The year was 1960; America was about to be thrust into the new modern age. The simmering Cold War triggered the Jet Age and the Space Race, which Detroit translated into long, streamlined highway missiles. Later on, the Age of Aquarius would push everything sideways. But at the dawn of the era, it was still all about size and chrome and sleek style. Plastic was still considered that miracle compound that was used to make toys. Even the names were out of this world—Fireflite, Electra, Galaxy, Starliner. Sloping bubbletop rooflines suggested speed and aerodynamic intentions. And fins? Chrysler and Cadillac weren’t ready to let them go, but Ford and Oldsmobile were looking at that particular styling cue in a new way for the new decade.
Jack Fields and Erik Hernandez have always liked early ’60s customs. As co-owner (with Erik’s brother, Edgar) of Starlite Rod & Kustom in Torrance, California, Jack and the crew have maintained a constant stream of top-quality creations motoring through the roll-up doors. Since opening those roll-ups in 2003, the shop floor has been crowded with everything from the barest of bare-bone hot rods, to crazy ’60s customs, to full-bore muscle cars. It’s apparent right away that this outfit is something special. Lots of hot rod shops feature vintage posters and display cases bulging with machine age artifacts and Starlite is no exception.
But ask anyone in the adjacent South L.A. area, and you’ll immediately hear about “… that green truck.” Edgar’s mind-blowing full-custom ’54 Chevy convertible pickup, “El Durti Martini”, has served as his daily driver and the shop’s official gopher vehicle for years. No worn-out and battered Chevy S-10 for this crew—making a statement while picking up paint supplies or a case of 30 weight is what it’s all about.
As a member of The Autoholics car club, Jack is in a prime position to sniff out new custom projects. Five years ago, a brother Autoholic decided it was time to let his daily driver ’60 Ford Starliner move onto a new owner. With a background that is drag race and muscle car heavy, Jack was at one of those crossroads in life where he wanted to turn in a different direction. He’d been involved in the car’s multiple upgrades, including a front disc brake conversion from Drop’em Stop’em, a four-link rear suspension from Thornbeck Bros., front and rear airbags from UDS, and the replacement of the original 352/Ford-O-Matic trans with a rebuilt 390/C6 combo. The previous owner had shaved the door handles and trim, but otherwise left the body alone.
In no time flat, Jack made a deal to take possession of the Starliner. Thinking he could clean a few things up, drive it for a while, and turn a quick profit on the car, he immediately fabbed up replacement pieces to fill the missing body trim and smooth out the look. He finished out a few bodywork issues, slapped on a primer coat, and moved it to a corner of the garage. As happens all too often, other projects demanded priority attention and the Starliner was subsequently put on hold.
A few years later, that same Autoholic club member who had sold Jack the Ford decided to turn another beauty from 1960, this one an Oldsmobile Dynamic 88. But this time it was Starlite fabricator Erik who made the deal.
“The bubbletop was what drew me to it. I always liked the ’59 Impalas, but they’re just priced too high. This Olds came along and it didn’t take much for me to jump on it.”
He wasted no time, enlisting his friends at the shop to go all out on the stock-looking car. They went to work, removing the door handles, emblems, and trim. In quick time, they replaced the tired transmission with a 700-R4 and fit front and rear airbags and solenoids from UDS. Just like Jack had done four years earlier, the primitive rear suspension was upgraded with a four-link setup from Thornbeck Bros. Under the hood, Erik fitted a four-barrel intake and carb to the stock 371. Determined to get the Olds finished and out on the road, Erik, Alex Horta, and Chris Mageno sailed through the bodywork and paint prep. The plan was to shoot the smoothed and soothed Oldsmobile an original GM turquoise and be driving the L.A. boulevards in time for the long days of summer.
With the car already scheduled to roll into the paint booth, Erik began to second-guess his vision of what the big, beautiful Olds should be. He studied the huge blank canvases that made up the exterior surfaces of the prepped and waiting car. Visions of Larry Watson–style patterns flashed across his mind. The massive hood and roof and side panels were calling out for scallops and ’flake. After a brainstorming session with Edgar, the two brothers formulated a plan.
The new vision was this: The Olds would be completed as if it were a fresh-off-the-showroom-floor car that was taken directly into a custom paint shop for a completely wild and off-the-hook paintjob. Just like they used to do, the brothers had an all-star team in mind who they knew could make it happen.
Starlite brought in David Garcia, of DA Designs in Whittier, California, to assist them with laying down the panel graphics. Without drama, Garica manned the spray gun, flaking, and candy paneling the roof and body of the car. Manuel Cisneros of Cisneros Pinstriping came up from San Diego to lay down the miles of pinstriping and silver leaf.
Chuy’s Upholstery in Carson stitched together the semi-stock-looking interior and Chito’s Glass in San Pedro handled the rubber, glass, and stainless. The Starlite boys restored and reinstalled all the trim and door handles. Sticking to a showroom floor plan, they likewise restored the engine bay, trunk, and interior to stock appearance. The complete paint, body, and interior overhaul took just eight months. Erik adds, “I’ve got to mention Jorge Nunez. He helped me wet-sand that car four times! He was the only one who stood by me on that one.”
