Illinois Mystery Custom 40 Ford

 

ILLINOIS MYSTERY CUSTOM

 

Very interesting Custom 1940 Ford Convertible restyled in the very early 1940’s in Illinois. Who was the builder, and who owned this Tail Finned Convertible.



Over the years I have written a lot about Early Custom Cars, the importance of them, and how these early Custom Cars have influenced the style of Custom Cars we see today. Articles based on old snapshots, family albums, photos of cars I found online and photos shared by friends and CCC-Members. I have noticed that in my article, especially on the Early Customs Cars I most often use photos of California based Custom Cars. Generally we accept that the Custom Car, as we know it, was born in sunny California, and because of that the majority of the Early Customs Cars were created there. Possibly the year round good weather also allowed people to take more photos of the cars they owned, or saw on the street, making sure the California Custom Cars were better documents than those in other States.

Even early on there were Custom Car enthusiast that created Custom Cars in other states as well. Possibly influenced by photos shared by West Coast family or friends, or perhaps from trips to the West coast. And more than likely also because Car enthusiasts outside of California had the same urge to own cars styled after the European Couch-build cars, or those from Movie Stars from California, that might have appeared in national magazines or news papers. I always enjoy when new old photos of early Customs surface, and it might be even more sepcial to find new interesting and nicely restyled early Custom Cars from outside of California.

This article is about a series of photos I came across on eBay, over a period of years. The first ones I came across in 2012, and then another on in 2015, 2016 and one a few month ago in 2017. It was not until I send the last one to a friend that I all of the sudden realized I had seen the car before and went on a search in my digital Car Files. I found 7 photos of the same car, all offered on eBay in different auctions. The oldest one, from what I can tell in the pictures was taken in 1941, and in other photos I can make out a 1943 Illinois license plate.

The oldest photo of the car shows a 1941 Illinois license plate. The car has black wall tires (at least on the front) and a black top, in this photo it was impossible to see if it was a padded top of working soft top. The line on the side of the body looks to be a 3D side-trim, but could also have been painted on.
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About the Ford

So far I have not been able to find anything on this car. None of the photo came with any info on who could be the owner or the builder of this car. So hopefully this Custom Car Chronicle Article will lead to some more information on the car. The only things I know about this car is from what I can see in the picture.

As mentioned the oldest photo shows an 1941 Illinois License plate. It is one of the later photos I came across. It is where the two guys are working on the car with the hood open. Could this perhaps be at the shop that created the car? In this picture we can see that the car has a chopped and laid back windshield. The soft top bows were cut down and reshaped to fit the chopped windshield, and they managed to create a really nice flowing working soft top. the running boards have been removed and a filler panel to cover the frames below the body has been added. The lower rear section of the front fenders have been reshaped.And the rear fenders have the hole left from the running boards filled and a stainless rock shield was added.

In 2016 I came across this nice snapshot showing the ’40 Ford at the beach (Possibly at lake Michigan). There was no info on the photo, and I cannot see any license plates in this photo. No way to correctly date this one, other than 1941 or newer due to the 1941 Cadillac in the photo.
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In this snapshot we can see a military guy, that could possibly be the owner of the car, together with his girlfriend, or wife. The car now has a 1943 Illinois License plate, and the front tires look to be black walls, while the rears appear to be white walls. This photo shows the peeked hood and v-shaped grille to match the shape of the hood really well. I came across this photo in 2012.
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What is especially nicely done on this car is the grille. At first I though it was a modified 1940 Chevy grille, or perhaps 1940 Buick, but after I compared the grille with the other photos I have I came to the conclusion that the grille must have been either completely hand made, or created from 1940 Buick parts, but a lot of work was put into it to make it work with the Ford hood and fenders. The stock Ford bumper has been replaced with 1937 De Soto units.

The rear of the car shows a very nicely and elegant done shark fin. Most likely influenced by something seen on European Coachbuild cars, or perhaps it was Batman influenced. The car also had a nicely set in license plate in the trunk, just below the fin. This photo, as well as the one above show that the top was actually a cut down working soft top. Notice the angle on the windshield frame. Taillights are stock and the gas filler is on the stock location.
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This is the most recent photo I came across, in 2017. A military guy getting in, or stepping out of the ’40 Ford. It shows a later year steering wheel, front black wall tires and white walls in the rear, indicating that this must have been in, or shortly after WWII.
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The car has been mildly lowered all around and the stock hubcaps have been replaced by Single bar flipper ripple disk hubcaps. At the rear an interesting shark find has been added to the center of the trunk. Something like this I have seen on several European Coach-build cars, so most likely this was influenced from those. Or another thought is that perhaps the Batman Comics might have inspired the builder. Below the fin they added an set in behind glass license plate. The exhaust was modified to dual pipes, and at the rear the stock bumper was also replaced by an ribbed 1937 DeSoto unit.

Possibly taken in front of the house the owner lived in. This snow covered photo makes it look like the top is covered with light material, but it could also be just snow. It shows the car with fender skirts added. And it also look like the side trim, or painted on effect has been removed. It is also the only photo that shows the car had a single spotlight. The car parked behind the Ford on the left side appears to be an 1942-48 Oldsmobile.
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Another photo in the show from the back. The snow has covered up the set in license plate completely. Dual exhaust pipes under the ’37 DeSoto rear bumper.
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I really would love to know more about his car, who was the owner, and who was the builder. And since the car is looking so good, were there more Custom Cars created by this builder? Hopefully some of our readers will know more. Please contact us if you know more about this Early Illinois Custom, or perhaps you have other photos of other Custom Cars that you like to share here in the Custom Car Chronicle.




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Customs at Milnes Richfield Station

 

NORM MILNES RICHFIELD Station

 

In the mid 1940’s The Thunderbolts Car Club of Sacramento used the Norm Milnes Richfield Station as their hangout. Some historical important Custom Cars were photographed at this location.



The birth of Custom Restyling took place in California, in Southern California to be more precise. Exact dates for when this happened, or even what city this took place have never been documented. And we will most likely never be able to pin-point down, other than it happened in Southern California, possibly even at different locations at similar moments around Los Angeles. The form of Custom Restyling, as we discuss it here on the Custom Car Chronicle, started in the early 1930’s and developed over the years. It also migrated soon after that, first mostly in California, the Bay Area around San Fransisco as well as around Sacramento soon became hot beds of Custom restyling, later followed by other States as well.





Sacramento, Northern California was particular important for the Custom Restyling as we know it. Metal genius and early Customizer Harry Westergard was from Sacramento, Duck Bertolucci and also Sam and George Barris lived there. Les Crane, another early Custom Restyler was from that area so there must have been something good in the Sacramento area water.

