It's safe to say that California served as the capitol of the hot rod and custom movement in its infancy. True, other regions yielded many top-shelf and trendsetting examples, but none rivaled California's prolificacy. As such, few non-California builders got the opportunity to craft serial cars, and many were slighted due publicity for their work.
Right in the middle of the rust belt, however, two brothers performed hundreds of custom modifications, completed many trendsetting cars, and built three Don Ridler Memorial Award winners. They more or less defined a particular custom car genre and were some of the first builders to market their talents as a product, whether they realized it or not. After a scant dozen years plying their craft, both brothers graduated to careers in automotive design and development. Their names: Larry and Mike Alexander--the A-Brothers.
Larry and Mike were second and fourth of four brothers born during the Depression--1931 and 1933, respectively. Larry, the elder, began messing with cars well before he joined the Army in 1948. Once discharged, he studied body and fender work at a trade school under the GI Bill. Mike, the mechanic of the duo, always tinkered with cars. "When I was 15, I bought a beat-up hot rod--a '32 Ford three-window. I didn't keep it long," he says. He then got a '41 Ford coupe and promptly shaved the trim and handles and dolled up the mill. The Army conscripted Mike to serve in 1952. After his 1954 discharge, Larry convinced him to also study bodywork and paint theory under the GI Bill.
The brothers soon began working in their father's one-car garage after hours, shaving trim, filling holes, and doing regular repairs. Larry's burgeoning family prompted him to buy a house, and the brothers quickly reestablished the shop in its two-car garage. At one point they realized the work coming in was enough to sustain a full-time endeavor, so in 1957 they quit their day jobs and concentrated on growing their business.
You know you've done something right when, generations later, someone actually copies your
The brothers soon opened their first official shop on Northwestern Highway in Detroit. In the interest of attracting higher-end business, they acquired a Model A pickup and gave it a clean shave, proper stance, Olds Fiesta caps with whitewalls, and a Glade Green Metallic spray that prompted the Grasshopper moniker. They showed it in the '58 season and sold it in 1959 for a new El Camino.
While the brothers gained exposure in East Coast publications like Rodding and Restyling and the original Custom Rodder, West Coast magazine ink eluded them. "Bob Larivee Sr. called and said he had some people he'd like us to meet," Mike says. "It was George Barris, and he had this electric air car for the Detroit Autorama and it was broken. We got George in the shop and he looked at the stuff we were doing--he was really impressed. He got us in with the West Coast magazines."
A young Mike Budnick brought the brothers a '60 Pontiac. Over a two-year span of modificat
With the magazine pump primed, the brothers started a radical project: Sy Gregorich's '56 Ford Crown Victoria. They restyled the car with Studebaker pans and a Plymouth bumper as a grille/bumper treatment. "That car got us good West Coast coverage. We titled the car Victorian, and we redid it three times," Mike says. The Victorian was the first car to wear the Alexander Brothers' trademark badge--an honor bestowed to exclusive and finished A-Brothers builds.
About this time Bill Hines moved back to Detroit from California. "Bill had a lot of work painting candy," Larry says. "He was overloaded so he hired us to do bodywork. We didn't paint candy, so Bill traded work for candy instruction and paint on our own jobs."
Next, a supermarket stocker named Leroy Brooks brought in a '52 Ford. "It was a real rust bucket," Mike says. "We tried to talk him into buying a virgin car out West, but he wanted to build this car. We gave it canted '58 Chevy headlights and concave quarter-panels to get rid of the rust. We painted it candy purple with white pearl scallops," hence the Purple Pelican name. "He got a lot of attention with that car and he still has it today!"
Bobby Massaron's Venturian wore many extensive modifications, including a padded lift-off
Booming business forced the brothers into their second shop on Littlefield and Grand River. It was here that they built Adonis, a '60 Ford Starliner with acrylic grilles front and rear, for Bill Whetstone in 1961.
About that same time, Clarence "Chili" Catallo brought them a rough, channeled '32 Ford coupe. "The bottoms of the doors were rotten, so we cut the bottoms off and made aluminum fins to replace the rockers," Mike says. "We also made a new rear pan and fabricated a hinged frontend (grille and radiator). We tried to talk Clarence into chopping the car, but he wouldn't go for it. He painted it Olds Cobalt Blue. Ray Kulakowski did the interior and Clarence took it when he went to California for college. Junior Conway and Tubbs talked Chili into chopping the car and painting it the lighter blue and white. That's when he started calling it the Silver Sapphire.
Just about anyone into hot rod or rock 'n' roll history knows "Chili" Catallo's Silver Sap
"He had the car over at Barris' shop and one day Barris gets this call from a record company. They need a car for a cover of a new album, so he says, 'Hey, have I got the car for you.'" The rest is history: the Silver Sapphire--with Barris crests in lieu of A-Brothers badges--became the cover model for one of rock 'n' roll's most influential albums and bands: "Little Deuce Coupe" by the Beach Boys.
