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Front suspension of yellow hiboy Deuce roadster.
Note color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, vented disc brakes.
'55-7 Chevy with fuzzy dice

A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been modified in either of the following two ways. First, a custom car may be altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission. Second, a custom car may be a personal "styling" statement by the re-styler/re-builder, making the car look "unique" and unlike any car that might have been factory finished. Customs are distinct from hot rods; exactly where the difference lies has been the subject of debate among customizers and rodders for decades.


A development of hot rodding, the change in name corresponded to the change in the design of the cars being modified. The first hot rods were pre-World War II cars, with running boards and simple fenders over the wheels. These were modified by removing the running boards and either removing the fenders entirely or replacing them with very light "cycle fenders". The object was to put the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination. The suspension was usually altered to make the car lower; the front was often made much lower than the rear. Much later some hot rods and custom cars swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear axle, often from Jaguar. Only rarely was the grille of one make of car replaced by another; one exception was the 1937 Buick grille, often used on a Ford. The original hot rods were plainly painted like the Model A Fords from which they had been built up, and only slowly begun to take on colors, and eventually fancy orange-yellow flamed hoods or "candy-like" deep acrylic finishes in the various colors.

With the change in automobile design to encase the wheels in fenders and to extend the hood to the full width of the car, the former practices were no longer possible. In addition, there was tremendous automotive advertising and subsequent public interest in the new models in the 1950s. Hence custom cars came into existence, swapping headlamp rings, grilles, bumpers, chrome side strips, and tail lights, as well as "frenching" and "tunnelling" head- and taillights. The bodies of the cars were changed by cutting through the sheet metal, removing bits to make the car lower, welding it back together, and adding a lot of lead to make the resulting form smooth (hence the term "lead sled"; lead has been replaced by Bondo). By this means, "chopping" made the roof lower; "sectioning" made the body thinner from top to bottom. "Channeling" was cutting notches in the floorpan where the body touches the frame to lower the whole body. Fins were often added from other cars, or made up from sheet steel. In the custom car culture, someone who merely changed the appearance without also substantially improving the performance was looked down upon.

Paint was an important concern. Once bodywork was done, the cars were painted unusual colors. Transparent but wildly-colored candy-apple paint, applied atop a metallic undercoat, and metalflake paint, with aluminum glitter within candy-apple paint, appeared in the 1960s. These took many coats to produce a brilliant effect — which in hot climates had a tendency to flake off. Customizers also continued the habit of adding decorative paint after the main coat was finished, of flames extending rearward from the front wheels, scallops, and hand-painted pinstripes of a contrasting color. The base color, most often a single coat, would be expected to be of a simpler paint. Flame jobs later spread to the hood, encompassing the entire front end, and have progressed from traditional reds and yellows to blues and greens and body-color "ghost" flames.

Painting has become such a part of the custom car scene that now in many custom car competitions, awards for custom paint are as highly sought after as awards for the cars themselves.

Once customizing post-war cars caught on, some of the practices were extended to pre-war cars, which would have been called fendered rods, with more body work done on them. An alternate rule for disambiguation developed: hot rods had the engine behind the front suspension, while customs had the engine over the front suspension. The clearest example of this is Ford prior to 1949 had Henry Ford's old transverse front suspension, while 1949 models had a more modern suspension with the engine moved forward. However, an American Museum has what could be the first true custom, built in 1932, amongst its exhibits.

With the coming of the muscle car, and further to the high-performance luxury car, customization declined. One place where it persisted was the U.S. Southwest, where lowriders were built similar in concept to the earlier customs, but of post-1950s cars.

Recently, as the supply of usable antique steel bodies has dried up, companies such Westcott's, Harwood, Gibbon Fiberglass and Speedway Motors have begun to fabricate new steel and fiberglass copies. Bodies of this type can cost over $100,000 before the running gear is added. California's "junker" (or "crusher") law, which pays a nominal sum to take "gross polluters" off the road, has been criticized by enthusiasts (and by SEMA) for accelerating this trend.

Starting in the 1950s, it became popular among customizers to display their vehicles at drive-in restaurants. Among the largest and longest lasting was Johnie's Broiler in Downey, Californiamarker. The practice continues today, especially in Southern California.


Examples of notable customizers include Bill Cushenberry, the Alexander Brothers, Darryl Starbird, Roy Brizio, Ron Clark and Bob Kaiser (of Clarkaiser Customs), Joe Bailon (inventor of candy apple paint), "Magoo", Chip Foose, and Pete Chapouris. Several customizers have become famous beyond the automobile community, including George Barris and Boyd Coddington, thanks to their proximity to Hollywoodmarker; Barris designed TV's Batmobile, while Chapouris built the flamed '34 five-window coupé in the eponymous telefilm "The California Kid". Another Barris creation, Ala Kart (a '29 Ford Model A roadster pickup), made numerous appearances in film (usually in the background of diner scenes and such), after taking two AMBR (America's Most Beautiful Roadster) wins in a row.

Notable customs

The most coveted award for customizers is the AMBR trophy, presented annually at the Oakland Roadster Show since 1948. This competition has produced famous, and radical, customs, notably Silhouette and Ed Roth's Mysterion, some of which were turned into Hot Wheels cars, among them The Red Baron.