After WWII, in late 1945, several Sacramento area Hot Rodders and Custom Car guys including Harry Westergard, Norm Milne and Butler Rugard formed a new car club The Capotol Auto Club, nicke named Thunderbolts. They held meetings at Harry Westergards place, and later the Richfield Gas Station of member Norm Milne (and his brother) would be the clubs headquarters, and hangout. The gas Station was located at Broadway and 25th in Sacramento, not to far from where Harry Westergard then worked from. Norm Milne personal Custom was a 1938 Ford Convertible Sedan Custom that was restyled by Harry Westergard in the early 1940’s. Norm was one of the very few guys who had a camera, and took some pictures of the club-members cars from time to time. Without his photo nearly none of this important part of the Custom History might never have been documented, at least not photographic.

Norm Milne 1938 Ford on the right and Gene Garrett’s 1940 Ford on the left at the Richfield Gas Station that was owned by Norm Milne and his brother.
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Norm Milne 1938 Ford

Norm Milne’s 1936 Ford was a very early Custom, started in 1940, when Norm drove it to Los Angeles to have a chopped Carson Top installed. The Carson top Shop handled it all, including the chop of the windshield and the cutting and refitting of all side windows. Most likely the metal work was done by the Jarret Metal Works next door to the Carson Top Shop.

Some time after returning to Sacramento Norm had his friend Harry Westergard do the rest of the restyling. Harry reshaped the front of the hood and grille surround to make the 1940 La Salle grille fit the Ford. The Hood-sides louvres were filled and the sides are now completely smooth. The hood ornament shaved and the stock headlights rings were replaced with chrome plated aftermarket sealed beam headlights. At the back Harry set in the license plate behind glass, a very popular technique at the time. The car was lowered and a set of teardrop fender skirts added. The door handles remained on the car, and so where the running boards. Harry installed a set of bumpers, possibly from a Graham with custom bumper guards to make the Ford looks a bit more robust. The only two photos we know that exist of the car show it with the front sheet metal still in primer.

Norm Milne’s 1938 Ford Sedan Convertible with the front body work done by Harry Westergard still in primer. Parked in front of his Richfield station. This photo, as well as most others in this article was taken in 1947. Notice how the front bumper had three bumper guards? That is Gene Garrett’s ’40 Ford in the background on the left. Both cars had black wall tires.
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Cropped section of the leading photo shows Norm’s Ford parked inside the gas station. It is a very small photo, but as far as we know there are only two photos of this Harry Westergard Custom ever published.
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Gene Garrett 1940 Ford

We know Gene Garrett best of the ’36 Ford Convertible Custom Harry Westergard did for him around 1942-43. But Gene owned at least one more Custom later on. In 1947 he drove a 1940 Ford Convertible with chopped padded top. According the stories Gene, did just as his friend Norm, drive his car to Los Angeles where he took it the Carson Top Shop to have then chop the windshield and add the white padded top. We only have very limited photo material of this car, but as far as we can see in the photos the running boards were removed, the hood was shaved, made one piece and smoothed. The side trim was removed and at the back the trunk was shaved and a set in license plate was added to the lower end of the trunk. De Soto Bumpers were installed and the car had black wall tires in 1947.

Parked at the Richfield Gas Station looking good with is nicely shaped chopped padded top. I wonder which convertible or roadster sedan car is parked behind Gene’s Ford. It does not show up in any of the other photos taken at the Gas Station.
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The rear end of Gene’s 40 Ford shows in the photo of Norm Milne. This enlarged section shows the ’37 DeStoto bumpers as well as the set in plate in the trunk. It also gives us a good look at the odd three bumper guards on Norm’s ’38 Ford. I have no idea why that was done, and why it had two different units placed close on the passenger side, and only one on the drivers side?¬†
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Since photos of the Gene Gerrett 1940 Ford are so rare I have also included this snapshot of Gene racing the dray lakes. (Photo comes from the Don Montomery books Leroy Semas Collection)
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Mel Falconer 1939 Ford

We are fortunate that we have several Harry Westergard created Custom Cars still among us. At least 6 of them are still around, some completely restored, others in the process of it, or at least in good hands. One of them is the Mel Falconer’s 1939 Ford , that was later owned by Bruce Glenn when it became more popular in the 1950’s. There is one photo of the Westergard Restyled ’39 Ford taken at the Richfield Gas Station in 1947 that shows the car with its original chopped padded top. Later Harry would create a lift off metal top based on a ’38 Ford top which is still with the car today.

Originally restyled in the early 1940’s to what we see in the photo here, wonderful metal work on the nose of the car to be able to use the 1940 Packard grille that was chopped to get the right height. The headlights were replaced by painted ’40 Ford units, the bumpers replaced by ’37 DeSoto units and at the back Harry had set in the license plate behind glass, and later he would mold in the trunk completely. Mel’s ’39 Ford Custom is the only Custom in this series of photos, taken around 1947, that has white wall tires installed. Around 1947 the tires manufacturers were starting to produce white wall tires again. Its production had been stopped completely during WWII when the rubber was needed for the war. During the previous years only black wall tires were available, and during the war those were rationed as well.

Mel Falkoner’s Harry Westergard ’39 Ford looked stunning at the Richfield Gas Station. To bad the hubcaps was missing when this photo was taken.
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When I zoomed in on the back of the car I noticed a damaged teardrop shape skirt on Mel’s 39 Ford, and peaking just behind it is Gene Garrett’s ’40 Ford.
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George Barris 1941 Buick

Around 1947 George Barris was starting to establish a name as Custom Car builder in Los Angeles. He had moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles in 1943, and he still had many of his car-friends back in Sacramento. When he had finished his personal 1941 Buick Custom with full fade-away fenders he was very eager to show his Nor-Cal friends how far he has gotten as a Custom Car builder. He drove his Buick from LA to Sacramento to meet up with his friends at Norm’s Richfield Gas Station. We are not sure if George was able to show his personal Custom Buick to his master Harry Westergard during this trip. There are some photos of George with his Buick and some of his friends, but Harry Westergard is not in any of those photos.

