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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 altered to either improve its performance, change its aesthetics, or a combination of both. Some automotive enthusiasts in the United States want 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 auto body builders.


1916 Ford Model T modified into a speedster, an early form of customized car
A 1923 Ford T-bucket in the traditional hot rod style

Some of the earliest examples of modified cars were cars modified for racing or off-roading. Additionally, the coachbuilding industry is considered part of custom car history, as companies and individuals built custom bodies to be fitted to early cars and inspired later customizers.[4]

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 tracks and dry lake beds, often stripped down Ford Model Ts, Model As, and other pre-World War II cars made into speedsters and "gow jobs".[5] The "gow job" morphed into the hot rod in the 1940s to 1950s.[6][7] 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.[8] Hot rods gained popularity after World War II, particularly in California, because many returning soldiers had received technical training.[9][10] Many cars were "hopped up" with engine modifications such as adding additional carburetors, high compression heads, and dual exhausts. The suspension was often altered, and engine swaps were to install the most powerful engine in the lightest possible frame and body combination.[11][12]

Another example of early automobile customization were the first off-road vehicles. Some of the earliest dedicated offroad vehicles were made using the Kégresse track system, starting in the late 1910s, which affixed tracks to an ordinary car in place of the rear wheels for improved off-road traction.[13] After World War II, the surplus of army Jeeps led to a growth in the popularity of off-roading as a hobby.

Starting in the early 1940s, some US car customizers began to modify cars with a stronger emphasis on looks and self-expression. This led to styles of modification such as lowriders, kustoms and lead sleds emerging and growing.[14] 1950s kustom car builders would often swap trim and panels from other cars, cut through the sheet metal and remove bits to make the car lower, weld it back together, and add lead to make the resulting form smooth. They would also chop the roof to make it lower,[15] section[16] the body to make it thinner from top to bottom, and channel[17] the body by cutting notches in the floorpan where the body touches the frame to lower the whole body.

The first drag strip in the United States opened in 1950 on an airfield in Southern California, and a year later, in 1951 the National Hot Rod Association was formed.[18] In the following years, more drag strips were built across the country, leading to a rise in the popularity of drag racing among both amateurs and professionals.

In the post-World War II era, Japan's automotive industry grew, eventually leading to the country becoming the world's largest vehicle producer. This led to a unique car customization culture within the nation. Some of the early custom cars in Japan, starting in the late 1970s through the 1980s, included Kaido Racers, Japanese cars modified with homemade parts to look like racecars of the time; imported and modified American and European cars; cars modified for top-speed and highway racing; and Dekotora decorated trucks.[19][20] The 1990s saw the rise of cars modified for drifting, VIP style luxury sedans, and the continued popularity of highway racing. Japan also embraced American customization styles, importing and building their muscle cars, lowriders, minitrucks, and more.

Styles of modification

1959 Chevrolet Impala Art car
Ford Escort modified for drag racing
Nissan Skyline C210 modified in the Japanese Kaido Racer style
An example of a rat rod

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


Custom paint jobs play an essential role in the culture around customized cars. Builders will often use special painting techniques to produce unique finishes, including the use of candy paint, metalflake, and color shifting paint. Additionally, builders will often create paint jobs 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 paint job. 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 tended to flake off in hot climates. 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 in many custom car competitions, awards for custom paint are as highly sought after as awards for the cars themselves.

Engine swaps

LS1 V8 engine swap in a Mazda RX-7 FD

Main article: Engine swap

Engine swaps are a common modification involving taking the engine from one car and putting it into another, often one that did not initially come with that engine. A few of the most common engines swaped into other vehicles 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 adapter plates for the transmission, K member, engine mounts, front subframe, and more, depending on what ss 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)[6] 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 after taking two AMBR wins in a row.


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, the Ridler Award winners are selected as the most outstanding among cars being shown for the first time. This prompts builders of many high-end roadsters to enter Autorama first and then the Grand National show to have the chance to win top honors at both shows. Few cars and owners can claim this achievement.

Notable customs

The Monkeemobile from the "Munsters"

Some customs gained attention for winning awards at shows or for their outlandish styling. Some examples include Silhouette and Ed Roth's Mysterion. Some notable custom cars have been turned into Hot Wheels cars or other scale models, such as 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] the yellow deuce from "American Graffiti" {1973}, the Batmobiles from Batman, the Pursuit Special from Mad Max, and more) or television (such as The Monkeemobile from the "Munsters", and KITT from Knight Rider).

Other notable customs exemplified a trend. One of these is the 1951 Merc built by the Barris brothers for Bob Hirohata in 1953, known as the Hirohata Merc. Even without an appearance in the film ("Runnin' Wild"), it is one of the most iconic 1950s customs.[36] The same year, Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen of Valley Custom Shop built Polynesian for Jack Stewart, starting with a 1950 Holiday 88 sedan.[37] Polynesian made the cover of Hot Rod in August, and saw 54 pages of construction details in Motor Trend Custom Car Annual in 1954.[38]


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. ^ Hoving, Rik (2017-11-12). "History of the Early Custom Car". Custom Car Chronicle. Retrieved 2024-02-07.
  5. ^ Conwill, David (2020-01-23). "A Brief History of Hot Rodding". Hemmings. Archived from the original on 2024-02-08.
  6. ^ a b Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p. 16.
  7. ^ Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, p. 18.
  8. ^ "Hot Rod History". 28 November 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  9. ^ "Hot Rod History". 28 November 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  10. ^ "Hot Rod History". 2009-07-23. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  11. ^ "The evolution of custom cars". Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  12. ^ Shelton, Chris. "Then, Now, and Forever" in Hot Rod, March 2017, pp. 18 and 20.
  13. ^ "Stanislav Kiriletz". MIG-registeret (in Norwegian and English). Archived from the original on 2008-12-31.
  14. ^ Wanberg, John Joseph (2005). Understanding customization: A case study in car customization (Thesis). ProQuest 305027217.[page needed]
  15. ^ Rod Action, 2/78, p. 64.
  16. ^ Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 15; Custom Rodder 1/97, p. 29.
  17. ^ Jezek, George. "The All Deuce Round-Up", in Street Rodder, 2/78, p. 58.
  18. ^ "NHRA History". NHRA. Retrieved 2024-02-13.
  19. ^ "What is a Kaido Racer?". Kaido Racer. Retrieved 2024-02-13.
  20. ^ "The Golden Years of Japan's Car Culture: Showa Racing". sabukaru. 2021-03-11. Retrieved 2024-02-13.
  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. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, pp. 8 & 10.
  37. ^ Custom Rodder online[permanent dead link] (retrieved 28 July 2018)
  38. ^ Rod & Custom, 8/89, p. 68.