How Larry and Mike Alexander, the “A Brothers,” forever changed the custom car world
Larry and Mike Alexander, known as the “A Brothers,” reshaped the world of custom cars. From their humble shop in Detroit, they made it more than just a West Coast club, and then, through their cars, they weaved a fresh fabric into the tapestry of American culture. They’ve been called as important to the world of hot rods as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley were to rock and roll, on good authority from Hot Rod magazine. Regarded as both fabricating geniuses and expert mechanics, the A Bros were arguably the most technically capable builders during the golden era of custom cars in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
In fact, their technical acumen is how they broke into the big time. First, though, some background about the different tribes of car culture that were active at the time.
The American automotive styling world has long had two centers of gravity: Detroit, the Motor City, and southern California, where much of what we regard as hot rod culture developed. Harley Earl first designed custom bodies for his father’s shop in Los Angeles before moving to Detroit to start General Motors’ styling department. Many automakers, including the Detroit-based domestic firms, have satellite design facilities in SoCal.
The Motor City and Southern California also had different approaches to making customs and hot rods, distinctions that echo to this day. In the 1950s, West Coast custom and hot rod enthusiasts had no shortage of 20- to 30-year-old jalopies like Ford Model Ts and Model As to choose as the basis for their customs. So much so that the “T Bucket” and the “’32 Highboy” were already staple hot rod formats by the late 1950s.
Customizers in the American midwest, however, didn’t have as many old cars to work with. Winter weather and the use of road salt meant there were fewer old cars that survived. That meant the Alexanders and other Detroit area customizers like Chuck Miller, creator of the Fire Truck and Red Baron, were often working on newer cars. Many of those newer cars already had serious rust issues, allowing for those rusted panels to be replaced by radically reshaped sheet metal. Perhaps a bit too radical for Hot Rod and the other publications covering the custom scene that were almost all located on the West Coast. They tended to be partial to the local teams and trends.
Of course, some West Coast customizers did create wildly restyled late model cars, Detroit rod and custom fabricators made their share of traditional hot rods, and there was influence flowing in both directions. In 1955, a Detroit-area teenager named Clarence “Chili” Catallo bought a 1932 three-window Ford coupe for $74. He had an Oldsmobile “Rocket” V-8 and GM Hydramatic transmission installed, and then turned it over to the Alexander brothers for body work and paint. They channeled and sectioned the body, rolled the rear pan, covered the altered framework with polished aluminum fins, and created a distinctive nose cone with four stacked headlights. It was called the Silver Sapphire, but that’s not how most people know it.
When he became of legal age in 1958, Catallo drove his car to Los Angeles, where he got a job sweeping floors in George Barris‘ shop in Lynwood. He made a deal to forego some of his salary in exchange for getting the coupe’s top chopped and an eye-catching metallic blue paint job applied. Catallo put it on the West Coast car show circuit, where the A Bros’ distinctive front end caught the eye of editors at Hot Rod, who put it on the magazine’s front cover in July 1961.
The early 1960s, when surf music focused on hot cars as much as surfboards and the beach, was popularized by musicians like Dick Dale and the Ventures. Inspired by Catallo’s custom ’32, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and disc jockey Roger Christian wrote Little Deuce Coupe, which was first released as the flip side to the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit, Surfer Girl. Of course, Little Deuce Coupe became a hit in its own right, and later that year the band released an album by that title with the Silver Sapphire on the front cover. Said to be the first concept album in rock and roll, Little Deuce Coupe has one of the most iconic album covers ever.
Like the band singing about their car, the Alexander brothers were no one hit wonders. Their radical ’56 Chevy-based Venturian and their T-bucket truck Top Banana won Ridler Awards at the Detroit Autorama. Again, the yin and yang of Detroit and SoCal can be seen by comparing the Ridler competition, which is open to all sorts of customs, to the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award given at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, open only to more traditional hot rods.
Larry and Mike Alexander grew up in the Detroit area during the Great Depression and World War II. Both learned how to do automotive body work at the Wolverine Trade School under the GI Bill after completing Army service in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Mike was more interested in the mechanical side of things, but Larry convinced him that also knowing how to do body work and paint was worthwhile. They started moonlighting from their day jobs doing regular repairs and minor customizations like shaving trim and filling holes in their parents’ one-car garage. After Larry bought a house for his growing family, the brothers relocated the shop to the home’s two-car garage.
With business picking up, in 1957, they quit their day jobs and opened up the Alexander Brothers Custom Shop on Northwestern Highway, near Evergreen Road, just outside Detroit. They would end up moving their shop at least a couple of times over the next 12 years. Over that time, they would create more than a dozen historically significant customs.
