not sure which story is right. The fact is that the car was chopped in late 1939 and the first images we have found of it are from October 4th 1940 when the car was filmed at an scta event.

CCC-chopped-top-history-earl-bruce-01Movie clips from the October 4th 1940 SCTA event show the Earl Bruce 1940 Ford with the fresh chopped top and fog lights used as taillights. Notice that Bruce used a set of 1939 Ford headlights on the car early on.

 



CCC-chopped-top-history-earl-bruce-02These two photos were take a little later in the 1940’s. It shows that the car was now outfitted with rear fender mounted Buick taillights. The headlights are now replaced with 1940 Ford units. Notice how small and high located the rear window is.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-earl-bruce-03This side view taken a little later, gives us a good look at this early chopped coupe top. The whole top has taken on a quite different shape than the stock top, and appears to have been stretched in the center. The rear quarter windows are filled in and the door top corners have been rounded. The drip rail was shortened to a few inches behind the door.

 



Another early chopped coupe styled in a similar way as the Earl Bruce coupe was the Bob Creasman 1940 Ford coupe. Bob’s coupe was chopped in 1943 by Bob Creasman and the Brand Brothers Body Shop in Los Angeles. Four inches were removed from the top. The top was extend four inches to make sure the A-pillars and the rear of the top would line up after the top was lowered. The rear quarter windows were filled in, just as on Earl Bruce his coupe. Later in the 1940’s the car was outfitted with a set of full fade away fenders.



John Williams ’40 Ford Coupe
The Olive Hill Garage on Sunset and Vermond in Hollywood, which was run by Art Lellis and Jerry Moffatt created some very fine restyled customs in the early years. One of those cars was John Williams 1940 Ford coupe that was chopped in either late 1939, or early 1940. The car was done really beautifull with some very nice well designed restyling including peaked hood, Lincoln bumpers, smoother body and a very good looking chopped top. Two photos of the car appeared in the first Custom Car annual from 1951, and show the chopped and finished car with 1940 California license plates. One other photo was used on the February 1949 issue of Hot Rod Magazine. Unlike several others John’s coupe was chopped with the rear quarter windows still in place.

CCC-chopped-top-history-john-williams-art-jerry-01

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-40-ford-coupe-01Unidentified 1940 Ford chopped Coupe from the Bart Bartoni collection (Don Montgomery books) is very interesting. The car appears to be mostly stock, except for 1946-48 Ford bumpers, a bit lower suspension, and a wonderful proportioned chop. It looks like it just rolled out of an 1940’s magazine ad illustration.

 



Don Lee ’40 LaSalle
Don Lee created a few restyled cars for his clients. They do not really fit the Custom theme we discuss here per-see, but I feel they need to be mentioned here anyway. These were also done very early. The 1940 LaSalle shown here was done in 1940, and shows how the windshield remained stock height, but leaned back to create a lower roof prifile. The rear quarter windows had been filled in and the whole top smoothed. Don Lee also created a similar styled Cadillac based on a 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

CCC-chopped-top-history-don-lee-40-lasalleDon Lee’s 1940 LaSalle Coupe with chopped top and leaned back windshield. Chrome rock shields and teardrop shaped skirts. Created in 1940.

 




Chopped sedans

The majority of the early chopped metal top cars were based on coupes, or coupe turned cars. The coupes and convertible body style was always a more preferable style, if you could afford it. These styles were a bit more expensive than the family 2- and 4-door sedans. Overall the coupes and convertible had better lines, longer doors and a wonderful flowing top design, making them the number one choice for customizers as well. But there were also a number of good looking custom sedans. I’m not sure if these cars were based on sedans because the owner wanted it specifically to be a sedan, or if that was all the budget allowed at the time. Either way, quite a few sedans were chopped in the golden years of customizing, and with great success.

There are a great number of samples of chopped sedans that have really great improved lines and have become stunning looking customs. And the plus of course is a lot of space inside, a comfortable ride for four or more. Chopping a custom sedan was most of the time a bit harder to do that a coupe. Especially if the rear of the body was slanted forward. Then often the whole rear of the car needed to be reshaped to flow with the new roof shape. But the end result, when performed right, looked stunning.

CCC-chopped-top-history-38-ford-sedan-barrisBarris Customs restyled this 1938 Ford Standard sedan with a heavy, beautiful flowing chop, smooth hood sides and Packard Clipper grille. The rear of the body had to be reshaped, angled forward to make it flow with the new roof shape. The work was done in 1946-47. These photos appeared in a 1947 published Dan Post booklet.

 


CCC-39-40-fomoco-sedan-customs-02This great photo from the Bart Bartoni Collection (courtesy of the Don Montgomery books) shows a 1939 Ford 2-door sedan in the mid 1940’s. Wonderful early style custom with a heavy chop. The chop on this one appears to be a bit more “boxy” than the 38 Ford above. Most likely indicating that the roof on this one was actually lengthened with an added “band”.

