Grounded in the present, this artist builds his hot rods with an eye to the past
When I was really young, my dad built a ’29 Ford with a Merc flathead out in the garage. He always seemed to have Tri-Five Chevys around, too. Growing up in Los Angeles, you see all kinds of cars, and the first time I saw one with a chopped top, I knew that’s what I wanted. Then I learned that a lot of that stuff—the methods and techniques for building cars—came out of L.A., so it meant even more to me. The Barris Brothers, the Ayala Brothers, all the custom and lowrider stuff, I loved all of it.
I bought my ’53 almost 20 years ago. It was sitting beneath a tree south of the city, with a small-block V-8, S-10 pickup wheels, pink pinstriping, and some really bad key lime interior. Everyone I met in it was like, “Uh, nice car, bro.” But I had a vision for how I wanted it to look. So I saved some money here and there, did some work on it, saved more money, did more work. The quarters came off a ’54 Olds. My dad helped me smooth in the headlights. I made a custom grille for it, and my friend and I chopped it in a one-car garage. Then I scored a Chevy small-block built by SoCal hot-rodder Dode Martin—for $600. A couple of years ago, finally, I painted it ’54 Packard amethyst, which was a pretty risqué color back then.
I haven’t painted the ’37 Chevy yet, but I do have a color in mind.
The ’37 was my dream car. Several years ago, I saw a story about a ’37 that had been done by builder Harry Westergard up in Sacramento in the late 1940s. He’d sunk the headlights into the fenders, which faded away into the body. It had a Packard grille, too, and lots of other work, and it blew my mind. One day my wife said if you don’t buy one now, you’re going to regret it. So I found a ’37 and bought it, and I’m real happy she pushed me.
I found a guy down in Orange County who did the metalwork, the grille and all that, just from the black-and-white reference photos. And he nailed it, the angle of the headlights, the pitch of the grille, everything.
My wife and I cruise in it three or four nights a week. It’s a small car, and with a 327 under the hood, it goes a little bit. The pipes rap real nice, and we’ll just drive, past the beach, down to the docks, over the Vincent Thomas Bridge. It’s an incredible feeling.
The bumpers are ’41 Olds, the grille is ’42 Packard, with ’40 Chevy headlights molded into the fenders. The ass is borrowed from something Jack Calori did on a ’36 Ford—taillights set low in the decklid and the license plate frenched in with glass over it. Now I just have to paint it.
Today I work for the water department, but a long time ago, I went to school for journalism. I figured I’d be a novelist, but it didn’t work out. During that time, I also started drawing and painting. I just needed to create things. A lot of the stuff I do is influenced by guys like Degas, Picasso, Pollock, Clyfford Still. I think creativity like that carries over to custom cars. I grew up liking cars built by the Barris Brothers and have taken cues from them. But who were their influences? Well, Harry Westergard hired George Barris when he was just a kid. My painting, my hot rods, that’s just paying homage to all the people who did it before me.
With customs, I want to make them look like they could have come from the factory. I certainly appreciate the really wild stuff, but my aesthetic is more low-key, and I love working with guys who understand that.
The hurdles I’ve encountered with these cars come from my own limitations. I can’t do it all and I know that, so it’s great to have people close who can. But that doesn’t keep me from getting out there every day with the cars. If you ask me, even just wiping a car down makes it run better. These aren’t inanimate objects to me.
When I’m out there driving, that’s like my whole 43 years on the planet on display. To me, they represent an ideal about being in the world.