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Gene Winfield tribute and interview

A very sprightly Gene Winfield

If someone were to ask for the names of the legendary American customisers and painters of the 1960s, then amongst the likes of George Barris, Ed Roth, Dean Jeffries, Darryl Starbird and Bill Cushenbery, would undoubtedly be the name of Gene Winfield. 


As those who have read their history books will know, Winfield set up his first automotive shop in 1946, but it was perhaps the creation of his custom Mercury known as Jade Idol in 1960 that made him almost an overnight sensation in the custom world.  Today, Winfieldís metal fabricating skills and his trademark custom blended paintwork are still very much in demand, so much so in fact, that one Briton was prepared to fly him all the way from California, so that he could lay down his signature paint job on a Ď59 Chevy El Camino custom here in the UK.


That person was Dave Wright, one half of the Hotrod Tiki business shared with wife Sue.  Both are no strangers to the world of customs, they currently own two Ė a much modified and radically painted 1962 Chevy Suburban which won an award at last yearís Hot Rod Supernationals and a fabulous green í59 Chevy Brookwood Wagon. 

Pinstripe detail on Dave & Sue's Brookwood Wagon 

Dave & Sue with their Tiki ware

Dave had long admired Winfieldís work and jumped at the chance of having him lay down his blended pearls on their latest project.  Gene arrived in the UK on the Thursday and went straight to work after his 11 hour flight.  The car had been prepared in the paint shop in advance to save time. By all accounts Gene worked virtually flat out laying on the hues Ė eight hours on Thursday, 14 hours on Friday and 14 on Saturday to get the job done with final finishing on Saturday Ė a monumental task for anyone, let alone an 80 year old!   Afterwards we asked Dave if he was happy with the result.  He was emphatic in his response.  ďI am over the moon at the way in which the car turned out, itís a dream come true!  Itís  in different shades as we wanted, but the main colour is gold.Ē


Sneak preview of the El Camino in Gene's custom pearl mix

As a special tribute to mark his visit, and unbeknown to Gene, his close friends Jimmy and Elle Hibberd, who own Valley Gas Speed Shop in Newbury, got together with Dave and Sue to organise an impromptu Barbeque and gathering at Valley Gas last Sunday Ė it was only decided on Saturday afternoon at 4pm and then they had to spread the word.  Of course they were never certain how many cars or people would turn up until Sunday. 

Itís a mark of Geneís stature within the rodding and customising world that the place was overflowing with rods customs bikes and people, all of whom had come to see Gene.  Valley Gas made everyone welcome too, and opened it doors to the assembled masses.  This was really great - as you explored an Aladdinís cave of workshop space to see all the various projects currently taking shape within.  Read our separate report this week regarding the shop tour.

Valley Gas played host for the special last-minute party. Great weather and atmosphere, plus the chance to look around the workshop, all added to the occasion  

Simon Phillips all-steel sedan in the foreground

Believe it or not, this is the old Pubble Jumper Pop from the 70s - rebuilt as a gasser by Jan.  Watch out for a full feature on this stunner soon

Jimmy's brother Nick now owns this lovely Pontiac Catalina custom - complete with roof mounted beer can 

Check out the number plate on this lovely Ford coupe

On top of this, and fortunately for us, in between selling Winfield merchandise, signing autographs and chatting to everyone who attended, we managed to sit Gene down somewhere quiet for a brief chat about his UK trip and a few other topics too.  Hereís what he had to say.


Q. How did you end up in England painting a car?

I met Dave and Sue at the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield over previous years, and then last October we were talking with Jimmy Hibbard and a few other people there.  I told Dave I was flying somewhere to paint a car and he said, ďOh you do that sort of thing do you?Ē  So he thought about it and asked me if Iíd be prepared to come over to England to paint his car.  We worked something out and here I am. I got here on Thursday and I go home tomorrow (Monday).  I came over to paint hisĎ59 Chevy El Camino.  Dave wanted a Gene Winfield signature fully blended paint job and thatís what heís got. Itís going to be a very nice car.  It will have a 60s Mercury grille and itís got some nice metalwork.  I believe Daveís going to call the car The Golden Idol.


Q. So you now fly around the world painting and customising cars?

Yes.  Iíve just got back from New Zealand and Australia.  I did a car show in New Zealand and then I chopped a car in Australia.  Closer to home Iíve done paint work in New Mexico, Washington, Boston and Tennessee.  Iím also doing a car show in Germany during August Ė four days after I get back from Bonneville.  Iím having lots of fun too.

On top of this, I also do a lot of metalworking classes and workshops.  We have classes at my shop in the Spring and Fall and I do workshops at colleges in Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Texas and Ohio.  Iím really laying it on those students regarding metal working.  Iím showing them all of the tricks Iíve learned over the years. I teach them gas welding of aluminium, hammer welding and hammer forming, the use of an English wheel and all types of metal fabrication.

