LA confidential: ultra vox & roll over beethoven

California, and Los Angeles used to pretty cool….

Art Chantry ( )

One of the things we’ve forgotten about is just how cool Los Angeles was in the mid-sixties. Maybe our forgetting was intentional, actually. After them hippies went all “real” and “authentic” on us in the Haight/Ashbury, LA was forever denounced as “plastic” and all things southern California was dismissed out of hand as “the man”. The only ‘real’ and ‘cool’ stuff came from the hippie-dippie minds of those in touch with their ‘inner selves’ and ‘doing their own thing’, Not going ‘plastic showbiz phony’ and pursuing the “establishment dollar.”

But, I beg to differ.

If you examine what was happening in Los Angeles in the mid sixties, it was the coolest scene of all time. Hollywood, TV, teen dances, garage rock, surfing, hot rods, kustoms, rat fink, folk/psych, hip fashion, breach culture, bikers, sun sun sun. It was teenage heaven. When we think about everything that we think is cool about retro teen culture and American “outsider” artwork, we’re thinking pure Los Angeles, 1965.

art chantry:after i wrote this, i kept coming up with more cool names of rock people that emerged from La during the sixties. like phil spector. even the beatles ran to capitol records in los angeles to sign a contract. so, why have we dismissed all things los angeles as crap, when it produced the mightiest rock scene of all time?

A case in point is this photo I’ve posted today. It’s a little later than 1965 (i think). and I don’t even think it was shot in LA (that house looks really san francisco to me. but, i’m just guessing.) but, just look at it. The fake psychedelic (“hallmark psychedelic”) graffiti, the girlie-girl mini-dress fashion, the long straight hair, the hot rod culture, the exuberant jump in the air, the pretty smiling sunny face, the pink “leggs”. and, of yes, that car!

This is the ‘voxmobile,’ a then extremely famous celebrity kustom kar, commissioned by the Vox guitar company. Mid-sixties LA was the apex of rocknroll culture of the era. sure, there was the British invasion and later there was the San Francisco scene. But the music that came out of the Los Angeles music scene was the real deal, the best and hottest rock scene maybe ever. It made all the ‘more famous’ scenes pale in comparison. the Byrds, Sonny & Cher, the Monkees, the Seeds, the Mothers, the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Chocolate Watchband, the Buckinghams, the Grass Roots, Captain Beefheart, Love, the standells, jan & dean, the turtles, the doors, paul revere & the raiders (yeah, they were from up north. but they moved), all those surf and hot rod records by Gary Usher and Davie Allen and Terry Melcher. shindig, hullabaloo, the munsters, the monterray festival, the whiskey a go go, Jon Van Hammersveld, von Dutch, even the Rolling Stones ‘satisfaction’ was recorded there. It goes on and on and on. LA was the hub of everything we think of when we think of teen rocknroll culture at it’s best, from the goofiest (the banana splits) to the scariest (the manson family).

---By the late 1950s, car shows had become popular with custom car owners, and their interest spawned the show car circuit of the '60s. But even in the '50s, a car wasn't eligible to compete a second year unless it had new modifications that distinguished it from its previous iteration. As a result, many of the wonderful customs of the '50s were slowly degraded from a styling standpoint with unnecessary changes in the name of competition. Canted headlights and more baroque styling features were turning the once beautiful cars into overdone statements that should have been left alone. This, too, began a general decline of the custom car genre. But it didn't stop there. As the decade progressed, wacky show rods proliferated the show car scene. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was one proponent of the genre with his wild fiberglass creations. As Ed tried to outdo himself each show season, his custom show rods went farther over the top, though they usually held some charm.--- click image for more...

And, of course, there was the wonderful Los Angeles heartbeat of the American kustom kar kulture. starting with von Dutch, Ed Roth, Dean Cushenberry, Daryl Starbird and the bull-goose looney of the lot, George Barris. Los Angeles supplied us with our mightiest custom-built dream cars. When it came to those peculiar cars that were ‘exhibit’ cars, or entertainment tie-in cars, the territory crossed over into pure American advertising at it’s best.


ve always been advertising automobiles. If you go look into the history of the car, you’ll always find enterprising people who turn their delivery trucks into rolling billboards for their business. Really crazy showmen would turn their cars into giant rolling pickles or even rockets or vacuum cleaners or giant animals to advertise their wares.

However, when grand master car customizers like George Barris got into the game, there was no looking back. he’d already made a big name for himself with beautiful customs like the ala kart and golden sahara. He had built a small business empire around his various personally endorsed paint products and ‘how-to customize books. He was practically a household name.

Below is our favorite kustom rod ever, the Little Coffin. Read More:

Then along came telelvison and Hollywood. He was asked to build the Batmobile. After than it was a steady stream of commissions to create one crazy car after another like the Munster coach and the Dragula for the Munsters on tv. Before long he was the crazy custom car guy to the stars. Soon no self-respecting rock star could be seen cruising the strip unless they had thier very own George Barris designed kustom. Sonny & Cher had matching mustangs (and matching Honda 90 cycles!).

