Ever since the custom car movement began, enthusiasts have tended to gravitate to the 1949-51 Mercurys. With their slab-sided looks and narrow windows, they looked like customs even in stock form, and chopping the roof or even sectioning the body could yield amazing results. Cars like the Sam Barris and Bob Hirohata 1951 Mercurys became household legends amid the custom car scene, and their particular style has influenced generations of car builders.
Precisely for that reason, 1949-51 Mercs remain the number one choice for building customs and sleds to this very day, but demand far outstrips supply. Those who are unable to find one have often turned to the 1949-51 Ford Tudors – cars that offer a similar look and style, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
But the thing is, custom cars were originally about individual expression, standing apart from the crowd. It’s ironic how many chopped Mercs (and early 1950s Fords) with flames and spinner or sombrero hubcaps you can run into at shows. And while these cars are often very nice, there’s something to be said about taking a different road, building your own custom from a car that you might not have considered before. Here we pick five such vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s, highlighting what they have to offer as well as current asking prices.
1949-54 Chevrolet Special/Deluxe/Bel Air ($700-$15,000)
Let’s face it, when it comes to late 1940s and early 1950s cars, especially what we consider low-priced offerings, the Fords get all the attention, both from collectors and customizers. Credit that perhaps to their flathead V-8 engines, but it’s precisely for that reason that the stovebolt six-cylinder 1949-53 Chevys make such a good foundation for a custom.
These cars, sandwiched between the streamlined 1942-48 models and the magnificent Tri-fives, have a lot going for them. The virtually unbreakable in-line six and Powerglide automatic transmission, plus the simple Knee-action front and elliptical leaf rear suspension means just about anybody can work on them. The bodies lend themselves very well to shaving and sectioning. The flat top wheel openings and pontoon rear fenders can really make these cars stand out, particularly when much of the chrome trim is removed and custom paint added. In addition, even in stock form, the 1949-54 Chevys are among the few cars of this era that look just as good without fender skirts as with them. Due to the shape of the greenhouse, chopping the top requires perhaps a bit more ingenuity and patience than with a period Ford or Mercury, due in part to the relatively thin A and C-pillars, but the result can be absolutely stunning. If you fancy updating the mechanicals, it’s relative easy to swap in a later small-block Chevy V-8, though you’ll have to modify the E-brake system and choose a set of exhaust manifolds that will clear the front suspension and steering assembly. Besides this, swapping in a later model three or four-speed automatic can be done, and these cars are good candidates for a Mustang II front clip conversion. When all is said and done, you’ll have a nice, period 1950s ride that will stand out amid the sea of Fords and Mercurys.
1955-56 Chrysler Windsor/New Yorker/Imperial Newport ($1500-$20,000)
At the time of their introduction, the 1955 Chryslers had almost as much an impact on the public as that year’s Chevrolet. Styling by Virgil Exner was dubbed the “100 Million Dollar Look,” and for good reason - even the entry-level Windsor Deluxe series looked elegant and exclusive. Upscale New Yorkers added extra side trim and a two-door hardtop coupe (Windsors came as four-door sedan, wagon or convertible). Although the tacked on chrome fins made the rear end of these cars look a bit busy, the look has aged well and remains beautifully proportioned. As the basis for a custom, the already low roofline and massive flanks really give these cars presence, especially with a lowered ride height.
An added bonus is the fact that all of these Chyslers came standard with V-8 engines, the Windsor mill being a 301 and the New Yorker a 331 Hemi. For 1956, styling was updated, with more blade-like, integrated fins that made the cars even more handsome. The Windsor’s chrome bar grille was also refreshingly simple in an age of ever increasing gingerbread.
Although asking prices have increased considerably over the years and the limited production C-300/300B is ruled out due to its desirability and historical significance, it’s still possible to find solid 1955-56 Chryslers within the five-figure range. Four-doors and Imperials seem to be the cheapest. If you do decide to use one of these cars as a basis for a custom, remember that they are big, heavy cars, and mechanical parts are not as abundant as they are for period Chevys or Fords.
1959 Edsel Ranger/Corsair ($500-$12,000)
A what? Are we crazy? The car most associated with failure in the 1950s is a good basis for a custom? Well, actually, yes. Just look at it. If the Edsel doesn’t scream George Jetson then I don’t know what does. In the last 15 years, these cars have started to gain a bit of respect, and rightly so, for in the grand scheme of things they aren’t actually that bad at all. However, the continued stigma attached to them from some quarters also means that while prices have risen, they’re still nowhere near as high as those of more popular 1950s machines. Buying one of these is often a very practical way to get into the custom car scene.
If we were to pick one out of the three model years, it would have to be the kid in the middle – the 1959. The 1959s were more angular and slab sided than the 1958s and a lot more numerous than the 1960 models. Because of this, we think they are a better basis for a custom, especially if there’s shaving, sectioning or chopping involved. The stock roofline and window treatment is very upright, and chopping it really accentuates the length of these cars. Combined with the horse-collar grille, it makes for a unique and interesting look.
