Custom Car Chronicle
Custom HistoryEarly Custom CarsGeorge DuVall

History of the Early Custom Car




For as long as there have been automobiles they have been modified for personal taste. This evolved in the 1930s to a style we now know as Customizing. Part One the History of the Early Custom Car. The 1930s

Early Custom Cars

An article about the early history of the Custom Car is something I wanted to do for a long time. I’m a huge fan of the early Custom Cars, and love to read, see and hear about the early days, how it all evolved into the golden years of Customizing of the later part of the 1940’s up to the mid 1950’s. This history of the Custom Car is not an exact science, there is no clear mark in history that marks the beginning, no real first car that can be marked as the start. In fact there are even very few photos from this early era, making it very hard to visualize. There were no car related magazine to write about the scene, and latest trends. And especially this latest made this era so interesting. Because there were no written rules the early Custom Cars are very diverse, and very creative until the style was set for the Custom Car as we know it.

I personally feel that it all really started when the factory cars were designed with more rounded fenders, from around 1928 and up. The lines on these cars were more suited for the restyling we consider Customizing. I like to call all 1948 and older created Custom Cars Early Style Custom Cars. Main motivation for this cut off date is that in 1948 the first Hot Rod and Custom Car shows were held, plus Hot Rod Magazine and Motor Trend magazine started year. Magazines that would spread the word and especially photos of Custom Cars around the state, and changing the scene for ever.

This article will be long, at least two long parts, and more likely even more. In it I will highlight some of the key players that have been crucial in the early years of the history of the Custom Car. Pioneer Custom Restylers are George DuVall, Frank Kurtis, Jimmy Summers, Don Lee, Harry Westergard, Les Crane, Link Paola, but also coachbuilders as Dutch Darrin, Bohman & Schwartz, and upholstery specialist Glen Hauser who is responsible for the Carson Padded Top all have had a huge impact on the history of the Custom Car. This first part will cover the history up to the end of the 1930’s.

A beautiful sample of a late 1930’s created Custom restyled in a way very typical for the era. Sharp styling and much smooth and streamlined than how it came from the factory. This beautiful 1937 convertible shows a  chopped windshield, lowered convertible top, smooth hood sides, removed running boards with frame covers added, large rock shields on the rear fenders and low mounted headlights. Wide white wall tires and ripple disk single bar flipper hubcaps.

We have no written or photographic proof of when the first, what we now consider, custom car was created. In general we can say that as long as there have been cars, there have been people who wanted to personalize, customize these vehicles. Early on specialist body shops, most likely with a heritage in the horse carriage bodies, started to specialize in the creation of hand crafted bodies for chassis from the major car builders, and especially the more exclusive brand cars were becoming more popular to be chosen by these special carossaria companies.

Bodies designed by in house designers, who would create bodies tailor-made for each individual client. Often inspired more or less by cars build by European designers. We can say that these cars were the first Custom Cars. However when we think about Custom Cars, we think about cars that have left the factories as completed cars, and which then have the body, sometimes the frame, and interior modified to; A fit the clients specific needs, B improve over the factory stock appearance, or C appear more luxurious, or classic than the stock vehicle it was based on.

1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic V16 Coupé was displayed in the GM pavilion at the 1933-34 “Century of Progress” Chicago Worlds Fair. The prototype shows many elements that would later become popular Custom Restyling touches. Details as small windows with low top, hints to  a inset license plate in the trunk. Ribbed bumpers, single bar flipper hubcap, teardrop shaped fenders.

What is a Custom is of course always an individual opinion, there are certain rules, but even those rules can vary from one person to another. What we call Custom Car has to do with a certain look, a feel, and most of the times it needs certain body modifications, as in updated grilles, chopped windshield or top, to create. More streamlined, or longer and lower look. Smoothed body elements, as hood sides, hoods, running boards, fenders. New hand made elements as grilles, bumpers, lower convertible or padded tops. One of kind hubcaps, white wall tires, modified, lowered position of the headlight and or taillights. Lowered suspension. Very often these cars created early on, might appear more closer to original design studies made for the production models, then how the eventual approved production model looked like. I have heard stories that a some of the early car designers drove customized production models they had developed them-self. Customized to come closer to the dream images they had in mind before the production department changed these designs so they could be mass produced.

These early stages of the history of the Custom Car took largely place in California. All the elements were just right for this to happen. The year round good weather made the use of convertible car, which were used for most of the early Customs a natural choice. The Hollywood movie Branch made sure there was enough money, and enough people looking for individuality, even with their automobiles. The year round good weather made sure the roads were in better shape than in most other States, give spending money on your car much more sense. But with most of the automobile industry based in Detroit this area of the US as well as others, had a large car scene, and early stages of Customizing took place there as well but the scene was by far not as wide spread and large as it was in California. In the early 1930’s Edsel Ford had the in-house designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie design a few Custom Roadsters after Edsel had been inspired by coachbuilt cars on his Europe trip.


