When Jay debuted his car at...
When Jay debuted his car at the '53 Petersen Motorama, he was in good stead. Legendary panel beater Bob "Beanie" Sorrell rolled out a Kurtis 500KK race car chassis with a body of his own design (probably not so coincidentally, Jay and Beanie later forged a friendship, according to Jay's son, Terry). The fiberglass "Ferrari-like sports rod" that Dick Jones showed became the Meteor, one of the first kit-type cars. With changes it also became the Byers SR-100 and later a Kellison. Bill Burke, famed racer and one of Robert Petersen's right-hand ad men, splashed his boss' Cisitalia 202 coupe to make a fiberglass shell that he and Mickey Thompson raced and a roadster version that sold under the Allied Fiberglass name.
In the very early 1950s a proverbial tree fell, but today almost nobody remembers hearing it. It certainly wasn't due to mediocrity; with its scratch-built tube chassis, handformed alloy body, and domestic V-8 grunt, the Astra Coupe is a true handbuilt sports car/hot rod hybrid cast in the same mold--or is that beaten over the same buck?--as Briggs Cunningham's legendary race cars from the same era.
While it never achieved the performance or cult status of Cunningham's cars, the Astra did get considerable press in its day. It was recognized as a visionary's idea of the ultimate sports rod and a testimonial of what an ordinary guy could achieve. Nor was its life short-lived; whether or not mixed praise in a major magazine initiated it, its restyling in the mid-1950s (where the car picked up the Astra Coupe name) put it back into a limelight that glowed well into the following decade.
One of the things that make this particular car stand out is the role it played in its owner's life. After selling the Astra, Jay Everett embarked upon a prolific career as a prototype builder. Among his highlights: an animatronic display his company built for IBM that debuted at the same World's Fair as Disney's Lincoln Speaks, a bottle proposal that became the iconic and award-winning Michelob beer bottle, and fiberglass seat shells and cast-aluminum legs for chairs that Charles and Ray Eames designed.
Though he'd long sold it by the time he made his mark on the design world, the Astra resurfaced in Jay's life in various ways. Whether it was fiberglass cupolas for the Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Las Vegas or computer cases for early IBM minicomputers, each project embarked upon by Jay Everett owed at least a part of its existence to his automotive construction background.
While no one source knew the Astra's whole story, each person in Jay's life revealed fragments of overlapping information. When combined with what appeared in the dozen or so articles written about the car over the years, a really comprehensive picture emerged.
Of course the flip side to a wealth of information is size, and to present everything we now know about the Astra in one sitting might be a bite too big to swallow. So we're going to try something different. We're going to tell the Astra's story in two parts: the way it was using photos taken of it during its heyday, and the way it is now.
"I'mtired of looking at lead barges," Jay proposed while talking about his car in the January '54 issue of Hot Rod magazine. By that time, Jay was a freshly minted father from Gardena who'd claimed 15 years of automotive experience in his 25 years.
The suspension mounting system...
The suspension mounting system was similarly clever. To tune ride height, Jay created this adjustable rear spring perch. To ensure that it wouldn't slip under load, he made it from serrated plate. The entire rear suspension came from a '48 Ford and wore earlier Lincoln self-energizing brakes.
Though Jay's claim may sound a little boastful, his creation was tangible proof of experience beyond his years. At the very least, friends and family noted that Jay did attend the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena for a period, and "I remember that Jay worked at Gordon's Body Shop in the very early 1950s," said Beverly Mason, Jay's first wife.
Despite admitting a lack of formal training in that Hot Rod article, Jay produced something that wasn't standard fare, and the difference went deeper than the car's light-metal skin. Whereas most "handbuilt" cars of its time were based on production cars or at the very least their frames, Jay's car sat on a chassis that Paul Koonz created from a triangulated network of 2 3/8-inch-diameter tubing.
