Wrong place at the wrong time -- that was Gene Winfield's problem. Sixty years ago, when the custom car was being defined, the big-name builders who got all the ink were guys like the Alexander Brothers in Detroit, Joe Bailon in the Bay Area, and L.A.-based George Barris, the showman who dominated the Southern California magazines that brought hot-rodding to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Winfield labored in obscurity in the sleepy farm town of Modesto, California, chopping tops and channeling hoods in a chicken coop behind his mother's house.
Sixty years later, Winfield is still in the middle of nowhere, although he's traded Modesto for a remote shop in the Mojave Desert and the chicken coop for a junkyard that used to house squatters and meth labs. During the long decades when custom cars were ignored, he survived by creating wild show cars for Hollywood, designing plastic model kits for precocious kids, and even doing a stint converting Cadillacs into pickups and station wagons. But today, at 83, with slicked-back hot-rod hair and the enthusiasm of a teenager on his first summer cruise, he's back chopping tops and channeling hoods-and painting bodies and racing at Bonneville and selling Winfield merchandise at car shows from coast to coast.
"I work twelve to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, when I'm home, and I do metal-fab workshops all over the world," he says as he edges sideways between a chopped '49 Merc with a De Soto grille and Buick headlights that he's building for a customer and an outrageous Ford Econoline pickup that he's customizing for himself. "I did one in Australia. I've done four in Canada, three in different cities in Texas, one in Minot, North Dakota. Everywhere I go, young people come up and want my autograph. Yesterday, there were five guys here from Norway. They made a special trip up here to see me! It's gratifying, of course, to have all that notoriety. I'm better known now than I ever was before."
Ageless and seemingly guileless, Winfield is now revered as a good-guy icon of hot-rodding and a seminal figure in the development of the custom. "He's one of the six or eight hallmark customizers," says hot-rod authority and prolific writer Pat Ganahl. "He created a new style in customs-crisper designs with more sculptingnstead of the original worn-bar-of-soap look where everything was smooth. During the '60s, he offered an alternative to the bubble tops of Darryl Starbird and the cartoony things built by Ed Roth. He's also the father, popularizer, and master of the fade paint job. Nobody has been able to do it as well as he does, which is why people fly him all over the world to do it."
The morning I visit Winfield is one of those bright, brisk days that pass for winter in Southern California. There's no traffic on the ninety-mile drive from Los Angeles, and by the time I reach his exit, my car is pretty much the only one on the road. I hang a right on Sierra Highway, a classic two-lane to nowhere that cuts a furrow through desert scrub. Gene Winfield Rod & Custom turns out to be a compound of low buildings on a five-acre spread behind a white metal fence. The sprawling property is liberally dotted with trailers, a mobile home, a bus where a friend lives, a padlocked shipping container that stores the Strip Star-one of his most celebrated creations-and dozens of cars in various states of disrepair and reconstruction, from a derelict pickup that stands like a rusty sentinel as Union Pacific freight trains clatter past to a 1937 La Salle he's fitting with a rumble seat.
Winfield is wearing a black T-shirt tucked neatly into blue work pants when I show up. He's tall and lanky, so full of energy that I can't believe how old he is. He greets me with a smile, but his attention is focused on a cardboard box that's just arrived. He rips it open and pulls out a dashboard of uncertain vintage. "Isn't that gorgeous?" he says. "It's from an Edsel. I found it on eBay. I'm going to cut it down, narrow it, and put it in the Econoline."
Moving quickly -- the man is a perpetual-motion machine -- he leads me to a garage where one of his young fabricators is under the truck, welding a transmission mount to the frame. "I expect to have this finished in time for SEMA next November," Winfield says. "I built an identical car for the Ford Custom Car Caravan in '63. It was asymmetrical-two taillights there and one over here and two headlights here and one over there, with bumpers that were off center. This was the first vehicle to have side-opening toolboxes, and the bed was wood. The outside will be exactly the same as it was. But inside, we're putting in a '92 Thunderbird engine, transmission, and independent rear end."
Pretty slick. But next to the Econoline, two other guys are working on a chopped '52 Chevy with slanted door posts, welded front fender flares off a '54 Ford, split Pontiac bumpers, and hand-formed pans and grille. The owners are flying in from Japan this afternoon to see how the project is going, and Winfield himself was primering parts until 2:30 this morning. The shop is in thrash mode because, besides getting ready for the show-and-tell, Winfield is also prepping cars for the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona later this week.
The roadster show is the granddaddy of hot-rod extravaganzas. Winfield had a '27 Model T roadster at the first one in 1950, and since then, three of his cars have won the America's Most Beautiful Roadster award, which is the Best Picture Oscarof the hot-rod world. This year, five cars bearing his paint and/or metalwork will be displayed at Pomona. As he starts to show me one of them, the Reactor -- whose angular aluminum body, stretched over a Citroën chassis, was featured on Star Trek and Bewitched -- he's dragged off to answer a phone call from somebody who wants him to install a Carson-style top. When I follow him into his office, I find so much memorabilia lying around that I almost miss the glass coffee table supported by a flathead Ford engine that he ventilated at El Mirage. And I can barely get to the futuristic-looking thing in the back -- one of twenty-five cars he built for the movie Blade Runner.
