In the beginning, there was only custom. Shape your own stone ax. Weave your own basket. Everything was engineered to hazy eyeball standards and built out of whatever was lying around. That changed around 1450 in Hungary when the “carriage trade” was born, and all the rich people started trying to one-up each other with superfancy horse-drawn coaches. Mere carts and wagons were for farmers and tradesmen. The elite commissioned fine coaches. That’s when “custom” was born—for the first time.
This story originally appeared in Volume 3 of Road & Track.
The industrial age brought standardization and mass production, and products that were once miraculous became ordinary. Anyone could have a Model T. Then, in 1919, George Riley of Los Angeles invented the “MultiLifts” that multiplied the valve lift on the Ford engine, increasing its power. This, the first known product intended to modify a car already in the hands of consumers, is the second birth of custom.
The auto industry abuses a lot of words. “Platinum” doesn’t mean any metal, an adjective like “intrepid” becomes a noun when attached to a Dodge, and there’s never been anything limited about the name “Limited.” But “custom,” is the most abused of them all. And now is the time to reclaim “custom” from the clutches of Detroit’s meddling marketeers.
“Popular actor Tyrone Power knows what it takes to be a winner,” went the 1939 ad copy. “That’s why he drives DeSoto!” What separated the ’39 DeSoto Custom from the plebeian Deluxe model were such luxuries as dual sun visors, dual horns, dual taillights, and “luxurious Blue or Tan Broadcloth” upholstery. Maybe DeSoto wasn’t the first car company to use Custom so casually. Maybe it was.
The top all-new Ford for 1949 was the Custom. In 1950 the line-topper became the Custom Deluxe, and in ’52 it became the Customline. When the ’57 Fords appeared, the name Custom migrated to the bottom of the line. After more name jugglings, in 1976 the Custom 500 was a stripper sold to fleet customers.
Every American manufacturer has abused the term. The best Dodge in 1955 was the Custom Royal Lancer La Femme built for the ladies. In 1971 and 1972 the Custom Cruiser was Oldsmobile’s big wagon. The toniest 1965 Chevy passenger van was the Custom Sportvan. Today, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup’s base model is still “Custom.”
Mass-produced customization is an oxymoron. But “custom” has transmogrified in the 21st century. Companies like Art Morrison Enterprises will build a custom chassis for practically any project. Write a big enough check and Chip Foose will craft a machine that will win car-show trophies the size of a fire truck.
Beyond that, the Internet has built a worldwide parts market, CNC machining is easy, 3-D printing makes instant prototypes, and off-the-shelf electronic modules replace complex wiring looms. GM, Ford, and FCA all ship brand-new engines and transmissions as complete units in crates. The parts and pieces needed for creative customization have never been easier (if not cheaper) to find.
During his lifetime, Tyrone Power owned at least two Duesenbergs, the epitome of automotive tailoring. Only the bare chassis, straight-eight engine, and drivetrain came from Duesenberg in Indiana. For Power’s 1930 Model J Torpedo Berline convertible, the body was done by Walter Murphy in Pasadena, California, and there isn’t another Duesenberg like it. Every Duesy was custom.
Many manufacturers have shown electric concept cars based on almost-flat chassis containing the battery packs and motors. These “skateboards” could have any sort of body built atop them. How regulators will view that is another subject.
The word “custom,” brutalized and diminished by car makers for almost a century, is about to become meaningful again.
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