CUSTOM PLASTIC DETAILS
Around 1947 Jesse Lopez experimented with the use of clear green Lucite to Custom Restyle the interior of his 1941 Ford Coupe. The start of a new trend Custom Plastic Details.
The first mass produced plastics was bakelite, its invention made it possible to cast small parts for whatever use. The automotive industry used a lot of bakelite products, like dash decorations, door knobs and some emblems. In the 1930’s other plastics evolved from it some of these were easier, and cheaper to produce, and could be created in a wider variety of colors etc than Bakelite. The aircraft industry saw the potential of this new crystal clear plastics to shape canopy’s for new faster airplanes. Before, but mostly after WWII the plastic products and raw material as sheets and rods in all sizes became readily available all over the US. The new plastic materials were manufactured by several companies, but two of them DuPont and Röhm & Haas were the leaders in the field. DuPont marketing their product as Lucite, and Röhm & Haas had Plexiglas.
Possibly your Customizers were inspired by the handsomely shaped household products made available in the new plastics in the early 1940’s. This together with shop classes using the actual material might have been the start of the new Customizing trend.
Developed in the 1930s, the clear acrylic plastic branded as Lucite became a wildly popular material for costume jewelry starting in the 1950s. Less expensive to produce than Bakelite, Galalith, and Catalin and more chemically stable than celluloid, Lucite made these earlier jewelry plastics obsolete.
In its pure form, Lucite is translucent, resembling glass or rock crystal, but it can be dyed in a wide range of colors and opacity, making it the perfect material for bold blocks of Mid-century Modern colors. Hard, water-resistant, and lightweight, Lucite can be carved and polished, and it is easy to wear.
The scientists at two rival chemical companies, DuPont and Rohm & Haas, spent the 1930’s working on glass-like acrylic resins (a.k.a. polymethyl methacrylate). Rohm & Haas launched its version, the clear and nearly unbreakable Plexiglass, first in 1935. DuPont brought Lucite to the market in 1937.
Both companies realized the future importance of their plastic products and started to promote Lucite and Plexiglas on a huge scale. Users manuals were produced and advertising campaigns were set up. They also sponsored the schools and set up shop classes using the new plastic materials. Lucite and Plexiglass became readily available in a selection of colors, both solid as well as transparent, in sheets stock and as round on square stock. The possibilities for using the new plastics was endless. And most likely the kids in school who were using plastics and studying the manuals provided by DuPont and Röhm & Haas as study material, started to think about possible use of this new products for their Hot Rods and Custom Cars.
Lucite and Plexiglas was not hard to get, the general hardware store carried some of the materials, and if you wanted something special, like the green or red transparent sheets, you could go to the special Plastic houses, or order the material thru several mail order companies. Although the plastics were not really advertised in the Hot Rod and Custom Car magazines, other more generic technical publications as Popular Mechanics had multiple ads for plastic products from the mid 1940’s and up.
Memo Ortega about the plastics he used back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
“Back in the ’40, ’50s we had hardware stores that some of them carried plastic sheets for a quick fix replacement if you broke a window in your house. Those sheets were only available in clear, but we did you them sometimes. In Pomona there used to a store that that sold nothing but plastic products they sold round tubes, square plastic and sheets in different thickness and colors. What ever you needed you could buy it there. Its been a long time, and sadly I can’t remember the name of the store. We did visit the shop a lot and bought all the plastic stuff what ever we wanted to do with it for our kustom cars.”
Generic Technical publication as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science had often ads for Plastic supplied from the mid 1940’s and up. Plastic products as sheets, rods in different colors as well as special adhesives could be ordered by mail.
The early Custom Restyling publications did not mention much about the use of plastics for Custom Restyling. The Dan Post Blue Book of Custom Restyling 1949 edition was possibly the first publication to mention the use of custom shaped Plastic for interior customizing.
In the later part of the 1940’s Young Customizers started to see the possibilities of using these new plastics for their Custom Car creations. One of the first to use a clear colored plastic in his Custom Car was a young Jesse Lopez who had created a stunning trend setting 1941 Ford long door coupe together with his friend Sam Barris. Jesse took the dash from his 1941 Ford had it completely chrome plated and replaced the factory plastic components with hand shaped green transparent lucite. Jesse also shaped the radio knob from green and clear lucite and replaced the factory plastic handles on his Appleton Spotlight with hand shaped clear green handles.
The Appleton 112’s were wired and worked, the spot handles were green Lucite to match the Lucite on the dash. (Jesse Lopez)
The use of clear colored Lucite or Plexiglass in Jesse Lopez’s ’41 Ford is known to be the first of its kind to be used. Jesse’s Ford was finished in 1948. After Jesse had finished the plastic work on his car he helped out several of his friends and Kustoms of Los Angeles club members to create similar parts for their Barris created Custom cars. And the use of clear and clear colored Lucite or Plexiglass became a trend and was used on many custom cars from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The fact that the Barris created Custom Cars were so well published in the magazines during this period made sure the trend was spread about the US really fast.