Others became notable for their appearances in film (such as Ala Kart, The California Kid five-window, or the yellow deuce from "American Graffiti") or television (such as The Monkeemobile, the "Munsters" hearse, or, more recently, Boyd's full-custom "Tool Time" '34, or Pete and Jake's '33 three-window, Eliminator, built for the ZZ Top video). Specialist vehicles, such as the T/A, KITT, from Knight Rider, are not usually considered customs, but movie or TV cars, because they retain a mostly stock exterior.


Certain linguistic conventions are followed among rodders and customizers. The model year is rarely given in full, except when it might be confused, so a 1934 model, for instance, is a '34, while a 2005 might be an '05 or not. A '32 is usually a Deuce and most often a roadster, unless coupé is specified. A 3- or 5-window is usually a Ford, unless specified. A '55/6/7 is always a Chevy, unless specified. A flattie is a flathead V8 (always Ford, unless specified). A hemi is always a 426, unless specified; a 426 is a hemi, unless Wedge is specified. A 392 is an early hemi.

  • 3 deuces — arrangement of three 2-barrel (twin-choke) carburetors; distinct from Six Pak and Pontiac and Olds Tri-Power (also 3x2 arrangements)
  • 3-window — 2-door coupé; so named for one door window on each side & one rear window
  • 5-window — 2-door coupé; so named for two side windows on each side & one rear window
  • 97s — Stromberg carburetors
  • A-bone — Model A coupe
  • Appletons (sometimes Appleton spots) — spotlights, mounted in the cowl, similar to those used by police cars
  • Cammer — 427 Ford V8
  • Cherry — like new
  • Dagmars — large front bumper "bullets" (after the actress)
  • Decked — trunklid trim removed
  • Deuce — '32 Ford (most often a roadster); now commonly on A frame rail
  • Fat-fender — 1934-48 (U.S.) car
  • Flatty — flathead engine
  • Frenched — headlight slightly sunken into fender
  • Gennie — genuine
  • Hairpins —radius rods
  • Hiboy (or highboy) — fenderless, but not lowered
  • Loboy (or low boy, lowboy) — fenderless and lowered
  • Mag — magnesium wheel, or steel or aluminum copy resembling one such
  • Nerf bars — bumper horns
  • New Old Stock (NOS) — original-manufactured part, kept in storage at supplier
  • Nosed — hood trim removed
  • QJ — Quadrajet (Rochester 4-barrel carburetor)
  • Q-jet — Quadrajet
  • Repop — reproduction (not NOS)
  • Resto — restoration, or restored
  • Steelies — stock steel rims
  • Suicided — changed from front-hinged to rear-hinged ("suicide door") type
  • Toploader — Ford 4-speed manual transmission
  • Track T — Model T roadster built in the style of a dirt track race car
  • Tuck-and-roll — upholstery technique
  • Tunneled — deeply sunken into fender
  • Wide whites — wide-stripe whitewall tires, typical of the '50s, as opposed to modern ones
  • Zoomie pipes — short exhaust pipes with no mufflers, used for racing, or just for show (not street legal)


