Sixty years ago brothers-in-law Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen produced inspired cars of far-reaching fame.
By: Spencer Murray | Photos courtesy the Emory and Jensen families, the Ron Kellogg, Ina Mae Overman, and Greg Sharp collections
The two decades following World War II spawned a new type of automotive awareness. It was called customizing – not to be confused with the coach-building of bodies on luxury-car chassis for the rich and famous. Customizing implied visual changes to a plain-vanilla car to set it apart from the thousands of same-make look-alikes. It was (and still is) largely an ego thing; a method of self expression. Things were simpler in those immediate post-war years. New cars were at last available and used cars from the’ 30s and early ‘40s were plentiful and cheap. Returning GIs came home with spare bucks in their jeans and after the hellish war they weren’t ready to settle down to a job or begin a family. Since many had paused in Southern California going to and from the Pacific they had been exposed — if only subliminally — to the West Coast car scene and they took the phenomenon home. Roads not pot-holed by winter weather, year-round top-down motoring and dry lakes which invited full-bore racing, all combined to make the Los Angeles area an automotive “Hey, look at us!”
Customizing reaches back to the 1920s and even before. Any bodyman could weld up an unwanted hole but it wasn’t until the years bridging WWII that shops dedicated to the restyling of everyday cars as an art form began to emerge. The names behind these enterprises were spread by the post-war growth of rod and custom car publications, at first also West Coast-based. Though there had been earlier magazines — the monthly Throttle produced during 1941, for example – it was the debut of Petersen’s Hot Rod in January 1948 that opened the floodgates to magazines devoted — at first — to the Southern California car scene. Paola, Barris, the Ayalas, and Summers, to name just a few of the many panel-beating luminaries, became household names to readers of magazines such as Motor Trend, Hop Up, Rod & Custom, Honk! (CarCraft), and Rodding and Restyling.
Thanks to media coverage of the more radical cars fans could recognize the work of a particular shop simply by its restyling. Anyone interested could spot the source of a custom from such details as the slope of its chopped top or its grille. Customizers proudly boasted of their techniques and rivalry was rampant between competing entrants at car shows. Jockeying for feature-car status in one of the magazines became an obsession.
But one shop didn’t fit the mold. It operated quietly and effectively yet was responsible for customs produced as long as 60 years ago that would turn heads and win car shows today. It was simply called Valley Custom; an out-of-the-way, always-crowded, three-stall-wide, three-car-deep garage whose co-owning brothers-in-law, Neil Emory and Clayton Jensen, were without question the best metalworkers and painters in the restyling trade. Valley Custom cars achieved a greatness unrivaled today thanks to not only superior craftsmanship but to little details like adjusting panel gaps caused by Detroit’s hurry-up mass production. Their cars weren’t cluttered by unnecessary scoops, toothy grilles or the garish paint schemes favored by some competitors who, it seemed, tried to outdo each other with gimmickry beyond the realm of meaningful restyling. Valley Custom stressed clean lines to the point of simplicity yet brought out a car’s designed qualities in form and function. Their cars were never tail-draggers, trailer queens or show-only lead-sleds so heavily modified they were impractical to drive (the dreaded “if some’s good, more’s better” syndrome!). Only once did the partners at Valley Custom attend a car show (at the 1955 L.A. Motorama 13 of their clients entered cars and won 15 awards in the process). So, how did Valley Custom get its start and why is it so often said (incorrectly) that it survived only twelve years from 1948 to 1960? Bear with us and we’ll clear up this and other myths.
Neil Emory grew up during the Depression years in Burbank, California, a small community ten miles northwest of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. As a child he scribbled images of cars and played with wheeled toys. Later he rode his bike to nearby garages just to watch the men at work. It was a thing kids did but Neil went further than most: to shops of coachbuilders like Howard “Dutch” Darrin of Hollywood, known for his dazzling pre-war Packard-Darrin convertibles with swallowtail doors, and to far-off (for a kid on a bike) Pasadena where Bohman & Schwartz created swanky one-off bodies. Neil couldn’t get inside these facilities but he peeked through windows and was fascinated.
