Custom Rodder has profiled many significant car builders and vehicles in this column the past several years. For our finale issue, however, it's only fitting to share the history of the man behind the National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum, Darryl Starbird.
There's a certain do-it-yourself ethos in customizing, an attitude that says, "I can build something cooler than the factory." Darryl Starbird takes that can-do mentality to a completely different level. Here's a guy who opened up a custom car shop in Kansas, of all places, in 1954. It wasn't the first time he'd taken on a bold venture, nor was it the first time he would silence critics who doubted him.
Darryl's ambitious outlook probably has a lot to do with his upbringing. Born in Auburn, Kansas, in 1933 during the Great Depression, it was only natural for him to learn the values of hard work, ingenuity, and tenacity. Darryl's father, Austin, had an inherent mechanical ability that helped keep food on the table for his wife, Marie, and four children during the lean '30s. When World War II broke out, the Starbird family moved to Wichita, where both Austin and Marie worked at the Boeing airplane plant.
The move to Wichita had a significant affect on Darryl. Being near a booming aircraft facility fueled his mechanical interests and dreams; so did wrenching on old Fords with his older brother, Kenny. But that seemingly carefree adolescence was punctuated by tragedy, as both of Darryl's brothers-Kenny and Larry Dean-were killed in accidents within a few years of each other. Darryl has said their young deaths motivated him to strive much harder in life.
Darryl's first car in high school was a '41 Ford. Inspired by the early rodding magazines, Darryl used his father's workshop to customize it with a Continental kit, fender skirts, and a '48 Chrysler rear bumper. Soon he was practicing his bodywork skills on friends' cars, and even obtained a state dealer's license so he could buy, fix, and sell used cars.
Shortly after graduating from high school in 1952, Darryl and a friend set out for California with dreams of finding work in a custom shop. They returned three months later after several employment rejections. Darryl married his high school sweetheart, Donna, and tried to settle down and study Aeronautical Engineering while working at Boeing. His custom dreams wouldn't die, though, and in 1954, Darryl opened the Star Kustom Shop in a dirt-floor chicken house on Mt. Vernon Street in Wichita.
Custom business was initially slow, so Darryl supplemented his income with collision repair and other bodywork. Still, within three years he was able to enlarge the shop, pour concrete floors, and quit his third-shift job at Boeing. Darryl felt like he'd really made it when his personal car, a '47 Cadillac, was featured in the August 1957 issue of Rod & Custom.