While show rods like the Silver Sapphire and Don Vargo's subsequent 69er '34 Ford gave the brothers exposure, "the heavy hitters weren't profitable," Mike says. "The mild work really made the money." Then the city stepped in and made things more complicated. "They wanted to expand the freeway, so we lost that shop," Mike says. They moved to Westbrook and Schoolcraft--four lots with a shop. The state's promise that they'd never encroach on the land gave the brothers confidence to invest in a spray booth.
At some point during this timeframe Mike and Larry met Harry Bentley Bradley, a designer who proved very important to their heavy hitters style. According to Mike, "Ford was trying to get into the youth market, so they were working with AMT's Bud Anderson. They started the Ford Custom Caravan with a few influential guys: Cushenbery, Winfield, Barris, Jeffries, Ak Miller, and so on. AMT paid us a retainer and ran the Caravan. The builders would propose a drawing, and if Ford liked it, they'd give out a car for a dollar. Harry (Bradley) drew this car up called the Alexa--a '64 Ford fastback Galaxie. It went a little wild and they toured the country with it. They flew us in and out of town for shows and gave us an expense account--even our dry cleaning was covered!"
Needless to say, working for Ford's interests would've threatened Harry Bradley's Cadillac design job, so the brothers credited him as Designer X. The threat wasn't much of a deterrent; Bradley and the brothers designed and built several more Caravan cars.
Two events in 1964 pushed the brothers' productivity and creative license further. First, they took on a 14-year-old Ken Yanez (now Special Projects head, Plymouth, Michigan) as an employee. The same year, Bobby Massaron brought them a '56 Chevrolet. They gave it an unorthodox square-headlight treatment, grafted on '60 Mercury quarters, and fabricated a lift-off padded top. The car was shown as the Venturian and won the inaugural Don Ridler Memorial Award in 1965. Word has it Venturian later made cameo appearances on the sitcom "I Dream Of Jeannie." Ford wasn't the only company to recognize the brothers' name equity and talent. Chrysler had the brothers doing sheetmetal and paintwork on the Ramchargers racecars and other competition vehicles. "We were a small shop but we were really secure," Mike says. "Not even Chrysler executives could see what we were doing."
The Deora was the brothers' most famous creation, although its history is a bit tinged. Fi
"Mike and I figured if they (Chrysler) have race money, they can probably afford to let us build one of their cars," Larry says. "So Harry drew this car up. They (Chrysler) said they'd give us a car if we'd put Dodge on the sides and back." The brothers agreed and received an A100 pickup, which they proceeded to chop, whittle, and modify to suit Harry's radical, contemporary design. It emerged at the 1967 Detroit Autorama as the Deora and summarily won the Ridler--the brothers' second. Chrysler immediately requested it for the new-car show circuit and supplied the brothers with a truck and a tour budget. Chrysler also gave the brothers a '66 Barracuda for their next project. The duo pocketed the door handles, worked a clear bubble into the hood, and gave it an Indy-style fuel filler cap. Mike's son, Michael, C.O.O. of coach-building concern Metalcrafters, currently owns the car.
As fate would have it, the city reneged on its promise and sought the brothers' property for yet another freeway expansion. The series of moves and heavy workload over the years prompted Larry to find a straight job at Ford in 1968, one that gave him the chance to work in the body engineering department as a metal model maker. (Some of his many projects: the Ford Escort, Tempo, Topaz, and Taurus.) Mike kept the shop going with Ken Yanez as the city planned its highway. As a swan song, the brothers built a '23 Model T, sprayed it yellow, called it the Top Banana, and took the 1969 Ridler Award--their third and final.
Once the city finally razed the shop in 1969, Mike also found "legit" work. "When Bunkie Knudsen left GM to run Ford he brought Larry Shinoda with him and Larry (Shinoda) hired me to run the Kar Kraft Design Center," Mike says. "We built Ford's show cars, special project cars, and fiberglass bucks." That was short lived since Knudsen's unintended departure from Ford chilled the waters for both Shinoda and Mike.
The Deora's success inspired Chrysler to give the brothers another project car -- a '66 Ba
Mike transferred to Heinz Prechter's American Sunroof Corporation in 1970. The company started a new division, Custom Craft Division, and all entities eventually combined to form ASC. Mike was finally able to stay put--some 25 years, in fact. His special projects included top mechanisms for Cadillac, Mitsubishi, and Nissan.
So impressive was the brothers' body of work that nine of their cars have been restored. Their work hasn't just prompted emulation; one A-Brothers fan went so far as to clone a car that no longer exists. While the Midwest may not have had the density of the California scene, we can surely say that without the Alexander Brothers' progressive design and craftsmanship, the custom car era wouldn't have been nearly as revolutionary as it was.