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."