Hot August Knights

Posted on September 22, 2008 – 4:51 PM | by OldManFoster
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By Mike Blanchard

BertolucciEver since cars became available to the masses, there have been those who wanted to distinguish their cars from the crowd.  Some wanted to emulate their racing heroes and their favorite racecars– thus the hot rod was born . Some wanted to show more style than the other guys at the Drive-in and attract more girls– thus the custom was born .  Most people outside of the car enthusiast community would be surprised to know that in the thirties, forties and fifties, Sacramento was one of the centers of the custom car world. 

Custom cars were built by young men who had little more than a different idea about what a car should look like. They had no fancy gear– no English wheels, pneumatic tools or tig welders– just elbow grease and skill. In the early years there were no hot rod or custom car magazines to give them an idea of what the other guys were doing. You couldn’t go down to the auto parts store and buy a set of fender skirts or a wing or air dam for your car. Everything was DIY. The work was done with hacksaws and chisels, hammers and dollys, acetylene torches and plenty of lead.

Long before there was Bondo, there was lead. Lead was tricky to work with.  It had to be melted and then spread around with wood and metal paddles onto pre-heated body panels and then worked with files and body grinders. Lead was so commonly used on the custom cars that they became known as “lead sleds”.

Several men who built these lead sleds in Sacramento during those years became legends, and a few are alive today. The four who had the most influence (or were the best at promoting themselves), were Harry Westergard, Dick Bertolucci and the Barris brothers, George and Sam.

Harry Westergard came first. A master body man who worked for a number of local shops, he began doing custom work in the thirties. Known for a very refined sense of line and the quality of his work, he developed a style that became the basis of the postwar boom in custom cars. A full Westergard custom might feature a LaSalle or Packard grill, long headlights molded into the front fenders about half way down, a chopped top, lowered stance, shaved side trim and door handles, elimination of the louvers in the side of the hood, a welded and peaked hood, fade away fenders, teardrop fender skirts, an inset license plate mount at the rear and 1930’s DeSoto ripple bumpers. In short, everything that a custom is and was.

One look at the work on Butler Rugard’s ‘ 40 Merc convertible, customized by Westergard almost straight out of the showroom , shows that he was way ahead of the stylists of the Big Three Automakers in Detroit. The car seems to surge forward, with the hood jutting out like the prow of a ship. The lines are accentuated by the fade away fenders, a detail which would not appear on stock cars for another couple of years. Recently rediscovered and restored, Rugard’s ‘ 40 Merc was shown at Pebble Beach as a prime example of the customizer’s art.

Westergard MercMuch of Westergard’s history remains murky. His prominence in the field faded by the late forties and Dick Bertolucci told me that in the fifties he found Westergard working at a muffler shop. Bertolucci convinced him that this type of work was a waste of his time and invited him to work at his body shop. During this time, Westergard often spent the weekends partying at Giusti’s Place on the river, coming back broke on Monday morning. When Bertolucci figured out what was going on, he made a deal with Westergard to give him part of his pay on Friday and the balance on Monday so he would have money for the week.

Westergard was killed in his beloved Thunderbird in a single car accident in April 1956 after a late night out in the delta. His legacy has lived on as the mythic prime customizer and the cars that he worked on are still sought out and restored by automobile archeologists.  There is less generally written about Westergard than about Bertolucci and Barris, but it is important to note that both Dick Bertolucci and George Barris worked with or for Harry Westergard as young men– and both learned a lot from him.

Dick Bertolucci is still around. Bertolucci is a local boy who grew up idolizing his dad Mario. Mario Bertolucci was a mechanical genius and taught his son a love of engines and all things mechanical. When Dick Bertolucci was young– too young to have a license– he got a Chevy convertible. He soon got into a little bench racing with another guy– the argument centered on whether Dick’s Chevy S ix could take the other guy’s Ford F lathead V-8. One thing led to another as these things do and they had them a race. Bertolucci blew the guy off. Angry, Mario told Dick that he would have to sell his car because he wasn’t going to have him racing around. Then, he asked Dick if he had won the race.

To this day Bertolucci gets a rather impish twinkle in his eye when he talks about racing, especially when he won. I suspect that his dad got that same look when Dick assured him that he had indeed won the race. It should be noted here that ever since that first car Bertolucci has been a Chevy man through and through and he is still looking to whip Fords with his inline sixes.

