Custom Car Chronicle
custom carsThe Tom Nielsen Collection

Lady in Distress!


1. great pain, anxiety, or sorrow; acute physical or mental suffering; affliction; trouble.
2. a state of extreme necessity or misfortune.

By  Tom Nielsen……a true story!



The year was 1966 and I was winding my way North on Seattle’s Aurora Avenue.  I was just coming around Green Lake.  Suddenly, my eye caught a very shapely, familiar figure in the lot of a Texaco station. As I got closer I knew that I was going to have to stop and check this out!

Parking my car on a side street, I quickly walked over to the parking area in front of the station’s lube bay.  Yes, my eyes had not deceived me!  I was now standing beside the famous Madame Fi Fi.  She was an iconic “show queen” that I had last admired four years earlier at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair!

However, what I was seeing now was the end of the line for this once glamorous, flashy, lady.  To think that I had lusted after her at so many shows in the late fifties and early sixties!

John Buchan and before him, Curtis Shuck, had created such a unique custom creation! The radical ’56 Chev was always in the winner’s circle at car shows!  Don Burlingame, the third owner, had upgraded Fi Fi for the 1962 World’s Fair Futurama.

After Burlingame sold Madame Fi Fi, it had been passed through a number of owners.  What I was looking at now showed that she was in a “sad state of affairs”.

This historic Seattle show car was being sold off in pieces!   The signature rocket- ship seats were already gone!  Under the reverse opening hood was a gaping hole where a highly chromed, six-carbed Chrysler hemi had once resided!  The ’56 Chevrolet body still wore its last raspberry metalflake paint job by the talented Ray Wilson.  However, it was chipped, cracked, and scratched revealing some of the previous custom paint jobs underneath.

Looking over what was left of this 1961 Car Craft magazine “Top Ten Custom”, I was thinking about making an offer for the car.  The price was reasonable enough and several years ago I would have loved to own her.


CCC-MadamFIFI-Nielsen-Col-01WBefore the chopped top and fins were added; Northgate Mall in N. Seattle 1959.

But, 1966 was not the best time to buy an aging, radical custom and bring it back to life.  The car show era that had spawned this full custom ’56 Bel Air hardtop had ended.  Newer cars and factory “muscle cars” were all the rage in the later sixties.  Young car guys at that time wanted a lowered new car or a performance car.



Fi Fi in front of one of the first Nordstrom stores at Northgate Mall 1961.

I guess that I was no different from them either. Besides I had no place to store the car, as I was still in college.  So, after spending some more time looking at what had been my favorite car show car I slowly walked away.
Feeling pretty sad about how this glamorous custom’s glory days had ended, I got into my car to go home.  I remember glancing back at Madame Fi Fi one more time, before merging into traffic on the busy Aurora Avenue.  I felt sure that it was the last time I would ever see her!

CCC-MadamFIFI-CC-Feb61-01WCar Craft photo from the 1961 “Top Ten Customs Issue”


CCC-MadamFIFI-Internet-01W1962 Seattle World’s Fair “Futurama” (internet photo)


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Tom Nielsen

Tom Nielsen is a long time Custom Car fan with wonderful collection of photos of 1940's to 1960's custom cars. He loves to share his collection and to tell stories about them.

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