A Pair of Artists Give a Lesson in History and Style
By Bill Ganahl | Photography by Steve Coonan
Originally Printed & Published in TRJ #37
Lee Pratt and Jimmie Vaughan have been friends for just about a quarter of a century and each has been active in the custom car community for an even longer period of time. When we saw this pair of new mild customs which they had just completed, on display, end to end, at the San Francisco Rod and Custom Show last January, we decided that it would be more than appropriate to photograph them together. Lee’s ’49 Ford Coupe and Jimmie’s ’54 Ford Victoria did indeed look really good together, and for many show attendees conjured up images of just what it may have been like to be part of the very best of the mild custom scene in the mid 1950s.
Both Lee and Jimmie are well known in the custom car and the larger hot rod car community. Each has had multiple cars featured in The Rodder’s Journal as well as a host of other magazines. Lee is perhaps best known for his early Olds-powered gold ’40 Ford coupe and his lace-painted ’58 Impala, while Jimmie’s previous efforts include a lime green Buick Riviera, a wonderful Fleetline Chevy, and his subtly chopped ’61 Cadillac.
Their friendship and creative endeavors, however, go much deeper than just custom cars. The truth is that if they are not doing something reasonably creative in nature they probably aren’t doing much of anything at all. Lee makes his living as a sculptor, working mainly in wire and plastics, and states that “my work is mainly about tension”. While Jimmie is an acclaimed musician whose guitar playing first put the Fabulous Thunderbirds on the map back in the 1980s and continues in a solo career in the best blues tradition.
Though their chosen mediums may seem considerably different, both Lee and Jimmie are artists at heart. Spend some time with them, and it quickly becomes apparent that these two like-minded friends are close. Even their tastes in custom cars seem to run in tandem. Known primarily, though not exclusively, for their adherence to 1960s sensibilities—wire wheels, narrow whitewalls, Metalflake, and candy paint—Lee and Jimmie, as if on cue, recently shifted their focus by a decade or so. The two Fords seen here are dead-on studies in the early to mid-1950s custom.
Which begs the question: How do a bluesman from Texas and a sculptor from Iowa end up in the same orbit? As with most enthusiasts, it started way before they met—well before they could drive, even. Lee grew up around the unique and thriving car culture of Des Moines, Iowa. His infatuation with that custom car scene, composed almost exclusively of shaved, lowered, and painted mild customs, inspired him to learn how to paint and weld as an early teen. He began by laying out and painting rattle-can flames on scrap metal, and welding together coffee cans with an oxyacetylene set-up that he and a friend purchased.
“If we could weld those, we figured we could weld anything,” Lee recalls. Lee migrated to San Jose, with a brief stint in L.A. during his twenties, but he moved back to De Moines, Iowa for quite some time afterward. During this time the long list of cars he owned and customized had been well documented over the years in national magazines. Of particular interest throughout this period, however, is the fact that Lee graduated to spray-guns and began welding up real Ford and GM sheet metal. Although he has always kept a relatively low profile, of most importance to his eventual encounter with Jimmie Vaughan was his involvement with automotive magazines.
Besides getting plenty of ink with his candied and severely modified ’65 Buick LeSabre and his two-toned purple and lifted ’41 Buick, Lee began writing for various magazines, including Street Rodder and the short-lived Classic and Custom Magazine. In the Midwest, Lee’s lifted, flaked, and candied cars were sensational. They also garnered a lot of attention—and a lot of respect—from the West Coast scene. Littledid Lee know those same cars were also being scrutinized by Jimmie Vaughan, who was busy reading car magazines between performances.
According to Jimmie, he didn’t “get into” cars until he was into his thirties, but he remembers, as a toddler, riding in a white ’53 Ford convertible with his uncle Joe, a man responsible for a few of Jimmie’s later vices. As they drove around, Uncle Joe would quiz Jimmie on the makes and models of other cars. Jimmie began drawing cars even before he learned to write. Then, while he was supposed to be learninghow to write, he began building models voraciously. Once he did learn how to read and write, he began poring over every custom car magazine he could get his hands on. And he hasn’t stopped.
Jimmie was into his twenties when he purchased his first car, a milestone that was delayed by a guitar (also the influence of Uncle Joe) and his early days as a struggling musician traveling around Texas. Cars were put on hold, but Jimmie didn’t forget about them.
Jimmie grew up in the Dallas, Texas area, near drive-in restaurants and theaters, and remembers falling asleep to the sound of street racing in the nearby industrial district. The cars that stuck with him were the customs, usually just shaved, lowered, and painted. Sound familiar? Jimmie was enamored with the cars and the type of guys who drove them. “They seemed like guys who could stay up all night,” he remembers. Through the years, his uncle’s ’53 convertible and these mild customs remained catalysts for the car you see here. He’s had plenty of time to think about this one. Lee’s and Jimmie’s introduction was just as inevitable as it was unlikely. In 1982, Des Moines happened to be the location of the second KKOA Leadsled Spectacular, and Jimmie happened to be playing a show there that weekend.
