Custom Plastic Details Part 2

 

CUSTOM PLASTIC DETAILS

 

Shortly after WWII Car builders and Customizers started to experiment with the new product Plastic, and see how it could be incorporated in Custom Restyling. Part 2 exterior use of plastics on Custom Cars.



In the first article on the use of plastic in Custom Restyling we concentrated on the interior use of plastic. For this second part we will concentrate¬†on¬†the exterior usage of plastics on Custom Cars. One of the most popular uses for the new plastic products were house hold materials, and the use in the aviation industry. Especially the use of clear plexiglass for aircraft canopy’s was a huge inspiration source for the car industry¬†and Custom builders. In the 1930’s several near all plexiglass promotional cars and details were produced to show the work how the modern car worked, and also to show the world the usage for the new plastics.

Shortly after WWII several people started to experiment with the use of plexiglass to create special clear tops for their cars. Techniques developed by the aviation industry¬†where large sheets of plexiglas were heated in special ovens to a point the material became flexible and could be molded to shape using dies, were adapted for the use on cars. Later even production cars used plexiglas for a portion of the tops for instance on the 1954¬†Mercury Monterey Sun Valley. Although several cars were outfitted with shaped plexiglas windshield, or even complete tops, it would take to the late 1950’s early 1960’s before this technique became really popular and was adapted to quite a few Custom Cars.

CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-Rohm-Haas-1937-ad1937 Plexiglass ad from Röhm & Haas for the Airplane industry.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-jack-cooper-36-fordJack Cooper built his 1936 Ford 4-door mild custom in the late 1940’s early 1950’s. He removed the roof insert and replaced it with a piece of plexiglass. This resulted in a much brighter interior, a really unique effect at the time. These photos show the restored car with blue tinted plexiglass.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-dream-truckThe Barris Shop created the grille for the R&C Dream Truck. Bob Hirohata used large pieces of Lucite to create the end pieces on the bottom two grille bars. The end pieces acted as direction and park lights. Bob created similar end pieces, but then in clear red lucite at the back that act as taillights.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-el-capitola-01The 1957 Chevy El Capitala Custom was created mostly by Sam Barris after he had returned to Sacramento. The car was built in the later parts of the 1950’s and used some plastic on the outside. Including this custom made El Capitola plastic plaque covering the license plate. Gary Birns took this photo of the unrestored El Capitola several decades ago. Some of the letters were already missing at the time.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-junior-shoeboxJunior Conway created custom taillights on his super low Shoebox Ford personal Driver. For the lower section he used frosted clear hand shaped lucite.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-aztec-02Bill Carr’s 1955 Chevy the “Aztec” had completely restyled rear fenders incorporating huge fin’s and bat wing like taillight openings. These openings were filled with hand cut and shaped clear red and clear white lucite. The lucite panels¬†had prism effects filed on the back side. This photo shows the original taillights in the late 1950’s.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-aztecBarry Mazza and Bob Nitti had to recreate the taillights when they restored the Aztec. This photo was taken from the recreated taillights on the restored Aztec in 2011.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-el-capitola-02The 1957 Chevy El Capitola also had hand made lucite taillights. A large clear red section made up the actual taillight and half oval shaped white lucite was added to create the ribs. This photo shows the unrestored original taillights of the El Capitola.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-abros-chevyThe Alexander Brothers in Detroit created these plastic taillights for¬†Dave Jenkins’s 1957 Chevy. They used a clear¬†red plexiglass base that was cut to fit the Chevy taillight housing and added hand shaped white plexiglass ribs to it.
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Aftermarket

Besides offering Lucite and Plexiglass in various sizes and shapes by the mail order aftermarket and local shops, there were also several companies started to offer special plastic products for the use on the exterior of Custom Cars and Hot Rods. The most important and best known became a series of smooth taillight lenses created to fit factory stock bezels. Some where done in transparent red plastics in similar shapes as the factory units, but now much smoother and cleaner looking. While others were done in solid white plastic with cut outs filled with clear red sections for a really special custom effect. Lee Plastics from Detroit, Michigan was perhaps the best known and largest producer of these custom plastic taillights.


CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-lee-plastics-01With a lot of people creating hand made taillights from lucite several aftermarket companies saw potential in producing custom taillights to help the enthusiasts. The biggest and best known company was Lee Plastics from Detroit, Muchigan. This is an ad they ran for some time, this particular scan was made from the December, 1960 issue of Car Craft magazine.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-lee-plastics-02Some Custom 1956 Chevy taillights from Lee Plastics from the Mark Moriarity Collection.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-lee-plastics-03More aftermarket custom lights and a display card from Lee Plastics.
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Custom Made


CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-modern-grecianThe Barris Shop had restyled a 1947 Studebaker for Earl Wilson in the early 1950’s. In the late 1950’s they did an update, and restyled the car with all the latest styles and techniques. The replaced the once ¬†chrome trim pieces in the hood with hand shaped clear plexiglass spears, and the headlights were reshaped and fitted with frosted clear plexiglass. The black and white inset photo shows the early version of the car named “the Grecian”. The yellow and green version was renamed “The Modern Grecian”.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-busonic-buickRoy Abendroth’s Custom Restyled 1955 Buick used a clear plexiglass grille when it was created in the early 1960’s. The first version was made of clear plexiglas with round holes cut into it. A little later the car was redone completely and a new grille insert was created from transparent yellow plexiglass cut in a shape to match the grille opening. More on the Busonic Buick can be seen here.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-barris-camp-chevyRonnie Camp’s 1960 Chevy convertible was restyled by the Barris Kustom Shop. ¬†The Barris show restyled the Chevy with custom grille opening at the front and a similar style opening at the rear. On the front they installed translucent white plexiglass to hide 6 headlights. And at the the rear a huge piece of clear red plexiglass covered no less than 14 taillights. It does make me wonder how much cooling the engine still had with the filled grille opening.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-hines-knobsOne very popular grille restyling technique was to mount cut and polished length of clear plexiglass rods on a cut to for the grille opening perforated base. In the how to article above it is shown how this was done on Mitch Nagao’s 1957 T-Bird named “Xtura”.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-mitch-nagao-tbirdMitch Nagao’s finished 1957 T-Bird with the plastic rod grille. At the back a similar styled panel was installed.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-les-popo-03Another good sample of the plastic rod on chromed expanded¬†metal grille was Bob Crespo’s sectioned 1940 Ford “Les PoPo”. The grille work was done at the Barris Shop.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-les-popo-02Close up of the grille work on¬†Bob Crespo’s sectioned 1940 Ford “Les PoPo”.¬†Some more clear plastic rod were used on the space between the two canted headlights.
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Frosted Covers

Very popular on the early 1960’s car show¬†circuit. Stock headlight openings, or hand shaped openings were covered with frosted plexiglass or similar materials. The nice matt white effect gave the cars a mysterious look, it hid the bulb details and could be nicely dressed up with a bullet shaped pin, or bolt imitating the famous Lucas headlight details. Some used pre frosted plexiglass that could be bout with different interesting frosting patterns, but other created the frosting by hand after the panels were cut to fit the the headlight openings. Frosting could be done by carefully sandblasting the backside, but also regular sandpaper was used to get the desired frosting effect.

CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-frosted-lightsFrom the 1963 published Custom Headlights & fenders Spotlight books produced by Hot Rod / Petersen Publishing Company.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-frosted-grecianJohn Saltsman Studebaker pickup custom uses a set of canted and flipped upside down Buick headlights which are covered with a frosted panel. John found these frosted panels in the Barris Kustoms Restyled Modern Grecian when he owned the car. Most likely it was a spare set of frosted headlights created specially for the Modern Grecian. 
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Plastic Windows

From the later part of the 1930’s Plexiglass has been used in aviation to create teardrop shaped windshields/canopies for airplanes. It was only a matter of time before this technique was adapted to the car industry, or better said the Custom Car scene. Simple small shaped pieces of glass shaped with the same technique as was used to create airplane windshields were already used on the dry lake racers shortly after WWII.¬†In the late 1940’s hand formed plexiglas started to be used on Custom Cars, and Sports Customs. Nice and elegant wrap-around windshields that were ahead of their time with several years.

CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-Rohm-Haas-manual-01From a 1937 brochure on the usage of Plexiglass comes this great photo os a crew getting ready to wrap a heated and now flexible piece of plexiglass over a buck to form a airplane canopy.
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Carson Top ShopSeveral of the top shops offered padded tops with so called panoramic rear windows. To be able to make these tops flow with the round shape of the tops the rear window were usually created from clear plexiglass shaped to fit the openings.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-lon-hurley-cadLon¬†Hurley’s heavily restyled 1947 Cadillac roadster uses a custom made wrap around windshield with a clear plexiglass brace in the center. The car was created in the late 1940’s, early 1950.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-skonzakes-buickThe use of plexiglas for windows also allowed customizers to create the shape of the top they really wanted, without having to keep in mind that the original, or cut down glass needed to fit. Heated plexiglas could be bend to any shape needed. A good sample of this can be seen in the 1949 Buick restyled by Jim Skonzakes at the Barris Kustom Shop. The complete rear window was shaped from plexiglas to fit the new opening dictated by the perfectly shaped chopped top. The only disadvantage was that the plexiglass tended to get slightly dull over time, and was sensitive to scratches.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-golden-sahara-01Jim Skonzakes Golden Sahara I restyled by the Barris Custom Shop uses a brand new Lincoln wrap around glass windshield in 1954. But the rear window and the two roof panels were created in shaped plexiglass.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-golden-sahara-02The Golden Sahara II completely restyled in Dayton Ohio by a team of craftsman lead by Jim Sonzakes had a completely new top. Jim was never impressed with quality the first version of the car, and decided to go with a completely hand shaped plexiglass top on this version of the car. Perfectly smooth buck were created over which heated and flexible sheets of plexiglas was shaped. A center section was also created for the car, but has rarely been used. The bubble shape windows were created around 1958.
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Today, 2016, plexiglass or similar plastic products are still being used for windows on custom cars. However the problem remains that it scratches relatively easy, and long exposure to sunlight has its negative effects on the material. The advantages are that it can be shaped to any desired shape, which is perfect for the heavily reshaped tops for that just perfect line of the car. Or simply because the glass cannot be cut. Another advantage is that shaping plexiglas can usually be done at home, and if it does not fit you can just start over. In the last decade or so Custom builders have also been using companies specializing in custom shaped real glass, to overcome the disadvantages of Plexiglas. More about this can be read in an CCC-Article by Paul Kelly.




Full Bubble tops

Most people think at the 1960’s instantly, when we mention¬†Bubble Top Customs. But the Plexiglas bubble top actually¬†dates back to at least 1947¬†when it was used on regular production cars and custom cars. There are even samples of use on earlier model cars, but the first actual date we have been able to find was a 1947 license plate. An unknown manufactory created a completely clear plexiglas top for the 46-48 Ford/Mercury convertibles.

There are several ways to create a full plexiglas bubble top. The aircraft industry used special machine controlled dies in which the heated plexiglas was molded into the right shape. But this technique was to costly for the one-offs used on Custom Cars. For the Custom Cars usually the plexiglass was shaped by creating an wooden template that fitted to surround of the interior opening. Around this template a airtight box was created. Inside this box and heated and flexible piece of plexiglass placed, then secured to the wooden template. Next air was pumped into the box until the plexiglass started to expand into the template slowly creating a perfect bubble. If needed a carefully shaped and place metal rod could divide the bubble into two similar shaped sections as was done on for instance the Predicta.