The Custom Car movement as we know it really started in the early 1930’s but at least a decade before that the movement was set in motion. In the late 1910’s the rich and famous demanded more elusive cars than the cars available from Detroit. They found their way to several of the Los Angles local Custom Coachwork companies. Who could create more streamlined and luxurious bodies that would set them apart from everything else on the roads. It would help give them even more status than they already had.

One person in particular that had a lot to do with the car styling in the 1920’s was Harley Earl who started working in his fathers Los Angels based carriage works in 1918. Later this company evolved into Earl Automobile Works. Harley became chief designer of the huge company that was capable of creating anything from Roman chariots, sturdy airplane fuselages, and custom automobile bodies. Harley Earl understood how important good clientele was for the business so he spend after hours and weekends at many of the Hollywood parties making friends in the movie and music world. Some of who would become future clients and commissioned Harley Earl with designing automobiles to fit their desires.

Earl Automobile Works on the left and Don Lee’s Cadillac LaSalle on the right. Two locations that had an great impact on the style of Custom created Cars in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Don Lee owned a large Cadillac Dealer and Body Works building on San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue and besides that he owned another 45 dealerships, including the famous Hillcrest Cadillac, in Beverly Hills. He later bought the Earls’ family company, and renaming it Don Lee Coach & Body Works. Harley Earls now worked for Don Lee, and with Lee’s fast network the shop produced around 250 custom bodies per year during 1920s. Many of these went to the famous movie actors and singers of the time. Working with Harley Earl in this company was a young Frank Kurtis who learned the trick of the trade here. Around 1927 Harley Earl left for Detroit to work for GM here he would influence the styling with his Californian Custom Car styling sense. Frank Kurtis moved on and started his own body shop where he would create early Customized Cars as well as the race cars that would make his famous in the race car world in later years.

A few of the special cars Harley Earl designed in the 1920’s. This type of Custom created cars would eventually lead into the creation of the first Custom Cars as we know them.

Gordon Buehrig Model A Ford

On September 27, 1930, Gordon Buehrig (automobile designer responsible for the Auburn and Cord designs) got his 1930 Ford Model A Cabriolet at the Ford Motor Co.’s Indianapolis factory branch. The car was Equipped with 8-ply General white sidewalls, with dual side-mount spares, a rumble seat and auxiliary trunk rack, Buehrig’s Briggs-bodied Model A (model 68B) would have cost $645, not including the optional Ford accessories ($70) and six 19” x 5” General tires ($30).

The very next day Augie Duesenberg’s men commenced its reconstruction at the Duesenberg Bros. race car shop. Buehrig had a lot of changes in store for the car and had already created a full-sized body draft. He radically re-designed the car’s coachwork – chopping the top by 3”, extending the hood by 4” and fitting it with a convertible Victoria top. Buehrig’s blind-quarter top preceded the ones constructed by Dietrich, Waterhouse and Rollston by several years.
The workmen removed the body and convertible top and discarded the rear-half, forom the ‘B’ pillar back. The cowl’s integral dash/firewall and toeboard were carefully cut out, and re-attached 4.5” forward of their original position in front of the ‘A’ pillar. A new extended hood was also constructed that fit over the 4.5” metal addition to the cowl assembly.

Next step was to build the framework for the rear of the body per the full-sized body drafts, put it together and install the carefully-sized hand-hammered aluminum panels. Buehrig retained the folding ‘B’ pillar which was shortened at the bottom by 3” – this allowed the original linkage and windshield header to be used. From the ‘B’ pillar back, an all-new bows and folding top linkage had to be constructed from the templates included on Buehrig’s body drafts. The headroom lost by chopping the top was regained by dropping the floor and footwells several inches below their stock location, which provided a most comfortable driving and seating position. The rear seat was similarly lowered by notching the bottom of the seat so that it cleared the driveline.

Gordon Buehrig’s 1930 Model A Custom created in 1930.

Once the reconstruction of the coachwork was completed the Model A moved across the street to Duesenberg’s paint shop where the body painted by Duesenberg’s finest in 3 different shades of DuPont lacquer: the body (including dash and steering wheel) in Light Capucine; the fenders and belt molding in Dark Capucine; and the wheels and pinstripes, Flame Capucine.
Buehrig designed a special set of seat cushions for the car based on the same Marshall Knockland design typically used on the Model J.

All of the work at Duesenberg was done after hours with Harold T. Ames permission and Buehrig paid the workers out of his own pocket. Completed on December 21, 1930 the car, which he christened ‘Baby’ attracted attention wherever it went, Buehrig recalling: “The first day I drove it down town to go to lunch I parked it in front of the L.S. Ayres Company. After lunch, when I returned, there was a crowd around the car extending into the street to the streetcar tracks. A policeman was trying to clear away the crowd. He was happy to see me arrive and solve his dilemma.”