George also used his Buick for long distance drives. This photo was taken in front of the Elmer Howard‚Äôs Body – Fender & Top Shop in Sacramento. The building on the right is Norm Milne’s Richfield station.
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This photo of George his Buick was taken facing away from the Richfield Station, to the right, just outside this photo is Elmer Howard’s Body Shop.
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After George had finished his new Custom he wanted to show it to his old Sacramento friends. Left to right Willis Schraeder, Jack Odberg, George Barris, Buddy Ohanesian, Bruce Glenn, Norm Milne and Mel Falconer. The friends were pretty impressed with George’s new Custom ride. The photo was taken in late 1947.
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Another one of the friends, this time a little closer. Jack Odberg kneeling, George Barris standing, Buddy Ohanesian kneeling, Bruce Glenn standing, Norm Milne and Mel Falconer both kneeling.
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Norm Milne in the center with his trusty camera, which he always had with him according the stories. On the left of the photo is Butler Rugard and on the right the master himself. Harry Westergard.
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Location of Norm Milne’s Richfield Gas Station at the corner of 25th and Broadway in Sacramento, California.
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Harry Westergard is always credited for creating the typical Westergard style Custom in the 1940’s. Basically a ’36 Ford-ish Roadster with a speed boat stance, chopped windshield white padded top smooth hood sides, De Soto Bumpers and a 1940 LaSalle grille. This image might not have been based on an actual car Harry Westergard has actually created, but more likely on an painting by Artist Robert Williams. Norm Milne‘s 1938 Ford is, as far as we know the only Custom Harry Westergard created that actually used the LaSalle Grille, as can be seen in this article. Harry more frequently used the Packard Clipper grilles.

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Johnny Zaro 1941 Ford

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Originally created for John Vara by George Barris. This radical full fade away fendered 1941 Ford padded topped Convertible is best known as the Johnny Zaro 1941 Ford.

Johnny Zaro is a well know name in the Custom Car world, his two Barris brothers restyled¬†Custom Cars¬†had a huge impact on the Custom Car world. Johnny’s Custom Cars have been well featured in the magazines and books back then, and in more recent year. Both Customs, a 1940 Mercury Coupe, and a 1941 Ford Convertible have miraculously survived all these years and have been fully restored by their new caretakers a number of years ago.¬†They now can be enjoyed for many more decades by enthusiast from all over the world. We will be featuring both these Zaro Custom Cars here on the Custom Car Chronicle, especially since both cars have played a big part in the history of the Custom Car.¬†This article is about Johnny’s second full Custom Car, “The MERC of ZARO” 1941 Ford Convertible full Custom, one of the wildest, of not the¬†wildest early Barris Custom.

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Robert Ruiz shared this photo of the ’41 Ford still¬†in progress. This is the earliest photo of the John Vara, Johnny Zaro Ford that we have come across, and was still owned by John Vara when this snapshot¬†was taken. According to Robert Ruiz, the writing on the back of the photo says “1948? Elmer’s muffler shop. It was my friends dad’s shop in L.A. 139 E.Manchester blvd.”

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This full Custom 1941 Ford Convertible is known as the Johnny Zaro Custom, since his name has been attached to it since 1948, and this is how the car was featured in the magazines and books ever since. But the car was actually built as a finished Custom Car for John Vara. Usually a historic Custom Car is named by its original owner (if known) but in this case the car is named by its second owner, Johnny Zaro, The Johnny Zaro 1941 Ford.

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First Version

George Barris built this 1941 Ford convertible-based custom for John Vara¬†in around 1947 perhaps early 1948. Most of the work on the car was done by George Barris. George had created his own personal 1941 Buick with full fade away fenders, and for John’s Ford they wanted to go even more extreme. Full fade away fenders on a channeled body with raised front fenders creating a totally unique look. Where most of the Barris Customs from this era had at least some sort of shiny trim on the body, John’s 41 Ford was free of any exterior trim or handles, apart from the chrome plated grille bars.

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1952 Ford Times magazine showed this photo of the Ford and named it the Barris-Vara car.

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According the 1951 issue of Motor Trend magazine the car was channeled 8 inches over the frame which was modified with a straight rear crossmember allowing the rear to drop another extra 3 inches. The front axle was replaced with a dropped unit to get the front nice and low with a slight speed boat stance. To be able to steer the wheels after the channeling, the front fenders were raised to about an inch under the hood line. The bottom section of the hood sides were cut off completely and the the hood was welded to the raised front fenders. At the rear the fenders were welded to the body and using sheet metal the sharp edge was rounded with a nice radius. The trunk was shaved and combined with the molded in rear fenders the rear of the car looked super smooth.

With the new much higher position of the front fenders George set out to hand shape some sheet metal to form the full fade away fenders, creating a smooth line from the front fender’s¬†all the way to the rear fenders. With the sides all level, not showing the front edge of the rear fenders, like how it was done on the stock ’42-48 Buicks. This created an unique smooth looks for the sides. The molded-in shape of the rear fenders was repeated on the fade away fender as well as the fender to hood lines. Creating one smooth flow from front to rear. George decided to create a smaller hood opening, leaving the front portions of the hood with the front fenders. Another innovative idea helping with the overall smooth feel of the car. The headlights were frenched with molded in bezels.

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Take at the same location as the image above. This is how the car looked like in its first version back in 1948. Notice that this version of the car, most likely still owned by John Vara had a license plate on the front as well. (Colorized black and white photo.)

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From an early (late 40’s) Power &¬† Customizing Manual.

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When creating the full fade away fenders the bottom door line, which was on top of the running board on the stock Ford, was now all the way at the bottom of the body. The lower portions of the new body line was rounded inwards to give the lower edge of the car a nice finished look. To accentuate the long fade away fenders George Barris installed a set of his favorite long 1941 Ford/Mercury fender skirts.

A new grille opening was created and three 1948 Pontiac grille bars were modified to get the same width and installed into the new opening. A ’46 Ford gravel pan was installed at the front at the stock location compared to the fenders. A ’46 Ford bumper was installed and the new location made the front of the car looks far less low than it actually was. One a bit of a design flaw (in my eyes) is that the Pontiac grille bars appear to be dipping down a bit in the center, conflicting with the front bumper, which appears to be pointing up slightly in the center.

At the rear George created the very popular ‚Äď at the time ‚Äď in-set¬†license plate. A beautiful shaped opening with the license plate installed from inside the trunk, behind a piece of glass. A ’46 Ford splash pan was molded to the body. With all the body work smoothed George had created a super slick new body, and he did not want to add a set of taillights to it to ruin the overall shape. So he installed two tiny motorcycle taillights on each side of the ’46 Ford bumper guards. The windshield was chopped a few inches. According the early magazines it was chopped 4.5 inches, but I feel it could have been a bit less than that.

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Gene Winfield took this photo of the car after Johnny Zaro had bought it. By now the license plate on the front has been removed and curb feelers have been installed to keep the ultra smooth body sides from scraping the high Los Angeles curbs. Beautiful angle shows the real beauty of Johnny’s Ford.