Jay arched a network of smaller-diameter tubes arched over the chassis in the body's general shape. Spanning the gaps between those tubes was a skin that Jack Sutton (who built many a body for '50s race cars, including several bodies for Max Balchowski's Ol' Yallar race cars) and Dennis Powers formed on what Tommy Amer referred to in that Hot Rod article as an "English wheeling machine." Incorporated within those panels were various OEM components, like the majority of the windshield from the '52 Caddy and a Chevrolet Fleetline rear window. While the Chevy glass came with its own trim, bear in mind that Jay made full OEM-style trim for the cut-down Caddy glass.
Jay fastened the panels to the framework, and what emerged from his garage was a long-hood/short-deck creation with generously radiused wheelwells--both common practices among Continental European sports car manufacturers of the time. Though the design wasn't universally accepted, Jay left the ends of the car open and filled them with grilles made from flat stock and tubing. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best idea, but Jay installed the radiator behind the grille in the Kamm-inspired tail, presumably with the idea that the low-pressure area behind the car would pull air through it. It's somewhat common practice today, but when Jay assembled the front fenders and hood as a clip that tilted forward from the chin in 1952, it wasn't in the least.
Paul Koonz (left) fabricated...
Paul Koonz (left) fabricated the chassis primarily from 2 3/8-inch-OD, 5/32-inch-wall mild-steel tubing. Though it would've probably created problems in the long run, Jay's idea to use the chassis as plumbing for the rear-mounted radiator was rather ingenious.
In the January '54 Hot Rod article, Tommy Amer said that a Cadillac engine sat 8 inches behind the axle. However, in the following month's Hop Up and Motor Life article, "Radical but Practical," Dean Moon noted that "Ample room remains for the late-model OHV V-8 engine, which will be installed in the near future." Dean could've gathered his information for the Hop Up article before Tommy Amer did for the Hot Rod piece, but it would've been exceptional for Hot Rod to not run a photo of an existing engine had it been there.
According to Beverly Mason, Jay's first wife, the car upon its debut didn't necessarily look the way most people remember it. "At the time the car was kind of a gold color," she said. Her recollection is consistent with the lighter finish on the car in the earliest articles. "I did go with him to a couple of car shows. He had a matching gold corduroy shirt--I just remember that scene. There was a lot of interest about the car."
"It was the envy of (George) Barris," noted one of Jay's future business partners, Jerry Williamson. "He couldn't stand that the car was upstaging him at that show. (Jay) was doing razor-crisp edges when they weren't very fashionable yet."
The body's construction largely...
The body's construction largely follows wartime aircraft practice. Jay first made an armature out of thin-wall steel tubing in the profile that matched his drawings. Using it as a buck, Jack Sutton and Dennis Powers rolled the aluminum panels on an English wheel. Note that Jay designed the body with production-car front and rear windows. Though the side glass is his own shape, he spliced together bits of convertible window channel to create the frames.
Though Jay had his reasons to design the ends of the car the way he did, it wasn't universally admired. In the September '55 Motor Trend, writer Ocee Ritch asked Detroit designers what they thought of the latest custom-car designs. Alongside images from Tommy Amer's Hot Rod article was Ocee's assessment: "...one of the recent best," he called it. Quoting the Detroit stylists, however, Ocee added that they "...have the feeling it was designed for ease of construction instead of being styled."
Whether or not it was due to the article, the car disappeared for almost a year. When it reappeared in the May '56 Rod & Custom, however, Jay's car looked decidedly different...and better by most accounts.
The fenders originally projected far ahead of the front wheels, but for this design Jay bobbed and tapered them to a point. He integrated the headlight covers with the existing hood scoops in this second design, la Lincoln's '55 Futura show car and '56 Premiere production car. The shark-nosed design effectively pinched closed the front of the car necessitating a scoop below to direct air to a more conventional front-mounted radiator.
By most accounts the presence of that chin scoop suggests the car's first engine, a 303-inch Olds. Though the car could have had an engine before, the extra clearance afforded by the cast-aluminum scoop that appeared on the hood in the new design suggests that it wasn't likely. As for the idea that the car had a Hydramatic as alluded to in one article, "It's obvious that the car was designed for a clutch pedal," said JF Launier, who restored the car. "It's not like something that was added at a later date."
