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Custom Motors Inc.
Custom Motors Inc., 1939-1940; Beverly Hills, California
Associated Firms

Tremulis worked at Briggs for little over a year and in 1939 left to take a higher-paying position with Custom Motors Inc., a small Beverly Hills, California customizer located at 436 N. Rodeo Dr. It’s president was Sid Luft (Michael Sidney Luft b. 1915 - d. 2005), who at the time was the publicist/paramour of actress Eleanor Powell. While visiting Chicago, the beautiful dancer-actress gave Tremulis a ring:

“It was a red-hot box office name at the time so I answered, ‘Sure it is’. I figured it was one of the office girls, or maybe one of Chrissie's friends, so I kidded along and said: ‘Well, honey, I'm glad you called. I've been expecting you...’ and I guess she was used to having this happen when she called people for the first time. So she asked if I was the same Tremulis who had been with Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg and I said I was. She said to meet her at the Drake Hotel in Chicago where she was staying, that she had a proposal to make. I met her at the hotel and she explained her custom auto company operation and said that if I was interested, her public relations and partner in the company, Sid Luft, would be by the next day to fill in the details.

“Sid Luft had been her public relations man and she wanted to get him started in the customizing business. Luft and I talked about the plan which would have me design and direct the building of custom cars. It sounded great. He had tried several other things, but now was concentrating on customizing Cadillacs. The first one he built was a very nice custom Cadillac, but instead of selling it he started running around with the car. Pretty soon it got used, so when Eleanor Powell came to Chicago she hired me to go to California to put Sid’s business on a business basis. So I came to California.”

Tremulis claims he customized five Cadillacs for Custom Motors and his archives contain pictures of two different 1939 Cadillacs that feature the same custom front end treatment; a 1939 Series 60 special coupe with a chopped roof (by 3½”) and a 1939 Series 61 convertible coupe. He recalled that he got a phone call from syndicated columnist Jimmie Fidler after one of the cars (reportedly the convertible which had been sold to Bill Burlingame) was seen at the Trocadero, which at that time was one of Hollywood’s toniest night spots:

“I was surprised the next day to get a telephone call from Jimmie Fidler, the famous Hollywood reporter. He said he had seen Burlingame in the car he had purchased from Miss Powell and wanted to know what that color was called. I asked him what time he had seen it, and he said it was about 9:00 PM. "Oh, we call that Night White", I told him. He made a big thing about it in his column and over the air. Soon we got a call from the big Don Lee Cadillac sales agency wanting to know if we could furnish them with the formula of that Night White paint. I told them we couldn't let the formula out of our hands, but that we'd either paint the cars ourselves or sell it to them already mixed. I had to rush around and mix some paint in hopes it would look like the same stuff we'd used on the original Night White car. I had used some orange, maroon and purple in very small percentages and soon hit on the right proportions. We sold a lot of Night White to the Cadillac agencies in the area and we did a lot of $150 paint jobs by farming them out to paint shops nearby for $50. Many people came in with a wide variety of cars to be lowered, have fender skirts added, get louvered or to receive a touch of fancy detailing. The cars ranged from the most elegant ever manufactured down to sporty '32 Ford roadsters."

As Tremulis indicates, a portion of Custom Motors’ business involved selling paint and auto accessories like fender skirts and spot-lites. He also mentions that the shop’s paintwork was farmed out to third parties, so one assumes the lowering, chopping and other bodywork was farmed out as well.

An article that appeared in the July 28, 1943 issue of the Ravenswood-Lincolnite, a suburban Chicago bi-weekly, mentioned some of Tremulis’ pre-war projects:

“The next job he did for a notable was for actress Eleanor Powell, who transported him all the way to Hollywood to perform the work. When he got back home she wired him that the car was ‘the most beautiful automobile that stood on four wheels.’

“Seeking other worlds to conquer, he streamlined the limousine of the Maharajah of Indore and King Ghazi Ihn Feisal of Iraq. The job he did for the Indian prince thereafter won the famous Conqours-de-Elegance prize at Paris, France.”