Another important player in the later part of these early years is the starting aftermarket companies the Los Angeles based Eastern Auto started by Joseph Kraus in 1919 was the most popular. The company started to develop parts for the model T Fords, Parts to help people keep their cars running through the rough depression years. Around the mid to late 1930’s, when business improved and demand for individuality increased the company started to produce specialize products for customizing production cars. Trim pieces to decorate the fenders and running boards, special grille moldings, solid hood sides for the Model to ’36 Fords, fender skirts, and later more and more hop up parts were developed and marketed, specifically aimed towards customizing cars. Different styles of ripple disk hubcaps, inspired by the Cadillac knock off hubcaps were also among the first items they developed especially for the Custom Car enthusiast.

Beautifully restyled 1937 Chevy Convertible with padded top, solid hood sides, removed running boards, narrow grille, spotlights, and teardrop skirts parked in front of the Eastern Auto Supply Co. store for this promotional photo.

Frank Kurtis

Frank Kurtis born in Crested Butte, Colorado, January 25, 1908. He developed his love for cars in his fathers blacksmith shop in Pueblo, Colorado. The shop was doing both horse and buggy repairs as well as the new automobiles. In 1922 the Kurtis family moved to Los Angles were Frank found a job with Don Lee Cadillac. In the early 1930’s Frank started his love of designing and building race cars in the 4 car garage behind his home in Los Angeles. He built several Custom Cars and race cars throughout the 1930’s. His Custom Cars as well as the grille design work on the race cars was trend setting. Frank Kurtis worked on several of the famous So Calif Plating Co delivery trucks, creating some of the unique parts on the car. Later on in his life Frank concentrated mostly on race car orientated cars.

Frank Kurtis around 1950.

In 1933 Frank rented a section in the Paramount Auto Top Shop where he created some of his early customs including this 1931 Ford roadster with chopped raked windshield and custom grille and the 1929 Oldsmobile sedan with custom grille. The humble beginnings of Custom Restyling.

[divider]A few more samples of Frank Kurtis created early Customized automobiles. Top left, 1929 Model A Ford Roadster with modified Hudson fenders, stretched wheel base, Woodlite headlights, chopped windshield and the characteristic Frank Kurtis grille, Mottom left, 1931 Model A with Kurtis grille and modified fenders. Top Right,  beautiful speedster based on LaSalle parts with raked windshield and of course the typical Kurtis styled grille. and below right the same Model A as in the photo above, now with the top up and another model A with stretched wheelbase longer hood and huge Cadillac headlights.

Frank Kurtis also did the work on the Atlas Chrome Special race car, with a wonderful restyled chrome plated front end. As well as the work on the Atlas Chromium Plating Service 1931 Dodge Panel tow-truck with modified front with 1933 Ford grille and reshaped fenders around 1933.


Another Atlas Chrome Plating truck was restyled by Frank Kurtis based on an 1929 Ford to witch a set of 1934 Ford fenders, hood and grille was added. The truck featured a home made cast V-windshield and hand shaped top. Frank also created uniquely styled bumpers obviously influenced by the coachbuild creations from the early 1930’s.

George DuVall designed this So-California Plating Co. truck based on an ’31 model A cabin back in 1933. New skirted fenders were added, and a beautiful chrome plated grille designed and incorporated with the modified hood. Cast slightly v-shaped windshield and modified v-ed bumper. Notice that the windshield on this truck is more upright than the one below.

So-California-Plating-Co. Truck Restyled by George DuVall and Frank Kurtis, based on an 1932 Ford pick features custom made grille, v-windshield, skirted fenders, custom bumper and many other custom made components. Stunning looking truck back in around 1934 when it was created.

1935 Ford So-California Plating Co truck

This is the one car that set the standard, that had a huge impact on many car builder and car enthusiast. It is perhaps the most important car in the Custom Car history. The car was commissioned by Leonard K. DeBell, owner of the So California Plating Co. in Los Angles. The company already had owned several restyled pick up trucks that were used to haul to be plated and freshly plated parts from all over Los Angles. The previous cars were designed by George DuVall who started working for DeBell in 1933, and created together with Frank Kurtis.

DeBell had bought a brand new 1935 Ford phaeton which he planned to rebuild into a classy delivery truck. Completely restyled just as the previous cars, but the design George DuVall had come up for this one was so completely different from the previous truck. The design sketches George had made looked absolutely stunning, with very streamlined Art-Deco shapes incorporated into the truck, including a very large padded style top mounted on a heavily angled back v-windshield. To be able to make the truck practical with the new top on it the frame had to be lengthened 12 inches to assure freshly chromed bumpers could be stalled behind the front seat cargo section.

The one car that, in my eyes, was the real start of the Custom Car movement as we know it. The So-California Plating Co. 1935 Ford designed by George DuVall and created by DuVall, Kurtis Chad Schultz, George Thomas Top Shop and Jimmy Summers. Oh and this one also has a set of Woodlite headlamps… hidden behind the front fenders, just showing the small opening.

