My Car Quest

June 24, 2024

An Open Letter To Tom Wolfe

Cruisin…Kalifornia style

by Wallace Wyss –

Hey, Tom, remember when we had that conversation, what, back half a century ago? Oh, for those who don’t know who Tom is, many years ago, maybe 50, Tom Wolfe, an erudite New York City writer visited California and wrote a book called The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

It was a hit and enshrined him as the High Priest of the “New Journalism”.

Well, I’m here to tell ya’, ol’ Tommy me boy, that the world of Kustom cars you wrote about is still here, even though George Barris, one of its chief acolytes, is gone.

Custom Car With Custom Paint and Pin Stripes

Custom Car With Custom Paint and Pinstripes

These pictures were shot in the last 3-4 years, not in 1965 though many of the cars look like they did in ’65.

There is still candy paint, still tangerine flake, still metalflake paints, still scallops and pinstriping.

Remember pinstriping? The artists who did it were the Michelangelos of the street, using tiny pointed brushes to paint a line all along a 17 foot car, from stem to stern.

Now I noticed a few new wrinkles, like one guy painted his firewall, a regular mural for Chrissake. And then of course the hydraulics of raising and lowering cars at the touch of a button has changed.

'55 Chevy

’55 Chevy

Now there’s also a new direction called “retrorodding” where you keep the old shape the same as original but maybe throw in a modern Chevy big block, a modern trans, maybe disc brakes in front or, hell, a whole new upgraded suspension.

Chopping tops is still done, but me, I prefer a subtle chop, say the 2” out of the roof.

'40 Ford

’40 Ford

I didn’t see any rat rods at a recent event but that’s another subgroup that eschews shiny chrome, paint, or upholstery. The really “in” rat rods have seats out of WWII bombers, and everything looks like it was made out of found parts, dug out of dumpsters.

Rat Rod

Rat Rod

Now most of the people who own Kustoms seem to dress normal but a few go full retro, with the women’s hair styles, the men wearing shackled jeans, with the cuffs rolled up. A few even have the “waterfall” haircut.

I know , Tom, you like it there in New Yawk City hob nobbing with all the sophisticates, maybe some of them wearing those white suits you were famous for, but Tom, these rodders, they want another visit, they want to be remembered before their cars are crushed and outlawed and banned before that wave of autonomous electric cars that looms in our future, threatening to engulf us all….

Top 7 Customizers of All Time: by One Who Was There….

Off the top of my head, here’s the names I remember. If you grew up in the ‘burbs in the Fifties, these were the Franco Scagliones of America….

George Barris

Gene Winfield

Bill Cushenberry

Larry Alexander

Boyd Coddington

Dick Dean

Daryl Starbird

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

More photos are in the slide show below.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of the Incredible Barn Finds series , available direct from the publisher at (715) 381 9755.

All photos by Mike Gulett.



Tom Wolfe

An Open Letter To Tom Wolfe
Article Name
An Open Letter To Tom Wolfe
More than fifty years after Tom Wolfe's book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, the custom car culture is still alive and well.


  1. William M. Craig says

    I remember “Candy Apple red”, Pin stripping, working with lead instead of bondo, everyone beating the bushes for the last “Duce Coupe” and like the 58′ Corvette hood louvers, “drop and chop”, The J.C. Whitney Catalogue. the Moon Catalogue and I believe a fellow named “Barris”. I went the other way. They were all lead sleds to me and I was in drag racing so i went for weight reduction. Engine swaps were big and mills were souped up like 3/4 or full race. Many sent their cars to Mexico back then for Nangy hide upholstery (I didn’t spell it right) roll and pleat-it was just in the American Teen Age boy to make the grand entry at his favorite slop shop and bug the queens. I had a friend who did a custom “T” Model Street Roadster with a 327 Chevy which I dubbed the “Bondo Express” he put so much body putty in but when I started working on my own cars I begged his forgiveness it is not as simple as it looks. I really miss those times. The best custom “lead sled” we had was Tommy Martin’s one year monstrosity the 58′ Impala with flames coming out and a Purple People eater theme-“I just came down form the hills up in Arkansas, can you tell. I don’t drag it none.” have another beer Tommy!” “Those were the days my friend, we thought they would never end,,,etc.” I miss the people as much as what they “brung”.

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