The ‘Indian prince’ mentioned in the article was Yashwant Rao Holkar, the Maharaja of Indore. Holkar was India’s pre-eminant sportscar enthusiast and owned numerous custom-bodied roadsters and speedsters built on Alfa-Romeo, Rolls-Royce, Lagonda, Hispano-Suiza, Bentley and Duesenberg (SJN) chassis. It’s unknown exactly what car Tremulis designed/customized for the prince, however two of his cars, an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Superleggera by Touring and a Gurney-Nutting bodied Duesenberg Model SJN speedster, were known to be in California while Tremulis was working there.

Holkar’s most famous American car, a 1935 Duesenberg Model SJN speedster (chassis 2614 engine J-585), was sent to England and fitted with a one-off A.F. McNeil-designed Gurney-Nutting speedster body, after which it appeared at the 1936 London Motor Show. It was supposed to be delivered to him in India, but after Japan invaded China in 1937, shipping the cars there became problematic so the Maharaja took delivery of this car, and a recently purchased Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Superleggera by Touring, at his mansion in Santa Ana, California where he stayed from 1938-1940. Both cars were subsequently sent to India, via Singapore, after which the Duesenberg was repainted ochre and black, the state colors of Indore.

Exactly what car Tremulis did for King Ghazi bin Faisal (King Ghazi I) is also yet unidentified. The 27-year-old monarch died several months before Tremulis was connected to Custom Motors. King Ghazi was a notable automobilist who "liked to drive fast" and died while doing so in the early hours of April 4, 1939 when his sportscar collided with a light pole in Bagdad.

While working at Custom Motors Tremulis states he customized two additional vehicles; a Cadillac for Prince David Mdivani, ex-husband of silent movie star Mae Muray and a Duesenberg for Chicago ophthalmologist Jules C. Stein (who founded Music Corporation of America in 1924 - later MCA records). By the late 1930s MCA had established a Los Angeles office which was used to get its big band clients into the movies.

In reality ‘Prince’ Mdivani was not a prince, but merely the son of General Zakhari Mdivani, a former aide-de-camp to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. After he moved to California he married silent movie star Mae Muray and made a small fortune in the California oil business. He divorced Murray in 1933 and started dating several Hollywood starlets, purchasing a 1937 Series 90 16-cylinder Cadillac convertible coupe in which he escorted French actress Arletty in the late 1930s.

While working at Custom Motors, Tremulis recounts a chance meeting with a new client who had come to Los Angeles looking for him:

“One day I was having lunch at the bar in the Luau* when all of a sudden I saw a little American Bantam Roadster pull up outside. There was a man in a polo uniform and two little polo sticks were sticking up out of his small little car.  The chap comes in and sits down next to me. I looked at him and said,

‘Pretty ridiculous, big boy like you driving around in a kiddie car like that’. Of course he gave me a real funny look. He ordered a drink and then he said to me, ‘Do you know anything about those people across the street, Custom Motors?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know them.’ He said, ‘I’m looking for a guy by the name of Alex Tremulis, do you know him?’ I said, ‘I know him pretty well’. He wanted to know when Custom Motors opened up, and I told him they were probably out to lunch. He said, ‘I’m anxious to talk to Alex Tremulis.’ So I told him to finish his sandwich and then I would take him over to meet this Alex. So we walked across the street and into the shop. I had all my drawings on the wall… some real wild stuff too. He gets impatient and says, ‘When do I meet Alex Tremulis?’ I tell him, ‘You’ve already met him’. We laugh and then he introduces himself. ‘I’m Roy Evans, President of American Bantam,’ he said.”

(*The Luau, which was owned by restauranteur Al Mathes and former actor Steve Crane (at one time Lana Turner’s husband), was located directly across the street from Custom Motors’ showroom at 421 N. Rodeo Dr., however it didn’t open until 1953. Tremulis must be referring to The Tropics, a similarly-themed establishment opened at the same location by Harry Sugarman in December of 1936.)