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George Barris painted the finished car ¬†with¬†paint based on DuPont Polychromatic Maroon. George custom mixed it and added Venus Martin gold powder into the last layers for some extra sparkle. When the car was done it was send to Louis Chavez for the padded top. As for the interior there is some controversy about who created that. The ’51 Motor Trend magazine feature list Chavez as the shop who did the interior, the Barris book¬†and the Custom Cars Annual interview with Johnny Zaro from 2012¬†mentioned Bill Hilborn as the upholstery guy. The¬†interior was¬†done in red and white leatherette¬†and had a special shaped¬†rear bench with a small bar incorporated.¬†The carpet on the floor was wine colored.

The car was detailed with wide white wall tires, chrome beauty rings with full moon hubcaps and a set of Appleton Spotlights. During the final stages of the built Johnny Zaro had seen the car at the Barris Shop several times while being there with his ’40 Mercury. Johnny had fallen in love with the car and made a deal with the Ford owner John Vara. John ended up with Johnny’s 1940 Mercury Coupe, plus an extra $300.- and Johnny Zaro ended up with the freshly finished ’41 Ford. Johnny had to trow in the extra $300.- just because his ’40 Merc was a bit more rough around the edges than the Ford. But that did not really matter to much, Johnny Loved his new ’41 Ford. (In at least one early  publication (Ford Times Feb. 1951) the car is listed as the John Vara Ford.)

At the time Johnny was trading the car with the additional $300.- payment he did not have the money for it. He was in his very early 20’s at the time and not making all that much money yet. He loaned the money from his mother, but she also did not have enough. So Johnny and his mother went over to Seaboard Finance Co. in Huntington Park, and he borrowed the money from them. Later when he had trouble paying them back the company confiscated the car. The owner of the Soaboard Co. actually took the car home and drove it. Eventually Johnny got the car back.

In the interview that Justin Kudolla had with Johnny Zaro, Johnny mentioned that he remembered that one day when he was over at the Barris show¬†he saw how¬†George was trying to fit the fadeaway fender on one of the side of the car and the metal did not work with him the way it was supposed to do. George¬†got really frustrated. “He got madder than heck and he took a pick hammer and started punching holes in the fender! He was really upset!”¬†When Johnny visited the shop¬†the next day, George was welding the thing up, brazing it back together, and grinding down.

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Another Gene Winfield photo of the car taken on a trip into the mountains. Another beautiful angle showing the beauty of the super smooth and molded body lines. Kustoms Los Angeles plaque,¬†curb feelers¬†mounted on the fender skirts and the super small motorcycle teardrop chrome plated taillights. Notice that the hood corners are not rounded on Johnny’s Ford.

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Johnny added some personal touches to the car shortly after he had bought it. The dashboard was cleaned up, the base chrome plated and he created hand shaped wine colored red lucite panels to replace the stock plastic panels on the dash. Johnny also added some wine red lights on the dash that illuminated when the doors popped open. The Appleton Spotlights that had been added were customized with hand shaped laminated red lucite handles.

The doors on Johnny’s Ford are operated by solenoid pop-ups. The buttons were hidden under the doors on the outside and push buttons on the dash to open them from the inside. These buttons were only on the drivers side of the dash. Done especially so that the ladies could not open the doors on their own. Johnny also reworked the hood and trunk to have them hydraulic¬†operated. from switches on the dash.

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Small updates
Like most of the Custom Car owners, Johnny also made a few minor changes to his Ford along the way. Updates with newer parts that have become available since the car was first finished, or perhaps inspired by other fresh custom Cars. Johnny replaced the moon hubcaps with the smooth beauty rings (most likely a Calnervar product) with a set of Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps. And the small teardrop shaped motorcycle taillights positioned next to the rear bumper guards had to make place for a set of bumper guard taillights. Handmade by, or supervised/inspired by Jesse Lopez into the 1946 Ford bumper guards. A beautiful art-deco shaped cut out was made and laminated clear red lucite was shaped similar to fill the hole.

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New bumper guard taillights and Sombrero hubcaps. Johnny needed special wood boards to enter the drive way at home without scraping the exhaust. Johnny’s car was low, very low.

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The mildly updated¬†version of Johnny Zaro’s Ford¬†was featured in Motor Trend December 1949. (Still looking for a better scan of this article… anybody? )

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Johnny Zaro with his ’41 Ford. Unlike a lot of other owners of padded topped Customs, Johnny liked to take off the top and cruise around topless in the beautiful SoCal summers.

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Johnny’s Ford at the Barris Compton Ave Shop in 1949.¬†

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George Barris used Johnny Zaro’s ’41 Ford in several of the Barris Magazine ads, as well as promotional photos at early Car shows. Shown here are two late 1940’s magazine and show program ads.
We are fortunate to have two color slides showing the original deep maroon color added by George Barris. This photo and the one below were taken after Johnny had installed the Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps.

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A look at the two tone interior. 

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The early version of the Ford used a 1948 Mercury steering wheel. This photo shows how nice the interior was done and also shows (if you look carefully) that Johnny added the letters “KUSTOM” on an angle to the red lucite dash panel. Also¬†visible¬†are the hand made laminated red lucite¬†Appleton Spotlight handles.

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Another top view shows the beautiful round and wide read pleats in the interior, as well as the special shaped rear bench.

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This photo is really nice, showing Johnny’s ’41 Ford and the ’40 mercury coupe, owned by his friends Al Andril. Al’s Mercury was very similar to his own Merc that he traded for the ’41 Ford.

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Tokay Beige Version

After some time Johnny wanted to make some more changes to the car and do a new paint job. A¬†new more modern grille for the car was created from a 1949 Pontiac grille. In the Motor Trend July 1951 feature, as well as in the Barris Kustom Techniques of the 1950′ Volume 3 is written that the grille was made up from ’49 Pontiac and Studebaker part, but as far as I can tell the grille is just a narrowed ’49 Pontiac, with the stock Pontiac grille bars below the top bar. The bottom bar is also a narrowed (center bulge removed) bar from a ’49 Pontiac. The grille never fitted very well, sitting lower on the passenger side than the drivers side. The ’48 Mercury steering wheel made place for a new Ford Crestline¬†steering wheel, and an accessory bar was added in between the front bumper guards. The George Barris suggested to paint the car in Tokay Beige which ‚Äď according to Johnny Zaro ‚Äď was a slight¬†pinkish tan. He mentioned that the color looked great at night, but during the day not so much.