Right after he got out of high school, Bertolucci had a small shop where he did body and fender repair as well as custom bodywork. This was where he did the car that made his reputation in the custom world—the Ohanesian Mercury. Buddy Ohanesian had a 19 40 Merc convertible. Westergard had already installed a ‘ 46 Chevy grill and chopped the windshield on it. Ohanesian brought it to Bertolucci’s to have a steel top made for it and have it painted. Bertolucci made an absolutely stunning top for it. The line was perfect, flowing smoothly into the trunk.

The top was a very large and extremely impressive piece of work… all the more so for an 18 – year- old kid. I think Bertolucci also molded the taillights into the rear fenders and ran the exhaust tips out through the bumper. But this car was not just a showpiece, Ohanesian used it to tow his ‘ 34 coupe to Bonneville. Apparently the car had trouble getting over the grade to Truckee and the boys had to tow it over with the racecar.

Bertolucci went on to do many more beautiful custom jobs over the years and is still at work in his shop. When I visited him, he was working on a thirties Chevy convertible that had all the modified concepts for the late forties: lowered with ripple bumpers, shaved doors, nosed hood, inset license mount, custom dash and all the lot. His hallmark is perfection and amazing attention to detail. In the last few years he has built a really neat board track style hill climb car powered by a 19 20s Chevy four- banger with Hillborn fuel injection. Bertolucci can still be seen at swap meets and out at Bonneville for the races and he is a truly grand gent.

Sam and GeorgeThis brings us to the Barris brothers, Sam and George. George Barris is probably the most famous customizer in the world (although he spells it “kustom”). George and his older brother Sam were sent out to live with their aunt and uncle in Roseville when they were small boys. When their uncle gave them his old ‘ 25 Buick to mess around with, the boys cleaned it up and Sam painted it with a brush. They sold the Buick and got a Model A sedan which they fixed up and painted with a rented spray rig. They customized the car with six aerials and fake Auburn style external exhausts, hood ornaments and fox tails.

It may have been a little gaudy, but doing that Ford sparked something in George and he decided that made him decide he wanted to do custom work on cars. While still in high school, he started hanging out with Westergard and Bertolucci at Brown’s body shop to try to pick up any skills he could. Harry Westergard became his mentor.

George’s first custom was his own 19 36 Ford R oadster, which got a Packard grill and a reworked nose with Pontiac hood sides, fender skirts and DeSoto bumpers. He took it down to Oakland to have a Carson style top done at Hall upholstery. While there, one of the other customers saw George’s car and hired him to do some work on his ‘ 36 Plymouth, and this was the start of the world famous Barris Kustom Automobile Company.

During the war, Sam was in the Merchant Marines and George relocated to LA. He got a job at a local body shop, and entered the So-Cal custom scene.  He got a lot of attention with his elegant ‘ 36, which featured a number of details that the boys down south had never seen before. Continuing the education he had begun at Sacramento City College, George enrolled at the Art Center School of Design. Not long after he started his own shop. In 19 46 Sam was mustered out of the service and joined George, who began teaching him the skills needed to do custom work.

Barris Kustom went on to do many of the most famous custom cars in the world, including Sam’s iconic chopped ‘ 50 Merc, the Hirohata Merc, the ‘ 55 Chevy Aztec show car and many more cars than I could mention in this article. Barris Kustom has also done a number of the most famous TV cars over the years, including the original Batmobile, the Munsters Coach and the MonkeeMobile. Although Sam Barris passed away years ago, George is still alive and kicking and turning out work. He was in Sacramento last year to see the restoration of the MonkeeMobile and do some promotion for his bicycle line at College Cyclery. He spent the afternoon at the Towe Automobile Museum and had a good time hanging around his old hometown.

Today, the names Westergard, Bertolucci and Barris are legendary in custom car circles.   ‘Traditional’ customs in the style of these pioneers rule today’s custom car scene, and local auto shows like Hot August Nights and the Autorama and celebrate the work of these originators of custom culture.  If you get out to a car show, be proud of these Sacramento craftsmen who were instrumental in the development of these beautiful cars that changed automobiles for years to come.

For more information about Harry Westergard, Dick Bertolucci and the Barris Brothers check out Rik Hoving’s amazing custom car archive:

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  1. 3 Responses to “Hot August Knights”

  2. avatar

    By Adam Taylor on Apr 27, 2012 | Reply

    If it wasn’t for these pioneers & the men to follow it, I would not have the knowledge or the ability to do what me n my friends love so much! I’m thankful to know these men who are still alive & around! Custom cars sacramento

  3. avatar

    By Adam taylor on Nov 22, 2012 | Reply

    Looking back, reading again. Always wanting 2 find out more!

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