Being a music aficionado, Lee had admired Jimmie’s work with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Being a custom car geek, Jimmie had absorbed the many magazine articles Lee had Jerry Titus introduced the two, and the rest is…well, the rest is what magazine articles are written about.
As Jimmie recalls, “I was a big fan. I came out to Des Moines and there he was. He was totally into the blues, so we have that in common.” Lee corroborates, “It was a mutual admiration. We have the same philosophies about cars and music and…everything.” What followed were plenty of road trips between Jimmie’s home base in Austin, Texas, and Lee in Des Moines, Iowa, and eventually L.A. You get the impression that when these two get together, they spend hours sitting in Jimmie’s magazine-and-old-car-parts-filled den, studying old magazines, listening to rare blues cuts on vinyl, and not having to say much. The common interests are obvious, but just as important is the common attribute that unites the cars on these pages: style.
Of course, Lee’s gold ’40 coupe (TRJ #13) and Jimmie’s ’51 Chevy (TRJ #3) both have 1950s cues, but the Fords seen here are pure early to mid-fifties customs. Lee points out that the rear bumper guards—from a ’57 Ford—are the newest pieces on his car. “I made a conscious effort to do that,” he explains. “I looked at every Barris-built ’49–’51 Ford. Chuck DeWitt’s convertible is one of my favorite shoeboxes. That era, ’53 to about ’55, had the best customs.”
For his part, Jimmie remembers the fifties as a time when “everybody had a false sense of security.” Not exactly a fond recollection, but his memories of his uncle’s ’53 and the customs around his hometown remained inspiration enough to build the custom he would like to have had back then. And that’s the fun part for him: “I can’t afford to buy cars with history, so I go and make one up. I like to fantasize about a car that ‘could have been.’”
Lee first saw his shoebox five years ago at the Long Beach swap meet. It was on a trailer and for sale, and somehow he kept managing to walk past it. He also kept managing to create excuses for why he shouldn’t buy it. Although the body was cherry and complete, all of the mechanicals, including the engine and trans, were in bad shape. He just couldn’t justify the amount of work and expense it would take to restore it.
That is, until his buddy chimed in that he had a few running flatheads tucked away for a rainy day. Apparently, this buddy had acquired twenty—yes twenty—running flathead motors that had been used to power generators in an orange grove. Low mileage, low stress. They were all ’49–’53 blocks, and he just happened to have a couple left over after using or selling the rest. He told Lee that if he bought the car, he could have his pick of the remaining mills.
Lee Pratt became the owner of a ’49 Ford coupe. His plan was to repair the mechanicals, install the new motor, shave some handles and trim, spray the car, and drive it. When Lee disassembled the car, including the entirety of the front sheet metal to swap the motor and repair the front suspension, he reached the “now or never” point, as often seems to happen with these “quick” projects. Lee’s collection of custom parts, which he has been accumulating for decades, included three ’50 Mercury grille openings that seemed to be awaiting this opportunity. Lee decided to make it a less-mild custom.
The modifications Lee made to the car are a combination of all the best examples from that golden era of customs. The grille is a narrowed and v’d ’52 Olds; the side trim is from a ’55 Chevy 210, flipped upside down; and the taillights are ’53 Olds items. Most of the modifications have precedent, and Lee can direct you to the issue and page number of each article he scoured over the years for inspiration.
To get an idea of just how studied and calculated each aspect of this shoebox is, check out the motor. Lee came across a photo of the engine compartment of early Barris apprentice “ Junior” Conway’s first shoebox and noted the perfect proportion and spacing of the air cleaners. The usual tiny air-cleaner covers, in his opinion, don’t look proportionate (and can’t breathe), so he found a Sharp wide-spaced twopot intake and ordered old-style covers with blank bases and fit them to the Stromberg carbs.
The omission of pleats in the seat covers and door panels, almost obligatory custom cues, may seem conspicuous in the vehicle of someone so dedicated to custom car tradition. Again, Lee went to the little books—and again Junior’s shoebox is the culprit. When Lee initially planned on a more mild custom, he wanted to leave the interior relatively stock. Although the project snowballed, he still wanted something subtle, and Junior’s car provided the perfect inspiration: custom upholstery without pleats. If it’s in the books, it’s fair game. The resulting bronze and ivory upholstery is the work of “Downtown Willy” Sopher, who has oddly enough set up shop in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, and Tony’s Auto Upholstery in Whittier, California.
