|The East Coast's King Kustomizer.
by Jim McCraw The Car Connection 8/20/1999
The Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise brings together hot rods, factory hot rods, and customized cars from the '50s to the '90s for one night of celebration and remembrance every August. And one of the guys whose spirit pervades the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise is Mike Alexander, 66, a gifted designer, engineer and tinkerer who was at the top of the Detroit customizing scene in its heyday in the 1950s and '60s. Mike Alexander started working on custom cars in 1957, and 43 years later, he’s still at it. He splits his time between his house in Grosse Ile, Michigan, his winter quarters in Florida, and Southern California.
The Car Connection contributor Jim McCraw spoke with Mike Alexander at the California headquarters of Metalcrafters, one of the world’s finest facilities for creating cars from the ground up, where he now works on special projects with his son, Mike Alexander Jr.
The genesis of hot rods
Q: Mike, what was the first customized car you and your brother Larry ever built?
A: It was just after we went into business, a Model A Ford with a modified four-cylinder engine in it. We painted it Glade Green Metallic and took it to a car show.
Q: Where was your first shop?
A: On Northwestern Highway near Evergreen Road, right near the drive-in where all the outlaw drag racing went on. We used to go up there at night to watch the racing.
Q: How did you get started as a customizer?
A: My brother Larry went through body and paint school at Wolverine Trade School after he got out of the service and he talked me into doing it, too, after I got out of the service. I wanted to be a mechanic, but I ended up doing body and paint instead. We started our business in April of 1957.
Q: Was there a lot of customizing going on in Detroit back then?
A: Not really. There was a Chinese fellow on Detroit's east side, and then there was Ron Clark and Bob Kaiser, and us. But customizing was not like in California, where it’s a year-round affair. We used to stay busy, but it wasn’t until we started doing the factory work that it got interesting.
Draggin' it out
Q: So, when you started, street racing and drag racing on Woodward Avenue were more popular than building custom cars?
A: Right. Detroit Dragway had just got going, and we thought that would be a boost for our business, but it wasn’t really.
Q: Did you build customer cars that competed at the Detroit Autorama?
A: Yeah, but they didn’t call it that back then, and it wasn’t at Cobo Hall. It was at the Light Guard Armory. Larry built a Model A pickup, and that was the first one we got a trophy for, for Best Paint. That was in 1958, our second year in business. It was called Grasshopper, and it was also Glade Green Metallic.
Q: Did you feel that you were in competition with the big customizers in California, guys like George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth?
A: Yeah, that’s a funny story. We used to photograph the cars we built when they were finished, write up the how-to stories, and send the stories in to the East Coast magazines, like Rodding and Restying and Custom Rodder, and they would publish them. But we couldn’t get any of the West Coast magazines to publish them. Then George Barris brought his famous "air car," with the two electric fans, to the Detroit Autorama, and something broke on it. Barris asked the show's promoter, Bob Larrivee, if he knew anyone who could fix the car, and Larrivee recommended us. So we met Barris, and Barris said, "You send your stories to the West Coast through me." He broke the ice for us, and we’ve been friends ever since. He used to refer to us as his East Coast division.
Q: Did you build a lot of cars that ended up cruising Woodward Avenue?
A: Yeah, we never had much time to go up there ourselves, but our customers sure did.
Q: Would there be one car from those days that people would recognize today?
A: Sure. That would be Clarence Catallo’s "Silver Sapphire," the car that appeared on the Beach Boys’ album cover. We built that car for Clarence while he was in high school, and then he shipped it to Barris, who chopped the top and painted it. Clarence just bought it back last year, just before he died. He wanted me to totally redo the car, but unfortunately, he died before we could get started.
Factories get involved
Q: You and your brother were among the very first customizers hired by the Detroit factories. How did that happen?
A: It started in 1963 and went for about a year and a half. Somebody at AMT models sold a package to Ford Motor Co., a package called the Ford Custom Car Caravan. They had Barris, Bill Cushenberry, Dean Jeffries (builder of the Monkeemobile—Ed.), A.K. Miller, Larry and I. Budd Anderson was the emcee of the shows, and we traveled around to all the big car shows. Each of us had to build a customized Ford for the traveling show, and we built a ‘64 Ford Galaxie hardtop. We had Harry Bradley (longtime instructor at the Art Center College of Design—Ed.) make us drawings of the Ford before we started, and we worked a lot with Harry after that. We built the car, called the Alexis, and Ford was so impressed when they saw it, they asked us to build one or two show cars a year for them.
Q: You also built a project for Dodge around that time, didn’t you?
A: We built a customized version of the old Dodge flat-nosed pickup truck, a futuristic thing called the Deora. We conned the boss of Dodge, Bob McCurry, out of a truck, and it took us three years to build it, but we finally finished it. We won all the major trophies at the Autorama, and Dodge put it on tour after that. A lot of our old creations are being rejuvenated because next year at the Detroit Autorama, they’re going to have a reunion of all the cars that ever won the famous Riddler trophy, and we won it three times, which nobody else ever did. We won it for the Dodge Deora, for Larry’s roadster, and for a car called the Venturion.
Q: Do you still stay close to the custom scene?
A: Sure. I go to the Oakland Roadster Show every year, and to the Detroit Autorama every year, and Woodward Avenue. Larry and I are in the Hall of Fame at Oakland.
The ASC connection
Q: Didn’t you have to close your business when the highway came through?
A: Yeah, we had a shop on Schoolcraft in Detroit, a building that we bought, and the city suddenly bought all the land for a horse track. My brother went to work for Ford full time, and after I built four more cars for Ford, and four more for Chrysler, I went to work for a company called Custom Craft, which was owned by a German fellow, Heinz Prechter. That company turned into American Sunroof, and that company turned into ASC Inc., where I worked for 25 years. I started on Dec. 7, 1970, Pearl Harbor Day. The last five years, I started to slow down, doing only a few special projects.
Q: But you also worked for a time at Ford before that?
A: Right. When Bunkie Knudsen left GM to run Ford, he brought (Corvette Stingray and Boss 302 Mustang designer) Larry Shinoda with him from GM Design, and Larry hired me to work at the Kar Kraft Design Center. I ran the shop there. We built all of Ford's show cars, special project cars, and fiberglass bucks. But when Knudsen got fired, so did Larry, and I left after that.
Q: And one of your latest projects at ASC, we understand, was the Cadillac Evoq concept vehicle?
A: Yeah, I did the automatic folding steel top project for the Evoq.
Q: You’re something of a top specialist, aren’t you?
A: At ASC, I did an automatic folding steel top for Nissan on the 300ZX, which they didn’t like, so we sold the idea to Mitsubishi, and they produced it as the Spyder.
Q: What do you drive now?
A: I have a Mercury Mountaineer, an Acura convertible, and a 300ZX convertible, both of which we made at ASC as prototypes.
Q: And are you working on something right now for yourself?
A: I still like to tinker, so I’m going to build a 1933 Ford highboy roadster with a late-model Ford V-8 engine in it.
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