Another method was to create the bubble shape in plaster or a similar material, perhaps over chicken wire base to keep it light. This base mold could be finished perfectly by sanding and adding paint. Next the shape could be fitted to a table or construction. Then a piece of plexiglas would be heated and taken to the shaped bubble. With special hand tools, for extra grip,  the edges of the heated and flexible plexiglass could be pulled over the base mold creating a perfect bubble. The great thing about this last technique is that the shape of the bubble could be controlled perfectly. While air blown bubble were much harder to control. This is a technique that was used for the Golden Sahara II for instance.

CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-46-ford-glass-topThe large photo on the left (found on an eBay auction) shows 1947 plates on a 1946 Ford convertible with a clear plexiglass bubble top. The car on the photos on the right used in a wedding might be the same car, not sure. We do know that this top was produced by an unknown company, and at least several were of them were created. But they never became really popular.
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1950 Oakland Roadster showVince Gardner restyled his 1947 Studebaker straight from the dealer. He used plexiglass to create a new three piece wrap around windshield and a full bubble top to cover the rest of the cockpit. The car caused quite a sensation where ever it went or was shown. Fortunately the car has survived and was recently completely restored, including the clear plexiglass top.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-x-sonicBut the “real” Bubble Tops as most people see them, were created in the late 1950’s early 1960’s.¬†Possibly the first one of these Bubble Top Show cars was Ron Aquirre’s Corvette X-Sonic. The Bubble topped full¬†Custom Corvette was a huge success at the shows, and influenced many custom car builders to create their own¬†Bubble¬†Top Show Cars.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-predictaAnother early Bubble top that made a huge impact on the Custom Car scene was Darryl Starbird’s Predicta. The car even made it into an very accurate 1/24 scale model kit, that help the popularity of the full bubble top customs even more. Darryl Starbird became an expert in creating full bubble top customs. He created several, mostly very popular, Customs based around the plexiglass tops.
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CCC-custom-plastic-details-p2-ed-rothEd Roth is another Customizer that loved to use plastics for his creations, and especially the plexiglass bubble top. His most famous creations all have full Bubble tops.
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Promotional movie:¬†“Looking Ahead Through Plexiglas” 1947 Rohm & Haas PMMA.
(Shared from Jeff Quitney youtube)
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Go to Part 1 on the Use of Plastics in Custom Restyling.


(this article is sponsored by)

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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)

8 thoughts on “Custom Plastic Details Part 2

  • August 24, 2016 at 14:30
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    Thoughtful detailed research again, Rik. On another set of customizing approaches that came and went, and without your sleuthing, and meticulous attention to detail by restorers like Barry Mazza, would be lost in time. Long live the CCC!

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  • August 24, 2016 at 22:21
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    Very interesting article! And a couple early one-offs pops up in my mind: The Brown Bomber Packard and the Derham -41 Continental.

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  • August 25, 2016 at 08:10
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    how neat all the kustom plastic goodies made made for grills tail lites an an bubble tops plus other stuff nice article an photos rik enjoyed it very much,

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  • August 26, 2016 at 02:08
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    As usual, another in-depth and excellently written article on a bit of customizing techinques that have not been detailed as only you can do. An aside: took advantage of Kustoms Illustrated’s renewal offer and recieved the ‘Jack Stewart Ford’ book. You did an absolutely outstanding job researching, documenting and authoring the car and its owners history. All kustom buffs should put it at the top of their must read list. Hats off to you.My donation has been paid back many times over and I intend to continue giving on an annual basis.

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    • August 26, 2016 at 07:01
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      Thank you Al. Glad you enjoy the article, and the Jack Stewart Ford book. And that you also for the donation to the CCC. Very much appreciated.

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  • September 7, 2016 at 22:33
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    What a fantastic article. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much plastic, Lexan, or laminate was used…

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