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The new light paint and heavier grille gave the car a completely new look.
Parked at Johnny’s home with the new tokay beige paint. the grille was made from a narrowed and welded together ’49 Pontiac grille. The vertical grille bars are stock ’49 Pontiac and the lower bar sitting on the molded gravel pan is also from the Pontiac and narrowed the same amount, deleting the stock center bulge. Notice how the gap above the grille is much wider on the passenger side than the driver side.¬†

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Johnny drove the Ford around in Tokay Beige or for some time, and then decided to go back to maroon again. He liked the color much better on the first version. So George Barris custom mixed another batch of Maroon including the Venus Martin gold powder. Another plus effect of the new dark paint was that the bit poor fitting grille looked a lot better, with the dark paint hiding the slight gap above the grille on the passenger side. The new darker paint changed the look of the car again. But the new grille still made sure the car was more up to date than with the old three bar grille.

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Barris Bell Shop
Johnny’s Ford with the new Maroon paint on it at the Barris Bell Shop.

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The Zaro Ford was not only a great looking Custom Car, it also performer pretty well. Johhny Zaro mentioned in his Kuddola interview that the car hauled ass as well. When the car was first built it had the a regular V-8 engine, But later Johnny got a 3 and 5/16th bore, Weiand heads, a Spalding ignition, Howards cam, and an Edelbrock manifold. The new updated engine really went! In 1951 George Barris wanted to take my car up to the Oakland Roadster Show and offered to drive the car there himself. Johnny told him “No, not unless you put the car on a trailer and take it up there.” Johnny didn’t want to put any miles on the new engine, he just had the full engine put in the car. So, he ended up bringing a trailer and he took it up there. Johnny took a plane and flew to Oakland and after the show he drove the car back home to Los Angles, very carefully.

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George Barris took Johnny’s Ford to the 1951 Oakland Roadster Show. The trophies displayed with the car show that the car was well liked.

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Another unique color photos was taken by Walter Wyss at the ’51 Oakland Roadster Show. George Barris kneeling on the right, Jack Stewart hanging over the drivers side fender, Johnny Zaro polishing the hood and an unknown friend on the left.
Johnny’s Ford at another (unknown) show. Notice the large sign on the hood of the car.

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Johnny and Fay Zaro on their honeymoon with Johnny’s ’41 Ford nicely dressed up for the occasion.

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Johnny’s Ford was featured in color on the cover of the July 1951 issue of Motor Trend magazine. Inside was a one page feature on the car with photos taken by none other than Marcia Campbell.
Marcia Campbell loved to show the cars at full profile, giving a very good impression of the overall look of the car. I can’t help but wonder if a slight angle on the B-pilla of the padded top might have helped the overall flow of the car even more.

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Cover image of the Motor Trend Magazine. “Merc of Zaro” is not a far-fetched pun. John Zaro’s striking convertible is powered by a highly-tuned Mercury engine. The car’s attractiveness is completed here by beautiful June Burroughs of Glen Ellen, Illinois, pleasantly clad in a swim suit by Rose Marie Reid and accompanied by Bill Evans of Los Angeles Photo by C.A. Peterson.

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Fay, Johnny’s future wife, posing with the Ford.

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Selling the car

George Barris introduced Johnny’s future wife Fay to Johnny around 1951. He would cruise with Fay oat night on the little alleys, since cruising the main roads would attract to many cops who loved to ticket him for being to low, loud or whatever they could think off. When Fay and Johnny decided to get married Johnny decided to let go of the Ford, to be able to pay for a new house. He put the car up for sale on the D&B Auto Sales car lot¬†in Hollywoon. The lot was specialized in selling Hot Rods and Custom Cars. The Ford had not been on the lot¬†for¬†24 hours, when¬†it was stolen off of the lot. After some time the FBI called Johnny to mention they had found the car in Kingman, Arizona. The FBI was involved since it had become a¬†federal offense once the car got across the California border. Johnny and his soon to be father-in-law went down there. Turned out¬†a couple guys from Boston had¬†stolen the car, and they got stranded in Arizona when they ruined the motor. They¬†towed the car it back home to Marywood California. Johnny pulled the damaged engine and¬†put another full engine in it.

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Johhny’s Ford at the D&B Auto Sales on Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood. According to Johnny the car was not even on the lot for 24 hours when it got stolen.

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In 1952 a guy from Lincoln, Nebraska bought the car. The guy was still in college and after a while he send Johnny a letter that the car was doing fine, but that he tried to take it to college one day. But after everybody at school was all over the car he decided he could not use it as daily transportation anymore. Next thing we know was that in the August 1952 issue of Motor Trend magazine, Springer Jones of  Mitchell, Nebraska put up an For Sale ad.  The asking price was $2345 or best offer. We are not sure if Springer Jones was the guy who bought it from Johnny, since Johnny could not remember his name anymore.

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Ad from the august 1952 issue of Motor Trend magazine shows the Zaro Ford For Sale by new owner Springer Jones from Mitchell, Nebraska. 

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Updated by Russ Erlinger

From 1952 to 1953 at least one other person has owned the Ford, since in 1953 Russ Erlinger of Belleville, Illinois buys the Ford from an unknown person in Wyoming. This unknown person most likely bought it from Springer Jones. Russ used the car and at one point while him and his wife were driving the car he was involved in an accident. According the stories the car rolled over .

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The owner mentioned that he bought the car in 1953 off of used car lot in Illinois. He wrecked it like the photos show in 1954. And then rebuilt it. He told Kevin Fritz in 2019, that when he flipped it. His wife ended up inside the roof sliding down the road in the top. She did not get hurt. The padded top saved her.

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Over the years Russ restored the car, and made some small updates. The mot obvious updates are a set of¬†1949 Plymouth bumpers replacing the ’46 Ford units. He also added bumper guard taillights in a set of ’49 Plymouth guards. He raplced the Sombrero hubcaps with a set of ’53 Cadillac hubcaps, replaced the long ’41 fender skirts with shorter 46-48 units. It looks like he replaced the front axle with a slightly wider unit. Perhaps he used a 46-48 axle, which is a bit wider than the ’41 unit, or a more modern update. Russ also added an new grille opening underneath the bumper. It looks like he used a Studebaker pan for this, but its hard to tell. Most likely the new grille opening helps cooling the engine. in 2017 Russ still own the car and shows it to the public at local car shows from time to time. And the car still draws a crown where ever it goes.

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The Plymouth bumpers, ’53 Cadillac hubcaps changed the look of the car, but it still overall looks very much like how it looked back in the early 1950’s.

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The dash and possibly the¬†steering wheel have not changed since the early 1950’s. The chrome plated dash with clear red lucite is still all there, and so are the hand made Appleton Spotlight handles and even the “KUSTOM” chrome letters on the center of the dash.

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Close up at the front shows the addition of the ’49 Pontiac parking lights to the Pontiac grille, as well as the new grille opening below the ’49 Plymouth front bumper. The close up photo also shows that the passenger side of the grille is still not fitting the opening as well as the drivers side.

