Renowned graphic and tattoo artist Dennis McPhail is no stranger to R&C. In fact he was once a contributor, but although his art is worthy of a feature on its own, these pages are dedicated to his latest kustom, the somewhat unusual choice of a '56 Chevy two-door post. It was at Paso Robles that we stumbled over this Chevy, sitting in the middle of the park amongst other cars from Dennis' club, the Beatniks, and it instantly struck us how a few well-planned modifications heaped the cool factor onto what is a mainstream car, yet one that's overlooked in the kustom world.
Dennis is no stranger to the West Coast Kustoms Paso shindig, having driven out to the show somewhere in the region of 20 times, the majority in his well-known '52 Chevy that evolved into a full kustom from a daily-driver over the years. But the '52 had a new owner, and Dennis needed a new car, or more accurately another old one. So how did the '56 come about?
"After selling my old '52 Chevy to fellow Beatnik George Garza, I had some cash in my pocket and decided to start another tattoo shop in Wichita, Kansas. I wanted some of that money to go to another project car-couldn't be without a car project ya know-so I started looking around. I really wanted a '58 Plymouth, as that had been my first car at 14, but none were available at the time.
"I'd been hanging around my friend Ronnie Dick's garage here in Wellington, and we had been talking about dream cars and what was available. After a while I noticed this really straight '56 Chevy that Ronnie had rescued from a farmer's hedgerow sitting in his backyard. I couldn't help but notice how straight the car was but took little notice of it otherwise. Ronnie found a donor four-door and was slowly replacing the two-door's rotted floorpans.
"After a few months, I still hadn't found a project that sparked my interest. One day it just hit me that this '56 was the car I had been looking for. I knew it wasn't the ultimate vehicle for a 'kustom' car, but maybe that's why it struck me as the perfect vehicle to work with. I had been told stories of the early '60s car scene in Wichita, during what must have been thousands of conversations with Elden Titus and Ronnie Dick. The 'Wichita Look,' as it has come to be called. Little details about exhaust, rake and stance, paint colors, wheels and tires. I decided to build a kustom '56 Chevy with a head full of these details. I also thought that building a Tri-Five in this manner might stir up a bit of reaction from the purists, as well as the gasser crowd.
"I purchased the car from Ronnie, and made a call to my friend and fellow Beatnik Jeff Myers in Arkansas City. Jeff owns Premier Body and Paint and has made a lot of my car projects happen. Jeff thought I was crazy when I told him what car we were going to build next. I didn't have a concept drawing or a plan on paper to go by, but all the details of this one were in my memory from conversations of Wichita's past.
I had never built a car with the intention of going straight to shiny paint before. My previous car had been a gradual drive-while-building process that took about seven or eight years to complete. Jeff and I decided that this was a good opportunity to step up. It was to be a learning process for the both of us.
"The '56 didn't have a drivetrain when I got it, and was pretty much completely disassembled. I sat and looked at the car for a few weeks while devising a plan of attack and where we should go with everything. Ideas from the start included maybe chopping the car, installing a '56 Lincoln front bumper and grille, airbags all around, and maybe a small-block crate motor. I finally decided to go as practical and carefree as possible. No airbags, low in front and back, but set it on a rake, just like a lot of the early Starbird and Wichita kustoms from the '60s.
"I settled on the era just before thin whitewalls came into vogue, roughly 1960 to 1961, a mild custom, with a lot of attention to detail, no layout or pinstriping on the outside of the car, just metallic paint. No chopped top; if the windows were too small you wouldn't be able to see the over-the-top interior. I really wanted to try and replicate a car that might've been built in someone's driveway back in 1960.
"With a plan in mind, we set out to accomplish the mechanicals first. It would've been easy to go with a small-block Chevy, but I had a fresh Pontiac 400/400 combo out of my son's former '67 Pontiac wagon. I liked the way this motor performed and knew its history so it was an easy choice. I had Jim Dale do some chassis fabrication on my T roadster in the past and knew he was the man for chassis fabrication and mounting the engine and transmission. The car then went to Don Pate in Arkansas City to finish plumbing and wiring and firing."
It's probably fair to say that one of the most stunning aspects of the '56 is the interior, ably handled by Sean Johnstun at Fat Lucky's, in Austin, Texas. Dennis went to Sean with a stack of old magazine articles and sketches and told him he wanted diamonds in there, and no materials that weren't available in 1961. "Both Sean and Jeff took my ideas and ran with them," said Dennis. "Sean made all the laminated dash knobs, as well as the seat buttons." That's vintage Fender amp speaker cover material and old drum laminate that gives the interior its unique appearance.
Talking to Dennis, it's obvious he yearns to build that '58 Plymouth, but he's also painfully aware that prices of the two-door versions these days are way beyond the $200 he paid for his first one, and it's also pretty clear that the '56 is a stepping stone to owning that Mopar. "I've always treated the '56 as though it were someone else's, because I knew I'd be selling it, but I fell for it and didn't expect to. I've probably screwed it up just enough that no-one will want it now!"