Throwback: Residing Legend – Meet Gene Winfield


2024 Intro

Regardless of our automotive tastes, we all have the custom car pioneers to thank for getting us to this point in time. Their innovation played a crucial part in shaping contemporary car culture.

Gene Winfield is one such trailblazer, and 10 years ago Speedhunters builder Keith Charvonia visited him at his shop in Mojave, California. Established in 1946, Winfield’s Rod & Custom has seen and done it all, and Gene had some amazing stories to tell. Today, we’re revisiting that 2014 feature.


2014 Feature

Speedhunters, this is a rare time we’re living in. While it might seem like ages since hot rodding was born on the dry lakes and city streets of California, it was really only a few generations ago. The amazing part – and the part that we really need to embrace right now – is that we’re living in the same time as some of the guys who started the hobby we all love so deeply.

Think about how far the automobile has come in 100 years. Now consider that Gene Winfield has been here for 87 of those years (96 years now), and customizing cars for nearly all of them.


He was one of the first few guys to look at a car, re-imagine it as something better, then proceed to hack it to little bits and create a one-of-a-kind vehicle. I don’t take it lightly that I can call Gene a friend. The fact that our lives have overlapped and even better, that I’ve had the opportunity to bend tin with the guy, is flat out amazing to me. Gene has too much to share for us to keep it a secret, so I spent some time with him to bring you this interview, which exposes just a tiny sliver of what Winfield wants to share from his life-long career customizing cars.


KC: Tell us in your own words: Who is Gene Winfield?

GW: Well, I’m Gene Winfield and I’m a custom car builder. I’ve been building custom cars all my life. I started my first shop when I returned from World War II in late 1946, and I’m still having fun doing it today.


KC: So you were there when the custom car thing started. Actually, you were one of the people who started it. What do you think about the revival of traditional custom cars today?

GW: Well, I think it’s great! What it is, is some of the older people can finally afford a car now that they couldn’t afford when they were in high school, so that’s part of it. But then there are lots of young people getting into it now too. I just see it going up, up, up all the time. I think the muscle car thing and street rods have kinda leveled off, but they’re always going to be building them because people have a need for speed and power and all that. But the custom car thing is developing rapidly and going uphill all the time.


KC: Do you think this is the strongest period of growth you’ve seen for kustoms? How does it compare to the ’50s when the style first became popular?

GW: In the ’50s and ’60s it was very strong, and you could build a car with a lot less money. There have always been people who want to make ‘em different. I always like to say people should make a statement with their car, and each owner likes to outdo the other guy and come up with something for his car that nobody else has done. What we all strive to do is build a car that is different, whether it’s several small things or a very big change. The whole point of custom cars is for the next one to be different than the last one, and that’s definitely going on in a big way even today.


KC: Do you think we’ll ever run out of things to do to cars?

GW: Oh no, no, no. We will never run out of things to do, because we create. You know, I look at a car and sometimes it will take me 20 or 30 minutes, but I’ll be able to say, ‘Well, I can change this and that, and make things a little different, a little better.’ It used to be that I would go to the new car shows and look at the cars and pick them apart. I would say, “Well, I can use that antenna, or part of that grille or bumper guard,’ but you can’t do that today with all the new cookie cutter cars that look the same. There are very few things that you can take off a new car today and put on a custom car. So instead we look at a customized old car and see the shapes, and take parts from other old cars and mix early and late a little, so there’s always going to be customizing going on. We’re always going to be creating things that are different.


KC: Do you think we should be modifying new cars the way we did with old ones?

GW: The new cars don’t lend themselves to the same style of customizing we did on the early ones, but someday we’ll have to get into some of that. We’re gonna have to because little by little the old cars are running out. That’s why I make a fiberglass Mercury, because the old ones are getting harder to find. You know, people are doing the tuner cars and hopping them up, but I don’t think anything will match the craze of early kustoms, that’s just been going on for so long.


KC: So what do you think of the import scene?

GW: Well, I think it’s all good. You know, people want to go fast, they want to have some horsepower, and there are many, many companies making parts for the new import cars to do that. You can get stroker cranks, camshafts, throttle bodies and this and that. There’s so much aftermarket support now, and it’s what I would call the new hot rod generation.


Hi-Jinks & Stunts

KC: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done with car?

GW: One time I pulled a train with a rental car for a commercial. Another time I froze a car in a block of ice for 30 days for a gasoline commercial. I actually have a new book that just came out about all the movie, television and commercial cars I’ve done over the years. It shows you all those crazy things I did back then. When you see a commercial, there aren’t any credits, so you have no idea who did the work. Fortunately I took pictures of all that stuff and saved all the stuff I’ve done so I put it in a book. It’s only available directly through my shop so it’s in small numbers.


KC: You have to tell us the story about pulling the train with a car!