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At the rear¬†Russ Erlinger also added a ’49 Plymouth bumper, and created a set of bumper guard taillights into the Plymouth bumper guards. It appears that the rare long ’41 Ford/Mercury fender skirt have been replaced by the shorter 46-48 skirts during the restoration. To bad about the pinstriping, personally I feel the car would look far better without that.
The Johnny Zaro 1940 Mercury Coupe and 1941 Ford Convertible reunited. Both photos show the new grille opening below the ’49 Plymouth bumper, both added in the car latest restoration by Russ Erlinger,¬†really well.

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Johnny Zaro Ford also appeared in the Dan Post Books,¬†Motor Trend¬†magazine and the¬†Custom Cars Trend Book No. 101¬†back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.¬†The early publications of these photos of the ’41 Ford has played a huge roll in the development of the Custom Car. Several customs cars from all over the US have been influenced by the Johnny Zaro Ford. Well know Customs as the Jack Stewart¬†’41¬†Ford, and the Joe Urritta ’41 Ford have styling elements very similar to this car. It is a real blessing that the original car has survived, been fully restored¬†and can be seen at out door cars shows from time to time. But I do hope that in the future, possibly owned by a new caretaker, the car will be backdated to how it looked back in 1951. Dark maroon paint, ’46 Ford bumpers, Cadillac Sombrero hubcaps, and no pinstriping.

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Inset License Plates

 

INSET LICENSE PLATES

 

A necessary evil, the license plate requires deft placement in order not to distract from the lines of the restyled job. Recessing is one long-used method.



Inset license plates has been a very popular Custom Restyling technique from the 1930’s up into the later part of the 1940’s. For a long period it was a technique that was on nearly everybody’s To-Do lists to get a cool looking ride. It was a Restyling technique to enable the “necessary evil” of having to use the “ugly” license plate in a more elegant way other than just putting it on the bumper as done on most factory stock cars from that era.

The Inset License plate restyling was used mostly on cars that had relatively thin bumpers ranging from 1934 to some models in 1948. After 1948 the bumpers on the cars became heavier and most of the time had integrated bumper guards and license plate surround. This made the Inset license plate styling more or less obsolete for the newer cars.

CCC-inset-license-plate-40-mercury-01Beautiful sample of a well done inset license plate behind glass on a 1940 Mercury convertible photographed in 1945. The shape has nice radius corners that fit the shape of the car really well and the plate is nicely recessed, but not to deep. The “ugly” license plate becomes one with the cars design, and the beautiful shaped bumper remains uncluttered.
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Inset License plate design

As with a lot of the styles used in the traditional Custom Restyling, the Inset License plates also originates from the Coachbuilding and design proposals from the major ¬†car companies. The early/mid 1930’s car designers tried to find a good way to incorporate the large license plated into the beautiful designs they came up with. Rather than seeing it as the necessary evil, they tried to make it look good.

CCC-1933-Cadillac-Aerodynamic_16001933-34 Cadillac V-16 Aerodynamic Coupe Concept Car shows a trunk with a in partly recessed license plate. (Photo courtesy GM Media.)
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CCC-art-ross-1934-design-license-plateArt Ross Duesenberg Concept illustration shows a set in license plate on the lower portion of a three window coupe he designed around 1934.
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CCC-bohman_schwartz-32-DuesenbergThis Duesenberg (# J212-2234) was originally built as 4-door bodies car in 1932 and later sold to Dr. Seeley Mudd. He had Bohman & Schwartz create a new body. The new car was finished in 1936-37 and included a black leather like covered body which included a set in license plate with glass cover.
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CCC-inset-plates-motor-life-may-1955According the Motor Life May 1955 Ocee Ritch “When it became a Custom” article it was Frank Kurtis who created the first inset license plate in 1936.
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CCC-1941-Chrysler-Thunderbolt-01The 1940-41 Chrysler Thunderbolt Concept Car used an inset license plate behind glass with a chrome surround both on the rear as well as the front of the streamlined body.
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Custom Restyling Technique

The Custom Restyling technique of recessing the license plate into the rear valance or trunk of a car became a very popular feature on the early California Custom Car. Later this technique was being used across the US, and after that world-wide, but it all started, like the rest of Custom Restyling in California. The technique has several different names,¬†it is known as “Inset license plates“, “Set-In License Plates“, “Recessed License Plates”, “Glass Covered Plates“, and possibly a few more variants on this. Besides the variations in the names used for this styling method, there were also several different styles developed over the years. There are basically three different styles, and sometimes we saw some variations on these styles.

  • 1 Near flush behind glass¬†¬†This style had a hole cut out in the trunk or rear valance with the edges filed smooth. A glass cover was installed from the inside sitting body metal thickness deeper than the outside of the body. The license plate was mounted with tabs behind the glass plate. Rubber seals were used to prevent water from coming in, and the glass from braking. This method gave the rear of the car an very smooth,¬†almost flush fitting appearance. The method was not used a lot. As far as I have been able to see there was no way to illuminate the plate at night using this method.
  • 2 Inset behind glass¬†¬†This was the most popular method of this restyling technique. For this a nice shaped hole with round corners, slightly smaller than the actual license plate was cut out in the trunk or rear valance. The edge was neatly folded inwards, or round rod, or a shaped metal edge was used to create an depth of about half an inch. Inside an box slightly larger than the license plate was created in such a way it could be clipped or bolted to the inside. A glass cover was placed in between the the opening and the box. Rubber seals made sure no water could leak inside. Usually the box had one or more small light bulbs installed, hidden from direct view, that would illuminate the plate at night.
  • 2a¬†Inset¬†¬†Same as above, but without the glass cover. Not the way it was supposed to be, but we have seen man samples of this in old photos. Possibly the work was done by a less experience body man, or by the owner himself. Disadvantage of this method was that water would leak inside. Advantage of this method was that the cops could not write a ticket for having the plate covered behind glass.
  • 3¬†Recessed¬†¬†This style had a hole cut out in the trunk or rear valance that was slightly wider than the license plate. An box was created that was also slightly larger than the license plate and welded inside the holw. The edges were nicely body worked, and holes drilled for the license plate to be mounted. A small light bulb was added hidden in the top portion that would illuminate the plate at night. The depth of the box would vary, from very shallow for a near flush fitting recessed plate, to half and inch or more for a more recessed appearance.
  • Surrounds¬†¬†On all these styles we have seen variations¬†of chrome surrounds being used. Most of the times the surrounds were custom made and appeared flush with the body. But there are also some photos that show aftermarket surrounds fitted inside the recessed openings.