 


Eldon Gibson 1940 Oldsmobile
Eldon Gibson 1940 Oldsmobile 4-door sedan had been damaged in a fire when it was still brand new. Modern Motors, a Glendale, Ca. a Cadillac/Oldsmobile dealer, repaired the damage and lowered the top at the same time. To make this work on the sedan body the top was dropped with the B-pillars lined up. The top was not streched, and to make it all work, the stock height windshield was leaned back, and the rear window leaned forward, and the A- and B-pillars reshaped to make it all looks like it belonged there in the first place. The photos below were taken in 1941 in Downtown Burbank and shows how radical the car was compared to the other cars in the street. It was very unusual then, and still is today to perform a chop like this on a 4-door sedan.


CCC-chopped-top-history-eldon-gibson-olds-01

CCC-chopped-top-history-eldon-gibson-olds-02The Oldsmobile was finished in medium blue with dark blue on the top. The hood and truck where shaved and a set of teardrop fender skirts, stainless rock shields, and single bar flipper hubcaps added. 

 



1939-40 Mercury’s
The Barris shop has played a huge role in the development of the chopped top. Early attempts sometimes worked fine, but we also know about quite a few of early chopped cars that just had odd proportions and could hardly be called an improvements over the stock look. However the Barris shop managed to get the looks of their tops always on the money. Sam and George did learn a lot from the work they did, and you can see a clear learning curve if you compare the early chops with the later one.

Supposedly Sam Barris chopped the first one around 1946 on Jim Kirstead‘s 1939 Mercury. There are several photos of this car in progress, and the work done on the top looks pretty rough in the early stage, indicating the Barris Shop was experimenting and learning how to deal with the Mercury coupe top shape. In the early days the shops did not use pre-shaped panels like they would do in the later parts of the 1940’s. We know that sometimes the body man would use spare body parts and shape those to fit the new lower c-pillars.

CCC-chopped-top-history-Kirstead-39-barrisJim Kirstead’s 1939 Mercury coupe is said to be one of the first, or perhaps the first 39-40 Mercury’s ever chopped at the Barris Shop. These in progress photos show how the c-pillars received a lot of cuts to be able to form the metal into the right shape. This was clearly done before the Barris shop worked with the California Metal Shaping’s preformed panels to redo theC-Pillars after the chop. Notice how small the windshield was after the roof came down.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-bill-spurgeon-barris-01In 1946 the Barris shop restyled another ’39 Mercury, this time for owner Bill Spurgeon. The top was chopped, but far less extreme as on Jim Kirstead. The windshield looks to have been chopped just mildly, or perhaps it was even raised into the top. The rear of the top shows a very much factory line, just lower, and a bit more streamlined. But not blended in as much as would be done later on.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-bill-spurgeon-barris-02The back of the photo on Bill’s ’39 Mercury gives us a bit more info on the car, build in 1946, finished in 1947.

 



Comparing the ’40 Mercury chop
On the 1940 Mercury’s we can do a good comparing using the 1940 Mercury of Johnny Zaro build around 1948 and the late 1940’s, early 1950 chopped 1940 Mercury of Nick Matranga. Both cars are based on the same 1940 Mercury Coupe, but have a completely different look and feel, and have been built only two years apart from each other.

CCC-chopped-top-history-40-merc-zaroIn progress photo of the Johnny Zaro 1940 Mercury. The work has all been done and the car is in primer around 1948.

 



Below is an image of two 1940 Mercury’s, the top one is the Johnny Zaro Mercury, and the bottom one the Nick Matranga 1940 Mercury. The Johnny Zaro Mercury has a much more conservative chopped top. Very much styled along the lines of the original car, but then with a lower top and sliglty more streamlined with the rear portion of the top molded to the body to make the body and top a one piece affair. The chopped top done like this gave the car a completely new more aggressive look and with a low stance the proportions looked a lot better than original. To be able to get the side windows the right proportional size, the top needs to be chopped quite a bit, leaving the windshield very small.

The Barris shop learned from this, and when they did the 1940 Mercury for Nick Matranga Sam Barris cut the windshield less than the top itself, moving the windshield up into the top a bit. This way the windshield was now in line with the side windows. When Nick’s Mercury was restyled, it was the late 1950’s and the styles had changed and the urge for more streamlining made Sam experiment with the chop. Sam wanted to make the top flow much nicer on Nick’s car than what he had done on previous merc’s. He used pre-shaped metal panels from California Metal shaping to create the right curves to make the top flow much nicer into the catwalk. The new shape of the top made it look like a one piece body, while the original top was a separate component separated with a small chrome trim piece. The low top with flowing lines gave the car a very modern look. The Barris Shop made it look even better when they replaced the straight side window posts with elegantly curved hand made chrome plated channels.  The Nick Matranga Mercury is considered the ultimate chop for the 1940 Mercury, although in more recent years some of the high end builders have even improved on the looks of this. We will get back to that in the next part on the history of the chopped top.

CCC-chopped-top-history-40-merc-coupeThe stock 1940 Mercury Coupe had a hard-top looking rather high top.

