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."