Dream Dodge: Paul Vanzella's 1960 Dodge Pioneer Hardtop

Words: Paul Vanzella Photography: Luke Ray

Once in a while you are over-awed. It could be by a woman, a landscape, the perfect piece of architecture, a perfectly arranged piece of music. In this case, the awe is directed towards a perfectly proportioned, balanced, aesthetically tuned custom car from one of the true living legends.

Names such as Gene Winfield, George Barris, John D’Agostino are a few of the greats who spring to mind. However on this occasion, this 1960 Dodge Pioneer two door hardtop has been thought out and and executed by the one and only Richard Zocchi. This magnificent creation from the ilk of the old school custom days has landed in Australia for the first time.

Having just bought a 1960 Pontiac Catalina Coupé, I got to thinking. I really love the lines of a 1960 model car. I have always been a fan of anything pre-1960, and owning a 1957 Cadillac Coupé Deville, fully bagged and customised, I was pretty satisfied. However, I began the desire to get a third car,

This time the desire was definite, specific. I trawled through many images, waiting for my heart to land on that special something. I have been inspired by certain cars over time like a well known ‘52 Caddy that’s been around Melbourne for some years, previously owned by ZZ Top. It’s chopped which changes its lines dramatically and becomes a stand out piece of design. So, the penny dropped, I want something different, something stand out. Something that transforms you when you open the door and sit in it, you become one with the car. I want to step out of the car and see it, almost cartoon like, almost like an artist’s sculpture. The fact that it’s an automobile and you can actually drive it as well is a bonus.

The search began, and the keyword entered into Google was ‘chopped’. Wow did I find utopia! I loved a couple of 1960 Pontiacs fully chopped and looking like they are from outer space. Then I found Justin Hill’s latest 1960 Dodge Phoenix chopped and winner of the title of World’s Most Beautiful Custom Car at Sacramento Autorama, beating his hero John D’Agostino, which was an amazing feat.

But then, I turned to one of my favourite car customisers whom I have been a fan of since I was twenty-something; Richard Zocchi. You can spot a Zocchi car. It has a flavour, a style, a demeanour. His signature pastel colour schemes and his old school Kustom signature style of rounding corners, frenching and styling. Every one of Richard’s cars are chopped three to four inches, but these cars are way out of reach, they are just something you admire, look at from afar… imagine.

So, as bold as I could be I wrote a single fan letter to Richard himself and from then an open dialogue began. First we just chatted about chopping and building, Richard’s wife Cherie just as enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I asked about a pie in the sky dream idea of Richard and Cherie building a car for me, just a thought as you gotta shoot for the stars once in your life and realise your pinnacle dream car machine! And then Richard just said the magic words; “Why don’t you buy one of my cars already done?” So the heart pumped and the decision was made, his 1960 Dodge Pioneer with roof chop, two-tone coral pink with gold pearl overlay was going to be mine!

I kept referring to it as their car the whole time even after the deal was done and the car was delivered to me. I just couldn’t believe that this car was going to be mine.

Richard Zocchi has been building custom cars since he was sixteen years old. Working in true custom country; Concord, California, he teams up with the likes of Art Himsl for his paint schemes, Bob Divine for interior magic and body work by John Aiello.

This car has been built with Richard’s inimitable style. You can pick a Richard Zocchi car a mile away, they all have his signature custom traits; rounded edge bonnets, shaved door handles and boot trunks, perfectly proportioned roof chops, two-tone subtle paint work and always sitting low on wire roadster wheels with wide white walls. The Pioneer is no exception and is a perfect exponent of traditional style custom building and design. The roof has been chopped 3 1/4 inches. The stock rear window was leaned forward and sunken into the cowell. All the glass work was done by John Aiello.

The paint is something to behold, the best case scenario when the sky presents dark looming clouds and the sun contrasts and bursts through revealing two shades of coral and pink with majestic gold pearl over the top. The trunk lid is signed by none other than Art Himsl himself!

The body has had extensive work from the door handles, hood ornaments and trunk emblems all removed and replaced by Unkl Al solenoids to the front bumper, which is a stroke of genius, in my opinion. The front is a 1958 Cadillac bumper with bullet tips added.

The upper grille cavity was created to accept the 3/16 inch fine round rod grille which gives this car its signature look. The headlight bezel return lip was cut off and 3/8 inch round rod was then used as a leading edge to give it a frenched or sunken look.

Flared fenders and rockers were also formed to give the car a low appearance. It’s all the subtle bodywork from first glance that is unnoticeable until you spend hours staring at this wonderful machine. The tail lights are from a 1959 Buick with new old stock lenses. The licence plate cavity was filled on the trunk and moved down to the bumper, which was smoothed over by removing all bumper bolts and for a final touch, chrome bullets were added to the rear bumper. What a finish!

The suspension features AMC disc brakes and re-worked spindles The rear has been bagged with Air Ride technology. The tyres are 205R7515 Diamond Black radials wrapped around Roadster wire wheels with T-bird centres capped with a bullet on each corner. The engine is a Dodge 318, with work performed by Antioch Muffler, Bill and Tom Fraser. All chrome and stainless work was done by Sherm’s Plating in Sacramento, CA. The interior was hand built by Bob Divine Interiors of Martinez, CA. It is done in a matching coral pink velour that exactly coordinates with the exterior colour.

This little beauty was voted into the top 5 picks at 2006 Paso Robles, CA. and just won Best In Show at Kingpin Kustoms grand opening.

Since taking ownership of the Dodge, I’ve been taking it slowly. It’s a visual delight. It just keeps giving aesthetically, I haven’t even sat in the back seat yet. I just drive it with complete honour, pinching myself that I am actually sitting in the driver's seat. It purrs, it goes, it glides and when you park it, you actually realise what you have been driving. And then you just stare.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 17.

Paul VanzellaAustralia, Custom, Dodge