George and his friend Frank Kurtis did most of the work on the car. And possibly Jimmy Summers, an other Custom Car pioneer, also worked on the car. The team incorporated more pleasantly looking ’36 Ford fenders, lengthened the frame, the body, created the V-Windshield, the first one of the famous DuVall windshields, the unique chrome plated grille and all other work needed to create this Iconic Custom Car. The beautiful padded top to fit the longer body and v-windshield was created by the George Thomas Top Shop in Hollywood.

The long low padded top with curved openings and angled windshield combined with the long horizontal chrome lined of the custom chromed plated grille created an unique look that has inspired many Custom Car builder ever since it was created. There have been more very nicely restyled cars before this one, but on this 1935 Ford designed by George DuVall is all came together, and made sense. A new style of car was born. The Custom Car.

This is a really fantastic photo taken around 1936-37. It shows the ’32 Ford based So California Plating truck parked next to the ’35 Ford based one, next to an early 20’s car. It shows how much streamlined the ’35 Ford based car is, and how much impact this car must have had when it was driving around Los Angles, where the roads were filled with 20’s and early 30’s boxy cars. My guess is that many young car enthusiast car guy got very inspired by this DuVall/Kurtis created Custom Car.

George DuVall

George H. DuVall  was born on August 19, 1913 and passed away on February 12, 1999. George was inspired by automobiles from a very young age, and when he grew older his dream was to be an automobile designer just like his idol Harley Earl. After graduation from Hollywood High School he enrolled at UCLA to study mechanical engineering, taking a part-time job as a delivery truck driver with the Southern California Plating Co. (located at 4444 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. – later 3434 San Fernando Rd., Los Angeles) to help with his expenses. In 1933 he dropped out of college to start work for Southern California Plating full time. George DuVall was hired to design and develop new chrome plated aftermarket parts for the company, and as part of this he had already designed and build several company pick up trucks.

George DuVall personalized his own daily drivers, one example being the Cragar-powered 1929 Model A roadster pictured below which impressed Leanoard DeBell a lot.  The car was constructed based on George his design’s by Don Leomazzi’s Service Auto Body Works, 1676 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles, Calif., a small body and paint shop that did excellent work.

George DuVall’s personal driver in the mid 1930’s was this heavily restyled 1929 Model A Ford. According the Flying V’s article by  Dean Batchelor in R&C magazine the car was restyled by the Don Leomazzi’s Service Auto Body using George’s designs. Beautiful restyled skirted fenders, solid hood sides, ’32 Plymouth grille, Woodlite headlights and DuVall created the hubcaps, bumpers and unique V-windshield himself.

DuVall’s boss, Leonard K. DeBell, liked the custom touches George incorporated into his own cars and gave him an opportunity to do some creative design work at the company. A large part of So. California Plating’s business was constructing and plating midget race-car grills and accessories. To advertise the business, DeBell Custom Restyled his delivery vehicles, outfitting them with whitewall tires, wheel discs, V-windshields and custom chrome grills and bumpers all designed by George DuVall. His front-end treatment on So. California Plating’s 1931 Ford pickup has been credited with inspiring the grille found on the 1933-34 (Hudson) Terraplane.

Two people that played a huge roll in the early history of the Custom Car are Plating Shop owner Leonard DeBell (on the left) and George DuVall. George worked many years for DeBell creating unique one off items like the grille he is holding, complete cars, but also mass produced aftermarket parts like the Hollywood hubcap and frame covers for cars with removed running boards.

Some of the early 1930’s car designs George DuVall created when he was around 18 years old. These early designs already show some of the Custom Car styling ideas George would later incorporate into his own personal cars as well as the So Calif Plating trucks.

Designs from around 1935 show several ideas for the ’35 Ford based SoCali Plating truck, and well as a very stylish boat tail shaped speedster. All designs that we have seen being incorporated in Custom Cars in later years.

Influenced by the designs of Harley Earl, George began creating custom bumpers and grilles (for 1930s Fords) he already had been working on a few of the company truck but the real deal came when and in late 1935 he was put in charge of customizing the Plating Co.’s new delivery vehicle, a 1935 Ford Phaeton with 1936 Ford front end added. The car featured an 12 inch extended wheelbase filled-in rear doors and a flat rear floor which was accessed by a lift-up rear hatch constructed.

A all new Custom grill for the delivery car was constructed out of flat brass stock by DuVall’s friend, Frank Kurtis. George designed and mastered the first of the famous 5-piece cast bronze ‘DuVall windshield’, originally this car, the windshield was later made available for the public as well. George developed many aftermarket Custom and Hop up items, some marketed by the SoCal Plating company, others produced and offered for sale by other companies. Including the products he designed for the aftermarket were the famous ribbed single bar flipper hubcaps (Hollywood hubcaps)

DuVall also created the logo for the Hollywood Wheel Disc Shop, 116 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, a firm that manufactured aftermarket Cadillac Sombrero knock-offs known as Hollywood Wheel Discs, which were memorable for their spinning ‘S’ logo. He also designed the famous the Eddie Meyer logo.