In the 7th grade Neil took classes in carpentry, metal-working and, his favorite, auto shop, academia in those days offering such electives. During lean times in 1935 the school had the students repair playground and athletic equipment to save hiring outside help. Neil appreciated the chance to work with his hands while getting a free but practical education. The classes became so busy with work both for itself and for other schools that it needed an organizer and Neil took the job, escaping bookwork yet managing passing grades.
Pre-war Burbank was a midget racing hub with countless garages building and otherwise tending to the little speedsters. Neil hung out at one doing gofer chores that no one else wanted. But it was no accident that the facility was next door to CoachCraft, another builder of luxury one-offs. Lookie-loos weren’t welcome but the building had a common wall with the race car shop and there was a door between the two. Neil could slip into CoachCraft’s off-limits shops to watch the work unfold while learning things he’d use later.
Youngsters were hard-pressed to find summertime jobs during the Depression. So Neil and friend Milt Hall invented their own in the Warner Brothers Studios private parking lot. They detailed executives’ cars, working out a punch-card system where execs and actors who contracted with them would be charged a nickel a day to have their car swept out, wiped down and the windows washed – needed or not. The boys could do five or more cars an hour and at each week’s end they could divvy up as much as four or five dollars. Neil also had paper and magazine routes (aviatrix Amelia Earhart was a customer), worked at a service station, made and installed long shackles for fat-fendered Fords, worked on Burbank’s annual Rose Parade float, and even tried his hand at making mufflers (by filling a length of tubing with stones – it worked!) One day in 1938 Neil heard that the owner of a new Pontiac convertible wanted a tonneau cover to keep the summer sun off his seats when the top was down. Neil obliged, bought the material and other things he’d need from a JC Penney store, carefully measured the car, made paper patterns, transferred them to the material and had his mother stitch it together. The customer was delighted and Neil learned that those who could afford it were willing to pamper their cars.
Neil’s first car was a ’37 Dodge convertible. Though the windshield had been chopped (by Burbank Auto Body) Neil took it further during auto shop at Burbank High by adding, among other touches, ’39 Ford taillights and he recessed into the decklid two side-by-side plates; one the required license tag and the other a plaque for the “Throttle Stompers” club to which he belonged.
Southern California became awash in aircraft manufacturing as WWII loomed and Neil, newly married and needing a full-time job, hired on at Douglas Aircraft transferring drawings to aluminum and learning how to hammer them to shape. He made small parts for then-secret jet fighter aircraft, but while the planes later flew with piston engines the experimental jet engines didn’t pan out. Neil’s aircraft involvement kept him from military enlistment for a time but the Navy finally called. He spent an uninspiring career at Alameda across the bay from San Francisco, moonlighting at a glass factory and by customizing naval officers’ cars on the sly.
When he hung up his sailor suit in 1946 Neil did odd jobs around Burbank; general body repair, fixing aluminum engine nacelles and wheel fairings on private aircraft. Neil, married since ’42 and with a growing family, sought work at a ramshackle shop that was once part of a dairy. He pounded fenders alongside a couple of guys while the shop’s owner worked at the nearby GM assembly plant striping Chevrolet wheels. Neil had long dreamed of opening his bodyshop doing, at first, customizing for school friends and hoping news of his work would spread by word of mouth. But he knew he couldn’t run a bodyshop alone. He needed a partner and that’s when Clay Jensen entered the picture. Clay was experienced in auto mechanics but he was short of body-working experience. The upshot was that Neil and Clay formed a 50/50 partnership and late 1948 signaled the formal birth of Valley Custom.
At first the partners did minor customizing filling hoods and deck lids and other straight-forward jobs but more involved, more lucrative work came their way once word of their meticulous handiwork spread. Clay was a quick learner and as he watched Neil weld, braze, solder, cut, trim and hammer-weld panels together he rapidly became as proficient as his partner. A dilemma in those days was how much to charge for custom work. Neil and Clay considered their operating costs and decided $1.25 an hour (plus materials) would be about right. Rates would naturally increase later but this was a business-like though short-sighted beginning.