Gene was kept busy signing books and cars and was more than happy to oblige


Q. Are you still building cars for TV and the movies?

No I got away from the TV and movie industry.  I moved out to the desert and so itís hard for me to go in and promote those cars, but Iím getting tired of it too because they want everything overnight and in actual fact, Iíve been really busy doing custom cars and hot rods at my shop.


Q. Is this your first trip to England?

No I was here once before.  I had a brother living here about 22/23 years ago.  He worked for the Bank of America and I came over to spend a week with him in London.


Q. What have been your major career highlights?

The main one was creating Jade Idol.  It was one of the best cars I built.  I started it in 1959 and finished it in 1960.  It then went on a nationwide tour in 1961/62 and took trophies wherever it went.


Q. Why was it so significant?

Because it was so different. It started out as a 1956 Mercury but I sectioned it and fitted Chrysler rear fenders, but the main thing about Jade Idol was that it was so clean and smooth and thatís the kind of styling Iíve always liked.  The headlights were unique, they were offset, staggered and tunnelled and the rear treatment featured large tail lights that blended down off the quarter panels to the rear body pan.  I made up grilles front and rear to match and handmade the bumpers too.  When you look at the car now it still looks very modern, it hasnít dated like a lot of other customs from this era.


Even custom painter and pinstriper Neil Melliard was knocked out to see Gene in the UK


Q. When did you start custom painting?

My first new car was a Ď57 Chevy which I purchased the same year and I tried out my first fully blended paint job on it.  Prior to that I had only blended motorcycles and a few other little things and I kept working to develop the technique.  The first couple of cars I blended were kind of harsh - almost gaudy - and later I was able to make a car look as flashy as possible - approaching gaudy - but at the same time, soft and elegant.  Thereís a fine line between the two and thatís what Iíve tried to perfect over the years Ė getting a car to stand out but not excessively so.


Q. What kind of paint finishes do you prefer?

I do them all. I spray candy but I donít like it as much as pearl, because with pearls I can do the blending and the fading from one colour extreme to another.  I used House of Kolor materials on Daveís car, which Dave provided, plus I mixed up some blends myself and brought them over with my spray guns.  I also use other paint brands like Sherman Williams who have a very nice range of candies and pearls and Dupont have some great product too.


Q. Was it easy for you to adapt to two-pack paint finishes?

I painted lacquer for many years and it was hard for me at first to adjust to urethane, but now Iíve made that step I much prefer urethane to lacquer.  It was hard to get used to gravity spray guns too but we had to do it to be legal in California, so I finally adapted and Iím really happy with the new materials we have today.  It works good for me.


Q. What kind of work do you undertake at your shop?

We paint and do body work but we also do louvering and a little bit of everything - but no upholstering.  We do some engine work for customers, have lowered cars with air ride suspension and completed chassis work on rods and customs.


At the moment Iím building a Ď32 Roadster for myself and we are filming the entire build of this car.  It will be edited into a one hour special for TV.   The car has a 368 cu. in. NASCAR motor with approx 730hp and I have to go 230mph to get the C/Gas Roadster record which was upped last year from 226.6 to 229.3mph.  So I have to beat 229.3mph, but its going to be difficult even with that amount of horsepower. 


The Ď32 Ford is bigger than a Ď27 or a Ď29 Roadster and the size of frontal area is the main thing at Bonneville - the imprint that goes through the wind is what makes the difference. To help compensate for this, we are building the car very low Ė itís just 1Ĺ inch off the deck, and has a unique rear axle mounting idea from Kent Fuller and custom A-arm design at the front by Jon Buttera - Iíve got some great names helping me.


It will have a brand new Brookville body and will be a neat looking car. I started it two weeks ago and weíll have it finished in time for August.  Iíll be painting it blue and silver or blue and white pearl and Iím going to elongate the V8 emblem across the hood as a celebration of the Deuce.  In addition to the Roadster, weíll also be taking ďThe ThingĒ to Bonneville - a recreation of my radical T-bodied race car which ran with a flathead many years ago.    


Q. Finally, whatís your reaction to this event here at VGSS?

This is fabulous.  Dave, Sue, Jimmy, Ellie and all of their friends put this together yesterday while I was still painting and I had no idea until late in the evening when they told me.  To see all of these beautiful cars and all of these beautiful people who came here to see me.  Itís just wonderful.  I canít thank them enough.

Jimmy and Ellie helped to make it a very special day

Special thanks go to Jimmy & Ellie for hosting the event, to Gene for sparing the time for a chat, to Dave & Sue for checking through the copy and to Neil Melliard for the last minute invite in the first place.

Story & Photos: Andy Kirk

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