Beautiful Custom bodied V-windshield roadster designed in the later parts of the 1930’s.

Movie Cars

In the 1930’s there were several cars designed especially for to be used in a movie. Special Custom built cars, that had to help sell more movie tickets. Exclusive Sporty looking luxury cars, sometimes with complete hand made bodies. These specially built cars had a huge audience, not only where they visible in the movies., they most of the time were also used in promoting the movie, and were often featured in the news paper’s reporting about the movie or in a number of magazines.

Emile Diedt created this unique car for the movie Mr Cinderella that came out in 1936. Unique pontoon  shaped fenders that would become very popular on factory cars, as well as on custom cars in the years that would follow. Notice the unique pattern on the white wall tires, and the ribbed hubcaps with small smooth center caps.

Couachbuilders Bohman & Schwartz used a 1936 Buick Roadmaster chassis with a complete custom made body to create the streamlined car used in the 1937 movie Topper. After filming the Buick was for sale and was bought by the Gilmore Oil Co. who used the car for promotional purposes for many years.

The late 1920’s and early to mid 1930’s Auburn boat-tail speedsters (Gordon Buehrig) have had an impact in the looks of the Custom Car for sure as well.

Jensen from the UK used the ’36 Ford as a base for their beautiful 4-seater custom roaster. These two were imported to the US by Percy T. Morgan to try and market them to the Californian people. The inset photo shows movie actor Clark Gable posing with one of the Jensen Fords, a car he never owned, but it was used for promoting the car as movie actor style car for some time. The long low nose, and curved fenders gave the car a very much Custom Look in 1937.

Phantom Corsair

The Bohman & Schwartz created Phantom Corsair was designed and ordered by Rust Heinz in 1936. The car was finished in 1937, and the streamlined super low appearance for sure has had a huge impact in the history of the Custom Car. Photos and stories of the car have been published ever since it was first created. And its image must have been seen by many car enthusiast during the 1930’s and 40’s when the Custom Car style – as we know it – was developed. The Phantom Corsair was low, long looking evil with its super small windows, and had a super smooth all molded body with a minimal amount of chrome. Seeing the Phantom Corsair on the road surrounded by mostly boxy vehicles in the later part of the 1930’s must have been quite an experience.

What is really interesting on the Phantom Corsair is that the car had a few styling features designed in 1936 and created in 1937, that would become very popular features in Car Customizing, but not for almost a decade later. The Phantom Corsair had no conventional door handles to open its doors, but rather small push buttons on the outside (behind the door b-pillars) and on the dashboard to electronically open the doors. This feature later become a very popular Custom feature. The other new feature that the Phantom Corsair had that would become traditional in Custom Restyling was the one-piece smooth molded in look.

Perhaps the first Restyled car that was “Custom Car low” was the Phantom Corsair designed by Rust Heinz in 1936 and created by Bohman & Schwartz on the chassis of the front wheel drive 1936 Cord. The body, interior and everything else was custom made by B&S. The headlights were inspired by the popular Woodlight  units, but were actually hand made especially for the Phantom Corsair.

Bohman & Schwartz also created this 1937 Lincoln Zephyr Custom for Marquise Hachisuka, a talented mechanical engineer, who designed the car himself. The car featured longer fade-away style front fenders, solid removable rear fenders, removed running boards, filled in rear quarter windows, smooth hood sides and heavily modified front. The headlights were recessed into the front fenders. On the edge of Coachbuilding and Custom Restyling.

Woodlite headlights

I have noticed that quite a few of the very early Custom Restyled cars used the distinctive Woodlite headlamps. This streamlined polished aluminum headlight gave any car a more modern, futuristic upscale feel. Not everybody appreciates the look of these lights, but especially back in the 1930’s and early 1940’s these lights were very popular on Coachbuild as well as Custom Restyled cars. The woodlite headlamps were originally designed by William G. Woods in the late 1920’s (patent was applied for in 1926).

Unique Custom Restyled Roadster with metal lift off hard-top and Woodlite headlights was photographed in San Fransisco in the early 1940’s but the unidentified car was beautifully restyled in the 1930’s.

A few more samples of early Custom Restyled cars from the 1930’s using the Woodlite headlights.

The Carson Top Shop

Besides several pioneer Car builders being responsible or the early start of Custom Restyling, there is one other influence that has plaid a huge part in the style and development of the Custom Car. The California Padded top. Also named French Tops, or perhaps the most accurate name. The Carson Padded Top (or short Carson Top).

Carson Top ShopThis photo of the Vermont Los Angles shop where Amos Carson started to work using the front section of the Vermont Auto Works shop was taken in the mid 1930’s. The window reads that Tops (convertible) are $10.-. The French tops advertised on the left window were more, but we do not know how much more. The shop window also shows that the shop already did seat covers as well at this time. (lower left corner of the window)

In 1930 Glen Houser started to work for Amos Carson in his Car Top Shop  Glen had a soft spot for customizing and started to add custom touches to the model T and A’s that would be at the shop. Special convertible tops and other details, Glen Houser became a very important asset to the shop. And in 1935 he unknowingly gave himself a icon status when he designed and developed the first smooth non-folding, padded top. He named it the French top, since it was styled after the looks of some of the metal padded topped cars from French created coachbuild cars. According the stories the first car for which Glen designed this padded top was a 1930 Model A roadster.