GW: Yeah, Sunoco Gasoline had an ad agency in New York and they would call and ask me if I could do something. I would always say ‘YES!’ – then I would hang up and figure out how I was gonna do it. But I knew I could pull the train, because I watched them for years. I knew that before they took off they bumped the cars backwards. Just a little bump and it goes from car to car to car. What they’re doing is they’re creating slack, so when the engine takes off forward, it pulls each car with a little jerk. So I knew that was how to get it going instead of trying to pull the whole train all at once, and I figured I could do the same thing with a car. Of course I burned up the tranny doing it, because they had me do it over and over and over!

KC: What kind of car was it?

GW: It was a Ford or a Mercury station wagon, brand new.

KC: And that was a rental car, right?

GW: Yeah, I got the insurance. No problem.


KC: So you drove the car too?

GW: Oh yeah, I drove in every commercial. The most interesting commercial I did was for Shasta Cola. I built two Model A trucks, and I painted one of them blue and one of them yellow. The blue truck was the Cola truck, and the yellow one was the Cherry truck. It was a flatbed and we put boxes of cherries on there. We were out on a ranch and they would have us drive around and we would have near-misses and so forth, and then we were supposed to have a crash. The idea was that after the crash, we would now have Cherry Cola. I got residuals on that for 18 months, it was really good. It won an award and everything – it was a lot of fun.

KC: Wait, did you really crash the vans?

GW: Oh yeah, they needed it to roll up on the aspect and dump the cherries, however the first time, I’m drivin’ the truck and I hit it and it didn’t roll over. I dug a trench and obtained all of it discovered so I might hit it in a sure place and a sure method, nevertheless it didn’t roll. It simply bent the heck out of the axle. However from my outdated jalopy hardtop days I knew the best way to straighten it. Everybody was panicked, however I mentioned ‘Give me an hour.’ I straightened the axle and I went again and dug the ditch a bit deeper and I hit it once more and it rolled proper over and every part went simply effective.


KC: I by no means knew you had been a stunt driver too!

GW: Yeah, I did every kind of stunt driving. This was again in ’70 or ’71. The customized automobile discipline went actually down within the dumps within the late ’60s due to the muscle automobiles. When the muscle automobiles got here out they had been doing issues in Detroit that we had executed on our customized automobiles. They might put bucket seats and 4 on the ground and twin exhausts and decrease silhouettes. They did all that from the manufacturing facility, so when you can go into the seller and purchase that automobile on the spot and drive it away, it simply made the customized automobile scene actually go down. So I began doing commercials and film work for some time. For 18 months straight I did nothing however Goodyear commercials.


KC: So that you discovered a strategy to keep busy for a pair a long time there whereas the kustom scene was flat?

GW: That’s proper. Within the ’80s it began coming again and I didn’t understand it began on the East Coast. Often the tendencies begin right here in California. However rapidly it began again up in Ohio and Florida and the Mid-West, and these guys mailed me a automobile present flyer and I threw it within the trash. Then they known as me up and requested me to return to their present, and I nonetheless wouldn’t do it. The following 12 months they despatched aircraft tickets for me and my spouse to return to Ohio. I obtained again there and I mentioned, ‘Oh my god it’s occurring over again!’ So I obtained again on it and began making elements and items, tail lights and issues like that for kustom automobiles. I’ve been in it ever since.


KC: Do you want constructing customized automobiles greater than doing films and commercials?

GW: Oh yeah, that’s how I obtained my begin and I’ve far more enjoyable doing it. After I do a kustom job and put my Winfield mix on there, I can stand again and say, ‘Wow, there it’s, I created a bit of artwork’. Then numerous folks get to see it and it’s very gratifying to face again and take a look at what you’ve created and revel in it.

The Winfield Mix


KC: Are you able to clarify the way you developed your paint type?

GW: After I developed the mixing of paint, first I did a pair bikes and I blended them from the underside up, creating completely different colours. I might see how you can mix the colours from darkish to mild, and I simply experimented and located a strategy to create one thing new. The primary automobile I did a whole mix job on was a 1957 Chevy, model new in ’57. We left a lot of the aspect chrome on, it was a light kustom, and I created this paint job the place I blended across the edges and across the chrome and I highlighted what was there.


Then little by little I obtained extra into mixing of the particular colours, and in ’59 I constructed the Jade Idol (Jade Idol recreation pictured above getting a recent repaint – KC) and I put a radical, radical paint job on it the place I blended the entire automobile prime to backside and used many, many alternative colours. Jade Idol hit the present automobile circuit in 1960 and we took it again East and throughout and it received every part at each present. It will win three or 4 trophies, finest paint, finest engine, on and on. A few of the trophies had been 5 or 6 ft tall and we needed to take them aside to haul all of them dwelling. That was probably the most radical blended job and it put me on the map as a result of I went everywhere in the nation, and it’s simply continued to go uphill ever because the Jade Idol.