When it came time for paint, Lee’s first inclination was to paint the shoebox gold—not like the gold on his ’40, but something more like the Hirohata Merc in its second incarnation. After plenty of consternation, he decided that gold was too “obvious.” Inspiration could have come from the Goulart shoebox, Larry Ernst’s Chevy in its second form, or even Junior’s shoebox, but Lee insists that these were subconscious motivators, at best. He simply picked a copper that he thought would match the Lime Green.
Lee builds and paints his own cars in a living/workspace in what was once a brewery building in Los Angeles. His home, his art, and his automobiles are all there. He has a stock of parts, tools, and equipment, and he built a makeshift paint “booth” where he lays down his own lacquer paint jobs. As Jimmie puts it, “Lee could build a house if he wanted to. I haven’t seen anything he can’t do if he wants to.”
Jimmie, on the other hand, spent his youth learning how to play the guitar, so when he comes up with a car and an idea of how he wants it built, he takes it to Gary Howard, whose shop is only miles away from Jimmie’s home in Texas. Gary has been involved with each of Jimmie’s cars, performing the modifications and laying down the paint, beginning way back with his purplish ’51 Chevy. Gary also happens to be a self-confessed ’52–’54 Ford enthusiast who generally gravitates to the fifties era and style. So when Jimmie drove up in a ’54 Ford, Gary quickly learned that as usual, Jimmie had well-researched plans for it.
Jimmie bought the car five years ago, coincidentally about the same time Lee bought his ’49, at the Memorial Day car show in Paso Robles, California. It was already a nice car with 54,000 original miles and finished in green suede. Jimmie, of course, had Uncle Joe’s convertible in mind when he bought it, but his attraction to the body style isn’t just about fond memories. “I get a car because I like the car,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be heavily modified. The ’54s came customized: one-piece windshield, wheel arch lips, flush skirts. All you do is clean ’em up. You don’t have to chop these cars.”
Since Gary was already a fan of the car and the era, the decisions came easily and naturally. The major visual change is the grille treatment. You might not realize it at first, but that’s a ’54 Ford grille without the center bullet, and with the outer bars removed. Gary reworked the grille surround and trim to look like a ’55 Ford. The taillights are ’56 Olds, frenched into extended rear fenders. Other than that, the car is just the way Jimmie remembers them: nosed, decked, shaved, and lowered.
The most notable difference between this car and the rest of Jimmie’s collection is the color—or lack thereof. Jimmie is very particular about the colors he chooses for his cars and, despite what you might think, this one was no different. While in deliberation, he and Gary cruised around town looking for inspiration and came across a dealership with some early Corvettes lined up. Jimmie asked Gary to pick the one that looked the best, and they both agreed on the white model. In retrospect, Gary claims, “I was pretty jumpy about it all along, but I couldn’t come up with anything better.”
Jimmie admits that his choice was partially contrarian in nature—kind of like putting slicks on a ’61 Cadillac. Jimmie’s just waiting for people to question him: “‘You did what? You can’t do that. What are you trying to hide?’ People expect certain things, and I kind of like to upset them sometimes!” Tradition doesn’t necessarily have to be predictable. Initially, the top was white as well; the silver came a bit later, and it really takes “subtle” to a new level. As Gary puts it, “All the rest of Jimmie’s cars were statements. This one’s kind of a non-statement. Maybe he was showing everyone what an mid to early-fifties custom should look like.”
The interior in Jimmie’s ’54, like Lee’s, is also a little bit different, but it still looks like it came from the heart of the fifties. And that’s because it did: The reverse horseshoe pattern is taken from a ’54 Mercury. The black and white tuck and roll with a slight twist on tradition is the work of Tony Chamberlain of Hatfield Restorations. Jimmie also chose the unlikely light, silver-threaded carpet, which is possibly the flashiest item on the car. The horn button and the wheelcover centers, he points out, are the car’s only accents.
When it came to the motor, Jimmie made the logical choice: a 239 Y-block. He paid particularly close attention to the engine compartment, researching all of the stock accoutrements and making sure everything looked factory. The point was to make the car look as if it was purchased off the lot brand new in late ’53, and given a mild-custom exterior treatment. Check out the solenoids on the firewall for the door-latch mechanisms, just where they would have been in ’54.
The only item in Jimmie’s car that can be considered anachronistic is the updated air-conditioning system—a Vintage Air “vintage” unit—but he swears that his two-year-old twin girls demanded he put it in there. Its purpose is to make the car suitable for driving, which is exactly what these guys intend to do. Lee and Jimmie both made their debut at the San Francisco Rod, Custom and Motorcycle Show at the Cow Palace in January, and then back to L.A. for the Grand National Roadster Show. Now, after the brief show circuit, they’re hittin’ the road.
