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One of the famous custom cars in the classic American custom style, the Hirohata Merc[1]

A custom car is a passenger vehicle that has been either substantially altered to improve its performance, often by altering or replacing the engine and transmission; made into a personal "styling" statement, using paintwork and aftermarket accessories to make the car look unlike any car as delivered from the factory; or some combination of both. A desire among some automotive enthusiasts in the United States is to push "styling and performance a step beyond the showroom floor - to truly craft an automobile of one's own."[2] A custom car in British according to Collins English Dictionary is built to the buyer's own specifications.[3]

Custom cars are not to be confused with coachbuilt automobiles, historically rolling chassis fitted with luxury bodywork by specialty body builders.


1916 Ford Model T modified into a speedster, an early form of customized car
This article needs attention from an expert in cars. The specific problem is: this section needs to focus on the history of custom cars of all types, not just American hot rods. WikiProject Cars may be able to help recruit an expert. (November 2023)

Hot rods were an early type of custom car first popularized in the United States, considered to be one of the earliest defined car customization movements. The origins of the first hot rods are typically considered to be early race cars built to race on dirt track or dry lake beds, often stripped down Ford Model Ts, Model As, and other pre-World War II cars made into speedsters and "gow jobs".[4] The "gow job" morphed into the hot rod in the 1940s to 1950s.[5][6] The modified cars used in the Prohibition era by bootleggers to evade revenue agents and other law enforcement are also considered a predecessor to the hot rod.[7] Additionally, the coachbuilding industry is considered to be part of custom car history, as it saw both companies and individuals building custom bodies to be fitted to early cars.[8] Hot rods gained popularity after World War II, particularly in California, because many returning soldiers had received technical training.[9][10]

A 1923 Ford T-bucket in the traditional style with lake headers, dog dish hubcaps, dropped "I" beam axle, narrow rubber, and single 4-barrel, but non-traditional disc brakes

Many cars were "hopped up" with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads, and dual exhausts. Engine swaps were often done, with the objective of placing the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination.[11] The suspension was usually altered, initially by lowering the rear end as much as possible using lowering blocks on the rear springs. Later cars were given a rake job by either adding a dropped front axle or heating front coil springs to make the front end of the car much lower than the rear.[12]

The mid-1950s and early 1960s custom Deuce was typically fenderless and steeply chopped, and almost all Ford (or Mercury, with the 239 cu in (3,920 cc) flatty, introduced in 1939[13]); a Halibrand quick-change rear differential was also typical, and an Edelbrock intake manifold or Harman and Collins ignition magneto would not be uncommon.[14] Reproduction spindles, brake drums, and backing based on the 1937s remain available today.[13] Aftermarket flatty heads were available from Barney Navarro,[15] Vic Edelbrock, and Offenhauser. The first intake manifold Edelbrock sold was a "slingshot" design for the flatty.[15] Front suspension hairpins were adapted from sprint cars, such as the Kurtis Krafts.[16] The first Jimmy supercharger on a V8 may have been by Navarro in 1950.[17]

Much later, rods and customs swapped the old solid rear axle for an independent rear, often from Jaguar. Sometimes the grille of one make of car replaced another; the 1937 Buick grille was often used on a Ford. In the 1950s and 1960s, the grille swap of choice was the 1953 DeSoto. 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.[11]

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, tremendous automotive advertising raised public interest in the new models in the 1950s. Thus, custom cars came into existence, swapping headlamp rings, grilles, bumpers, chrome side strips, and taillights as well as frenching and tunneling 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 lead to make the resulting form smooth (hence the term lead sled; Bondo has since largely replaced lead.) Chopping made the roof lower[18] while sectioning[19] made the body thinner from top to bottom. Channeling[20] 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. Juxtapoz Magazine, founded by the artist Robert Williams, has covered Kustom Kulture art.

