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.