So the question remains, why did Lee and Jimmie both build cars that seem a little out of the ordinary for both of them, and at the same time to boot? Neither really has an answer, and neither really feels that these cars are uncharacteristic of their personal tastes and style. Perhaps these cars are simply the “fifties custom” opuses in their eclectic automotive sagas. Maybe Lee and Jimmie just think alike. Either way, the cars are a couple of nice pieces by a couple of friends who also both happen to be artists.•
—CUSTOM TRENDS IN THE ’50s—
A Sidebar by Spence Murray
In talking with Jimmie and Lee about their customs, one name that popped up over and over again was Spence Murray. Both Jimmie and Lee were heavily inspired by Spence’s early writings in the pages of Hop Up and Rod & Custom. His cross-country custom car exploits fueled a desire among many readers to drive in earnest the customs built. Because Jimmie and Lee both plan to drive the wheels off the two cars featured here, we thought it would only be appropriate to have Spence reflect on customizing—and driving—his cars in the “Golden Age.”
Driving a newly minted custom is exhilarating. It’s freshly out of the shop with an expressive new look, eager to turn heads while promising never to meet itself coming the other way. The euphoria the creation generates is proportionate to the extent of its alterations. Is it a semi-custom just nosed and decked? Is it a de-handled, de-emblemed mild custom? Is it a chopped radical custom? Let’s coin a new term for the cars of Jimmie Vaughan and Lee Pratt: retro-ized, for both of these first- and second- postwar-generation Fords carry the hallmarks of customizing’s Golden Age. Yes, the 1950s spawned customs that are revered today and it’s refreshing that two current-era enthusiasts find tricks of the early trade so appealing over a half-century later.
Custom fans are legion, but few have ridden in one—fewer still have owned one. I am fortunate to have been employed at a custom shop in 1950 while owning a ’49 Chevy two-door begging for attention. I couldn’t afford steep customizing prices, so I cajoled a coworker into helping me after hours, with permission from shop owner Link Paola. Since the Chevy was my daily driver, mods were kept simple at first and neighbors grew used to seeing my wife and me grocery shopping or chauffeuring the kids in a car with blotchy primer spots, unfilled holes, or missing grille and trim pieces. Styling upgrades were hardly innovative, but taken together they made a fine ride for the time: ’49 Merc shell with ’49 Plymouth grille, filled hood, frenched lights, ’50 Pontiac side trim, filled deck, and a severe lowering job. A final do-it-toit was the chopped top, rare for this model at the time. It was self-satisfying to drive my hammered Chevy around town, and it rated feature-car status in the original Hop Up for June ’52 after taking second place at the Oakland Roadster Show earlier that year. Then, to prove to doubters that a radical custom could be roadworthy, I drove it to an Indiana car show, a trip that was documented in Hop Up for September ’52 under the title “6000 Miles in a Custom.” Motoring about in an altered car like this takes getting used to; people stare when you drive past, onlookers ask questions when you are parked, and co-motorists risk you (and themselves) by following too closely on highways for a once-over. But this is what motivates the true custom guy—neophytes in the hobby have to get used to it. A custom is an extension of one’s personality and owning/driving one is as much a hazard as it is an ego boost.
By 1953, Link’s Custom Shop was behind me and I was editor of Rod & Custom. My slammed ’49 was behind me, too, so in 1954 I embarked on another custom, this time an outrageously complex project designed to give R&C’s readers a step-by-step look-see at customizing. Four years a-building, my ’50/’54 Chevy dubbed “The Dream Truck” is quite possibly (I modestly admit) the most famous custom of all time, having starred in some two hundred books, magazines, and other publications, and played before huge crowds at car shows across the nation. That was before it was demolished in a 1958 towing accident. Its carcass lost for twenty years, it was surprisingly resurrected by a dedicated customizer and is presently owned by Kurt McCormick, collector of all things Barris.
The Dream Truck is hardly a typical ’50s-era custom, though several of its innovations were copied then and are still emulated today. It was crafted by a combination of noted customizers at a time when there was heavy competition among shops—one rarely continued the work of another. But perseverance brought together Sam Gates, Valley Custom, Gene Winfield, Sam and George Barris, Curly Adams, Bob Metz, and others to chop, section, radically lower, and add fins to the channeled pickup bed, then poke quad lights into the front fenders two years before Detroit did the same thing.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my ’49 Chevy two-door and The Dream Truck helped propel customizing into long-lasting popularity. The retro-izing of half-century-old cars by fans who weren’t even born when they were new is a healthy, rewarding experience that will persist as long as fat-fendered and shoebox postwar cars keep turning up. Vaughan’s and Pratt’s Fords are eye-catching without being radical, and are superb examples of how to recapture the ’50s and achieve customizing greatness without resorting to overkill.•
Click the Tech Panels for a closer look
©2007-2020 The Rodder’s Journal, all rights reserved