Dean Batchelor, ever the ultimate hot rodder, (though he once drove a ’41 Pontiac dechromed by Linc Paola) was one of Neil’s best friends. He told Neil soon after Valley Custom opened that he (Dean) and Alex Xydias, founder of the So-Cal Speed Shop, were building a Bonneville streamliner. Dean and Alex had built the chassis and planned to run in two different classes; a V8 60 for one and a Merc for the other. Dean, with a degree in industrial design, had drawn up a fully-enveloping body and asked Valley Custom to build it. Using war surplus aluminum the body was fabricated into a smoothly rounded shape with removable side panels for each wheel and above the engine bay, and a full bellypan. It was an aerodynamic wonder and in May 1949 Dean drove the So-Cal Speed Shop Streamliner across the salt with a two-way average of 156.39 mph with the V8 60 and 189.75 mph average with the Merc. The fastest one-way leg was 193.54 mph. Since the chassis inside was basically early Ford the car probably would have gone only half as fast with a conventional roadster body so Valley Custom can be partially credited for the records. A year later the streamliner was at El Mirage with Valley Custom’s reconfigured nose and newly shaped blisters above the front wheels for larger tires. Dean was going for a lakes record with the V8 60 and had completed the first leg at 152-plus mph. But on the return run at near 150 mph a sudden shift in the crosswind caused loss of control. The streamliner veered, flipped then settled down under an immense cloud of dust. Badly injured, Dean was rushed to the nearest hospital but thankfully survived. Valley Custom hammered the streamliner back into shape but Dean never drove it again. The ’liner later ran 208 mph with Bill Daily aboard.
Having seen the sleek streamliner at the salt and lakes rodders began patronizing Valley Custom for modified grille shells, track-car noses, custom-fitted hood panels and other aerodynamic mods in their eternal quest for speed. One early but notable Valley Custom roadster built in ’51 for Dick Flint was a ’29 A with full belly pan, track nose and subtle body changes to mask its origin. It ran a respectable 143.54 mph at El Mirage and warranted the cover of Hop Up’s November ’51 issue and again on Hot Rod’s May ’52 cover.
Valley Custom’s partners never boasted of their work, didn’t solicit magazines to feature their cars and had virtually no inter-action with other customizers. You never heard “That’s a Neil Emory car.” or “There’s one by Clay Jensen.” It was always “That’s obviously by Valley Custom,” the partners preferring the collective reference. They may have been self-effacing but their workmanship did their talking in both design and execution. The shop drew patrons from near and far; consider the mid-westerner who shipped out his ’36 Ford doors to have the handle holes filled, or that Jack Stewart drove out from Canton, Ohio in his ’50 Olds 88 hardtop which Valley Custom turned into the famed Polynesian. (TRJ #35)
It’s worth noting that Valley Custom didn’t have high-falutin’ equipment like the big boys; no fancy rollers, power shears, sheet-metal brakes, wire- or TIG welders. They just used hand-held dollies, assorted hammers and vixen files which, when drawn across a panel, revealed low and high spots, oxyacetylene torches and a couple of disc grinders. To form a radius in flat sheet metal they bent it around a nearby telephone pole or, for a tighter bend the post for a side-street stop sign. Bondo or other fillers hadn’t been invented yet and they used lead only sparingly, generally just to fill small surface imperfections. What Valley Custom had in abundance was metal-working savvy, an eye for design, un-matched painting skills and plenty of old-fashioned hard work.