 


CCC-chopped-top-history-40-merc-compared-01Johnny Zaro’a concervative chopped 1940 Mercury on top, and the Nick Matranga streamlined ultimate chopped 1940 Mercury on the bottom. Both were chopped by Sam Barris at the Barris shop.

 


Here ends the first part of the History of the Chopped Top article. We are far from done, there is a lot more to tell and share. The next article will cover the cars from 1941 and up that have played an important part in the history of the Chopped Top. In the meantime, please comment with any additional information you have on the subject, and if you have any more proof of early chopped top customs pre 1940. Please let us know and email Rik at the CCC.
Stay tuned for part two…

 



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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)




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17 Comments


  1. Awesome….This article has a huge amount of information not just about Chopped Tops, But the other builders and body shops who did them too….
    The CCC is the best place to hang out along with my favorite taqueria……!
    KUSTOMLAND


  2. Thanks Rik for this dynamite article on the subject that is most central to me when it comes to building a custom . if wheels make or brake a car , a wrongly executed top chop will just ruin a custom , on the other hand if the design is there , right proportions , and smooth lines it will defiantly elevate a custom to a higher level , as of much else it needs to be paired with right stans , skirts and all the other basic ingredience that makes a custom . the intriguing part is that its not just one way that is right , less or more chop only needs the followed with the bodywork that makes it flow and both are winners ! Topchops is in any shape or form not practical , only made to make it flow better , look cooler and set itself apart from the stock tops !
    Wolf


  3. Rik, this is the most definitive, and insightful, treatment of the development of the chopped top. I know all who are still around who lived this traditional custom car life will agree, and for the younger talented craftsmen who are even now carrying these improvements in form and balance to new levels of excellence, it is an indispensable primer!

    The first chopped top I ever got to see first hand, in Sheridan, Wyoming, was performed sometime around the War years. Mike Grotz had a body shop called the Central Garage, and his “Grizzley Adams” of a son, Andy, was a patient mentor of us Conquistadors. Mike Grotz had a circa 1937 Packard convertible. Wyoming weather is not very kind to convertibles, and Mike’s wife needed better. He took a roof from a 1936-37 Studebaker, the one with the cool bat-wing rear window, and grafted it in chopped form to fit the low Packard A pillar. The convertible open side window profile was retained. The distinctive car was painted a deep non-metallic red, and turned heads everywhere Mrs. Grotz cruised.

    My friend Rex Heselius bought the car around 1958, then entered the Service. It sat awhile, then was cut up at the salvage yard by Conquistador Gary “Slim” Richards. He told me the lead just flowed like a river when he sliced it up. What a pity! I’ve searched in vain so far for photos of that restyled Packard with the Studebaker bat-wing rear window. Maybe someday one will turn up.


  4. Another great article o the origins of our favorite art form.
    As my old body shop mentor once told me. “Any fool can cut a roof off a car. It takes a craftsman to put it back on and make it look right.”
    Thank you Rik.
    Torchie


  5. Great article. Thanks Rik


  6. I forgot to mention my favorite part of the article……
    The first pic of Sam and friend lifting the roof off of the Ford. Doors wide open and not a single piece of bracing in sight. 🙂
    I think that we current custom builders over think our projects sometimes. LOL
    Torchie


  7. Jim

    Rik,

    Great write up as usual. In regards to Bob Pierson’s ’36 coupe, it was chopped by Bob and Dick Pierson and Harry Jones. Harry was a body man from Inglewood who also painted their 2D coupe. As far as photo credits, the first photo you posted of the ’36 unchopped was given to me by Dick Pierson himself, the 2nd photo of the ’36 chopped is from Bob Pierson’s personal scrapbook.
    I hope this info helps by putting a name to the “unknown” body man that chopped the coupe.

    Jim


  8. very nice article rik took awhill to read wheeo , that took u a lot of time to put it togather nice work,


  9. A very good article that shows lots of research on your part. I really like the information on the ’40 Merc coupes.


  10. Great article, cant wait for part II.


  11. Great article. Thank you for posting!


  12. Very interesting stuff Rik. I am looking forward to part 2


  13. Great article Rik, I do have a question, the 34 Ford shown is a Vicky not a sedan. was it chopped by Barris, I was told it could have been an old Detroit build..

    Just asking, love your work,

    Thanks Scott


    • You are absolutely right about the “Sedan” being a Vicky, my bad. I mixed up two cars. Thanks for letting me know I have fixed it now. And as far as the car being a Detroit car. I ‘m aware of the Vicky you own right now, and that the car was created in Detroit. It does look like the car in the Dan Post book for sure, and if it is the same, then your car is even older than the 1950’s. Since this photo was already published in 1947. I do have no other info on the car in the Dan Post book, and where it is from. As far as I know most of the photos used in these early Post publications came from California. But perhaps he used photos send in from other states as well. I have no concrete info on that.


  14. Great article Rik, The only place to get stuff like this.



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