Evans came looking for Tremulis after he saw the clay proposals for the new Crosley while visiting Connersville. For Bantam, Tremulis suggested a true convertible coupe to supplement the existing roadster. Evans was encouraged but not convinced; he shipped Tremulis a new three-bearing engine with instructions to install it in the prototype and drive it to Butler. He fabricated a prototype in just 10 days in the Custom Motors shop and floor-boarded the long-stroke four all the way to Butler averaging 75 mph. Evans loved the car and it entered into production as the Bantam Hollywood, priced at $525.

Evans asked Tremulis to stay on and design a convertible sedan as well. “That,” Tremulis told Automobile Quarterly years later, was “a tremendous challenge. Squeezing four passengers into a 75-inch wheelbase car with a slanted rear quarter and little or no money for tooling.” But he did it, and the Bantam Riviera joined the 1940 lineup, at $549. Like the Hollywood, it was upholstered in leather and well-appointed for its price. All '40 Bantams featured the new three-bearing engine which, at 50 cubic inches, produced 22 hp at 3800 rpm. Alex's busy airbrush also conjured a supercharged, aerodynamic coupe that Bantam simply couldn't afford to build. His designs for American Bantam remained in production until the firm switched over completely to the production of military Jeeps prior to World War II.

While he was busy working on the Bantam project back in his Chicago apartment he got another call from Eleanor Powell. Sid Luft had thought he could sell the last Cadillac Alex restyled for her up in San Francisco. Luft had sold the car, a 1939 Series 60 special coupe with a chopped roof, for $6,500 to somebody in San Francisco and just before Luft arrived at his destination went off the road at 100 mph, totaling it. Unfortunately the car was uninsured and Powell pulled the plug on Custom Motors, and soon-after her association with Sid Luft.

Eleanor Powell, about whom Fred Astaire once wrote, “She ‘put ‘em down like a man, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself” would continue her on-screen career for several more years and in 1943 married actor Glenn Ford. They divorced in 1959 and she passed away on February 11, 1982.

Luft bounced back as well and in 1943 married actress Lynn Bari and after their 1950 divorce became Judy Garland’s manager/agent/paramour, becoming her third husband in 1952 - remaining husband and wife until 1965. In 1970 Luft married artist Patricia Potts Hemingway and following their 1980 divorce dated actress Marianna Hill, although they never married. In 1993 Luft married Buster Keaton’s niece, Camille Keaton, the star of ‘I Spit On Your Grave’, passing away in 2005 at the age of 89. Custom Motors’ former 436 N. Rodeo Dr. showroom has subsequently been remodeled and for the past 25 years has served as the home to a Giorgio Armani boutique.

Tremulis realized the small commission he was receiving from working on the Bantams wouldn’t last long so he went back to Briggs, taking an apartment in the nearby Savarine Hotel at 13115 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit.

© 2015 Mark Theobald for with special thanks to William S. Tremulis







Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark - Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942

Bob Thomas - Alex Sarantos Tremulis: Always ahead of the Rest, Collectible Automobile, December 2008 issue

Josiah Work – SIA Interview: Alex Tremulis - Advocate of Aerodynamics, Special Interest Autos No. 82, August 1984 issue

Josiah Work – Alex Tremulis: Advocate of Aerodynamics, Hemmings Classic Car, March 2012 issue

Tony Hogg - Alex Tremulis: A Man of Rare Imagination and Achievements, Road & Track, Volume 35, Number 4, December 1983 issue

David R. Crippin - The Reminiscences of Alex Tremulis – July 1984 interview for the Edison Institute's “The Automobile in American Life” series (interviews with Carl Breer; Gordon M. Buehrig; Harley Earl; Eugene T. Gregorie; Raymond Loewy; William L. Mitchell; John Tjaarda & Alex Tremulis) transcribed from a 60 min VHS tape copied from a videodisc master, pub. 1987

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