CCC-inset-license-plate-dan-post-1944Dan Post was a pioneer in Custom Car Publications. In his 1944 publisjed document on restyling cars he mentions the Recessed License Plate.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-almquist-1946Edgar Almquist Jr. writes this about the inset license plate in his 1946 published Custom Styling Manual.
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We have heard from some of the people who where there in the early 1940’s that the inset license plates were a very popular Custom Restyling method. The technique was on the top of the To-Do lists if you wanted to have a good looking car. We were also told that three were quite a few cops that did not like the license plates to be covered with glass. And that the the Inset License plates was a good reason for them to stop a Customs for further scrutinizing.

The technique was used mostly on Custom Cars, but we have also come across some early 1940’s Hot Rods that had inset license plates.

As with most of the early Custom Restyling techniques, the inset license plate restyling originates in California. During the time this technique was popular and used the standard sizes of the California license plates changed a few times. This makes that some of the early samples have different shaped holes, and also explains why sometimes the restored original customs that use more modern plates have what appears ill fitting license plates in the inset surrounds.

  • 1929 – 1939¬†License plates were 14‚ÄĚ x 6 1/8‚ÄĚ
  • 1940 – 1955¬†License plates were 13 7/8‚ÄĚ x 6 1/8‚ÄĚ with rounded corners
  • 1956¬†and up A national standard for auto license plate size of 12‚ÄĚ x 6‚ÄĚ (except motorcycles, which are smaller) This size was¬†established in 1956 and continues currently.


CCC-inset-license-plate-wes-collinsThe builder of this Al Marx / Wes Collin’s 1934 Ford roadster Custom is unknown. But he did a very nice job recessing¬†the rear license plate into the rear valance and covering it with glass. This set up looks really great with the use of the Lincoln bumper. Late 1940’s photo.
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CCC-neil-emory-37-dodge-02Neil Emory (later co-owner of the famous Valley Custom Shop) created a double inset license plate behind glass on his 1938 Dodge Convertible. The right one for a Throttle Stompers club plaque and the one on the left for the license plate.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-wally-welchWally Welch’s 1939 Chevy coupe has a small opening for the inset¬†plate. The corners are nicely rounded giving the opening a very nice shape, the plate it placed behind a glass cover.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-jimmy-summersJimmy Summers and¬†Bob Fairman created this full fade away fenders 1936 Ford Coupe for Bob Fairman in the early 1940’s. They cut a hole in the rear valance, filed the edges, and placed the license plate behind glass. The color photos of the unrestored coupe the simple inset plate hole they created for this car. The advantage of this method was that the glass cover was only recessed the thickness of the metal body and the reflections of the glass made it look almost flush with the body.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-37-ford-021942 photo of a dark padded topped 1937 Ford Convertible shows an inset plate that was finished as nice as some of the others show in this article. The edge of the hole was rounded, but not nicely finished by either folded edges or added round rod edges. The plate itself sits very deep inside the body leaving a lot of shadow. There was not glass to cover the plate on this one.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-collage-02Some more samples showing different styles of the inset license plates.
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Creating the Inset license plates in the late 1930’s and 1940’s could be, and was done by any good body-shop. Some time¬†after the style became popular the first real Custom Body Shops started to appear, and the Inset License plates was one of the on the list items that became very popular for the shops. Although I have not been able to find any evidence for it, I assume that some of the shop did so many of these inset plates that they more than likely had templates and perhaps special jigs that helped them speed up the process. ¬†The technique was done by a large number of shops, but I like to highlight the work done by Harry Westergard and the Barris brothers, since I feel that these two shops had a big part in the popularity of the style.



Harry Westergard Inset License Plates

Frank Kurtis gets the credits of being the first body man to create an inset¬†incense plate on a Custom Car in 1936, but another Custom Car Pioneer, Harry Westergard played a big roll in¬†making the style really popular. Although Westergards work was done mostly on NorCal Bay area cars, the style was most likely picked up by others seeing the many Westergard Customs outfitted with these inset license plates. It was most likely Harry Westergard who influenced a young George Barris to use the technique on his own personal 1936 Ford. In the early 1940’s Harry had already installed many of the behind glass inset license plates. And the once he had created looked very nice, with beautiful finished round edges.

CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-02Gene Garrett’s 1936 Ford in the early 1940’s. Styling is typical for the time, ribbed 1937 DeSoto bumpers, simple teardrop taillights (38-39 Ford in this case), shaved trunk with inset behind glass plate.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-07Harry Werstergard create this beautifully done inset plate on Max Ferris / Vern Simon’s 1936 Ford Roadster. The photo was taken in 1945-46 and shows what we now call the typical Harry Westergard style. The car is still around today, but sadly along the road the inset plate hole was filled in.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-03Harry Westergard¬†added¬†the inset plate very low in the long trunk on Leroy Semas his 1938 Chevy Coupe. Oddly the 1937¬†DeSoto ribbed bumper used on the car is outfitted with a ’49 Chevy license plate cover. Inside the cover is the Thunderbolts Car Club plaque from the club Leroy belonged to. The photo was taken in 1950.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-01Another sample of Harry Westergards great skills was on this 1939 Ford convertible he restyled for Mel Falconer. The car was later owned by Bruce Glen when Harry did the removable metal top for it. Harry created this super smooth rear end of the car by removing all the chrome, welding the trunk lid solid and setting in the plate behind glass. 
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CCC-inset-license-plate-randc-may-54This is what Rod & Custom magazine wrote about the license plate installment on the Bruce Glen 1939 Ford in 1954. By then the inset plates were out of fashion, but apparently still appreciated on the older build cars.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-05Harry Westergard also did the inset plate on Al Lauer’s 1941 Cadillac convertible. The car has been faithfully restored by a team of experts conducted by Kurt McCormick. The inset plate looks really amazing added to the lower section of the long trunk on this Caddy.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-06Close up shows the very nice done rounded edges. Compared to the Max Ferris 1936 Ford inset plate, the shape of this one has much sharped corners. This photo also shows how much the size of the plated from the¬†1940’s differ from the more modern plates.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-westergard-04The set in license plate on the Westergard 1932 Ford Roadster was done more primitive than the other samples we have found Westergard did on the Custom Cars. We have no date when Westergard did this Customized hot Rod, but most likely it pre-dates the customs he did included in this article, hence the simple hole cut into the body for the set in license plate. It does show that the set in plated were done on some of the 1940’s Hot Rods.
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CCC-bertolucci-ohanesian-merc-dickBuddy ohanesian had his 1940 Mercury four door convertible restyled by Harry Westergard and later by Dick Bertolucci. We are not sure if the set in license plate he had on his Mercury was done by Westergard or by Bertolucci. This photo shows the Mercury with Dick Bertolucci as his body shop in the early 1950’s.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-ohanesian-mercClose up of the very nicely set-in license plate on the Buddy ohanesian 1940 Mercury. This photo was taken of the restored car at the 2009 Sacramento Autorama.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-collage-01A few¬†more samples of inset plates on Custom Cars restyled in the 1940’s.
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Barris Inset License Plates

