They say it takes a village to raise a child. The proverb reflects the idea that no one person is an island; for someone to develop fully requires input from an array of contributors. In that way, a custom car is no different than a person. It may have one name associated with it, but we assure you that a network-sometimes large and almost always anonymous-contributed to its existence.
Sometimes that network reveals itself in strange ways. Very recently an old custom reappeared on the radar. Parked a hundred or so yards off a rural highway, it probably would've gone unnoticed had its curious shade of Candy Blue not contrasted with the Pacific Northwest forest around it.
But it was anything but anonymous; a transaction, a considerable relocation, and intensive research later revealed that this curious blue pickup was none other than Gene Winfield's old shop truck. Originally gold, it factored prominently in Gene's career: among other things it was an early recipient of Gene's calling card-fade paint-and served as a tow vehicle for another car that arguably established Gene as a supreme craftsman: the Jade Idol. But remember that thing about it taking a village to raise a child? Allow us to introduce you to a few people.
The Modesto Connection
Before it turned its vibrant shade of gold-before it was even Gene's for that matter-this 1935 Ford pickup belonged to Rick Lehfeldt. A welder for an industrial fabrication company, he relocated to Modesto, California, in 1955 after half a dozen years of commuting from his native Bay Area. "I bought it from a guy who was the nephew of a guy who owned a garbage company there in Modesto," he says. "Yeah, it was probably about 1957 or 1958 that I bought the truck."
Though we like to think that we can always reach to the fountainhead of every custom job-the point where a craftsman plunges a blade into unspoiled tin-this isn't one of those cases. That now-unknown nephew of the garbage magnate took the initiative to update the truck to juice brakes and correct its stance with a stretched axle. Also, "The top had already been chopped on it," Lehfeldt admitts. "The lead work was really bad on it, so I reworked it on the chop and worked on the bed for several months getting the rails straight."
But Lehfeldt's contribution was significant as his longtime friend Bart Bartoni recalled. For example, one of the truck's more distinguishing features-the doubled-over nerf bars-was his work. "You know how they come out and wrap back around and have lights in 'em? Well, that's my brainstorm," Bartoni says. "Rick and I made the jig up for that at his shop one night." Not only did Lehfeldt build the bars, he also modified the front fenders' lower edge to accommodate them. "I extended them down and flattened the lower edge," he says.
The '40 Chevy fenders weren't Lehfeldt's idea-they were on the pickup when he got it-but the roll pan between them was. He's also responsible for the smooth and uniquely patterned tailgate above it. "I got the idea when I was sitting in a restaurant looking at the stainless work behind the grill," he reflected. "A real good sheetmetal guy was working for us so I had him make it. You see them a lot now, but I hadn't seen anything done like it before." He made the grille too. "I remember that took me 135 feet of 1/4-inch stainless rod," he says. "I don't know why that stuck in my mind, but I think I ordered 140 feet of it and had only 5 left over."
Even though Lehfeldt -and by extension his pal Bartoni, a prior owner, and a sheetmetal fabricator-left indelible marks on the truck, he said he didn't necessarily see the future in the truck, at least in his hands. "About that time I got into water skiing and I just thought, 'Well, I'm not going to finish this,'" he admits. "About that time I'd bought a '40 Ford sedan and I took the dropped axle out from under the '35 and put it under the '40. That's when I sold it to Gene Winfield-I can't remember exactly what I sold it for but it was something like $200 or $300."
"It was already partly done and I went ahead and finished it up," Gene comments. For the record, Gene is being modest-a trait he's pretty well known for.
Gene replaced the missing axle with one of the axles he dropped and filled during the period. Then came the first distinguishing feature Gene contributed: the side pipes. "I used that wrinkle pipe made by a company named Ever-Hot Products. You could buy them at places like Pep Boys-you could heat them and bend them easily."
For its first iteration, Gene sprayed the pickup a color listed in '60 show programs as Cinnamon Bronze. "I made that color using gold powder on an intermediate clear," he remembers. "I think I used a beige base-a flat-beige base with gold powder, and the clear on top of that. I did the dash in beige pearl. Then Tommy the Greek striped it-he striped the truck a little bit each time along the way."