Undoubtedly, the Alexanders’ most famous creation is the Deora custom pickup, based on a Dodge A100 van, penned by Harry Bradley. It won the Ridler in 1967, and notwithstanding Larry and Mike’s repurposing of Mustang taillight housings mounted sideways as side exhaust ports, and a Ford station wagon roof and glass hatch to make the Deora’s windshield, the Dodge brand leased the Deora from them, and put it on tour for a couple of years as the “Dodge Deora.”
In addition to working with Dodge, the Alexanders made cars for the Ford Custom Car Caravan, and fabricated the American Motors’ AMX-GT concept, whose truncated tail presaged the AMC Gremlin.
The Alexander brothers had been working with Bradley for years, though it had to be done on the sly since General Motors, where he worked by day styling more conventional vehicles, did not permit designers to moonlight. Bradley chafed at the rigid corporate culture in GM, so when the Mattel toy company offered him a job in charge of an entirely new line of model cars, working in his beloved California, Bradley jumped at the offer. His Deora became one of the original sixteen Hot Wheels, permanently cementing its image in the minds of generations of Hot Wheel enthusiasts.
Tom Abrams, who founded Reliable Carriers, which hauls show cars and special interest automobiles around the country, owns the restored Deora, and reports that it is a fully functional, perfectly operational vehicle, though the driving position is a bit awkward.
Despite the Alexanders’ talent, having won three Ridler Awards in five years, they decided to change careers. Faced with having to move their shop for the second time due to highway construction, they decided to close it instead. Building custom cars was labor intensive and not particularly profitable back then. With their reputations and extensive contacts at the domestic car companies, it wasn’t hard for them to find work.
Larry Alexander went to work for Ford’s body engineering department in 1968, as a metal model maker, shaping prototypes until his retirement. The older of the two brothers, he passed away in 2010.
Mike kept the shop on Schoolcraft Road, on Detroit’s west side, open for another year, but closed it and was hired by Boss 302 Mustang designer Larry Shinoda to run Kar Kraft, Ford’s in-house fabrication shop that made concept cars and special editions, like the Boss 429, that needed more than just trim work. Unfortunately for Mike, Shinoda’s patron, Bunkie Knudsen, had run afoul of internal politics at Ford. After Knudsen and Shinoda got fired, the junior Alexander brother moved to American Sunroof Corporation (now ASC) where he was in charge of body shop operations for their Custom Craft Division. While at ASC, Mike Alexander had a hand in the development of the Buick GNX, and he also had a critical role in the development of retractable hardtop roofs, awarded with 19 patents for that particular technology.
The last custom car that Mike Alexander worked on was Vision 33, a bright orange 1932 Ford roadster drawn by Chip Foose and built by Mike and his son Michael Jr. At age 76, Mike competed for the 2012 Detroit Autorama Ridler Award, and while he didn’t quite win a fourth Ridler, he still had his touch. Vision 33 was named one of the Great Eight finalists for the 2012 Ridler.
The Alexander family and the Autorama’s organizers continue to honor theAlexanders’ legacies with the A. Brothers Award that the brothers themselves established. It goes to the builder whose work best exemplifies their vision of what a hot rod should be, “clean and neat.”
Mike Alexander passed away in 2014, living long enough to see the Deora restored and winning awards on the show circuit again. At the 2013 Eyes On Design show, the Deora won a blue ribbon, presented to Mike Alexander by Camillo Pardo, designer of the 2005-2006 Ford GT supercar.
As previously mentioned, it was the Alexander brothers’ technical skills that helped them break into the national custom scene. In 1961, famed West Coast customizer George Barris had brought his XPAK 400 hovercraft to the Detroit Autorama. As one might expect from Barris’ somewhat slapdash work, the XPAK 400 wouldn’t run properly when it got to Detroit. Barris asked the show organizers who the best mechanics in town were, and the Autorama crew told him to check with the A Bros.
The Alexanders fixed Barris’ hovercraft in time for the show. To return the favor, after he returned to California, Barris helped get the Alexander brothers’ cars into the West Coast-based magazines, touting their fabricating and technical prowess to the editors. George, ever the self-promoter, told them that the Alexander brothers were operating the “East Coast division of Barris Industries.” That may have gone well beyond exaggeration to complete fabrication, and it may have been self-serving, but it helped get Mike and his brother Larry into the West Coast buff books with an entre to the national custom scene.
A lesser man might have resented Barris hitchhiking on his talent, but as he told me the story, Mike Alexander laughed. He was grateful for Barris’ help. Car people stick together.