One of the things that makes old customs so unique is each has its own singular saga behind it. As these cars change hands, their individual history begins to fade, and all that's left is the car itself. There are a few occasions, however, when the builder of a '50s custom is reunited with his creation a half-century after he first took torch to metal and can personally relate how he built it. This was one of those times.
Ronnie Staples, of Sarasota, Florida, had been digging to learn this '50 Ford's history since he bought it in 1996. In December 2005, he finally located its original builder, Gerald Cooper, and, in April 2006, flew him and his son Tommy cross-country to reunite with his creation for our photo session. It would be the first time in 32 years Gerald would see his old Ford. And while subsequent owners had made alterations, it was Gerald who cut the tin, and most of his handiwork was still intact.
As a young man, Gerald had always wanted to build a custom. He religiously read Honk! (the precursor to Car Craft) and was fascinated by the customs being built in California. Gerald's home in Tucumcari, New Mexico, wasn't a hotbed of hot rodding; there was just a small group of guys building cars. His only experience was building a mild '46 Ford with a roll 'n' pleat interior done by his wife. Gerald felt he was ready to tackle something more radical.
What really caught his attention was the growing trend, led by Valley Custom, of sectioning cars. Gerald had just returned from Korea and was learning bodywork on the GI Bill at a Lincoln-Mercury dealer. While he was straightening dents on Cosmopolitans, he was dreaming about building a shoebox Ford. "I told my wife," Gerald says, "'If I have to wait 'til I'm 70 years old, I'm gonna build a custom.' She told me to quit waiting and start on a car now."
The Lincoln dealer had a derelict 1950 Ford around back that caught Gerald's eye. "The body was sitting on the frame," Gerald says, "but had no wheels or tires, and the engine and transmission was missing." Gerald bought it because he had seen a magazine article about sectioning shoebox Fords. "The guys who wrote the story said you couldn't go any more than 5 inches."
Not long after he bought it, Gerald went to work in a Ford dealership body shop. "I told my new boss that I had just bought a car and wanted to build a custom," Gerald says. "I asked him if there'd be any problem if I worked on it at the shop on my own time at nights and on weekends. He said OK, and that's when I started, in the latter part of 1954."
Like every customizer, Gerard toyed with some radical ideas during the course of the project. He tried installing a fin on the left quarter-panel, starting behind the door with bent conduit pipe and rising up about a foot. "I was gonna use Edsel station wagon taillamps that had a neat bend to them," he says. "I got to looking at it and thought 'that's pretty stupid.' So I yanked 'em off."
For the next 10 years, Gerald worked on and off on the project while having a family and opening his own shop. He often found inspiration walking around his buddy's salvage yard. "That's where I got the idea for the '49 Buick taillamps," he says. That's also where he picked up the Pontiac bumper overriders to trim out the lower front and rear fenders.