CONFESSION OF A CONQUISTADOR part one
Hello. My name is Larry Pointer.
I am a Conquistador.
I have an addiction, to custom cars.
By Larry Pointer
This is not just any car addiction. This is the hard stuff. The traditional custom car. It’s kind of like leprosy, you can only relate with other addicts, and it’s incurable.
I am not among the first, the few Conquistadors who started it all in 1955. But that’s just the point, isn’t it. Cult converts are the most fervent.
At first, I didn’t even have my own car, just my dad’s Pre-War Chevy pickup. The one with the woven wire grille, and the 1955 Jeep Julep Green metallic paint, that I (sob) brushed on. Oh, and a yellow-handled broom, sticking out of a bedside stake hole, behind the driver’s door.
A Chevy truck, similar to the one Larry’s father had, brush painted Julep Green, and a Farmall tractor similar to the one Larry put his first spray paint job on in school.
I didn’t even get to touch a spray gun until one day…forever etched in my memory…our farm shop teacher handed me a can of red paint and an antiquated siphon spray gun. He pointed to the Farmall tractor sitting on the shop floor, and said, “Here. Go paint that.” Yes, my first paint job was a farm tractor. International Harvester.
My path began as many, with the gateway stuff. Bicycles. Sure, it sounds innocent enough. But once hooked, there was no going back. First, at age 10 it was an “assembled” bike, from Frank Kraut’s bike repair shop. By 12, I upgraded to a “Monkey Ward” Hawthorne. Black. And that’s when my illness manifest itself. Jimmy Vargas and I cut some linoleum scraps into teardrop shapes, painted them black, and wired them onto my bike’s rear fender. Full fender skirts!
Oh, and I could make noise, too. With wooden clothespins snitched from mom’s clothesline, I pinned playing cards onto the front fender braces, placing them inward so, when the wheel rotated, they clattered across the spokes. Not the rap of twice pipes on a Chevy six, but good enough for a pre-teen pretender.
Then, there was car porn, those seductive “little pages” of Honk!, Hop Up, Hot Rod, Car Craft, Custom Cars and Rod & Custom. Each month I’d ride my bike down high school hill to the Smoke Shop. Thumbing through those pages, I tried to digest all of the trick changes that were happening with those cool California cats. An eternal flame flared when I bought the Motor Trend Custom Cars 1954 Annual. I turned the page to the photo essay of Valley Custom’s magical transformation of Jack Stewart’s 1950 Olds into The Polynesian. The unadorned, free-flowing form! Pure simplicity in its sculpted beauty.
The 1954 Custom Cars Annual changed it all for Larry. The booklet showed the full transformation of the 1950 Oldmobile to the “Polynesian” by the Vally Custom Shop.
And as part of “The Ten Best” the Annual showed cars like the Chuck De Witt 1951 Ford convertible by Barris and the sectioned Ford Shoebox for Ron Dunn restyled by the Valley Custom Shop.
As well as Bob Hirohata with his Barris-built 1951 Mercury… and many more.
Between the covers of that same Annual, I found Chuck DeWitt’s Ford convertible, the Ron Dunn Ford sectioned by Valley Custom, then Bob Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury and on the very next page, Dan Landon’s radical ’49 Chevy coupe, both Barris-built. I had been transported to a world beyond my wildest imaginings. This was custom car crafting at its very summit. The automobile as art form, in the hands of the common man. I was had, totally captivated, and I’ve never been the same since.
Barris brothers Sam using hammer and dolly to shape a panel, and George Barris adding some primer to a car in the shop.
Then came Larry Watson’s Grapevine. Here, again, was not “change for the sake of change”, but a carefully thought out design with elements of style that flowed from front to rear. Excesses of Detroit ornamentation were stripped away, to allow the curvaceous form to speak for itself. What was added were accents. The oval ’53 grille with extra teeth, the ’56 Olds headlight rims and fenders reshaped to adapt them, the thin Buick side trim arc, and the wicked ’54 Mercury tail light lenses, upside down, pointed up the beauty of a rolling sculpture.
That was it! Inspired, I determined to create a design that would give tribute to both Polynesian and Grapevine. And I would build it from a 1952 Chevrolet two-door sedan. I began to create sketches, countless sketches, in high school classes and study halls. I would raise the bumper, like Valley Custom demonstrated in their photo essay. Create a full oval surround out of conduit tubing, just like Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen. Borrow from a ’53 Studebaker for the lower pan, like the Barris Brothers. The final rendition in my sketchbook shows frenched ’52 Ford headlight rims, and Mercury tail light lenses.
What I wanted to do was crystal clear. The How To? Not so much.
These are two of the sketches Larry made of his 1952 Chevy tudor that he dreamed of creating in tribute to Valley Custom and to Larry Watson’s early “Grapevine” version of his 50 Chevy. These where done around 1958.
With high school graduation, I picked up a clapped-out, hail-damaged Emerald green ’52 Chevy. The two-door had done time as a Wyoming oilfield crew car. It was all I could afford. Already I had collected the Mercury lenses and with ideas still evolving, a pair of new ’56 Olds headlight rims from the local dealership. My dad helped overhaul the motor, the manifold was split with an extra exhaust flange brazed in place, and a pair of exhaust pipes bent up out of the corrugated tubing available at the time. Bent straight pipes. An oxymoron? No, just straight-through crooked tubing with no mufflers.
An 1952 Chevy two door sedan similar to what Larry had back in the 1950’s.