KC: Let’s shift gears. What recommendation would you give to guys who need to begin constructing automobiles?

GW: Younger or outdated, if folks need to construct automobiles, what they need to do first is learn to weld and do some metalwork. There are good metalworking courses everywhere in the US now, and there are additionally numerous good DVDs that train you the best way to work with steel. The primary factor is to have endurance and keep it up. Some folks, once they attempt one thing new, they lose curiosity too simply. So my recommendation is to hold in there. Even when your work doesn’t look nearly as good as you need it to, it’s a must to proceed to hammer away at it as a result of that’s what’s going to make you higher. Keep it up and work arduous, that’s the most effective recommendation I can provide.


KC: Which fundamental instruments ought to somebody have to start out off in steel fabrication?

GW: Primary, get a sandbag. That’s straightforward to get and doesn’t price hardly any cash. You’ll want some hammers too. The most effective ones round are most likely Martin hammers. Snap-on has an excellent one which was initially designed by an organization known as Plumb and Snap-on purchased the cross peen design – that’s superb. The cross peen is one in all my favourite hammers. You will get them at Eastwood. They are saying Eastwood on them however they’re made by Martin.


Then most likely an English Wheel – there are many choices for these now. A shrinker stretcher doesn’t price very a lot cash both, and presumably a bead curler when you begin moving into gear.


KC: Okay, and what about for welding?

GW: For welding I like to recommend a small torch. The Smith AW1A is my favourite torch. It’s a chrome-plated little torch and it’s stunning. You can begin with an 0 or a 00 tip and learn to gasoline weld.


KC: So would you suggest beginning out with gasoline welding as a substitute of MIG?

GW: No, they each have their place. MIG welding is loads simpler – I can train a 10-year-old child the best way to MIG weld. There are many locations the place MIG works simpler than gasoline welding. Every has its benefits, you simply need to study by making an attempt each and determining what works for every scenario.


KC: The place do you get your inspiration to do sure issues to automobiles?

GW: Properly, once I was younger Harry Westergard was in Sacramento and I used to be raised 70 miles away in Modesto. Harry Westergard and Dick Bertolucci had been each in Sacramento and Joe Wilhelm was in San Jose, and people had been the builders who I seemed as much as once I was studying. Then I lastly went all the way down to the LA space and Valley Customized, Clayton Jensen and Neil Emory, they had been doing the most effective work in LA doing hammer welding and main.


KC: Did you ever find yourself working with any of these guys?

GW: No, no I by no means did, however when Valley Customized closed down I invited Clayton Jensen to return as much as Modesto and work with me, and he drove all the way in which up there, 400 miles, and we talked about it however he determined he didn’t need to transfer his household so far-off. So he went on to rebuild Ferraris and stuff like that. He was a superb craftsman. There have been no courses again then so we had been all self-taught. One among my favourite expressions is ‘On a regular basis is a faculty day!’


KC: I feel you must inform us about your time in Japan.

GW: Yeah, I went to Japan with the military in 1950 as a prepare dinner within the MP battalion. The primary day I used to be there I discovered this physique store and it had a dust flooring and the man had a piece of metal three inches thick and eighteen inches sq.. He solely had two hammers and a pair dollies. In fact the hammers had been double sided so he actually had 4 selections of hammers to make use of. He would get down on his haunches and pound on these little items of steel, and I watched him form the steel by pounding it with a hammer, and he made a whole fender for a ’39 Buick. All of the little items, welded along with no filler in any way.


I requested him about lead and he mentioned they knew about it however they didn’t have any. In fact, plastic filler didn’t come out till 1955, and they also blended this primer that got here in pellets, virtually like rabbit pellets, and they’d combine it with thinner. So in the event that they needed a putty to fill with they would depart it thicker, or take the identical materials and skinny it out and spray it. That was their primer and filler – that’s all they’d. It was a very nice expertise. I watched the man all day and went again the subsequent day and watched for hours, and that’s how I discovered to hammer weld.


Then later 4 of us GIs obtained collectively and rented a bit store so we might construct automobiles, and we employed a Japanese man who we known as Hammer Completely satisfied as a result of we couldn’t pronounce his identify. We paid him 10 {dollars} a day and he was an amazing fabricator, welding and every part, simply wonderful.


KC: What sort of automobiles did you guys construct in Japan?

GW: I used to be constructing a ’41 Ford and I put ’46 fenders on it and did a half chop, half part on it and we made a brand new pancake hood utterly from scratch out of sheetmetal. We had been additionally engaged on a ’39 Ford convertible and one man was constructing a race automobile as a result of we discovered a race observe over there and so they had been racing little tiny automobiles. This man had a race automobile with a 4 cylinder Crosley engine. On the time Nissan/Datsun Motor Firm had two beautiful automobiles known as the DatKing and the DatQueen. They’d a full-on race automobile physique similar to an Indy automobile or a Midget, however they’d inventory Datsun engines that solely made 20 horsepower.