When Gene debuted the car at the San Mateo Custom, Rod, and Sports Car show in January 1960, the truck wore a set of '49 Mercury wheels, their centers obscured by bullet-style caps. "There was a guy in a little shop just south of Modesto (who) had a metal-spinning lathe," Gene reveals. "I had him (Gene recalled his name being Lyle) spin lots and lots of stuff-I had him spin those wheel centers before Shannon made 'em ... you know, Shannon cones?" Other photos taken at that event also show stepped-profile spun-aluminum outer covers held on with bullets. "[Lyle] did those too," Gene notes. "The headlights, they're one-off too. I had those spun but the headlight rings are actually '58 Mercury. I used those rings on lots and lots of cars," he says, one of them being Rich Zocchi's creamsicle-colored '62 Pontiac Grand Prix.
He had the interior finished in a combination of gold and cream vinyl. "A friend of mine, Dave Rettig, was going to Tijuana to upholster his '33-maybe you remember his car?" (If you don't, we'll tell you: it was a Chrysler-wired Fordor recently made somewhat famous by an old photo of it taken in front of the famed Golden Bear in Huntington Beach with two kids perched upon surfboards strapped to the roof.)
"Anyway ..." Gene continues, "... he told me he was going so I did all the panels and gave him the seat for him to take. It was $150-complete interior and all I think I had to do was put in the headliner," he says, musing over the very idea of a show car-worthy interior costing only about a grand in today's money. Finally, a pair of stainless-faced plaques, cut to resemble silhouettes of a stylized car and attached to chromed stake pockets, proclaimed the truck property of Winfield's Custom Shop.
Typical for the times, the truck constantly evolved. Photos that appeared in the March '63 Custom Craft show that Gene swapped the Flathead for a 265 Chevy engine. Also notable in those photos are darker paint accents; reportedly to conceal damage resulting from showing the truck or possibly even swapping engines, Gene fogged the fender edges Candy Red-a trademark-blending spray style that he used liberally on Leroy Kremmerer's Jade Idol at the time.
Gene also swapped the disc-type wheels for wires. "I think they were Thunderbird ..." he ponders, adding, "... or Mopar that I bored out so a Thunderbird cap would fit. I did that on several cars; I'd use Mopar wires and put Ford centers in or use Ford wires and put Mopar centers in there. That was in 1963 when I redid it," he continues. "I put the Chevy in there and then I repainted it blue. I wanted to change it around a little bit," he says, recalling the color as blue dye and transparent toner over a pearl white base. It was in this configuration that Gene sold the truck.
The truck's details get a little fuzzy from then until Don Epling bought it in 1965. "Well, a fella by the name of Buddy-and I can't remember his last name, in fact none of us can-was in a tavern on 182nd in Portland," he began. "It was on a trailer and a brand-new Cadillac was pulling it. Anyhow I think he was off the Klamath Falls reservation and he said he picked it up in California. He was pretty under the weather. We negotiated a price because he said he didn't even have money to get back [home]."
Russ Meeks, one of Gene's longtime friends, shed a bit more light on Buddy: "Buddy's last name was Perazu," he notes, admitting he was at a loss as to its exact spelling. "He had a number of cars," Meeks adds, among them, the "Victorian", the '55 Ford that the Alexander Brothers built for Sy Gregorich. "We didn't really show it but I did take it to a few of the shows that they had here in Forest Grove," Epling continues. "In fact, there in Forest Grove a fella came up to me and said, 'That's a good-looking truck; I think I rebuilt that once.' His name was Dee Wescott. He said that Buddy hit a tree and had him fix the truck," which would explain why Buddy was in Portland (Wescott's shop was in the area). Despite his brush with the truck's past, Epling says he never knew the connection between it and Gene.
The truck's four decades in Epling's ownership were both good in the sense that he used the truck and bad that it sustained some significant damage later in life-albeit not by Epling's hand. "It went through the '96 flood-we got almost 3 feet in the barn it was stored in," Epling says. He said he aired the truck out and even drove it a few times before selling the engine to a friend. Though reports called the '96 flood a 500-year event, another one followed in 2007. Once again Epling wheeled the truck out of the barn to dry out, only this time it sat out long enough for its curious Candy Blue paint to catch the eye of an equally curious passerby. "My general manager, Dale Barnes, his brother, David, lives in Bend, Oregon," Gary Hatfield says. As it happens, Dale manages Hatfield's shop, Hatfield Restorations in Canton, Texas. By way of 15 employees, Hatfield's shop restores everything from muscle cars to Pebble Beach contenders to hot rods and custom cars just like this. According to Hatfield, Dave called Dale with the report: "I sure found a neat-lookin' little old Ford truck-I think the top's been chopped on it."