An egg rancher from nearby Sunland had an outrageous rod cobbled together from the front half of a ’22 T phaeton, a ridiculously short pickup bed and a Cad V8. It was the mis-matched pride of Norm Grabowski. The car obviously needed help so Valley Custom obliged and produced what was at first called the “Lightnin’ Bug”. Magazines scurried to feature the little T-bucket and it won Best in Class at the prestigious 1955 Oakland Roadster Show. Valley Custom later redid the modified and had Dean Jeffries give it its bold flames. It became a fixture in TV’s 77 Sunset Strip in the late ’50s and as the shows’ character was nicknamed Kookie, the rod became famous as Kookie’s Car. Though Valley Custom wasn’t known to the general TV audience, rodders knew who was responsible for Norm’s rod and that didn’t hurt Neil’s and Clay’s status in the street rod world. The T is probably the only car cloned in two versions; as its first black-painted iteration then another as Kookie’s Car. They are a study in contrasts when seen together. (TRJ #36)
Of the several major body mods that can make a radical custom, sectioning is the hardest and involves reducing the car to a doorless, gutted shell without fenders, hood or deck lid, removing a strip from its midsection, reuniting the truncated halves then somehow fitting the pieces back together. Valley Custom preferred leaving a car’s upper body (the greenhouse) alone and thinning out the lower portion to achieve a better aesthetic balance between the two. They didn’t actually turn down top-chopping but told customers that moderation was better than having a custom with mail-slot windows and resembling an inverted pie pan on a hat box. Sectioning is tricky since the car’s overall styling must be considered for it to “work”. A few customizers sectioned cars (not always successfully; at least one was scrapped unfinished) but it became a Valley Custom trademark and included such eye-poppers as Tommie Jamieson’s ’37 Ford pickup, Ralph Jilek’s ’40 Ford convertible, Ron Dunn’s ’50 Ford, the ’50 Olds Polynesian and the ’50/’54’ Chevy pickup-based R&C Dream Truck.
It’s interesting that of these five landmark customs four have been restored. First to be salvaged was the Dream Truck, brought back in 1980 and now owned by Kurt McCormick; the Ralph Jilek ‘40 convertible’s restoration was first started by Don Emory, Neil’s son. He lost interest and Don Orosco purchased it. Don also lost interest and it was finally fully restored by Mike McKennett for then owner Tom Gloy; Dunn’s ’50 Ford was acquired by his nephew Gary Rand who sold it to Steve Frisbie owner of Steve’s Auto Restorations of Portland, Oregon, where it’s being returned it to its former glory; and Jack Stewart’s Polynesian beautifully restored in 2005 by Gene Blackford of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio in his Red Lacquer Room restoration shop.
Innocently misstated facts about a car can be embellished until the final telling bears little resemblance to the truth. This is the case with the channeled Merc convertible that Valley Custom did for Glen Hooker. To put several published misconceptions about the Merc into a single sentence it would read: “The ’40 Merc was secretly customized and given to Neil and Clay’s nephew Glen Hooker as a high school graduation present.” Makes a good story, doesn’t it? But it’s wrong. First of all it’s a ’39, not a ’40. It was purchased by Glen’s grandfather and gifted to him while he was still in high school. Glen was a brother-in-law of Neil and Clay; they had married sisters and Glen was the girls’ brother. The car was openly worked on at the shop with Glen helping out after classes and on weekends with grandpa paying the bills. Glen drove it to and from high school before graduation. What became of this Valley Custom classic? Glen kept it for five years then sold it to singer Bobby Darin. Its whereabouts today are unknown.
Valley Custom was forever full of cars waiting their turn under the torch, wearing splotches of primer or maybe up on jackstands. No one kept score of the number of cars that underwent surgery but it was surely in the hundreds. Most, of course, were simply nosed and/or decked, their owners limiting alterations to suit their budgets at the time. When the shop ran out of parking spaces cars were kept at in-law Hooker’s house a few blocks away. Some owners would come back for more work later, others wouldn’t return at all, either living with a primer-spotted car or selling it as is. Which brings up this: Someone dropped off his ’36 Ford roadster saying he’d be back the next day with sketches of what he wanted done. Another came in with a dismantled, already-chopped ’37 Olds with a stack of unidentified fenders to be added then hurried off for a second load of parts. Valley Custom never saw either of these people again. These cars gathered dust for years in a fenced area behind the shop that also held cast-off doors, fenders, hood ornaments and more; all mouth-watering stuff today.
