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The Route 66 experience: meeting Gene Winfield

6 August 2015


Long-time hot rodder and NZV8 contributor Kevin Shaw recently embarked upon a one-month trip along the motoring mecca of Route 66 — read about his experience with the King of Kustoms, Gene Winfield

If ever there was a customizer who could be called a living legend, it would be Gene Winfield. He has been there pretty much from the start — one of the real pioneers — and he is still at it today, as building customs is something he loves. His work ethic and endurance is legendary with the sign on the office welcoming you to ‘Winfield’s Sleep Deprivation. Hours, 9am–9am’, and this is real — Gene is known to be hammering away on the tools to well after midnight when he is on a roll.

Looking much younger than his 88 years, Gene is still very active in the rod-and-custom scene, and still probably working harder than a lot of men half his age. It is not until he starts answering questions and talking about some of his exploits that you realize just how long he has been around, and the influence he has had. If you don’t know who he is just Google ‘Gene Winfield’, and you will soon see what I mean.

Meeting Gene was a humbling experience, and listening to his tales of how hot rodding was born made me realize just how privileged I was to meet a man who was there basically since the start of it all. I always think of the roots of hot rodding as back in the ’40s and ’50s with the early dry lake racers and drag strips. Through the evolution of customs and the big shows, Gene has been there almost every step of the way, and is still influential today. It started with humble beginnings, when Gene painted his first car for a paying customer at just 15 years of age, working with his brothers at Winfield Brothers Service — a small gas station and garage. 

When he was discharged from service after World War II, he opened his first shop, Windys, in 1946, in a converted chicken house at his mother’s house. The chicken house was remodelled and extended a few times, and in 1955 he set up his first big shop in Modesto, California, and began creating the impressive string of Customs that he would become famous for. Of these, the sectioned ’56 Mercury ‘Jade Idol’ is probably the most famous of them all.

Hot rods and customs is only part of the story of Gene Winfield, who has probably crammed more into his life than most of us could in two lifetimes. While being famous for his customs, Gene was also a drag racer. He was there from the beginning, and retired from the sport in 1953. He was also racing at El Mirage from 1949, with a steel ’27 Model T powered by a 260ci Flathead that ran 121mph at its first meeting. Gene then began racing at Bonneville, fitting borrowed fuel injection to the Flathead and using a hand pump to deliver the fuel. He ran 135mph at his first meet there way back in 1951, and he still races today, six decades later. In recent years, he has run over 200mph on the salt — not bad going for an octogenarian!

Gene also shaped the sport, wearing a cheeky grin as he told the tale of swapping bodies on his car three times in a day and setting records in three different classes, causing no end of problems for the officials. Thanks to Gene, you can now only race a car in one class per meeting. Gene also held a Nascar licence from 1954 and raced a variety of cars — he really has been there and done that.

A tour through Gene’s shop and museum is like travelling back in time, and gave a fantastic insight into his life. His cluttered workshops with doors open to the world held a dog wandering around our feet, and numerous projects underway with roof chops, sectioning, and other old school panel work being performed. Wandering around the yard there are so many projects in the wings with donor and part built cars scattered everywhere. It became obvious Gene is a fan of hammer welding with gas, he just likes the old ways — he’s got over 70 years of experience at it, after all. He also loves his work and the cars he has built over the decades, and is animated and excited as he talks about it all. Taking time to share his knowledge and answer questions, Gene was happy to explain the whats and whys of what he does, he is a real font of knowledge.

Strangely, the museum is actually where he lives — or at least cooks and sleeps — as he is so driven, and is apparently always working. Wandering through the various rooms, I am astounded by his achievements. He has display racks, normally used to display posters, filled with magazine features of cars he has built and painted. More racks are filled with models of cars he designed while working for AMT, and the models of the cars he has built, including many of those built for TV and movies. The Blade Runner vehicles took a team of guys working for Gene five and a half months to complete — working 18 hours a day, seven days a week — and out the back of his house is one of the police cars Gene built for Back to the Future 2. In the middle of Gene’s house is ‘The Reactor’, a custom which Gene hand-built out of aluminium in the ’60s, and which subsequently appeared on Bewitched when they wrote an episode around it. How that came to be is a separate tale in itself. 

The next room is a Trekky’s mecca, with Captain Kirk’s chair and various other items that Gene had built or designed, including posters, books, and his plans on the wall for one of the landing craft from the Enterprise. The guest room is a sight to see, too, with a beautifully finished ’28 Model A pickup set into a wall, with a bed installed in the tray, an old flathead engine bristling with carburettors made into a table, and numerous Winfield Speed Equipment articles adorning the walls. Throughout the house, I was amazed by the trophies, photos, and memorabilia that span seven decades and confirm what an impact Gene has had, and is still having.

Gene is happy to share his knowledge and runs classes several times a year at his shop, and also at various events around the country. These provide a unique insight into how he chops, sections, and customizes cars. They are usually low-key affairs where you show up at Gene’s workshop for a few lectures. He’ll walk you through the plan for the weekend, talk about the tools and techniques used, then get straight into it — you work alongside Gene, learning as you go. Other than that, the rules are simple: “Class starts at 9am Saturday and Sunday. Show up as early as 8am if you like, and at least by 8.30am. Don’t be late, early is better than late. I will be opening the doors at 7am!” — No mucking around for Gene, he is just too busy! Earlier this year, Gene and small crew chopped a ‘57 Chevrolet, and to make it truly unique, fitted it with a ‘59 roof section, in just three days! He also has his own ‘58 Chev parked out back, which he has used in two of his weekend classes — in just four days, it was both chopped and sectioned. For Gene, this is not work, this is fun — it’s just what he does, and he certainly shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

You can read more about Kevin’s experiences on Route 66 in the current issue of NZV8 Issue No. 124 — on sale now!