Rare photo of the Jesse Lopez 1941 Ford shows the chrome plated dash with clear green Lucite details. Notice the radio knobs on the top of the dash were done in green and clear laminated style.
Jerry Daman duplicated the clear plexiglas details on Jesse Lopez’s Ford for his recreation of the ’41 Ford. This photo shows the finished part to cover the chrome plated dash. The cut holes are for the main instruments on the left, and the clock on the right. (photo courtesy of Jerry Daman)
Not shown in the full dash photo are the Appleton Spotlight handles. Jesse also hand shaped a set of those in clear green lucite. So Jerry did the same thing for his recreation. Using clear green plexiglass laminated together and shaped by hand. (photo courtesy of Jerry Daman)
Jesse Lopez on using Plastics
On July 28, David E. Zivot had a nice conversation with his friend Jesse Lopez, and one of the subjects he discussed was the use of plastics on Jesse’s 1941 Ford.
By David E. Zivot.
“I had a nice conversation with Jesse yesterday, and I specifically kept him on the subject of his early artistry in plastic.
He related to me how he and Sam were doing the finishing touches on the ‘41 Ford top chop, when it became apparent that they would have to use a plastic rear window.
Jesse knew of a hobby shop in Gardena on Avalon St. that had a generous supply of plastic sheet stock and other small shapes that local hobbyists would use to make jewelry, toys, and other knick knacks. While looking through the assorted clear Lucite selections he overheard a conversation between the gal that ran the shop and a gentleman that wanted to make multi-colored laminated small table legs.
Jesse was intrigued that you could glue different color Lucite as well as combinations of clear and colored pieces, and turn them on a wood lathe using files and sand paper.
It then occurred to him that using the wonderful color palette that was available in the fairly new technology of plastics could make an outstanding custom effect on the chromed automobile dashboards, assorted knobs, and spotlight handles.
Jesse purchased some flat stock clear for his rear window, as well as some translucent green smaller pieces, and took them back to the Barris shop.
He proceeded to cut, glue, file, and sand the Lucite into very attractive replacements for the stock pieces that came out of the ‘41 Ford.
Jesse had to use the somewhat primitive buffing and grinding equipment at the Barris shop, including a two-speed body grinder sitting on the shop floor, but turned out very nice examples, and even taught some of the other guys how to do it.
This learning curve occurred at the same time that Jesse had developed the technique of using translucent red Lucite to make custom bumper guard taillight lenses. George and Sam were immediately impressed.
All the fellows wanted Jesse to fabricate their dash trim, knobs, taillight lenses, spotlight handles, etc, which he gladly did for Dick Carter’s ‘41 Ford, Matranga’s ‘40 Mercury, Al Andril’s and Johnny Zaro’s cars, and many others.
The one fellow that really took it to heart and ran with it was Bob Hirohata, and Jesse self-taught in the art, showed Bob the ropes.
It’s interesting that this craft, and a few others that Jesse had developed, were later taken up and marketed by Eastern Auto and Cal Custom.
The sincerest form of flattery is always imitation.”
Johnny Zaro had two Barris restyled Custom Cars that both used clear red plastic details. Johnny first had a 1940 Mercury Coupe that was restyled by Barris with a chopped top and molded fenders, similar styled as one they did for Johnny’s good friend Al Andril. Only Al’s was blue and Johnny’s was maroon. We have never been able to find out if Al’s Mercury had a similar dash board treatment as Johhny had, and if it had, if the details were done in clear blue or not. Most likely it was since both cars were known to be near identical except for the color. Johnny had the help of Jesse Lopez when he created the clear red lucite dash inserts to replace the factory ribbed plastic units.
“I had a special panel on the dashboard, made of plastic, kind of a wine color, or dark maroon. We cut the plastic, ground it down, and polished it. We had screws coming into the back side. We did the same for the radio knobs and all of that.”
Latter johnny did the same thing on his ’41 Ford convertible custom created by George Barris. The ’41 Ford is also still around today, and the plastic parts created back in the late 1940’s are still inside the car today.
This photo shows the clear red plastic parts of the Johnny Zaro 1940 Mercury. Kurt McCormick, the current caretaker of the car, had to recreate all the original plastic components during the restoration.
The 1940 Mercury dash in the Zaro Merc, was chrome plated and the clear red plexiglass sheets hand shaped to fit. The radio face was also created from clear red plexiglass and so are the shifter and Appleton Spotlight handles. (the vintage Los Angles background is digitally added to the recent taken photo)
The restored version of the car still has the original chrome plated dash with the original Jesse Lopez/Johnny Zaro created plastic insert on the dash. The radio face and knobs seams to have been removed. The Shifter knob has been replaced with a laminated (white and red) tear drop shaped unit, but the Appleton handles are still the original hand crafted parts.
