Picture the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach in mid-August, and you don’t think of golfers trying to keep their Titleists out of Monterey Bay’s picturesque, kelp-strewn waters. Instead, your mind is likely on rows and rows of precious metal: race-winning Ferraris from the 1950s; pre-war, custom-bodied Packards, Talbot Lagos, and Bugattis; and maybe a smattering of unrestored preservation cars, wearing their factory-original checked lacquer paint and pitted brightwork like a badge of honor. But this year, there’s a twist.
Two automotive one-offs known as the XR-6 “Tex” Smith Roadster and The Reactor are crashing the highfalutin Pebble party. They’re part of the larger American Dream Cars of the 1960s special class, open to vehicles designed and built in America in the ’60s, thanks to dreams of individuals as opposed to corporate think tanks. The class has been curated carefully by well-known automotive journalist and historian Ken Gross, whose words have graced the pages of many magazines, including Automobile’s, over the past several decades.
“It’s a mistake to typecast Pebble Beach as a place that all you’re going to see is Delehayes and Duesenbergs,” says Gross, who has been a Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance judge for 28 years and serves on its selection committee. “We really do stretch the envelope on interesting cars.”
“It’s as nontraditional a hot rod as you can possibly find. It is very much a product of its time.”
“Interesting” is one way of putting it. The XR-6 Roadster looks like a full-scale car from a vintage amusement park kiddie ride, and The Reactor seems every bit the Hollywood star car it would eventually become. More than that, they represent the vision of their creators, former Hot Rod editor LeRoi “Tex” Smith and legendary car customizer Gene Winfield. Each car was born in the misty haze of imagination, transformed into real metal and rubber and Plexiglas, belching sooty exhaust as they go.
“These were individuals who had an idea that they wanted to bring to fruition, and we’re celebrating that,” Gross says. “We’re celebrating automotive ingenuity and innovation in that era. Even though all these designers dreamed the same dream, these people were all substantially different from each other.”
Take the late LeRoi “Tex” Smith, for example. Born in Oklahoma in 1934 but raised for a time in Texas, Smith was an Air Force fighter pilot before settling into California’s burgeoning hot-rod scene and taking a job as associate editor of Hot Rod magazine in 1957. It was there where Smith, by 1961, began mulling the hot rod’s relevance in an era of ever-increasing performance from new, showroom stock cars. The XR-6 was born from this line of thinking, with the name meaning X-perimental Roadster 6-cylinders.
“The XR-6 became the cover car for Hot Rod magazine,” Gross recalls. “Tex was trying to say, ‘This is the hot rod of the future.’”
The project started in Smith’s home garage, where he welded up a steel ladder frame and dug out an engine—a hopped-up, aluminum-block Chrysler slant-six that came from a warmed-over Dodge press tester. The slant-six was unusual for its six cylinders canted at a 30-degree angle to achieve a lower profile (allowing a lower hoodline) and improve efficiency of exhaust flow. Its unique design also became part and parcel of the XR-6’s asymmetric hoodline—taller on one side than the other. Volkswagen torsion-bar suspension and Triumph disc brakes were fitted up front, while coilover shocks—a rarity at the time and inspired by Indy-car design, custom-made for the project by Monroe—were fitted to the rear, along with trailing links and a Panhard bar.
Styling duties went to Steve Swaja, then a student at nearby ArtCenter College of Design, who sketched out a body with a front similar to an open-wheel race car and a rear that was a composite of a 1923 and ’27 Ford Model T body. A timely infusion of cash from scale-model builder AMT—the company wanted this new hot rod to be the basis for a model kit—took the styling to an even wilder level.
“Certain things, like having a six-cylinder engine, isn’t exactly a hot-rod-type thing,” Gross says. “But the car itself was a period piece and in its time represented a big step away from ’32 Fords and so forth. It made a big splash in its day.”
Smith wanted to have the body made of aluminum and found a builder, but AMT had a contract with ace customizer George Barris and mandated the work be done at his shop. The XR-6 was slated to debut at the 1963 Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland, California, but when Smith informed the organizers it might not be ready in time, he was told it had to be ready: The XR-6 had already won the show’s America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) award.
The car was displayed in Oakland that year. Also at the show, Smith ran into California-based customizer Gene Winfield whom he would hire to remake the XR-6’s aluminum fenders, hood, and nose. Barris’ crew had struggled with the job and used plenty of heavy lead filler. The completed XR-6 graced the cover of Hot Rod’s August 1963 issue.