Since then the shop has been creating hundreds of these tops. In the early days, a lot of the to be customized car were based on convertibles and roadsters. They were relatively easy to chop to create the desired low profile. And the best way to do it was with a super smooth padded top from the Carson Top Shop.

History of the Early Custom CarThe narrowed stock grille on this early 1936 Ford makes the car look taller. The smooth hood sides, chopped windshield and matching padded top, single bar flipper hubcaps, skirts, rather high stance, and door handles left in place. All very characteristic for the early Custom created when the car was as good as new.

Typical look of an early style Custom Convertible with chopped padded top. this 1936 Ford had its windshield chopped a few inches, and a matching white covered padded top added. The hood sides are aftermarket smooth units, the stock grille was narrowed, and new grille side panels added. The ride height was practically stock back then and the rear wheels are the factory stock units without the ripple disc single bar hubcaps used on the front. The door handles are left in place.

Clean and crisp
Characteristic for the early Style Custom Cars is their crisp, almost factory stock look. In early Custom Restyling the molded in look created by welding body components together to create a single piece looking body had not been invented, or at least was not popular yet. Fenders could have been modified in shape, so were hood sides and grille surrounds, but they rarely were welded to the body. They were left as separate parts, and sometimes even painted a different body color, just as you could order on factory stock models, for a more individual feel. This crisp feel required good craftsmanship, ill fitting panels could not be made look better by hiding the uneven panels with lead feathered out into the next panel. The fact that most early Customs retained their door handles and most of the trim helped with this crisp look.

Creative Restyling

With the Frank Kurtis and George DuVall restyled 1935 Ford based So Cali Plating truck in 1936, the style for the what we now consider Early Custom Style has been set… more or less. The heavily restyled truck traveled the streets of Los Angles on a daily base, and could be seen at the race car tracks around town during the weekends and evenings. Leaving an ever lasting impact on many young car enthusiast. During this time, the late 1930’s and up into the mid 1940’s, there were no magazines that covered this type of vehicle. The people where where inspired by these new Custom Car’s could not stare at magazine photos of their favorite cars like people could do starting around 1948.

The result was that the car created in this early stages of the Custom Car history were very creative. The style had been set, with the chopped windshield, and padded top, and overall streamlined looks of the So Cal Plating truck and some other cars created during the same period. The car builders and car owners at the time were very creative and innovative in incorporating this style into their own Custom creations.

1937 Ford sedan turned into a chopped three window coupe with a swoopy padded top. With the running boards removed, the car took on a completely new, much more sportive, perhaps European look. Creative restyling very distinctive to the early years of Custom Restyling.

The US was slowly recovering from the recession and people started to spend some more money on cars. Second had cars were relatively cheap and where perfect to be used in restyling. Hourly rates were still very low, making it possible for a car owner to have the local show spend a lot of hours on the cars. Where the first Custom Restyled cars were mostly based on convertibles and roadsters, which were much easier to chop, builder now started to experiment with chopping the top of coupes and even sedan’s. It resulted in a wide range of uniquely restyled cars, perhaps not always the most graceful, but incredibly inspiring and unique for sure. These early years of Custom Restyling are to me the most interesting years of the history of the Custom Cars. Especially because a lot of the cars were so fresh in incorporating the Custom Style.

Very interesting early Custom from the Found Film Society archive. This photo was taken at Southern Speedway in 1938. Model A Ford with more modern, perhaps hand shaped more rounded fenders with skirts both front and rear, removed running boards frame cover, fender mounted molded in headlights. The whole nose section looks to be custom made with most likely a hand made grille, perhaps inspired by the International truck grilles of that era. 1932 Ford bumpers, and a split boat style hand made windshield. The name on the door mentioned that the car was created by “Ran’s Auto Works.” So far I have not been able to find out anything else created by this shop, anybody knows more?

The majority of the early Customs can be considered mild customs. Street Customs is what they were named in later years. Restyled with a fresh look, to make the every day car look more appealing, more luxurious. Without the “benefits” of published magazines and catalogs of after market parts.  On some of these early Customs it was clear that the creativity played a huge part, everything could be made back then, if you had the time, and a few extra dollars to spend on it.

This ’37 Ford Coupe was turned into a pull pick up for the midget race track. During the process the car was also restyled with extended headlights, smooth hood sides, and ear;y aftermarket hood trim.

Custom Restyled 1936 Ford 5-window photographed in 1938. The car featured removed running boards, modified fenders, frame cover, teardrop skirts, long teardrop chrome plated headlights, ripple disc and small smooth moon hubcaps on wise white wall tires. High stance and an single pin-stripe highlighting the cars’ belt-line.