Styles of modification

An example of a Rat rod style car
1962 Chevrolet Impala lowrider
Nissan Skyline C210 modified in the Japanese Kaido Racer style
A stanced Nissan 350Z with aftermarket air suspension and Work Emitz wheels

Modified cars can be significantly different from their stock counterparts. A common factor among owners/modifiers is to emulate the visual and/or performance characteristics of established styles and design principles. These similarities may be unintentional. Some of the many different styles and visual influences to car modification are:


The Reactor (show rod) by Gene Winfield with paint fade style blending from one color to another


'32 three-window with a classic-style flame job and Moon tank, reminiscent of Chapouris' California Kid

Custom paintjobs play an important role in the culture around customized cars. Builders will often use special painting techniques in order to produce unique finishes, including the use of candy paint, metalflake, and color shifting paint. Additionally, builders will often create paintjobs with intricate designs or patterns by pinstriping, painting by hand, airbrushing, taping out patterns on the car and painting inside them, painting over lace, overlaying gold leaf, and more. Some customizers will also opt for vinyl wraps, vinyl decals or plastidip in place of a traditional paintjob. In addition to paint, individual parts of a car may also be chromed, gold plated, or engraved.

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. This process and style of paint job were invented by Joe Bailon, a customizer from Northern California.

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.

Engine swaps

Main article: Engine swap

Engine swaps are a common modification that involves taking the engine from one car and putting it into another car, often one which did not originally come with that engine. A few of the most common engines that people swap into other cars include the BMW M54, Chevy small block, Chevy LS, Chrysler Hemi, Cummins B Series, Ford Barra, Ford Coyote, Ford flathead V8, Honda B, Honda K, Mazda 13B, Nissan RB, Nissan SR, Subaru EJ, Toyota JZ, Toyota UZ, Toyota S, and Volkswagen VR6.[21][22] Completing an engine swap typically requires a high level of modification and fabrication to fit the engine and connect it to the host vehicle's body, transmission, and electrics. Many companies sell kits for common engine swaps that include things such as adapter plates for the transmission, K member, engine mounts, front subframe, and more depending on what's required for the particular swap. Some engine swaps will use the vehicle's original transmission, while others opt for the transmission from the donor car, or a different transmission entirely.


Examples of notable American customizers include George Barris, Vini Bergeman, Bill Cushenbery, the Alexander Brothers, Bo Huff, Gil Ayala,[23] Darryl Starbird,[24] Roy Brizio, Troy Trepanier (of Rad Rides by Troy), Boyd Coddington, Darryl Hollenbeck (working out of at Vintage Color Studios; winner of the 2016 America's Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) trophy with a custom Deuce)[5] Harry Westergaard,[25] Dave Stuckey,[24] Dean Jeffries, Barry Lobeck, Phil Cool (who won the 1978 AMBR trophy with a bright orange Deuce, cover car for the July 1978 issue of Hot Rod),[26] Troy Ladd of Hollywood Hot Rods, Doane Spencer (builder of a 1940s Deuce considered the template for the hiboy),[27] "Posie",[28] Ron Clark and Bob Kaiser (of Clarkaiser Customs),[29] Joe Bailon[24] (inventor of candy apple paint),[30] Gene Winfield, Rick Dore[31] Joe Wilhelm, "Magoo",[32] Chip Foose,[33] and Pete Chapouris.

Others, such as Von Dutch, are best known as custom painters. Several customizers have become famous beyond the automobile community, including Barris, Jeffries, and Coddington, thanks to their proximity to Hollywood; Barris designed TV's Batmobile, while Chapouris built the flamed '34 three-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 wins in a row. Some customizers have become well-enough known to be referred to by a given name alone. These include Boyd (Coddington), Pete (Chapouris), and Jake (Jim Jacobs).


One of the most coveted awards for American customizers is the AMBR (America's Most Beautiful Roadster) trophy, presented annually at the Grand National Roadster Show since 1948 (also known within the customizer community as the Oakland Roadster Show until it was moved to Southern California in 2003). This competition has produced famous, and radical, customs.