The XR-6 is now a proud part of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s collection in Los Angeles, after its purchase in 2006 by the late Robert Petersen, founder of both the museum and Hot Rod magazine. Leslie Kendall, the Petersen Museum’s chief curator, explains the XR-6’s place in automotive history.
“I think [Smith] was trying to show that a hot rod could be civilized and styled right for modern times,” Kendall says. “It’s as nontraditional a hot rod as you can possibly find. It doesn’t resemble any other vehicle and is very much a product of its time.”
By the time the XR-6 made its name, Gene Winfield was already big time. He was a well-known car customizer based out of Modesto, California, and he had applied his aluminum-working knowledge gained from the XR-6 project to the Strip Star. When Joe Kizis, organizer of the Hartford Autorama in Connecticut, called Winfield in 1965 about building him a car for the show and paying him $20,000 to do so, Winfield knew aluminum would be a suitable lightweight material to skin his newest creation.
“It’s got a turbocharged Corvair engine, front-wheel drive, on a 1962 Citroën ID 19 chassis,” says Winfield, who at 89 is still sharp as a tack and still hard at work, though his shop many years ago moved from his mother’s backyard in Modesto to the Mojave Desert. The flat-six engine had the same peculiar counterclockwise rotation as the original Citroën mill, but it was able to sit lower in the chassis to fit under the car’s sleek bodywork and made significantly more power.
The Reactor’s original design was a collaboration between Winfield and Ben Delphia, an ArtCenter College of Design graduate who was working in Chrysler’s design department.
“When I was a young man and got enthusiastic about cars, I lived in Patterson, which is a city close to Modesto,” Delphia recalls. “I got a ’36 Ford two-door sedan, and I wanted Gene to customize it for me, which is what got me hooked on automotive design. I’d sketch the changes I wanted Gene to make to my car.”
Years later, after Delphia had finished school and joined Chrysler, Winfield knew he had just the person to design his latest show car.
“He was looking for something that had all of the things that … were exciting in the custom-car world at the time.”
“Ben sent me sketches,” Winfield says, “and I sent him sketches back and forth several times until I found what I liked.” Delphia says Winfield was looking for “a car that had all of the things that were going on and were exciting in the custom-car world at the time. Drag racing and custom cars … all kinds of stuff that was intermingled together. We were trying to get it to have a superior power look. A nuclear reactor was the thought that went into the car’s name.”
The result was a hot rod for the space age. The car was low and sleek, with a long, angular front end and a striking concave curve at the rear. The doors, retractable headlights, and Plexiglas windshield and roof were operated with a switch. The Citroën’s original pneumatic suspension was left intact so The Reactor (or more accurately, the Autorama Special, as then-owner Kizis named it) could be raised and lowered dramatically.
The car was a hit at the Hartford Autorama, but Kizis sold it back to Winfield not long after, and it was officially renamed The Reactor. After a little maintenance, Winfield made the Hollywood rounds with the car, where it would be featured prominently in episodes of several television shows, including “Bewitched” as the Super Car, “Star Trek,” where it was known as the Jupiter 8, and even “Batman,” where it grew ears and a tail to become the Catmobile.
“Eartha Kitt (Catwoman) was so short, I had to extend the pedals 12 inches so she could drive it,” Winfield says. “I just found out last year that she did not know how to drive a stick, so she went out and rented a Volkswagen and practiced until 2 in the morning for the next day’s shoot.”
We catch Winfield in the single day off he has between returning from a trip to Spain and boarding a flight to Australia, where he’ll chop and channel a few cars for local customers. At his own shop, there’s a right-hand-drive ’54 Chevy just in from Australia for some paint work and an old Buick from Japan that’s waiting to be chopped. Winfield has customized plenty of cars in his lifetime, but is The Reactor the one that defines his career?
“Well, partly … partly,” Winfield says. “I like to say I make a statement with each and every custom car. The Reactor, of course, was a big statement.”
After a succession of different owners, Winfield once again has The Reactor in his possession, and he’s not letting it go anytime soon. “No, no … I’m not going to sell it again,” he remarks, then laughs. “Unless someone pays me a million dollars for it.”
Today, The XR-6 and The Reactor are recognized not only for their advancement in automotive concepts and design but also for being shockingly well-built in an era where show cars were just that—built to show, not to drive. Although both are now undergoing some sympathetic mechanical refurbishment prior to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, show rules state each vehicle must drive onto that famed 18th fairway under its own power. Winfield will be there, likely placing The Reactor on the grass himself. And somehow we suspect that LeRoi “Tex” Smith, who died in 2015, will be there in his own way, if only to witness the reaction of the blue blazer crowd.