In the mid to late 1950’s pinstriping your Custom Car was the latest rage. Nearly every Custom had some kind, but most of the time a lot, of pin-striping going on. Wild bold pinstriping with curly effects not necessarily enhancing the looks of the car, or at least not enhancing the carefully designed body work.In the earlier decades of the Automobile pinstriping was also used a lot on the cars, it was a style inherent from the horse carriage era.  Here the pinstriping was added to add class to the hand made bodies. The pinstriping used on the early automobiles was plain and simple, enhancing the body character lines, around the edge of the fenders, the belt-line and around the wheel spokes. I have found several samples of the early style Custom Cars that used this early style pinstriping as well. Most people feel that pinstriping on Custom Cars was an mid 1950’s invention, but in fact it was used in the 1930’s as well.

The pinstriping was used very sparingly, perhaps just on the belt-line, to give the car an optical longer feel. It was not about the pinstriping artist like it was in the 1950’s, where the artist could show off how good he was laying down straight, curved and free style striping, it was uses to enhance the body lines, perhaps in a same matter as later side trim would be added to cars.

Set in license plates
Another important Custom style  developed during these early years is the rear set-in or inset license plate. This is where a rectangular hole, slightly smaller than a license plate, was cut out in the rear of the body, usually in the trunk, or the panel below it. The corners and edges were nicely rounded and a license plate was attached from inside the car, usually there was a piece of glass set between the license plate and the body. More on the Set in license plates with many sample photos can be found in the set in license plate CCC article.

This beautifully restyled 1938 Lincoln most likely sports a chopped padded top created by C.A. Hall from Oakland in Northern California. Perfect styling and proportions was done by an unknown body shop, and included the chopped windshield, removal of the running boards, reshaping of the fenders front and rear, custom plated rock shield protecting the rear fenders, custom grille (not visible in this photo), ripple disc hubcaps with small diameter single bar flippers and a lower than stock stance. The photo was taken in the late 1930’s.

This beautiful 1937 Ford Convertible Sedan was restyled in the late 1930’s and photographed in 1940. The car was owned by a Pasadena Ford dealer’s son. Chopped windshield, white padded top, ’37 DeSoto bumpers, removed running boards, custom side trim smoothed hood. The style was really set by now.

1938 Ford sedan convertible with chopped windshield and black padded top. Removed running boards, rock shield and teardrop skirts, smooth hood sides and customized grille. The photo was taken in early 1940.

Late 1930’s photo showing an unidentified Custom with 1938 Ford front end with restyled grille. Possibly the car was created form a coupe or a sedan, judging the shape of the chopped windshield. Interesting is the V12 sign on the smooth hood sides, as well as the dual spotlights mounted on the A-pillars. The ’36 Ford 4-door sedan in the background sports a very popular aftermarket Pines grille, which gave the ’36 Ford a Cord like appearance.

One of my personal all time favorite Custom Cars is this chopped ’36 Ford 5-window Coupe restyled in the late 1930’s. Not much is known about the car, most likely the owner was from Santa Monica, and some say the narrowed and reshaped ’36 Ford grille and custom side grilles might have been the work of George DuVall. Possibly the ribbed running board cover, the rock shield on the rear fenders and the single bar flipper hubcaps were all parts created by George DuVall and offered from the SoCal Plating Company.

Jimmy Summers

One of the earliest body shops that specialized in Custom work as we know it was Jimmy Summers Custom Automobile. Jimmy started working out of his small shop located in Los Angeles on 7919 Melrose Avenue across the street from Fairfax High School in the 1930’s. he was Restyling cars, doing simple work as removing badges, replacing bumpers and grilles mostly with more expensive car parts, but he also did more elaborate restyling including chopped tops, set in plated and around 1940 his fist famous fade-away fenders. Clients coming into the Summers shop with low end cars mostly Fords, and after Summer was finished with their cars/ they would drive home a one of a kind fare more exclusive looking automobile. one that would turn heads. Jimmy Summers was known for his excellent quality work, and above all Jimmy had the eye when it came to style and proportions.

Jimmy Summers around 1946.

Jimmy Summers, George DuVall and Frank Kurtis were the names connected to the Custom Car building scene in the 1930’s. These were the shop owners that you wanted to take your car if it needed to be special, exclusive and unique. It is no wonder that these three pioneers worked on several projects together, or in phases. It was especially Jimmy Summers, who was this tall skinny well dressed gentleman, who was popular and well known as the guy to go to for your chopped top or other unique modification. According an article in the May 1947 issue of the Popular Mechanics May it was mentioned that Jimmy hand-tailored about one car per week for customers. At that rate there must have been a lot of Jimmy Summers created cars around in California during the 30’s and 40’s. To bad they were not documents as well as they should have.