George Barris most likely learned how to do the inset license plated while working with Harry Westergard. When George moved to Los Angeles in 1942-43 he started to work for the Jones Body, Fender & paint Shop. This was a regular body shop, were George introduced Custom Restyling. One of the things he started going for the shop was the inset License Plates for customer cars.¬†When the Barris brothers George and Sam moved to a new location on¬†Compton Avenue¬†in Los Angeles in 1946 the Inset license plates were a very popular restyling technique. In fact it was so popular that the Barrises even put it on their shop wall as one of the shops specialities. During their stay in this shop, from 1946-1949 they created many inset license plates for their customers. George Barris possibly did his first inset plate on his own personal 1936 Ford convertible when he was working with Harry Westergard in Sacramento in the early 1940’s. When Barris published their printed Price-List around late 1953-early 1954, the Inset or recessed license plate was not even mentioned anymore. It showed that this styling technique had become outdated by then.

CCC-inset-license-plate-barris-36-fordThis might possibly the first inset license plate George Barris created. It was done on his own personal 1936 Ford convertible he build in the early 1940’s when he was still living in Sacramento and working and learning from Harry Westergard. The work looks to be rough and unfinished in this 1942-43 photo.
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CCC-barris-dick-fowler-38-ford-06Created around 1946-47 for owner Dick Fowler the Barris Inset the license pate in this well proportioned 1938 Ford Coupe. The car is currently (2016) owned by Custom Car Historian and collector Curt McCormick  and undergoing a full restoration. This photo was taken at the 2011 Customs Then & Now exhibit at the GNRS in Pomona California.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-fowler-fordA close up of the Fowler coupe inset plate shows that the opening has rather sharp edges. Since there are no known original photos of this car showing the back we do not know if the original installment of the plate was behind glass or not.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-zaro-00The inset plate the George Barris created for John Vera, in this photo owned by Johnny Zaro, was done really perfect. The shape of the opening, the way the edges are rounded, the depth of the plate and the fact it was behind glass make this a very beautiful sample. 
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CCC-inset-license-plate-zaro-02Fortunately the Vera/Zaro Ford has survived and has been restored so this allows us to get a really good look at this set up. Notice how the rounded edges matches the edges of the body and the curve used to mold the splash pan to the body. The restored car uses a 1949 Plymouth bumper instead of the original 1946 Ford unit.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-zaro-01A nice close up look shows the round edges and the box behind the glass. It also shows how the modern license plate size is a lot narrower than the 1940’s sizes.
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Inset plates with surrounds.

As mentioned in the list of different styles for the Inset License plates one one of the versions that was used was the inset with a nice chrome plated surround around the opening.

CCC-inset-license-plate-chrome-surround-01It appears that this chrome surround is actually inside the hole cut into the trunk of this 1939 Ford convertible sedan. The chrome trim ring sits flush with the body, which is a nice detail, but the shadow shows that the plate is sitting rather deep behind the actual opening, which shows the installment was perhaps not as refined as others.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-chrome-surround-02Another variant on the chrome surrounded version is that a custom made chrome plated surround sits on top of the body holding the glass. This option gives the car a very nice, luxurious feel.
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Recessed plates

While most of the inset plates we have seen are placed behind a smaller than the actual plate size opening from inside the trunk. We have also found a few plates that are actually placed inside a recessed panel that is the same size, or perhaps slightly larger than the actual plate size. This way the complete license plate can be seen, but is sitting inside an recessed section of the body, giving it a nice finished look. The plus for this method it that the complete plate is visible, and most likely not a reason for cops to have a better look, and a possible ticket.

CCC-inset-license-plate-36-ford-02This NorCal based 1936 Ford Coupe with inset plate was photographed in 1945. The hole to recess this place was cut the same size as the plate itself.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-36-ford-01Close up of the NorCal ’36 ford shows that the recess section is nicely finished and the design completed with 1938-39 Ford teardrop taillights alongside the plate.
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CCC-inset-license-plate-gas-fillerThomas Douglas of Miami, Florida had a Sports Custom created by Doray Inc also from Miami. They incorporated a recessed license plate including fancy chrome plated surround. They even made the unit to hinge to give access to the hidden gas filler pipe mounted in the center behind the license plate.
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The end of an era…

Later in the 1940’s the bumper designs became heavier to which it was much easier to add the license plates to without ruining the overall design of the car/bumpers. Also more and more cars came with integrated license plate surrounds, or the ’49 Chevy plate surround was adapted to be able to integrate the plates with the bumpers from the cars that did not have this option. The need to find a more attractive solution to add the license plates to a car became less and less on the late 1940’s and up cars. In the late 1940 and 1950’s very few inset license plates were created. Later, towards the end of the 1950’s, when the car shows, and scoring points at these shows became very important, the inset plates became more popular once again. This time it was the recessed version that was used on quite a few show cars. License plates recessed into heavily modified rear panels, or recessed with an molded in surround. Usually the used of the recessed plated during these later years¬†was combined with a roll pan, or split bumpers.

There are also some production cars from the 1950’s that used the inset license plates. The 1953 and up Corvettes are probably the best known samples of this. The production car even came with a glass cover over the recess.

In more recent years the Mini Truck crowd is using the recessed plate designs on their cars a lot again. You can buy complete license plate recess kits today that allows you to recess the license plates into the pick up bed, or any flat surface on the back of your car. Some kits include hidden light options. Often the license plates on these Mini Trucks are mounted on an odd angle… It makes me¬†wonder how many of the people who use these kits know¬†its original designs dates back to the early 1930’s.

CCC-inset-license-plate-ayala-birdGil Ayala created a recessed license plate in the custom roll pan on his Personal Custom T-Bird. It is¬†good sample of the custom restyling using inset or recessed plates in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
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Special thanks to David E.Zivot, Craig Wise, Ed Jenson, Tim Cunha, George Barris, Ron Brooks, Billy Crewl, Mark Murray and others for helping with information and the many photos used in this article.


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More info on the CCC-Forum

If you want to know more about the Inset License Plate, how they have to be created, or the different styled being created by the CCC-Members, then check out the CCC-Forum Sunken Number Plate Trunks  or the License Plate Behind Glass threads for more info, or to discuss the subject. 



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