Then they upped it to twenty-eight horsepower and I confirmed them the best way to shave the heads and we locked the rear ends and I cross-grooved the tires. Now the tires helped, however they didn’t have sufficient energy to interrupt the locked rear ends unfastened within the turns so it didn’t work. Yeah, that was attention-grabbing. So we had been constructing a kind of Crosley racing automobiles and I’ve an image of me holding the whole chromoly body with one finger. Then I lifted up the Crosley engine in a single hand! I used to be additionally constructing extra of a sports activities automobile – I took a ’34 Ford body and Z’d it and I used to be going to construct a whole sports activities automobile physique however we by no means go to complete it as a result of we ended up coming dwelling.


KC: What had been all these American automobiles doing in Japan although?

GW: Properly all of the GIs had been allowed to ship their automobiles there totally free, so we introduced numerous stuff over. There have been so many American automobiles that I organized the primary Inventory Automotive race in Japan, and there have been Pontiacs and Fords racing one another in Japan! I’ve a NASCAR license from 1954, I used to race every kind of jalopies and arduous tops.


Now I nonetheless run a Midget in Ohio yearly within the nostalgia race and I’ve my Dash automobile right here. I simply bought my Dash automobile with a stroker Chevy in it, it was actually quick. This one had a Flathead in it and likewise a small block Chevy, so I’m undecided on what I’ll do with it. However I’m going out and play and run out right here at Willow Springs yearly for the nostalgia race.


KC: Inform us concerning the new museum your constructing.

GW: It’s an image museum, as a substitute of a automobile museum. Though final week we put a brand new door within the aspect so I can convey one automobile in there just like the Reactor or the Strip Star. My plan is to construct it and dwell in there. It’ll have all of the nostalgia stuff, the images and posters and articles that I’ve collected through the years. All of the journal articles I’ve been in through the years are going to be on show in chronological order from the ’50s all the way in which as much as at this time.


One room would be the Star Trek room the place you wave your hand and the doorways slide open and the sunshine activates. I’ve mirrors at every finish so it appears to be like 100 ft lengthy and I’ve the Enterprise in there and the Captain’s chair and all kinds of memorabilia from the film.


Then the subsequent room is the new rod storage. There’s a glass prime espresso desk with a Flathead underneath it and I’ve a Mannequin A pickup popping out of the wall that I painted vibrant pink with chrome wheels. While you take the tonneau cowl off it’ll have a mattress for somebody to sleep over on. The museum is coming alongside very well and I ought to be residing in there earlier than I’ve my subsequent automobile present in October.


KC: I obtained to satisfy Ed Iskenderian at your final present. Are you able to inform us a bit about your relationship with him?

GW: Ed is a superb man, he’s 91 I feel now and he’s very sharp. He remembers every part and he can discuss to you for hours about all of the outdated stuff. He ought to be there once more this 12 months, him and Louis Senter who used to personal Ansen wheels, he ought to be there too. I heard Vic Edelbrock goes to attempt to make it too.


KC: How lengthy have you ever recognized Isky?

GW: In all probability 30 or 40 years. I didn’t meet him once I was actual younger. I met Vic Edelbrock and Nick Arias method again earlier than then. I’m 87 now so I met lots of these guys a very long time in the past (pauses). Hey they’re calling me, I’ve to go paint a automobile now they only obtained executed getting it prepared for me. I’m portray a ’54 Pontiac and I’m gonna mix to roof blue, just like your Kaiser however I’ll go darker on the perimeters and I already put white pearl lace on the roof that may come by means of on the blue. So I’m gonna go try this.


KC: Okay, let me get one final query in – what’s the proudest second of your profession?

GW: Properly, that’s arduous to say (sighs). I’ve executed so many issues and met so many stunning, good folks on the earth. You realize, I used to be in New Orleans a pair weeks in the past on this sequence of chopping tops at World of Wheels reveals, and this man had his four-year-old son there. I had him come over and assist me work some steel, and it was this good bonding expertise with this younger baby.


Then yesterday we obtained a cake within the mail and are available to seek out out this man works for the FBI and he mentioned he actually appreciated that I made that panel together with his little boy and he mentioned if I ever want something, I can name him (laughs). So in any case, it was very gratifying, and he despatched a cake for the fellows on the store and a pleasant letter with an image of me and his boy. Issues like that make me really feel good, you realize.


KC: Alright effectively I higher allow you to go paint that Pontiac, thanks a lot to your time Gene.

GW: Don’t overlook we’re all on this collectively, for the love of customizing automobiles, younger or outdated!

Keith Charvonia
Instagram: charvoniadesign


Leave a Comment