Pictures followed, and after a three-month negotiation, Hatfield bought the truck. David loaded the truck on his trailer and Hatfield flew Dale out to schlep it back-by way of Gene's Mojave shop. "At first I was unhappy that they found it because I'd been looking for it for 25 years," Gene lamented. "I knew it was in Oregon. Meeks saw it and stopped by there a couple times and tried to buy it but the guy wouldn't sell."
Hatfield said the truck was incredibly preserved, especially in light of the two floods that could've very easily destroyed it. "We replaced only the rockers and the front bed panel," Hatfield says. "Other than that every panel on it is original." After some contemplation, Hatfield says the decision to take the truck back to the way it was when Gene first built it came easy.
The restoration, however, was anything but easy. The early wheels and their unique hand-spun caps went who knows where. Naturally, the Flathead was gone. The front nerf bars didn't survive the collision either. Though there, the paint sloughed off by the day. "You can still find little pieces of blue lyin' around my shop where it popped off," Hatfield says, chuckling.
Upon having the truck stripped, Hatfield, Dale, and a network of panel beaters, including Michael Stovall and Glenn Seeders, repeatedly mocked the pickup, each time making the panels fit better than the last. "The cab and the bed had never been off this frame 'til we pulled them off," Hatfield reveals. Working only from pictures they reproduced Bartoni and Lehfeldt's front nerfs.
From there Michael Stovall, Glenn Seeders, Mark Dunbar, Tanner Booth, and Zac Rabe finished the individual panels. Pete Rose, Stephen Tompkins, and Eugene Booth tended to the chassis, rebuilding it with a variety of Ford restoration parts and Pete & Jakes bushings and hardware. H&H Flatheads built the engine, which mates to the same '40 transmission the truck had since at least the late '50s. Hatfield did take liberties with the chassis by installing a set of Lincoln self-energizing backing plates from Wilson Welding.
Hatfield says without Dena Peel's research and Merrilee McLemore's parts cataloging, the project would've stalled. Part of that work included working with Mooneyes' Chico Kodama, who reproduced the spun-aluminum wheel rings and Advance Custom Chrome's Chris Waldemarson, who programmed his CNC to reproduce the long-lost bullets that fasten those caps. As for the center caps, "I happened to have a set of those," Gene says. "They put them back on so it's back exactly the way that it was when it was first done."
Naturally color sprayed by a pioneer painter presents problems. "We have our own mixing bank, and my painter's been with me 18 years," Hatfield says. "Michael's been able to match virtually everything we come across, but we worked for like three months and couldn't get that color to look right." The solution: Hatfield ultimately surrendered and sent a shock absorber coated with preserved overspray to PPG's Ohio labs. "It took them a little while to match it but when they were done it was a dead-on match for the rest of the paint that we found. You couldn't tell any difference at any line at all." Michael Stovall did the honors by spraying everything.
A team including Stephen Tompkins and Eugene Booth reassembled the pickup. Paul Shelton roped the pickup with a Painless Performance kit and Tony Chamberlain trimmed the cab with vinyl that Sunbelt Fabrics' Dean Boyd found to be from a '57 Olds. Chances are Jackie Peebles didn't get rich, but by the checks written to his North Texas Quality Chrome to apply the acres of plating might make some people wonder how he couldn't. Independent Glass replaced the delaminated panes. As it turned out, Gene still had the original plaques that bolted to the bed rails, which Tyler Tool re-skinned. Daniel Gay replicated the logo and stripes that The Greek applied decades earlier. "I have to tell you, the crew here stepped up," Hatfield effuses. "We keep 25 to 28 projects going at the shop at any given time here. They came in at 5 a.m., they stayed at night, they worked weekends. I have 15 employees and every one of 'em did their part."
It's for that reason that they restored the truck in eight months-or half the time most cars sit in paint jail. And within hours of turning the last wrench and burnishing the last piece of chrome, the truck rolled onto the show floor at the 61st Grand National Roadster Show. Gene was there.
Initially crestfallen that he missed the opportunity to buy back his old truck, "I'm very happy with what they did," he admits. "They did a wonderful job restoring it, a fantastic job. It's perfect; it's exactly as it was in every way."
Indeed, he's right; half a century after Gene first took it to the Roadster Show, the truck's the same. In fact, if there's any difference, it's that we know the village who got it there.