The fairly simple flanks of the 1959 Edsel mean that even with the chrome trim removed, these cars look well proportioned and clean. Out the back, the browed taillights and valance of the 1959 just beg for custom touches. And just imagine what one of these cars looks like dropped an inch with custom or even matte paint, plus some chrome reverse wheels and wide whites. Besides the simpler styling, the 1959 Edsels were also screwed together better than their predecessors. Having engines that were shared with Fords and Mercurys (including the 223 cubic-inch straight six, 292 Y-block and 332 FE series V-8s) means there are more options today when it comes to swaps or installing performance parts, should you feel the need. Just think of the possibilities – like a later 390 or 428 FE engine with dual quad carbs – especially now that more parts are becoming available. Definitely an underrated car, if you ask us.
1965-67 Oldsmobile Dynamic/Delta 88 ($400-$10,000)
We’ve decided to include a couple of 1960s cars in our fab five customs, though again, they’re perhaps not obvious choices. The big Oldsmobiles are one line of cars that, in our opinion, really stand out and make a great foundation for a custom cruiser. These cars were redesigned for the 1965 model year and are among the best-looking GM “biggies” of the era. Styling was incredibly clean, with simple ornamentation. The two-door Dynamic and Delta 88 hardtops featured, a flowing, almost fastback roofline, with coke-bottle kick-up crease lines behind the doors.
What also makes these cars appealing is that today they are very affordable – good ones can be found for $6000 or less (half of what the smaller Cutlass models tend to go for), and many came with the big block 425 Rocket V-8, so they have tons of power, even in factory form. Combine that with a full perimeter frame, all-coil suspension and seating for you and all your friends, and you’ve got the basis for one cool classic cruiser that’s comfortable to drive for miles, if not days.
It doesn’t take much to make one of these into a cool looking custom. Because the lines are so right, just lowering the car, adding a set of custom wheels (Cragars and Torque Thrusts look particularly good), along with a nice pearl or metalflake paint job, totally transforms the look. So if you want to get into the custom car scene, but with a dose of practicality -1960s style - you could do a lot worse than buying one of these big Oldsmobiles.
1965-66 Plymouth Fury I/II/III/Sport Fury/VIP ($100-$10,000)
A favorite among law enforcement agencies of the era (just watch any old films or newsreels), these big Plymouths might not seem an obvious choice for a custom car project, but there’s a surprising amount you can do with them. The stacked headlights, almost razor-like fender lines, sharp body side creases and fender skirts give them a very long, low and sleek look. Think 1964 Chevy but more angular and menacing, and you might see what we’re getting at. Removing the side trim helps even more. Although, unlike 1950s cars, they don’t benefit from chopping the roof, a simple clean look (removing the side trim, for example), monotone paint and lowered suspension turns them into one of the meanest rides on the block.
They’re also practically indestructible, part of the reason they were so popular with police departments, especially in big cities. The torsion bar front and leaf sprung rear suspension is very rugged, and many of these cars came with 383, 426 Wedge or 440 V-8s that are capable of racking up huge mileages (a 1960s Plymouth Fury held the record as North America’s highest mileage car with over 2 million on the clock). And if that’s not enough, replacement mechanical parts are cheap and plentiful, due to the popularity of mid-size Chrysler muscle cars from this era. However, as strong, reliable and cleanly styled as these big Plymouths are, they’ve yet to really catch on with the collector set, and you can find very solid ones for around $3000-$4000 – try that for most 1960s cars today.
To many people, custom cars mean 1949-51 Mercurys, but if you can’t stretch your budget to one of these or fancy something different, there are a number of cool alternatives.
The Bob Hirohata 1951 Mercury, built by Sam Barris, his brother George and Frank Sonzogni, is one of the most influential custom cars of all time, so much in fact that numerous recreations, like this, have been based on it. This car is largely responsible for the enduring popularity of custom Mercs.
Because Mercurys became so popular as customs and sleds, demand pushed them out of the realm of some enthusiasts. A popular substitute was the Merc’s junior brothers, the 1949-51 Fords, cars that were just as well proportioned, albeit in a slightly smaller package.
1949-54 Chevys work surprisingly well as custom cars. This 1954 is fairly mild, but the execution, even with the stock roof height, is fabulous.
Not many people would consider building a custom from a 1955-56 Chrysler, but as this two-door hardtop shows, these cars have a lot of potential and stunning lines, right from the factory.
Is it us, or does this 1959 Edsel Ranger two-door sedan scream late-1950s mild custom? Love them or hate them, the second-year Edsels are a surprisingly practical way to get into the custom scene.
Some cars really don’t require a lot of work to turn them into stunners, and the 1965-67 full-size Oldsmobiles are among them. This 1966 Delta 88 features stock body contours, but look how the paint, wheels and lowered suspension completely change the look of the car.
Four-door sedans tend to lag in popularity in collectible and custom car circles, but in some cases they work very well, like the 1965-66 Plymouth Furys. They have the added bonus of being very affordable and virtually bulletproof.