We have not been able to find any photos of Custom Cars that Jimmy Summers created during the period we concentrate at in this article, the 1930’s. But according to some he did work on the 1935 So-Calif Plating Co. truck, and possibly the 1936 Ford Coupe with full fade away fenders that was created for Summers Shop employee Bob Fairman, was started in the late 1930′. More on Bob’s 1936 Ford can be seen in this Custom Car Chronicle article on the car. If you have any photos, or know more about other Custom Cars Jimmy Summers worked on in the 1930’s, please let us know. We would like to add that to this article.

Jimmy Summers shop in the mid 1940’s.

Link Paola

We do not have much information on Link Paola in the 1930’s but we do know that he ran a shop named Link’s Custom Shop which was located on 3451 No. Verdugo Road Glendale 8, California. According an early magazine ad he was specializing in Auto Painting, Welding, Body Work and General Automotive work. Link created the beautiful 1940 Ford Convertible Custom in late 1939. The all new 1940 Ford was introduced in early October 1939 and Link bought the first convertible at the local dealer at the end of September, before the official release date, and went to work on it right away.

The windshield was chopped, and a padded top added. The two part hood made solid and the center strip removed and center peaked. The running boards were removed and a new cover to hide the frame constructed. Bumpers were replaced with ribbed 1937 DeSoto Units (the ribs on the bumpers matched the ribs on the Ford Side trim perfectly) and the stock hubcaps were replaced with aftermarket ripple disk single bar flipper hubcaps. The car was lowered a little, but not as far as we see in the 1940’s. An aftermarket teardrop fender skirt was added and then Link parked the freshly made super slick looking Custom 1940 Ford right across the Ford dealer. making many new Ford Customer rather want to have a car like Link’s instead of the factory Stock 1940 Ford.

These two photos of Link’s stunning 1940 Ford were taken in 1941, when the Custom was already one year old.

Roy Hagy
Roy Hagy is another pioneer Custom Car builder from the Los Angeles area. It is known that Roy already restyled cars in the 1930, together with Jimmy Summers they were the only two shops in town that were really known about doing the what we now know as Custom Car work. They smoothed body lines of lower end factory cars, chopped top and reworked and replaced grilles. We have not been able to find any of Roy’s Custom Car work done in the 1930’s, the earliest car he worked on is the Earl Bruce 1940 Ford Coupe which was reworked both by Summers and Hagy and hit the road in early 1940.

Even though Los Angeles was known as the hot-bed for Hot Rodding and Customizing in the early days, some other Californian cities also had an important role in the scene. In Sacramento there was Les Crane and Harry Westergard both starting to build Custom vehicles in the later part of the 1930’s Sadly we have not been able to locate any photos of their work from the 1930’s. But the stories of these two already doing their Custom Car magic work during this period are there. Les Crane and Harry Westergard both worked on the Butler Rugard’s 1940 Mercury which was started in 1940, and shows that the Custom Car basics were already down by then, so that shows that they must have already had a few years experience.

From the 1946 published Edgar Almquist Speed and Mileage Manual.

We know Customizing was done outside California in the early years as well, but locating photos from the other states is even harder than finding them from California. This one was used in an early Motor Trend article. Originally restyled back in 1938 in Nassau, New York, and later updated with an more powerful ’46 Mercury engine.

This is the end of Part one of the History of the Custom Car. We hope you have enjoyed it. If there is anything you can add to this part , perhaps feel that something important is missing. Or perhaps want to supply input for the next part of this story, then please email Rik Hoving here at the Custom Car Chronicle. if you want to see more samples of Early Style Custom Cars, then use the Early Custom Cars Menu here on the Custom Car Chronicle. This will bring you to a series of articles we already have devoted to the early style Custom Cars.



Sources and Reference

  • The Old Motor, website
  • Coachbuilt, website
  • The American Custom Car, book by Pat Ganahl
  • Frank Kurtis Article, R&C magazine October 1968
  • Flying V’s, R&C article
  • Motor Life, magazine May 1955
  • Hemmings, website
  • So Cal Speed Shop, book
  • Dean Batchelor, photographer/author
  • Revs Digital Library, Stanford University online photo archive





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)

5 thoughts on “History of the Early Custom Car

  • Rik, in pointing out the scope and range of diverse approaches early on in customizing, you hit directly on the inspiration driving all of us: Individuality. Creating our own personal statement. Many of the earliest innovative notions didn’t carry forward, but if anything, they were different. Distinctive. May we all recognize, and give a nod to, the diversity in creativity that launched our art form.

  • Fantastic article Rik.
    A really under studied aspect of our art form as most casual custom fans just pay attention to the “Golden Years.”
    But as my dear old daddy used to say, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from. You will never know where you are going.”
    This article represents why so many of us look to you and this site as the Grail of custom cars.
    Can’t wait for the next installment.

  • Great article Rik! It is great to get more details on people that I’ve heard their names, but don’t know all that much about them. I”m looking forward to reading the next article! Have you considered putting this into book form? I’d buy one for sure!

  • Thanks for an informative article, I had never heard of any of the people mentioned other than george duvall and california plating

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