Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, car creator Gene Winfield seemingly makes the impossible possible.
And while creating automotive magic over a span of five decades is nothing short of amazing, unlike the magician, there’s no smoke, no mirrors and no slight of hand. Just plain old-fashioned hard work and relentless dedication.
If that wasn’t enough, if you ever get the chance to strike up a conversation with Winfield, you’ll find him to be a pleasant, well-meaning and understated fellow, all too eager to share his life’s work and the artistry of his craft.
Unlike some others of his ilk who bided their time doing various jobs before building custom cars, Winfield, born in 1927, took the direct approach and opened up a hot rod shop with his two brothers after returning from World War II, where he served in the Navy. Success and Winfield went together like a camshaft and its followers, and soon after he opened his own business, Windy’s Custom Shop. By 1955, he expanded into a new location called Winfield’s Custom Shop where he built prototypes for Chrysler and Ford.
Winfield also spent some time in the 1960s as a consultant designer with model-car company AMT. When the company opened up a Speed and Custom Division, Winfield was the obvious choice to head it up, and thus began the real fun.
Where plastic model kits normally come about from full-sized versions of cars, Winfield was tasked with the reverse: Build big cars from the little ones. With few people possessing Winfield’s talent for creating all things automotive, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came a knockin’. In fact, it was the AMT promotional vehicles that led to the building of others destined for the silver screen.
Like George Barris, whose rolling TV and movie creations are now legendary, Winfield, too, possessed the Midas touch, turning everyday family cars in gold. Among the lengthy list of creations are the Maxwell Smart car from “Get Smart,” The Reactor, built for the “Bewitched” TV series, and even the shuttlecraft for “Galileo 7” (the Enterprise’s scout ship) from the “Star Trek” series.
Winfield creations have also found their way into more than 20 Hollywood films, including “Bladerunner,” for which he built 25 vehicles, “Robocop” and “The Last Starfighter.” He also created the flying version of the Delorean time traveler for “Back to the Future.”
Further proof that Winfield can deliver just about anything the imagination can dream up lies in his advertising work. Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. wanted to convey the point that they could finance any car. So, Winfield built the “anycar” … out of 30 different cars. For Chevrolet, he cut a car in half lengthwise and made both pieces independently driveable. For Sunoco, Winfield froze a car in giant block of ice only for it to be chipped out and started. The list goes on.
How does one go about creating rolling works of art? Aside from having an acceptable vision from which to work, it requires perfecting the techniques used with different mediums, most of which have been developed in the School of Hard Knocks. Whether aluminum, steel, wood, plexiglass or fiberglass, Winfield can bend, weld, grind, mold and blend it into just about any shape imaginable. Speaking of blending, a Winfield creation can easily be spotted by the trademark “blended” paint job, for which a variety of dark and light colors are used to accentuate the curves of a particular vehicle, just as if it were a picture being painted on canvas.
Not to undersell his ability, Winfield can not only remold factory sheetmetal, but can also build a dream car from the wheels up — provided that you’ve got the means to fund a one-off show car.
Recognition is all too familiar to Winfield, whose creations have garnered international fame, respect and envy. And for some, next to keeping all those creations for yourself, that would be enough. Rather than hang up his torch and grinder, Winfield tirelessly pursues his craft at his California shop aptly named Rod and Custom Construction. And when he’s not building cars, he’s talking about them at seminars and at large events such as the SEMA show in Las Vegas, which is where we happened to catch up with him.
Whether you call him an artist, craftsman, visionary, a teacher, or just a plain old nice fella, Gene Winfield’s rolling wonders earn him the title of automotive magician … without the smoke and mirrors.
Jeff Melnychuk is Wheelbase Communications’ managing editor. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.