Image:'30s bustleback project car.JPG|A '30s project car, with a lot of work to do...Image:'56 buick project car.JPG|Buick project car, stock with six-cylinder, still a lot of work aheadImage:'51 merc custom quarter view.jpg|'51 Shoebox Ford work in progress, with louvered hood and custom mirrorsImage:'41 chevy flame job.JPG|Another classic flame job.Image:Fork flame job.jpg|'53-6 F100 with long-fork flame job, an idea dating to around 1978.Image:Silver fork-flames.jpg|Fork flame job, a style introduced after 1975, on a '53-6 Ford F100Image:Ghost flames.jpg|Ghost flames, a contemprary conceptImage: '40 ford prefect custom.jpg|The Brighton Kid? (A '40 Prefect.)Image:'34 3-window moon tank.JPG|Moon tank mount, common on '50s customsImage:'30s custom w custom signal lights.JPG|Unusual custom front turnsignalsImage:'38 chevy custom.JPG|'38 Chevy with custom tilt nose and side graphicImage:Deuce dropped tube axle.JPG|Deuce with chrome dropped tube axle and shock. Note Model A chassis (extended frame horns), disc brakes, zoomie pipes.Image:'49 Ford pickup 2.jpg|'49 Ford pickup with custom paint and suicided doorImage:AMC_Pacer_'pickoupe'.JPG|AMC Pacer converted as a pickoupeImage:'40 Chev custom 2.jpg|'40 Chev custom with painted grille, small front turnsignals, custom door mirror, and frenched radio aerial. Note non-stock one-piece windshield.Image:'49 merc metalflake.jpg|'49 Merc with metalflake paint job, custom tube grille, Carson top and tunneled headlights. Retains stock hood and trim spears.Image:'51 custom merc rear.JPG|Custom Merc with pinstriping, skirts, '81 Lincoln taillights, and AppletonsImage:'51 merc custom hood.jpg|Custom Merc with sophisticated hood pinstripingImage:Henry J custom.JPG|Henry J custom, with hood spike and door pulls painted contrasting colorImage:Bronze-orange '34.JPG|Modern interpretation of the '34 3-window: deeply chopped, monochrome, spoke rimsImage:'32 austin bantam roadster britened.jpg|'32 Bantam roadster with faux mags (not "gennie" Halibrands), colormatched plugwires and distributor cap, disk brakes, hairpins, headers and sidemount pipes, chrome valve covers, and mirror firewall. Also has custom interior.Image:'47 fargo pickup w custom 3d door.jpg|'47 Fargo pickup with custom third doorImage:'50s chevy pickup 2.JPG|A recent idea, adding a C-pillar window to a classic pickupImage:392 hemi.jpg|The classic 392 Hemi in a modern "rat rod"Image:'62 chevy ii wagon profile.jpg|'62 Chevy II wagon, custom paintImage:'36 Ford 5-window rear window.jpg|'36 Ford 5-window with custom roll-down rear windowImage:'56 Ford.jpg|'56 Ford pickup with Appleton spotsImage:Flame-milled chrome aircleaneer.jpg|Chrome aircleaner, custom-milled with flamesImage:Miata doorhandle flush.JPG|Flush-mounted Miata doorpullImage:Custom door lock knob.jpg|Custom door lock knobImage:Crown Vic custom taillight.jpg|'56 Crown Vic taillight with '59 Cad spikeImage:Custom taillight.jpg|Oval LED taillightImage:Custom turnsignal.JPG|Custom oval LED front turnsignalImage:3 deuces with louvered chrome hats 2.JPG|Three deuces with louvered chrome hatsImage:Louvered hood.jpg|Louvered hood on '50 Ford coupeImage:Ford-Taunus-2000GXL-custom-front.jpg|'74 Ford Taunus 2000 GXL that has been chopped, shaved, louvered on the rear quarter panels, and fitted with an all steel body kit

See also


  1. Rod Action, 2/78, p.64.
  2. Street Rodder, 2/78, p.15; Custom Rodder 1/97, p.29.
  3. Jezek, George. "The All Deuce Round-Up", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.58.
  4. Street Rodder, 2/78, p.44.
  5. Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 43.
  6. See, for instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, p.183.
  7. See, for instance, Dick Wells column "SRMA Update", Street Rodder, 8/99, p.234.
  8. Fetherston, David, "Detroit Dreams", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.58.
  9. Ganahl, Pat, "The Candy Man", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.81.
  10. Street Rodder, 12/98, p.206.
  11. Bishop, Mike, "The 45th Grand National Roadster Show", in American Rodder, 6/94, p.27.
  12. "The ZZ Top Eliminator: Profile of a Hot Rod." by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, 20 September 2007, Retrieved on: 28 July 2008.
  13. For instance, Street Rodder, 8/99, passim; Rod Action, 2/78, passim;.
  14. American Rodder, 6/94, pp.45 & 93.
  15. Geisert, Eric. "Tom's Fun Run", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.149cap.
  16. Street Rod Builder, 7/03, p126.
  17. PHR, 7/06, p.22-3.
  18. Fortier, p.53cap.
  19. Fortier, p.54cap.
  20. Fetherston, David, "Track Terror", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.35; Emmons, Don, "Long-term Hybrid", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.52; & Baskerville, Gray, "Tom Brown's '60s Sweetheart", in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.162.
  21. Bianco, Johnny, "Leadfest" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.86.
  22. Scale Auto, 6/06, p.15 sidebar.
  23. Ganahl, Pat, "Swap 'til you Drop", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.68 & 70.
  24. Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17.
  25. Street Rodder, 12/98, p. 212.
  26. Geisert, Eric. "The California Spyder", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.34; Mayall, Joe. "Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, p.26; letters, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.10.
  27. Fortier, Rob. ""A Little Pinch Here, A Little Tuck There", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.136.
  28. Burhnam, Bill. "In Bill's Eye", Custom Rodder 1/97, p.17; reprinted from Goodguys Gazette.
  29. "Mr. 32", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p.40.
  30. Fortier, p.51cap; Bianco, p.82.
  31. Ganahl, p.70 & "Coupla Cool Coupes", p.74.
  32. Mayall, Joe. "Joe Mayall's Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, p.28 & 29.
  33. "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16, & Fortier, "Jr.'s Highboy", p.98.
  34. Contrast "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.16.
  35. Coonan, Steve. "Who's Chicken", in Street Rodder, 2/78, pp.56-7; 1001 Rod & Custom Ideas, 1/76, pp.24 & 25.
  36. Bianco, p.82.
  37. Ganahl, Pat, "Coupla Cool Coupes", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.74cap.
  38. Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  39. Street Rodder, 12/98, p.292.
  40. Rod & Custom, 7/95, pp.26-7 & 33.
  41. Tann, Jeff, "Two-Timer" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p.58.
  42. Fortier, Rob. "25th Salt Lake City Autorama", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p.51cap, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p.143cap.
  43. Rod Action, 2/78.
  44. Street Rodder, 8/99, pp.202, 204, & 205.

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