Then there were unfinished cars that changed hands without leaving the shop. One was Bill Hook’s ’32 Ford roadster. Channeling was underway when Hook changed his mind and asked Valley Custom to sell the car as-is. Dr. Leland Wetzel of Springfield, Missouri was in Los Angeles for a medical seminar. He was a motorhead as well as a physician and turned to the Yellow Pages for a speed or custom shop that might know of a West Coast roadster for sale. Valley Custom had the answer, a deal was struck with Hook and the ’32 was finished, upholstered and painted yellow. Wetzel towed the engineless Deuce back to Springfield where Leonard Carr built a potent flathead for it, then the doctor and his wife, accompanied by Carr and his wife (driving a T-bodied modified) caravanned to Bonneville for the ’52 Nationals then a run up Pike’s Peak. Wetzel used the roadster as a second car until permanently parking it in 1964. Thirty years later collector Kurt McCormick acquired it just as it had rolled out of Valley Custom 42 years before. Kurt had Dave Conrad of Kirkwood, Missouri, see to some minor dings and repaint it the original yellow. A 331-inch Cad V8 with a S.Co.T. blower replaces the flathead but otherwise the Deuce is a Valley Custom original right down to its upholstery.
A body shop is not the safest place to work; sharp metal edges can slice fingers, welding sparks and heat from a torch can produce serious burns, working around batteries and gasoline can be an explosive combination. It’s a wonder that Neil and Clay managed to avoid the more serious consequences except one night when the two were working late. They were modifying a frame and it fell, landed on Neil’s feet breaking toes in both of them. For weeks he wore special work shoes with enough toe room for heavy bandaging.
While run-of-the-mill deck planing, hood nosing and other simplicities kept the partners busy most of the time they occasionally tackled something more difficult. In early 1951 Ray Vega brought in his ’38 Ford convertible sedan with, presumably, a bottomless wallet. He wanted the “works” but instead of diving in willy-nilly Neil and Clay talked it over with Vega, using chalk to sketch designs on the floor, before picking up the torch and hammer. The result was one of Valley Custom’s early classics. It no longer resembled a ’38, now that it had ’40 Ford front sheetmetal, it was channeled a hefty five inches and the top had three inches lopped off. That the ’40 grille and headlights were left stock is a tribute to Valley Custom’s restraint. The car merited the cover of the May ’52 Hop Up and inside photos revealed the unique hand-tooled leather by Vega’s mother and installed by L&L Upholstery in Glendale.
Part II of the Valley Custom story will appear in the next TRJ (#44) with Clay Jensen’s background and his important contributions, disproving more myths, and long-forgotten (and some never-seen) photos and updates on several of the shop’s surviving cars.
Sidebar #1: Accreditation
It was late December 1952 when I first met Neil and Clay. Dean Batchelor, editor of Hop Up, had hired me and I’d start work on the first workday after New Years. Dean wanted me to meet some of the people I’d be calling on. I had a custom car background; two Carson-topped convertibles in pre-war days and a chopped ’49 Chevy 2-door that had trophied at the Oakland Roadster Show earlier that year. I knew George Barris from the ’51 Los Angeles Motorama so I looked forward to visiting legendary Valley Custom. Though the little shop on Victory Place in Burbank wasn’t particularly impressive, its co-owners were. Just two regular, friendly guys dressed in white coveralls with “Valley Custom” stitched on the back; down to earth gentlemen unlike the image of some other hammer/dolly types who wouldn’t give you the time of day unless you spent money with them. Neil and Clay put down their tools to shake hands and we chatted for a while then they returned to their work.
I visited Valley Custom to arrange photo shoots, to help photograph how-tos and, specifically, to kibitz while Neil and Clay finished sectioning my ’54 Chevy pickup cab for the Dream Truck. Several of Valley Custom’s more notable cars would emerge during my watch and cars finished earlier would come in to have dings repaired or paint retouched. So I have clear memory of many of their awesome cars — and their equally interesting owners. Norm Grabowski, for one, sometimes arrived on his Chevy 220 hp Corvair-powered Harley-Davidson.
About the time Neil left Valley Custom in 1960—leaving Clay to run the shop alone—circumstances changed. I stopped at the old shop in 1968 for some work on my ‘36 roadster but the name on the building was Custom Coachcraft with Carl Morton as proprietor. The building is gone now and the site is a parking lot. Sadly, I never saw Clay again but Neil helped me celebrate the start of the Dream Truck’s rebirth in 1979 and we kicked a few tires at one of the last Paso Robles gatherings. Dean, Clay and Neil have all passed away but I’ll always cherish the memories of my three mentors and of Valley Custom when it was producing some of the hands-down, absolutely finest, best-remembered customs ever built. —Spence Murray
Sidebar #2: Lifeline
The accompanying two-part saga represents extensive research, 3000 miles by land and air, interviews with members of the Emory and Jensen families from three states, and my own connection with Valley Custom in the ‘50s. While it may seem a stretch, the following, with a counterpart in the next issue, is relevant to show that automotive interest still courses through the veins of Valley Custom descendants. Clay Jensen will be the focus of Part II.