While Winfield talks with his potential customer, I slip outside and stroll around the property. The first car to catch my attention, parked in front of a building that Winfield is turning into an old-timey gas station, is his loving re-creation of the oddly streamlined Model T coupe-nicknamed "The Thing" -- that he pushed to 135 mph at Bonneville in 1951. Although he's now renowned as a customizer, he started off as a hot-rodder. He raced a lakester at El Mirage, a jalopy in NASCAR, and, when drag racing officially began, a homebuilt rail so crude that you had to be not only a man's man to drive it but also certifiably insane. Even now, Winfield still hot-laps in a sprint car and a midget, and just outside his office sits a '32 roadster with a Robert Yates-built NASCAR V-8 that recently ran 211 mph on the salt.
Eventually, Winfield realized that his real talents lay elsewhere. "With every car, the customer is making a statement, so each guy wants a few things that are different," he says. "What I enjoy most is creating, whether it's in metal or paint. I want people to look at my work and say, 'Wow! How'd he do that?' Like this piece here." He unlocks the shipping container and points out a subtly radiused nonfunctional exhaust on the Strip Star. "I wanted it to look like it was cast. So I took a piece of eighth-inch steel and pounded it on a dolly with a ball-peen hammer to get the curves in it. Then I welded quarter-inch plate on the sides. It probably took me a week working on it on and off."
Working in his mother's backyard, he started off doing simple stuff like shaving emblems and swapping grilles, then graduated to frenching headlights and chopping tops. During an Army stint in Tokyo, while moonlighting in a body shop with a Japanese metalworker, he perfected the art of hammer-welding. Not long after returning to the States, he moved out of the chicken coop to a bigger shop in downtown Modesto and undertook a series of increasingly extreme projects. By modern standards, customs of the mid-'50s look relatively conservative, but Winfield pushed the envelope with ever-more-audacious fabrication and, starting in 1957, signature paint schemes where one colorseamlessly fades, or blends, into another. Then, in 1959 came a dream commission -- a 1956 Mercury two-door hardtop, a $15,000 fee, and carte blanche to go crazy.
The Jade Idol, as the car was called, put Winfield on the national map. Sectioned four inches, with canted quad headlights, rear quarter panels grafted from a '57 Chrysler New Yorker, and an elegant scratch-built grille that was repeated at the rear, the Idol had a sharklike presence that represented a new direction in customs. Soon after came the Solar Scene, which was Winfield's unique reinterpretation of the '49 through '51 Mercury customs -- the lead sleds that are his specialty ("Mercs & More!" is the legend painted on one of his garages).
As I hunt for Winfield, I poke my head inside an open doorway, and there, gleaming like a jewel in a display case, I find the butterscotch-fading-into-ice-cream '61 Cad known as Maybellene. The car is so implausibly low and improbably long that it appears to be oozing up from the floor. It's a custom in the modern idiom, full of over-the-top touches like a steering wheel milled, sanded, ground, and polished out of a block of Lucite. But it also benefits from the subtle mods that characterize a Winfield custom-a roof straight off a '60 Cadillac sedan, for example, and extended upper and lower fins reshaped to maintain a sense of proportion and continuity. Somehow, the car manages to be both dazzling and restrained at the same time. "As soon as you see one of Windy's cars, you know who built it," says Blackie Gejeian, a hot-rod legend who single-handedly ran the Fresno Autorama for half a century. "Same thing with one of his paint jobs. Nobody fades paint like Windy Winfield."
Unfortunately, just as Winfield was peaking, custom cars were falling out of favor. So he created several show cars for the high-profile Ford Custom Car Caravan. Then he designed popular three-in-one scale-model kits for AMT and a bunch of cars for television (Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Dean Martin Show) and movies (Sleeper, Back to the Future, The Last Starfighter). But customs remained out of fashion and all but forgotten until the late '70s, when Winfield was invited to be a guest at a show back east. "I told them, 'Naw, it's dead,' " he recalls. "Then, the next year, they called me again and said, 'We'll give you a ticket for you and your wife.' So I jumped right back in it."
Besides selling parts and building entire cars, Winfield expanded his brand by teaching metal fabrication around the country. He also turned up -- and was lionized -- at outsider car shows that focused on the so-called rat rods that newcomers were building, often badly, much to the disgust of contemptuous old-timers. Long after virtually all of his contemporaries had died or retired, Winfield kept his nose to the grindstone. "Even after all these years, he's still got the passion," says Tony Thacker, executive director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. "He's a sixteen-year-old kid who happens to have an old man's body."
When I catch up with Winfield at the roadster show in Pomona, he's working a booth -- next to Barris, coincidentally -- selling signed posters, paraphernalia, and orphan components rescued from various projects. Throughout the afternoon, he's besieged by fans ranging from white-haired geezers in wheelchairs to young bucks awash in tattoos. One of them wants to know where he can find a German-made documentary featuring Winfield. (Try YouTube.) Somebody else is curious about Winfield's own TV show. (He's about to start filming a program slated to air on Discovery this year.) A young Latino asks if the Cadillac taillights on the table will work on his car. (Absolutely.) An older Anglo dude tries to cajole Winfield into helping him restore a Big Daddy Roth trike. (Show me the money.) But most of the visitors just want to say hi. "I make it a point to shake your hand every year," one of them says. "You do beautiful work, and I'm glad to see you're still cooking."
Winfield's still cooking, all right, just as busy now as ever. He leans over to me during a rare break in the action. "People ask me when I'm going to retire. And you know what I tell them?" His blue eyes twinkle. "When they put me in the ground, that's when."