Custom Car Chronicle
The Personal StoriesThe Tom Nielsen Collection

Every Picture has a Story


I always wondered about how these two photos of a classic California custom were in with a picture collection of an early Washington State car.

by Tom Nielsen

A while ago I received a packet of pictures of a custom ’34 Ford sedan that had been built and owned by a friend who passed away several years ago. I had only seen his car once many years ago, so I was very interested in seeing the collection of photos that I had been given. In looking through them surprisingly I found two pictures that I hadn’t expected.
They were photos of Butler Rugards custom Chevy convertible built by the famous Harry Westergard. I had seen pictures of this car in a Custom Car Annual long ago, but didn’t remember any details about the car.

I found out later it was built for Butler Rugard with a Hall top and Summer’s fadeaway fenders. I sent the two photos off to Rik Hoving to be part of my collection on the Custom Car Photo Archives. In short order I received an email back from Rik. He was quite enthusiastic about the two new photos I had discovered of the historic Harry Westergard ’47 Chev convertible.
I always wondered about how those photos of a classic California custom were in with pictures of an early Washington car. I think that I have now put together the story behind the pictures, with just a little sleuthing.
In the 1950’s and 60’s when the military draft was facing young men in the US, an alternative to active duty was to join the reserves. You would have weekend meetings once a month and two weeks active duty in the summer. John Dennis was in the US Army Reserves around 1951-3 and had his summer camp for two weeks at Fort Ord in Monterey, California. The Army reservists were all given a travel allowance to get from their hometown to the place where their summer camp was held.

A young car guy with a cool car probably wanted to drive to the “Mecca” of hot rodding that California was at that time. It was the place to see and be seen in a custom car. Young John, probably got a couple of Army Reserve friends to go along together with him on the 910 mile trip from Everett, Washington to Monterey, California. His ’34 sedan had a built 59A flathead with an Eddie Meyer two carb manifold so it could cruise along pretty well on the long journey.

While at the base the reservists could park their car next to the barracks on the base. So it was pretty easy to see if there were other cool cars that fellow soldiers had driven in for their two week encampment.
In their time off, I am sure these car guys got together to kick tires and compare each other’s cars. Luckily, John had his camera along with him to snap a few photos of his own ’34 and the Harry Westergard Custom Chevy at the camp.
CCC-tom-nielsen-picture-story-05John took this photo of his chopped sedan parked next to a barracks at Ft. Ord.
In the 1952 time frame the owner of the Chevy was probably Joe Martin. At least he was listed as the owner in the feature shown in the 1957 Custom Car Annual.
I am sure that both John’s ’34 and the Westergard Chevy both stood out in a parking lot filled with more mundane daily drivers. Sometime during their leisure time at the base they must have gotten together to take a few photos.
CCC-tom-nielsen-picture-story-01The Westergard Chevy with Hall top on the right with the Military barracks in the backround[divider]
The pose: In the early days of customizing there was always motivation to have your car look more modern as well as lower and more sleek like the newer models were becoming. Since there was a sharp looking 1952 Chev hardtop nearby, that one of the reservists owned, it was only natural to compare it to the five year older Chev. They put the two Chevrolets side by side and photographed them from various angles. I think that it makes an interesting pose and kind of defines that era of hot rodding and customizing.

It is fortunate for us that John snapped these photos in this setting. It is also nice to see his car in the same setting and imagine the excitement of showing off your own custom ride in Northern California. The fact that the bodyman who chopped, modified, and painted his ’34 was from California is an interesting coincidence. He was known as “Tiny” and he had worked on lots of custom cars in California, where he had learned his trade. Tiny convinced John to chop his sedan and then let John help with the hacksawing etc. When all the modifications were finished and it was ready for paint he sprayed it with a “special mix” of purple lacquer.

I think that I have figured out the story behind the two pictures of the Butler Rugard’s convertible. The barracks in the background were the giveaway to putting the pieces together. It must have been a good journey for these car guys who ended up at Fort Ord for two weeks.
CCC-tom-nielsen-picture-story-04John Dennis cleans up his ’34 sedan at a Flying A station in Everett around 1952.

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Tom Nielsen

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

4 thoughts on “Every Picture has a Story

  • Good on ya’, Tom! You keep coming up with absolute treasures from that too, too short past. While the “little pages” gave us snapshots and glimpses into select shops of “Mecca”, your sleuthing is opening up windows onto the custom car movement that ran like a tidal wave across America.

    What Westergard started! And how “Tiny” and others carried it far beyond. That four-door ’34 is simply “sinister” in black and white. I’ll bet Rik Hoving already is imagining that deep purple color.

    Your sleuthing is fun to follow, Tom. And your insights and perspectives from one who was there help us all to see the big picture beyond the little pages. Keep up the good work!!!
    Larry Pointer

  • Great story.
    Nice to see that not all the customs back then were 2 drs as many have implied.
    I agree with Larry as that 34 does look “sinister”.
    If Clyde barrow had seen something like that back in his day that would have been the one he stole.:)

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