Custom Craft: An Interview With Gene Winfield
Interview Craig Metros Portrait Photography Luke Ray.
Many Australian traditional hot rod and custom culture fans spent the first weekend in October at the sixth annual Chopped Rod and Custom festival. What started out as an intimate 50 car show with live rock and roll capping off the evening has turned into a full blown three day music, hot rod, custom car, bike, and dirt drag strip extravaganza. As the festival increases in size, so does the popularity of the invited guests. This year, it was none other than legendary car customizer, painter and dry lakes racer Gene Winfield. FUEL was honored to catch up with the custom car pioneer. Courtesy of Lucky’s Speed Shop of Sydney, Winfield was on hand selling t-shirts and posters, signing autographs and engaging in conversation.
Sitting in front of Winfield’s stand was an example of his latest handy work; a freshly chopped ‘47 Ford. The work was done with Ben Erdahl at Lucky’s, days before the Chopped festival. “It’s the seventeenth car I have chopped since January,” Winfield quickly points out. If chopping cars was the only thing on his plate, (working out the maths to just under two chop-jobs a month) it seems like a consistent and comfortable stream of work. However, after talking with the Californian for over an hour, it’s obvious he is a bit more motivated. At an age when most people are settling into retirement, Winfield shows not even a glimpse of slowing down. “I’m busier now than I have ever been”, confirms Winfield with a smile.
Gene Winfield has been building custom cars and hot rods for private collectors, dry lakes racing and the movie industry since 1947. His portfolio of show cars, movie props, and signature custom paint commissions is vast and respected within the industry. That is all very impressive given his humble beginnings. In 1946, Winfield opened Windy’s Custom Shop in a chicken coop behind his mother's house.
In 1950, Winfield was drafted into the U.S. Army and was stationed in post-war Japan. His passion for modifying cars continued overseas. “In Japan, I was taught the art of hammer welding by a Japanese craftsman in a tiny shop on a dirt floor,” Winfield explains. Soon after, he was modifying American cars in Japan. “I chopped and sectioned a ’41 Ford in Japan as a hobby,” Winfield recalls, like it was yesterday. “With four other fellows, I also started a hobby shop called Dougie’s Engineering Works, where we built model cars and airplanes.” After the Army, he returned to Modesto California and moved Windy’s Custom Shop out of the chicken coop and into a proper building and renamed it Winfield’s Custom Shop.
Many of Winfield’s skills are self taught including automotive body painting. In 1957, he began experimenting with changing paint tones to enhance the design lines of car bodies. “I started blending paint colors and creating faded paint schemes.” Winfield explains. This led to the first fully blended paint job that debuted on the Jade Idol, a radically customized ’56 Mercury. He started work on the Merc in 1959 and completed it in 1960 before taking it on national tour in 1961-62. The car won numerous awards and helped him gain national recognition.
Winfield’s automotive artistic skills and radical design ideas caught the attention of Detroit’s big three. Beginning in 1962, Winfield participated, with other customizers in the Ford Custom Car Caravan. He built several cars for Ford including Pacifica, a 1962 Ford Econoline Pickup and the 1965 Comet Cyclone Sportster. “I used to work closely with the Detroit auto manufactures and I was friends with many of the designers,” Winfield recalls. “Chuck Jordan used to invite me to the GM Design Center. He couldn't show me what he was doing but he would proceed to pat down the covered clay models so I could at least see the forms and contours of future designs.”
Based in Southern California, Winfield had an easier time getting his foot in the door of Hollywood studios and landed television and movie contract work. He created the gadget cars for Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart and the Galileo Shuttlecraft for the original Star Trek television series.
Other work included Robocop, Ironside, Bewitched, The Wraith, Magnum Force, The Last Starfighter and the Mechanic among others. Winfield also created six cars for the Woody Allen feature Sleeper. Perhaps his best known movie project was the flying Delorean from Back To The Future II. He fabricated a complete inside/outside fiberglass Delorean to save weight, making it easier to hoist and hang from cables. He also built the hinging wheels and tires that fold under the car during flight and brush finished the silver paint to resemble stainless steel. His largest undertaking came with the movie Blade Runner. Winfield produced 25 Syd Mead designed cars including several specially equipped with hydraulics so the wheels would retract to fly. Although the studio destroyed most of the cars after shooting, Winfield restored one of the now famous ‘spinners’ for Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, Washington. “Syd Mead is a good friend of mine and Blade Runner was a great project to be a part of,” Winfield shares fondly. “My next book will be all about the cars I built for the movies, television series and commercials,” Winfield exclaims.
These days, the movie studio and TV work has tapered off as the hot rod and custom work has increased and demands much of Winfield’s time. “I fly around the world to custom paint eight to ten cars a year.” When I ask about current projects and upcoming events, Winfield starts firing them off like a rapid fire machine gun. “I just signed a contract to chop nine cars for the World of Wheels shows in the U.S. next weekend, I host my annual Winfield Hot Rod and Custom Show back in California. I was invited to the Yokohama Mooneyes show later this year. However, it conflicts with a Gene Winfield Day that’s being held in Houston at the NASA Space Center. NASA has put my recently restored Galileo Star Trek Shuttle on permanent display.” Before I can ask, Winfield starts talking about a Gene Winfield Rod and Custom television show that is currently in the works. “I’m planning to build a ‘32 Ford Roadster with the help of U.S. servicemen. I will be using old discarded copper that was removed from the Statue of Liberty during restoration. I’m calling the roadster, ‘32 Liberty. When finished, it will be auctioned off by Barrett-Jackson and the money will be part of a G.I. charity for U.S. Service men,” Winfield proudly announces.
I’m feeling guilty having Winfield away from his stand this long. Before he returns, I fire a few remaining questions his way:
You are so busy these days. What keeps you so motivated and focused?
Creativity! I get so much satisfaction out of creating with my hands.
As one of the pioneers of the custom and hot rod industry, are you able and or willing to provide how-to guidance and tips to younger builders.
I started teaching classes and having seminars on customizing. I like showing them the tricks of the trade. I enjoy being a mentor to people.
What vehicles do you own?
I have bought back my earlier show cars, the Stripped Star and Reactor. I also recreated the 1962 Pacifica. I have a ‘32 roadster and a ‘27 T Coupe that are salt flat racers. I’m currently dropping a NASCAR motor into a ’68 Mustang. My plan is to race it at El Mirage. My everyday driver is a 2012 Ford Focus. I really like that car!
So that means you are still racing?
Oh yes! I was at Bonneville Speed Week just before traveling to Australia. I was going for the 140 mph record in my class with the Model T Coupe. On the first pass I couldn’t get it out of gear. I spent all day working on the engine and hit 139 mph.
What is your impression of the Australian Custom Car Culture?
It’s great! I love the enthusiasm of the people and their love for cars.
Thanks to Ben Erdahl and Lucky’s Speed Shop for hosting Gene Winfield in Australia.
This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 15.