The panel crowns were low,...
The panel crowns were low, the lines were rather straight, and compound curves were minimal, but Jay Everett's first attempt at building a car--much less a car from scratch--was more than respectable. Though an unnamed panel of Detroit designers panned it, fellow designer and occasional magazine celebrity Ocee Ritch rightfully gave Jay the credit he was due.
The tail retained its shape, but Jay closed off the old radiator hole with a black-painted aluminum panel and replaced the earlier grille with a lattice of broader aluminum flat stock. In lieu of the old design's round taillights were handmade acrylic lenses that followed the arch of the rear quarters. A vertical sheet of aluminum split each of those lights into stoplights and what looked to be reverse lights. Along the way the decklid picked up a machined-aluminum fuel-filler cap (we'd call it billet nowadays). A small-diameter side pipe emerged from the rear of the simple, chrome-plated rocker panels.
Photos shot on the lawn in front of Jay's house indicate that the two handmade tube-framed buckets that are in the car today replaced the bench. Between those buckets emerged two shifter stalks, indicating that the car definitely had an overdrive transmission--likely the early Lincoln it has today.
In place of the Cadillac steering wheel is a handmade banjo wheel with three sets of three small-diameter spokes and an aluminum horn cap along the same lines as the fuel filler. A handmade steering column mast jacket replaced the column-shift unit, and the gauges migrated into an amoeba-shaped, aluminum-rimmed pod around that steering column.
Upon closer inspection, two brass badges--one within the hood spear and another at the bottom of the decklid--indicated that Jay's car was no longer officially nameless; it was now the Astra Coupe.
Jay's car as the Astra Coupe officially debuted in the May '56 Rod & Custom. Though James Potter called the Astra black and white, according to Jay's brother, John, who has pictures taken the day James shot the car, "...it is most certainly blue, though dark." Furthermore, Terry Everett, Jay's son, also remembers another blazer his dad wore to car shows--a jacket the same blue as the car.
Regardless of color, one thing is certain: In that May '56 R&C, Jay's car made a splash that rippled for decades. To see what happened, check in next month.
The mahogany dash that Jay...
The mahogany dash that Jay carved for his car transitioned into the doors. The steering wheel is definitely '52 Cadillac. Though it's impossible to divine the exact source of the column, the third pedal in the car from day one suggests as if Jay intended to run a manual transmission.
Proving that Jay really did...
Proving that Jay really did try the rear-mounted radiator, he showed the design to Dean Moon, who relayed the idea in the February '54 Hop Up and Motor Life article. Bear in mind that while the car debuted about the same time as this article printed, Jay hadn't even plumbed the radiator.
When Jay initially completed...
When Jay initially completed the car, he created the egg-crate grilles welding together strips of 16-gauge steel. He heat-bent pieces of heavy-wall steel tubing to create the rounded bumperettes that flank those grilles. This rear shot shows the original taillight shape and location.
In his original tail design,...
In his original tail design, Jay incorporated a round taillight within the upper part of each flat-stock grille side. As was the case in the front, a set of tubular nerf bars mirrored the fender arch. Jay made the tombstone-shaped taillight/reverse light combo from acrylic sheet, reportedly his favored material throughout his career.
The restyle that Jay gave...
The restyle that Jay gave the car changed more than the car's shape; it changed its attitude. Though the car remained largely the same behind the wheelwells, the new nose shape defined its new personality as a sports-type car. Rather than compromise the shark-like nose with a grille opening, Jay created a scoop below it that fed air to the radiator.
Jay bobbed the headlight doors...
Jay bobbed the headlight doors but preserved their profile. The lower edges returned to create mini grilles of sorts inboard each headlight. Jay later created small nerf bars that replaced the bullets protruding from the grilles as seen here.
We generally take such designs...
We generally take such designs for granted today, but the tilt-nose design Jay created was radical if not unique in 1952. Though we have proof of the nose tilting then, printed photos of the engine do not exist.