Another is the Ridler Award, presented at the Detroit Autorama since 1964 in honor of show promoter Don Ridler. With one of the most unusual car show entry requirements, winners of the prestigious Ridler Award are selected as the most outstanding among cars being shown for the first time. This prompts builders of many high-end roadsters to first enter the Autorama first and then the Grand National show in order to have the chance to win top honors at both shows. Few cars and owners can claim this achievement.

Notable customs

'Big Daddy' Roth 'bloodshot eyeball' shift knob was a 1960s fad.

Some customs gained attention for winning the AMBR trophy, or for their outlandish styling. Notable among these is Silhouette and Ed Roth's Mysterion. Some of these more unusual projects turned into Hot Wheels cars, among them The Red Baron.

Other custom cars became notable for appearances in film (such as Ala Kart {1958},[34] The California Kid three-window {1973},[35] or the yellow deuce from "American Graffiti" {1973}) or television (such as The Monkeemobile, the "Munsters" hearse, or, more recently, Boyd's full-custom Tool Time '34, or Don Thelan's[36] '33 three-window, Eliminator, built for the ZZ Top video[37]). 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.

Still, others exemplified a trend. One of these is the 1951 Merc built by the Barris brothers for Bob Hirohata in 1953, known forever after as the Hirohata Merc. Even without an appearance in the film ("Runnin' Wild"), it is iconic of 1950s customs, and of how to do a Merc right.[38] The same year, Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen of Valley Custom Shop built Polynesian for Jack Stewart, starting with a 1950 Holiday 88 sedan.[39] Polynesian made the cover of Hot Rod in August, and saw 54 pages of construction details in Motor Trend Custom Car Annual in 1954.[40]


This article focuses too much on specific examples. Please help improve this article by adding sources that evaluate within a broader context. (November 2023)

Common terms

Front suspension of a lowboy Deuce roadster, with color-matched springs on coilover shocks, tube axle, and vented disc brakes. Features include chromed five-spoke wheels, dropped tube axle, transverse front leaf spring, front disc brakes, open-face aircleaner, Weiand valve covers, and single 4-barrel.

Some common terms:


See also


  1. ^ Kress, Joe (2002). Lead Sleds. MotorBooks International. p. 10. ISBN 9781610590631. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  2. ^ Ganahl, Pat (2001). The American custom car. MBI. ISBN 9780760309506. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  3. ^ "Custom car definition and meaning: Collins English Dictionary". Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  4. ^ Retrieved 2024-02-07. ((cite web)): Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ a b Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p. 16.
  6. ^ Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p. 18.
  7. ^ "Hot Rod History". 28 November 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  8. ^ Hoving, Rik (2017-11-12). "History of the Early Custom Car". Custom Car Chronicle. Retrieved 2024-02-07.
  9. ^ "Hot Rod History". 28 November 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  10. ^ "Hot Rod History". 2009-07-23. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  11. ^ a b "The evolution of custom cars". Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  12. ^ a b Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, pp. 18 and 20.
  13. ^ a b Shelton, p. 20.
  14. ^ Shelton, pp. 17–18.
  15. ^ a b Shelton, p. 20 caption.
  16. ^ Shelton, p. 24 and p. 26 caption.
  17. ^ Shelton, p. 26 caption.
  18. ^ Rod Action, 2/78, p. 64.
  19. ^ Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 15; Custom Rodder 1/97, p. 29.
  20. ^ Jezek, George. "The All Deuce Round-Up", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 58.
  21. ^ Bonk, Aaron. "Popular Engine Swaps".
  22. ^ Hevesy, Alex (2023-07-02). "5 Of The Most Popular Engines For Classic Car Engine Swaps". SlashGear. Retrieved 2023-11-22.
  23. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p. 60.
  24. ^ a b c Street Rodder, 1/85, p. 56.
  25. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p. 55.
  26. ^ Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p. 23.
  27. ^ Shelton, p. 29.
  28. ^ Rod Action, 2/85, p. 5.
  29. ^ Fetherston, David, "Detroit Dreams", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p. 58.
  30. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "The Candy Man", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p. 81.
  31. ^ Gross, Ken (2012). Art of the Hot Rod. Motorbooks. ISBN 9780760343005 – via Google Books.
  32. ^ Street Rodder, 12/98, p. 206.
  33. ^ Bishop, Mike, "The 45th Grand National Roadster Show", in American Rodder, 6/94, p. 27.
  34. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p. 29 sidebar.
  35. ^ Hot Rod, 12/86, p. 29.
  36. ^ Gingerelli, Dain. "Jake's '34". Written on June 23, 2005 Hot Rod Magazine online (retrieved 19 June 2015)
  37. ^ "The ZZ Top Eliminator: Profile of a Hot Rod". 2007-09-20. Retrieved 2010-10-31.
  38. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, pp. 8 & 10.
  39. ^ Custom Rodder online[permanent dead link] (retrieved 28 July 2018)
  40. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p. 68.
  41. ^ Fortier, p. 53cap.
  42. ^ Fortier, p. 54cap.
  43. ^ American Rodder, July 1993, p. 59
  44. ^ Rod and Custom, 12/91, p. 29 caption.
  45. ^ Street Rodder, November 1998, p. 141
  46. ^ Custom Rodder 1/97, p. 17.
  47. ^ a b Street Rodder, 12/98, p. 212.
  48. ^ Street Rodder, November 1998, p. 143
  49. ^ Burhnam, Bill. "In Bill's Eye", Custom Rodder 1/97, p. 17; reprinted from Goodguys Gazette.
  50. ^ Sport Compact Car, August 1993, p. 44
  51. ^ Fortier, p. 51cap; Bianco, p. 82.
  52. ^ Mayall, Joe. "Joe Mayall's Driving Impression: Reproduction Deuce Hiboy", in Rod Action, 2/78, pp. 28 & 29; Hot Rod Magazine, 11/84, p. 6.
  53. ^ "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p. 16, & Fortier, "Jr.'s Highboy", p. 98.
  54. ^ a b c d e Baskerville, Gray. "How to Talk Hot Rod", in Hot Rod, October 1987, p. 47.
  55. ^ Hot Rod, October 1994, p. 84 caption; American Rodder, July 1993, p. 59
  56. ^ Contrast "Street Corner", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p. 16.
  57. ^ Coonan, Steve. "Who's Chicken", in Street Rodder, 2/78, pp. 56–57; 1001 Rod & Custom Ideas, 1/76, pp. 24 & 25.
  58. ^ Bianco, p. 82.
  59. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p. 70.
  60. ^ Rod & Custom, April 2000, p. 154 caption.
  61. ^ Ganahl, Pat, "Coupla Cool Coupes", in Rod & Custom, 7/95, p. 74cap.
  62. ^ Clausager, Anders D. (1994). Original MGB. Bay View Books. p. 25.
  63. ^ Rod & Custom, 7/95, p. 143cap.
  64. ^ Hot Rod, 4/95, p. 8.
  65. ^ Freiburger, David. "Hot Rod Dictionary", in Hot Rod, July 1993, p. 45.
  66. ^ Tann, Jeff, "Two-Timer" in Rod & Custom, 9/00, p. 58.
  67. ^ "Kustoms and Hot Rods Gallery: Hirohata Merc". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2010-10-31.
  68. ^ Hot Rod, 4/95, p. 36.
  69. ^ Fortier, Rob. "25th Salt Lake City Autorama", in Street Rodder, 8/99, p. 51cap, Rod & Custom, 7/95, p. 143cap.
  70. ^ Rod Action, 2/78.