If you're any kind of fan of Gene Winfield and the style of customs he developed-a look that inspired many customizers who followed-you may recognize that style in Robert Bennett's '54 Oldsmobile.
Robert says that he was one of those many customizers influenced by Winfield's smooth and clean body mods. When he began making plans for his own project, he knew he wanted to build "a fun, late-Fifties traditional custom" that would be "fast, loud, and dependable."
Robert is a GM guy, but he didn't want anything earlier than 1954 because he liked the longer-looking lines of the later models. And he didn't want a '55-57 Chevy because he'd seen plenty already. The search didn't take long or lead too far. A friend's dad had purchased this completely stock, but really rough, '54 Oldsmobile Holiday 88 hardtop, which had previously been sitting forgotten for decades. After extracting the engine, transmission, rearend, and steeringwheel, the man had no further need for the car-but Robert did.
Although the complete build took 10 years, Robert wasted no time getting started on the Olds, driving and showing it in the meantime. He said the car evolved though three phases during that decade. The first stage saw the top removed as the hardtop made its transformation toward becoming a roadster, some trim stripped, and the headlights frenched. During the second stage, the cowl area was smoothed and filled, the basecoat was sprayed, and the car picked up a few dings and even some bullet holes. It went back into the shop for the third stage, where the interior was finished and fresh paint and clear were added.
During those years, Robert was constantly on the lookout for the pieces he needed to build the car. He found them the hard way, spending years hitting swap meets from San Diego to Sacramento. It wasn't always quick or convenient (the steering wheel and the horn ring were two years apart), but it fits his traditional philosophy: "If all you do is open a catalog, you're not really customizing."
He also got a lot of items, and a lot of information, from Fusick Automotive Products in East Windsor, Connecticut, which specializes in OEM parts for muscle car-era and earlier Oldsmobiles. And he got encouragement from his fellow members of the Lifters car club as well as the Illegales car club.
When he was ready to recover the interior, Robert insisted on "real" tuck 'n' roll-the kind you could only get in Tijuana back in the day. But a trip south of the border revealed that the old shops were gone; however, he was able to locate a retired Mexican upholsterer in his own area who was willing to do the job. To do it any other way just wouldn't have been right. That uncompromising approach was applied to every corner of the Oldsmobile. "If I couldn't get it done, or they didn't do it, I found a guy who could do it," Robert said.
Probably the most amazing part of this custom is the part that isn't there. It took some serious ambition to want to turn a Holiday 88 hardtop into a genuine roadster, and some serious skills to pull it off this well. Robert performed the preliminary surgery on the top, and professional builder Jeff Dodge did the windshield chop and handled the sheetmetal work to complete the transition.
Since it's been done, Robert has continued to drive the Olds as much as he did when it was in progress-and participates in a lot of car shows, providing spectators with a look at a remarkable custom that carries on the traditional tradition.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
San Diego, California
1954 Oldsmobile Holiday 88 Custom Roadster
Owner contact info: email@example.com
GM muscled up the Oldsmobile frames for 1954, and Robert found out that hardtops had the same beefy X-member and 'rails as convertibles, which worked to his advantage when he removed the top, since the job didn't require a bunch of mods to the stock frame. Billy Rounds at National Spring shop in Santee, California, cut a coil from the front springs, and flattened all five rear leafs and reversed the eyes on the main leafs for a mild drop. The stock knee-action shocks were rebuilt at Five Points Classic Auto Shocks in Santa Ana, which specializes in old-style shock absorbers. Firestone airbags and Monroe shocks were added at the rear. The '68 Cougar 9-inch holds 3.00:1 gears. Stock 11-inch drum brakes are retained all around, using a '92 Trans Am pedal assembly.
The 350 Chevy small-block was built by "Builder Joe," who has a small shop in Lakeside, California, and has put together all of Robert's engines in the past. Offenhauser finned valve covers top the heads, and a painted and pinstriped Olds-style batwing air cleaner tops the Edelbrock 650-cfm carburetor and manifold. Rick at La Mesa Muffler built the straight lakes pipes, running directly from a pair of Hooker headers (no cutouts here). "Animal," a local transmission builder (who has since passed away), assembled the column-shifted Turbo 350 automatic with a shift kit. The driveshaft is from San Diego Driveline.
Body & Paint
Robert did the majority of the preliminary prep work and hacked off the roof. Jeff Dodge at Rods and Customs Unlimited in La Mesa, California, continued with the rest of the bodywork and sheetmetal customization-including the 4 1/2-inch chop and the filled window channels. Other modifications include the filled cowl and peaked hood. All doors and panels have been shaved and the headlights were frenched. Among the few remaining bits of body trim are the NOS rockets on the fender skirts, which Robert discovered as an aftermarket accessory from the Fifties. The chrome was done in Tijuana, Mexico; "old-school," Robert says. The Olds was painted seafoam green at Dalton & Sons Autobody and Paint in Santee. Manuel Cisneros from Cisneros Pinstriping and Signmaking finished up with the extensive pinstriping. The interior 'striping was added by Mello, a local brush.
Wheels & TiresWide whites are essential to the look of a late-Fifties custom; these are G78-15 Cokers on painted stock rims. The Stardust Moon discs were chosen because they complement the rounded lines of the body, and the concentric circle pattern resembles the stock Olds spinner wheel covers.
In the early custom days, Southern California enthusiasts took their cars to Tijuana for custom upholstery. Jose Santana, a retired TJ upholsterer now living in San Diego, agreed to stitch some old-style 2-inch tuck 'n' roll into white marine vinyl with aqua green inserts, covering those stock seats and inner panels. The steering wheel, column, and steel dash are also stock. Since these photos were taken, the original gauges were rebuilt to function and the underdash gauges were removed. There's no sense in having a stereo in an open car with open pipes-and no sense having A/C in an open car with San Diego's perfect weather.