91-year-old Gene Winfield looks in the rearview while still driving fast
Gene Winfield, who just turned 91, has been going fast for most of his life. He hasn’t shown signs of slowing down either. A custom car builder, dry lake racer, and hot rodding ambassador, his datebook is still packed with gigs all over the world.
Although his thoughts are usually focused upon what’s next—whether it’s going for the speed record in one of his dry lake race cars or building another custom hot rod—he took some time out of his busy schedule this month to reminisce. In this case, however, looking back in time involved a short look back, drag racing on the beach at Wildwood, N.J., in the annual Race of Gentlemen vintage hot rod race.
The car Winfield was driving—a 1932 Ford roadster powered by a supercharged flathead V-8—was a familiar one. Although Winfield himself never owned it, he said he built the car in the late 1940s and raced it through several seasons in the ’40s and ’50s.
“It’s exactly as it was back then,” Winfield says. Despite his age, he has a shock of wavy hair atop his head and a youthful spark in his eye. “Fabulous” is an adjective he uses often to describe people, places, and things.
In 1963, the ’32 Roadster made the cover of Hot Rod Magazine, which is where Rob Ida of Rob Ida Concepts—who bought the car and restored it to its original racing trim—first saw it. When Ida stumbled upon an ad for the car on eBay, he almost didn’t recognize it. Its original matte black paint had been covered with candy flames and it wore a set of flamboyant wire wheels.
“The last guy who owned it was a sports car guy and this was the first hot rod he’d ever owned,” Ida said, noting his dislike of the garish paint job. “One good thing he did was build the engine, which he did well.”
By the time the car reached Ida’s Morganville, N.J., shop from California, he had already compiled all the parts he needed to make it look original again. In the end, the work paid off. Mere days before the car hit the sand with Winfield behind the wheel, it won the Brock Yates award at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance.
Roaring out of the gate
Gene Winfield the racer and Gene Winfield the car customizer share a point of origin, but the two lived separate, sympathetic existences as his career grew.
Born in Missouri, Winfield’s family moved to Modesto, California, when he was very young, and he grew up in the thick of California’s hot rodding and racing culture. Before coming to Wildwood this year, he had never raced on beach sand but had competed in all manner of other types of racing. Like so many California youths in the mid-’40s (and now), he got his start in illegal street racing, eventually transitioning to racing on the flat, salt-crusted, high-speed dry lake beds.
After serving in the Navy briefly at the end of World War II, Winfield got into the burgeoning car customization scene. By the late ’40s, armed with ideas from the then-new Hot Rod Magazine, Winfield was customizing cars full-time, and had built his first dry lake racer, a modified 1927 Ford Model T roadster. Winfield remembers getting his first fastest time trophy at a race in Reno on June 26, 1949, when he reached a speed of 144.4 mph. In the early ’50s, he built an angular, heavily-modified 1927 Model T coupe he called The Thing, and drive it to a 135 mph at Bonneville. Winfield also had a NASCAR license and drove in a few stock car races in the early ’50s.
His favorite memory from his racing years was from 1962, when he brought four trophies home from El Mirage in one day—two for record-setting runs and two for fastest times. He had towed a T-rail dragster out to the desert behind his chopped 1950 Mercury, and he raced both cars in various configurations, competing in the lakester, dragster, modified roadster and modified coupe classes.
“I still have a picture of myself holding four trophies that day,” he recalls. “Because of me, they changed the rules the next year so you could only run one body class in a day.”
By the mid-’60s, Winfield was well known for his fabrication and paint skills, and had built a number of stunning customs. That got him noticed by Hollywood, and he built a number of cars for movies and television.
One of his better-known creations in the early days was The Reactor, a rocket-like two-seater built with a hydraulic Citroën DS suspension, a Corvair flat-six, and a custom aluminum body with electric doors. It first appeared in Bewitched, later showing up on Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and Batman. Winfield also built the tricky Sunbeam Tiger shown on Get Smart, as well as the plastic-bodied, Corvair-powered Piranha Car featured in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Winfield’s film cars include the Spinners from Blade Runner, Starcar from The Last Star Fighter, and the 6000 SUX, the futuristically-modified 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass sedan-based land yachts the bad guys drove in Robocop.
Slowing down… sort of
When he isn’t traveling, Winfield keeps busy at his shop in Mohave, California, where many of his creations still sit out back, covered in dust and baking in the desert sun. Ida—who collaborates with him on events like the Race of Gentlemen and a metalworking class they hosted a few days before the race—says Winfield’s shop has been trying to finish some of his leftover projects from the ’60s in addition to its normal workload.
Winfield still gets out on the salt a bit, too, and runs dry lake races in a 2004 Ford Probe kitted out with an 800-hp NASCAR motor. He says he has gotten the car up to 192 mph. Speeds never got that high out on the sand at Wildwood, as the track was only an eighth of a mile long.
“It was a lot of fun,” Winfield says. “On my first run I did real well and I smoked the other guy. On the second run the sand was wet and I just dug a hole and cruised toward the finish.”
Life has often been compared to a race. In Gene Winfield’s case, he’s managed to run his race at full throttle for a long time. He’s an example that regardless of how you finish, it’s best to keep the pedal to the metal for as long as you can.