Custom cars have been a part of American culture since the dawn of the automobile. The very first customs were not labeled or viewed as such because the word ‘custom’ deals more with changes fueled by desire; where as early automotive changes were usually fueled by need. These changed cars would fall under the ‘altered’ label, though the lines were often fuzzy.
But true custom cars, and for our purpose, custom convertibles, have been around since the end of WWII, at least in most peoples opinions. I on the other hand, trace custom convertibles back to theRoaring 20’s, when custom coach builders were sculpting works of automotive art and elegance for the elite and famous. Builders such as Willoughby out of New York and Derham out of Pennsylvania experimented with custom fitted tops and new top colors, in addition to designs. It was unfortunate that the Depression of the 1930’s killed off all but the very strongest of these fine builders.
Of course, the big three were also into building custom convertibles. The first truly memorable one is Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford. A few years after Edsel took over the reigns of Ford Motor Company from his father, he decided to develop, for his personal use, a custom convertible. The end product was a beautiful, low slung job that was breath taking for its time (still is today). In fact, it was so well received, that it soon entered limited production as the Lincoln Continental.
Another big 3 custom convertible builder was Harley Earl. Earl was a GM wiz kid back in the 1920’s and 30’s who ended up designing some of the era’s most significant automobiles. In 1938 he built a show car called the ‘Y job’. Like Edsels’ Continental, it was sleek, low, and fast looking and the public loved it. Some of its styling ended up in GM models after WWII.
In 1951, Harley Earl designed and built what may be his most beautiful and famous custom convertible, the LeSabre. This car was lower, wider, and sleeker than any ever built before it. It looks are so timeless, that today, LeSabre models are still being produced by toy manufactures (my son recently gave me one for my birthday). As a final note; Harley Earl liked this particular convertible so much; he often drove it as his personal auto.
Around the same time that Harley Earl was building the LaSabre show car, the custom car culture was igniting across the country, working its way from both coasts inward toward the Midwest. One of the biggest movements in this culture was the ‘lead sleds’. These were cars whose owners left the drivetrain relatively stock for slow cruising, but had body alterations, performed in lead, giving birth to their nickname.
These cars were imitating the customs that Edsel Ford and Harley Earl were building by the fact they were lowered, had excess chrome and trim removed for a sleeker and smoother look, and were fortified with custom change to give their rides a personal touch. Convertible were a top choice for this kind of attention, especially in the warmer, sunnier climates.
Naturally, some of these backyard builders and customizers rose above the rest, starting successful shops and becoming household names, at least in the custom car culture. Names such as Dean Jeffries, Darryl Starbird, Gene Winrfield, and the Barris brothers, Sam and George.
Eventually, some of these builders would go on to become the Hollywood custom car elite, turning out recognizable custom convertibles such as the Mannix TV show’s Olds Toronado; or Sonny and Cher’s matching ‘his and hers’ Mustang convertibles; or the famous Monkee mobile.
Nowadays, individual builders such as John D-Agostino, John Aiello, Rick Dore, and many others, turn out astonishing customs, many convertible, on an annual, or even semi-annual basis. In fact Rick Dore builds almost exclusively convertibles, most converted from coupes and hardtops. His 1953 Riviera (named Breathless) was the convertible top conversion that first made me appreciate this form of the custom convertible.
Like the famous lead sled shops of the 40’s and 50’s, Chip Foose, the late Boyd Coddington, and others have turned out famous and award winning convertibles in their well equipped shops.
The custom convertible car is popular is alive and well in other ways as well. One such area is the low rider scene which has been around for decades and can trace part of their roots to the lowered and slicked out lead sleds beginnings.Among the low rider community, the ragtop is a highly cherished model, with the early 1950’s through the 70’s Chevy full size models being by far the most popular. I have always been in awe of these stunning tricked out rides as the low rider community turns out some of the most beautiful and breath taking paint and interiors ever seen on some of my favorite year droptops.
Trucks are becoming a favorite target of the custom convertible builder. Many are finding a cool mixture of open air motoring coupled with truck styling and characteristics by cutting the lid of their everyday parts hauler. Some of these builders have really come into their own, turning out some very fine rides. And this movement, I believe, is here to stay as evident by the number of do-it-yourself kits on the market. In fact, the custom convertible truck is one of the fastest growing convertible segments around.
And the custom convertible market isn’t confined to just one off customs. There are a few companies who specialize in making convertibles out of the newest Detroit models where none are currently offered. This has been a small and sometimes forgotten market niche that has been around for since the custom coach builders of the 1920’s. Some of these companies have helped change ragtop history, such as ASC, who played a small role in reviving the convertible in the 80’s. Currently one of the biggest conversion companies is Droptop Customs out of High SpringFlorida, whose 31 years in business has been spent turning new cars into new convertibles.
It really doesn’t matter on your convertible niche; whether it’s lead sleds, old Cadillacs, ragtop trucks, new Mustang convertibles, or anything else, we owe the custom convertible builders, past and present, a round of thanks. For without them to help keep our dream of open air machines alive, our beloved convertible might have gone the way of the dinosaur, and stayed there.