Erik took the wheel of his finished Olds, and looked at the Space Age dashboard in front of him. Back in 1960, Detroit had been going lunatic futurist in their designs. It’s hard to imagine any full-custom interior being any more out-of-this-world. The stock front grille and the whole rear end of the car look like something straight out of a custom shop in North Hollywood, not an assembly line in Michigan. From that point on automotive styling would be going the other way. Erik shifted into gear and his vision in shades of blue motored smoothly toward Pacific Coast Highway.
Jack hadn’t been standing idly by while Erik’s Olds had taken form. His original idea of fixing up his Starliner for a quick sale was nixed in favor of keeping the car and really going all out with it. With every layer of prep and paint that Erik achieved, Jack became more and more inspired to turn his dormant Starliner into another Starlite stunner. He liked the early ’60s mild-custom look, and wanted to keep that long-stock profile, but his big Ford would feature some custom styling.
The ’60 Ford Starliner was another automotive marvel that tied together the boxier, eccentric ’50s styling cues with the longer, more sedate lines of the later ’60s. The rear deck profile and the way the rear glass follows the contour of the body is something that wouldn’t be seen again from an American factory. Jack’s Starliner, with its deleted trim and door handles, still attracts the eye with numerous body details. A see-through mesh grille was fabricated to cover the entire front panel of the car, while in the rear the taillights were dropped down into the chrome bumper. Like all Starlite builds, the car features countless small custom details.
As Erik had been before him, Jack was dazzled by the sheer size of the body panels. Again, the car was a blank canvas that demanded intricate panel work and Jack wanted to personally do as much of the paintwork as could. As he recalls, “My dad showed me how to put down paint. Later I picked up a lot when I was working at an auto body shop doing insurance work. Luckily, the owner didn’t like to cut corners and insisted that we did things correctly. You learn a lot that way. I took the PPG and DuPont paint courses and that was helpful in learning proper technique as well.”
Jack paid a visit to Mike and Rich at Stevenson’s Paint Supply to get some guidance in paint color. Stevenson’s is like a big military surplus store in that they carry everything in stock as far as unique paint materials are concerned. When you’re primed and ready to spray, there’s nothing worse than having to special order an uncommon color. Jack wanted to make sure his Starliner was going to make a statement wherever he went, so he decided to go with House of Kolor Gamma Gold with candy tangerine fades as the Ford’s base colors.
Back at Starlite, Jack, Horta, and Mageno spent an entire day laying down graphics. “I did some sketches about what I thought I wanted. But when we rolled it into the booth and started taping it, we just started from scratch. Me and Alex and Chris just put our heads together and let it evolve the way it was supposed to.”
The boys then spent two full days masking and painting a combination of lace, fades, and tape out panels. To complete the intricate paint detail, Cisneros Pinstriping was again brought in to add the elaborate pinstriping and variegated gold leaf designs. The intricate panel paint detail extends inside the car onto the dash to tie the whole masterwork together.
“Larry Watson was definitely one of my influences. But there were a lot of talented local South Bay guys around here who never got any recognition. The newer lowrider styles don’t appeal to me. I have to say I’m more old school, and I know that’s an over-used term. Back when I worked at the body shop, there was an old biker who lived across the street. He started painting motorcycles in the late ’50s and he taught me authentic graphic techniques from that time. A lot of the tape outs on my car are early ’60s motorcycle style; you really didn’t see them on cars at the time. This stuff was all over the place back then, but never made it into the magazines,” Jack reminisces.
Jack tapped into Chito’s Glass for all the rubber and stainless, and just for that extra kick had them come up with authentic one-piece orange side glass and matching rear window tint. “That orange glass almost happened by accident. Chito is in our shop all the time and this one day the guy shows me this orange-tinted glass. Growing up, my dad was into the Willys scene and I loved those ’60s Gassers. You’d see the colored glass on those sometimes. I just decided to run with it. I’m not a die-hard traditionalist. My cars just kind of fit into where I’m at in life.”
For the upholstery, Jack wanted to take the same ’60s design from the paint pattern and replicate it onto the seats and door panels of the Starliner’s full-custom interior. Again, Chuy’s Upholstery proved that they were up to the challenge, and the result is that every time Jack climbs into that interior he gets a one-of-a-kind rocket trip into another dimension. Jack christened the finished Starliner custom “Agent Orange”.
It’s interesting to see two same-year cars from different manufacturers emerge side by side from the same shop at roughly the same time. Both of these cars are masterpieces of conception and execution and each builder has spectacularly succeeded in interpreting their own version of the early ’60s extreme paintjob mild custom.
That Edgar, Jack, Erik, and the Starlite crew have made a name for themselves in what must be the most saturated custom shop environment anywhere is no small achievement. Maybe Erik sums it up best when he says this about the dual builds, “It really wasn’t like a competition between us. It was more like we were feeding off of each other.”
Youth and enthusiasm are great, but the quality and thought put into these two custom road machines, make it a sure bet that there’s plenty more on the way from the guys at Starlite Rod & Kustom.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1960 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1960 Ford Starliner