Cus-tom: noun; a usage or practice common to many or to a particular place or class or habitual with an individual.
Judging from Merriam-Webster, a custom, as we all know it, is still to this day non-germane to the Standard English language. That said, good luck trying to find a literary transition for “kustom”! Nonetheless, both so-called slang-isms are commonplace to our hobby, and nothing speaks custom/kustom more than a chopped ’49-51 Mercury coupe—there’s simply no other definition, regardless what language you speak.
And why Sam Barris chose to sever the top of a then-new ’49 Merc rather than any other particular make/model, I can only speculate. Had he selected a same-year Chevy, for example, do you suppose that would’ve become the iconic custom instead? Hard to say, really, but for all intents and purposes, he didn’t, so let’s just move on with the story of Bill Springer’s “icon”, shall we?
The key to the Mercury’s emblematic stature is, of course, the altered aspect—i.e., its chopped top. Many have attempted this massive maneuver; many have failed. Above (or should I say, “below”?) and beyond the skilled mechanical side of lowering a lid, maintaining the right profile—or flow—is just as difficult, and more often than not, is what ultimately makes or breaks the job. Many a Merc has gone to the wayside due to a bad haircut, so to speak. Thank goodness for Carson tops—and people like Bill Springer.
When shopping around for a Mercury coupe, Bill stumbled across another’s failed attempt. “… It was an aborted custom that someone had started to chop, but realized they’d gotten in over their heads, as many do in their backyards. I guess I could have found a more sound car to start with, but it was an emotional thing—it’s not every day you find a two-door ’49 Merc for sale … that needs saving!” For Bill, the challenge was in rescuing a botched project, not starting his own from an uncut car.
But Bill’s not a builder, so really the challenge was in Matt Townsend’s hands. When Bill first brought the Merc to his shop in Riverside, California, well, let’s just say he was at a loss for words—and hair as well, as he did more head-scratching than anything else just trying to figure out where to start. As Bill further recalls, “The chop had been ‘attempted’ and it was in very bad shape; the roof was crooked and the door overlapped the body on one side. We had to cut the roof loose and lower it a tad just to line everything up correctly, while the B-pillars had to be completely made from scratch on both sides.” As intimidating as the re-chop may have seemed early on, you’d be very hard pressed to tell now looking at the finished product. Seems Townsend’s not as short on skills as he was with words—the Merc’s roof profile flows nearly flawlessly, the angled door posts adding more menace to the killer chop.
Other custom touches include frenched stock headlights, molded grille surround encapsulating floating ’53 DeSoto teeth, and one of Townsend’s trademarks, handmade Lucite taillights formed into the rear license bumperettes. And rather than embellish Townsend’s handiwork in a flashy candy coating, as Bill puts it, “I went back and forth on color combinations until I was looking at the original ashtray and said, ‘That’s it—I’m painting this car the color it was born in. No deep candies, no super shiny black … it’s going back to Laguna Blue!” That color choice was handed over to Camarillo, California’s Devin Thompson, who not only handled the application of the PPG materials, but the underlying bodywork as well.