Soon every kustom car designer in town was doing them. paul revere & the raiders had the raiders coach the monkees had the monkeemobile. The Addams family had the Druid Princess (designed by ed roth, no less). The cars showed up at publicity events and grocery store openings and teen spectaculars and the beach parties and every where the ‘stars’ didn’t want to go. At one point there were even something like four or five Batmobiles making the rounds in the circuit. The car shows listed the krazy kustoms with star billing as if the Monkees were actually making an appearance and not their car. It was really kool and krazy.

It was an easy step for the marketing industry to move in and start making their own krazy advertising kustoms as well. Vox musical equipment had become the guitars and amps of choice for most of the coolest LA bands (they had the coolest shapes!). So, vox decided to jump into the krazy kustom battle and have a Voxmobile built by Barris. This photo shows how kool it was. it’s shaped just like a Vox guitar!! amazing, huh?

Psych-Out. 1968. Richard Rush. Read More:

Bands all over town had their publicity photos taken draped over it as if it were their own car-about-town. In fact, the car was probably a bigger star than 90% of the bands that had their photo taken with it. For several years, this car was a star. But, where is it now? Nobody knows. In a museum? In a private collection? Was it pieced out to build other cars? Did it burn in the infamous “barris custom shops” fire? It seems to have gone the way of the Vox guitar – all show, no go.

There was a big fad among kustomizers to build cars out of everyday object (so the giant vox guitar idea was no isolated concept). There were cars built out of telephone booths, WW2 German helmets, bathtubs, even the Munsters’ dragula was built out of a gold plated burial casket.

The whole krazy kustom kompetiton as it emerged in the media kept on going. For almost at another half decade, the kustomizers kept bulding more and more extreme cars. I remember as a kid actually going to a car show (to see the batmobile, no less) and physically crawling inside of a car with pink shag carpeting covering the entire interior. It had six wheels and was shaped like an alien space craft. It was by Cushenberry and it was called ‘the pink panther’. It had amazing chrome engine work and sticks shift steering. You couldn’t drive it legally on the road (i don’t even seem to remember windows). So, was it still a car? I think it had actually crossed the line into sculpture.

In fact, in that same show I saw a car called the ‘moon-rover’ or something like that. It looked like a big black spider and had extended extra set of double wheels on a long retractible arm about 20 feet in from of the six wheels on the chassis itself. I couldn’t even see a place for the driver to actually sit. It was impossible. Definitely sculpture, not automobile.

I think it’s a big shame that these amazing objects have somehow managed to be completely missed by the modern art establishment. Why aren’t the extreme creations of Ed Roth or Von Dutch or George Barris or Starbird or Cushenberry in the museum of modern art in NYC? Instead, they have shows about car art made by ‘real’ artists who have no connection to cars. But, they don’t deem to include these extraordinary sculptural objects (that happen to look sorta like cars) as any form of ‘real’ art. Why not?

You might claim that these aren’t ‘artworks’ but real cars. Never mind that most of them are completely undriveable and many don’t even have engines in them. They simply sit there and look cool. Isn’t that the only real definition of ‘art’ that survives the ages?

Art Chantry: it wasn’t cheezy when it was built. it was actually treated with respect. try to imagine that. since then we’ve dissed LA so much that all things from there are laughed at openly (but secretly imitated). such is life.

we really need to start respecting this stuff again…. back int he 60′s, there were machines in penny arcades that held all of these crummy little ‘postcards’. you put some money in the thing and push the proper button and you get a photo of your favorite movie star (fabian) and favorite tv star (the rifleman). but they also had all of these photos of kustom kars. in fact, it’s where i first discovered the beatnik bandit and the deora – on penny arcade cards. this very image of the voxmobile i’ve posted is scanned off one of those cheap-o card. the back is full of info about the car written in a press release fashion as if it were a teen idol or something. …domenic priore wrote a pretty darn fine book about that scene called ‘riot on sunset strip.” i encourage all of you to buy it and devour it. it’s a glimpse into a much larger universe of cool….and we can’t ever ignore the extremely important influence of jay ward. where would we all be if we didn’t have rocky & bullwinkle to show us the true path of enlightenment?…

…you might note that i purposely didn’t mention the oscar meyer weiner mobile. that was actually designed by a rather famous industrial designed from milwaukee (i saw an exhibit of his work, but sadly, i forget his name. he also did the original miller beer logo).

it’s an iconic bit of american advertising/automoblie art but it wasn’t created by the cultural forces in southern california. it came out of the midwest. like i said, ad cars have always been with us.

Other rod builders got into the act, too, which led to ever-stranger creations. By the 1970s, this would manifest itself in such odd concepts as motorized toilets, Coke machines, and pool tables.

Another factor in the decline of custom cars in the 1960s was Hollywood. Some of the famed customizers of the ’50s moved slowly away from building custom cars for individual customers to the more lucrative television and movie work.

George Barris was the most notable of these, but Dean Jeffries also did customizing and stunt work for Hollywood, especially after moving his shop next to the Hollywood freeway adjacent to Universal Studios. Larry Watson actually became an actor, appearing in more than 150 television shows from the 1960s through the ’80s. Even Von Dutch got into the movie scene, doing two cars for the Steve McQueen movie The Reivers and setting up timed explosives for numerous movies. These were four of the key figures from the 1950s custom car era. Read More:

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