Neil Carl Emory was born in Burbank, California, on September 20th, 1923. His parents divorced when he was a year old and his mother later remarried. The parental change unsettled Neil and by age eight he had become fairly self-reliant and took any menial chore he could; washing cars, mowing lawns, anything for pocket money. He attended the local Burbank grammar school then Burbank High where he met Florene Hooker, a grade behind him though they shared typing class. They dated, time passed, and Neil popped the question. Flo, as she prefers being called, accepted and the wedding date was set. Neil asked his friend Dean Batchelor to drive them to Las Vegas, Nevada and they set out on a Sunday. It was December 7th, 1941. Along the way Dean tactfully pointed out that maybe they should postpone the wedding to avoid sharing their future anniversaries with the ‘day of infamy’ attack on Pearl Harbor. Flo and Neil agreed and later married on July 3rd 1942.
First of the Emory children was Gary, born in 1943, followed by brothers Donald and Kenneth then daughter Janette. Neil doted on his kids, especially Jan, attending her recitals and other little-girl doings. When the boys were old enough they visited the shop, sweeping up, putting tools away and admiring Dad’s and Uncle Clay’s work. Gary remembers weekends sanding with Don spraying primer by age 12 and becoming a skilled painter at 14.
Chick Iverson sold used cars in nearby Toluca Lake, some of them mild customs and often needing repair or painting. Iverson appreciated Valley Custom’s work for him and when he parlayed his business into a VW agency, later adding Porsche, in upscale Newport Beach, 45 miles south of Burbank, he asked Neil and Clay to come work for him. Clay politely declined but Neil gave up his share of Valley Custom in 1960 and moved the family to Costa Mesa, a more affordable area near Newport Beach but with the same clean ocean air. Clay was now sole owner of Valley Custom and would remain so until 1967, disproving the oft-told tale that the famed shop lasted from 1948 to 1960. It was the partnership that lasted those dozen years.
Neil’s son Gary worked in the Iverson parts department, later opening his own Porsche parts business, Parts Obsolete which he still operates in McMinnville, Oregon. Neil and Flo wanted to live in a country environment and after long weekend searches they found a three-acre plot in rural Fallbrook, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Neil left Iverson after 16 years and with help from an architect relation, his three sons and daughter (whose husband Tom Wilson writes for Road & Track) the senior Emorys finally built their dream house designed in early American style. Its interior, when decorated for the Holidays, was photographed by Hallmark for their Christmas cards.
Don started Porsche Restoration Service in 1974 in Fallbrook with Neil helping with bodywork and where he (Neil) added some custom touches to Dick Flint’s Pantera; the same Dick Flint whose Valley Custom-built roadster had won so many awards. Don later built a new house and an attached, expanded shop on the outskirts of Fallbrook but the entire complex, including several custom Porsches and a sectioned ’41 Ford, was consumed by the wildfires that ravaged San Diego County in October 2007. More than 220 homes and several lives were lost in the conflagration. Emory family members escaped unhurt but most of Fallbrook was under mandatory evacuation until the fires subsided.
The third Emory generation is headed by Rod who, in family automotive tradition, is up to his ears in his highly successful Emory Motorsports of McMinnville, Oregon. His firm supplies parts for Porsche restoration shops, rebuilds and customizes older models and builds, services and transports racing Porsches to tracks around the country.
Neil suffered declining health in his last years and passed away on October 10th, 2004. He was 81. Flo lives alone in the house they built together but Don, Kenny and Jan, who all live close by, stop in daily to check on her. Flo showed me Neil’s office, I walked the wandering brick paths that Neil built, I drove the dirt roads that Neil leveled by hand and saw the shovels he did it with. I left Fallbrook with a heavy heart. —Spence Murray
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