Next to Jesse Lopez, Bob Hirohata is also credited for his pioneering custom plastic work. Bob created a set of green and white laminated tear drop shaped dash, shifter and Appleton Spotlight knobs for his famous Hirohata Merc. The laminated knobs were shown in several magazine features on the Barris Kustoms created ’51 Mercury. Soon thereafter similar shaped knobs were created all over the US. The November ’53 issue of Rod & Custom magazine did a four page How-To article on Bob Hirohata showing how you can create the laminated dash knobs at home. Later Bob sold his idea of the laminated dash knobs to the Cal Custom company who ended up in producing them in a large scale in the later part of the 1950’s. The laminated dash knobs were a big success for the company, and similar products are still being produced and sold today. The great thing is that most of the dash knobs that Bob created for his mercury in 1952, are still around today and are still inside the completely restored Hirohata Mercury.
The Laminated dash knobs on Bob’s personal ’51 Mercury were however not the first set of knobs Bob created. We know of at least one car for which Bob created a laminated shift knob, and several other dash knobs, as well as a set of hand made taillights (which we will cover in our part 2 on Custom Plastic Details) for Jack Stewart’s 1941 Ford. Bob created these parts for Jack from clear and clear orange Lucite in 1951. And fortunately these parts have also survived and are still with the ’41 Ford today.
The beautiful hand shaped shifter knob for Jack Stewart’s 1941 Ford was created from a think piece of clear and two thinner sheets of clear orange lucite. Laminated together and hand shaped to Bob Hirohata’s own design. Thanks to Bob Drake this rare piece of Custom Car history remains still with the Jack Stewart Ford today. The current photos of the shifter knob are taken by Palle Johansen the current Jack Stewart Ford caretaker.
The four page article on how to create Laminated Dash Knob’s by Bob Hirohata for the November 1953 issue of Rod & Custom. The article is still used today as reference for creating these laminated dash knobs.
The dash knobs in the Hirohata Mercury are the originals Bob Hirohata created back in 1952. The Appleton Spotlight units (not shown here) where gone and had to be replaced with new units created by Jim McNiel.
Bob also replaced the Mercury emblem on the door window garnish molding (see inset) with a simple beautifully shaped piece of clear green Lucite. Notice how the screws holding the parts are mounted from behind.
Some of the Generic Technical magazines advertised with many plastic products, including mold making materials. But as far as we have been able to find not much of this was used in the golden years of Custom Restyling. The use of sheet and rod Lucite or Plexiglass remained the most populate use for Customs. There is one sample we did find that was an exception. This was the clear plastic steering wheel in the Don Vaughn Barris Kustoms restyled 1948 Buick convertible. The car was featured in the April 1953 issue of Hop Up magazine and showed the rather heavy clear plastic steering wheel. The article does not mention how the steering wheel has been created, and so far we also have not been able to get it confirmed, but possibly the steering wheel was cast from a clear resin using a home made mold. Another unique use of Custom Plastic detail. I do not recall seeing this done in other cars during the Golden Years of Customizing.
Clear resin steering wheels can also be found in some coachbuilt cars. These samples here show clear resin wheels in a 1949 Delahaye 175S with Saoutchik bodywork on the top left, and one in a 1949 Delahaye 125M Cabriolet with Guilloré bodywork on the bottom and right. Notice that also all the dash knobs on these cars were done in the same clear plastic.
Mass produced Plastic Custom Parts
In the early part of the 1950’s several aftermarket companies started to produce some plastic parts especially for the Hot Rod and Custom Car crowd. One of the products was the Steering wheel Spinners. The steering wheel knob that allowed the driver to “safely” use only one hand to steer the car. The other hand could, depending on which side the knob was attached to the steering wheel, be used to hold the girl next to the driver, or hang cool outside the window. In the later part of the 1950’s Cal Custom started to produce the Laminated dash and shifter knobs patterned after Bob Hirohata’s original design. These dash knobs have been in production off and on ever since. And today there are still several small companies who create custom ordered dash knobs in a great variety of colors and special effect plastics. The use of the custom made laminated dash and shifter knobs has been very popular in the last couple of years, and I have even seen a few nice samples of custom created clear plexiglass details on chrome or painted dash boards.
Some Customs used a custom Steering wheel spinner allowing for better single hand steering wheel control. Several companies offered different color plastic options for this. The ad comes from and 1951 Eastern Auto Supply Co. catalog.
In Part 2 on the Custom Plastic Details we focus on the use of plastic on the outside of custom cars.
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