Bodyman Bill Brown, who also worked with my dad as a baker at the Veterans Hospital, welded and leaded-in the hood seam. I used to drop by Bill Brown’s shop and just stand to the side transfixed, mesmerized, watching him work his magic with hammer and dolly. Bill was open to sharing the tricks of the trade he had learned the hard way. Bill was an old curmudgeon, but a loveable one. He showed me how to “pick and file,” to lift the low spots, tapping with a pointed hammer from beneath, then pass a file across the top surface to bring down the high spots. Back in the day, automotive sheetmetal was of a gauge thick enough to allow some removal of filings. Today, you might as well try to take wrinkles out of a beer can!
Then there was the hammer and dolly: hammer-on-dolly; hammer-off-dolly. Bill could make music with the rhythmic percussion beat of his hammer. He also showed how to shrink metal by heating a spot cherry red, then quenching it with a wet rag. There was an art to each step. Over-done, and there was Hell to pay, but even so, always there was a cure for mistakes. It was OK to make mistakes. That was how you learned. Some faster than others, I can testify.
Heat shrinking sheet metal on Tom Medley’s 1940 coupe (internet photo).
Shrinking metal by heating a spot cherry red, then quenching it with a wet rag (internet photo).
But the best lessons of all were in leading. Bill, the veteran baker, said it was just like icing a cake. He first would scrupulously clean the metal surface, then with a low flame of the acetylene torch, apply a thin tin coating to the surface for better bonding. Finally, he would take a stick of body lead and melt it onto the surface. Here was pure art. Bill played the low flame across the work in slow, even passes. Too hot, and the lead would drip right off. Too cold, and the lead would look like clumps of old sugared honey.
He would then heat a hardwood paddle, pass it across a block of beeswax, and with deft sweeps, always playing a soft flame over the work area, push and smooth the lead evenly across the surface. Correctly done, you hardly had to file at all to bring the surface glass smooth to the pass of the hand. Sensing surfaces with your hand was another art form Bill taught me. It was best done with a thin handkerchief beneath the fingertips.
I sanded my entire car down and, like Barris would do, shot it with white primer. Unlike what Barris would do, I used a “Hoover”.
Here, I’d like to say you did with what you had. My mentor Bill Brown himself had painted cars with a “Hoover” vacuum cleaner hose attachment, back in the day. The hose was attached on the outlet end, rather than the suction end of the vacuum. He would set up out in the open air in the driveway of the unit he and his wife had rented at the Fort Mackenzie Veteran’s Hospital after the War. He’d pick a clear day with no wind, and wipe down the metal surface with a tack rag, then shoot the paint in even, overlapping passes.
Electrolux vacuum sweeper the inset shows the spray attachment that hooks up to the hose.
Spray painting is a dance form. And that art form also, Bill Brown taught me. No better way to learn than to do, and it was an honor to be entrusted with spot priming bodywork that Bill had in process. I can still hear him preaching to me. You hold the spray nozzle square with your work, an even distance back from the surface. Keep it parallel. Flex with your wrist. Loosen your arm. Give with it as you move, keep loose. Move your feet, your whole body. Dance with it. Look in from the side. Watch the paint lay down in even just-wet-enough coats. Start ahead of your work, move steadily and evenly across, and don’t stop until you have cleared the edge.
“Painting’s easy,” one hard-bitten old school painter told me, “Any monkey can do it. It’s the sanding, the prep work and the masking off that requires the best of you. That’s the hard part.” True, true.
A fad that was going around, among those of us who couldn’t afford new upholstery, was to paint the headliner, door panels, and seat bolsters in rubber latex paint. Honest! It worked pretty well, if there were no water stains in the fabric. The texture was pretty stiff, but a headliner came out tight as a drum. My interior was done in white, to match the primered exterior. Blankets for seatcovers, and I was good to go.
Sample of household Latex Rubber painted seats on this Barn Find 1956 Ford.
I was on my way, and totally over my head, on a collision course headlong into the blind corner of Daydream Lane and Reality Drive. Then, one late night on a dark road along… poetically…the Fetterman Massacre Hill of historic Bozeman Trail days, a deer jumped into my path. The deer and my dream car were massacred together on Massacre Hill. It was a merciful ending; the poor car was saved from a slow death of torture in my inept hands.
Considering the alternatives, I was pretty fortunate. On December 21, 1866 Captain William J. Fetterman sallied out from Fort Phil Kearney in pursuit of a handful of harassing Indians. Over this very Lodge Trail Ridge, his troops rode into an ambush carefully set by Chiefs Red Cloud and Hump for the overzealous boys in Blue. Almost a thousand Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors awaited them. All 81 cavalrymen were annihilated on that hillside that cold winter day of long ago.
Larry later got a 1949 Chevy Fleetline to which he added 1948 Pontiac taillights (inset).
Like my first bicycle, my totaled car’s second version was “assembled.” My running gear, a ’49 Chevy fastback body shell from Donnafield’s wrecking yard, Pontiac doors (A note of appreciation to GM here for exchangeable assembly-line parts), and a coat of black primer. Around back, I added ’48 Pontiac tail light assemblies. They bolted right into the Chevrolet mounting holes, and fit the body contour perfectly. Conquistador Harry Schwartz came over with his gas bottles and cutting torch. We jacked up the Chevy, removed each front wheel, and while I pried up a coil spring, Schatzy cut out the bottom round with his “gas hatchet”. Dropped in front, blocks in the rear: Praise the lowered.
It was a big lesson in “don’t bite off more than you can chew”. I traded the resurrected Chevy to fellow Conquistador “Slim” Richards for a 1951 Oldsmobile 98. (He’s probably still thinking, no act of kindness goes unpunished.) The fastback went to Montana, and I settled in to continuing education. On all fronts.
Or, in a snapshot from another angle, Slim always has reminded me of the laconic Sundance Kid portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It’s not a stretch at all for Slim to have poignantly pointed out to Pointer:
“Keep thinkin’, Larry. It’s what you’re good at.”
Go to part TWO…
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