Frank DeRosa


   

Frank De Rosa & Son Customs 1090 Harbor Street Pittsburg CA

Frank DeRosa, Custom Car Builder - Hall of Fame

Autobody Extraordinaire

From the May, 2006 issue of Street Rodder

If you've been keeping up with this column for the past few issues, you may have noticed a reoccurring theme of focusing on custom car builders. Let's just say this isn't an accident, nor is it an attempt to cause an uproar of emotion from anyone used to reading about hot rod and street rod builders. No, this is simply the author's favorite subject and one that needs to be visited once in a while to keep the new crop of car nuts educated on the important historical stuff. Which brings up a good point about this month's "Hall of Fame" spotlight. Without a doubt, Frank DeRosa needs no introduction (with exception to the youths coming up today mentioned earlier), however, the history behind Frank and his Pittsburg, California-based body shop is long, successful, and a true testament to the American way of life.

Frank DeRosa is widely known for hand-shaping some of the wildest custom cars seen anywhere. But what many fans of the DeRosa style may not know is that Frank has very successfully built up and operated a high-production autobody repair shop in his hometown of Pittsburg, California, since 1949. Born in 1929, Frank was only 24 when he started his business (now the oldest body shop in town), but it was a combination of his childhood spent tinkering with model car kits and modifying things like his 2x4 plank skateboard, and a stint in the Navy, where Frank learned welding and fabrication, that laid the groundwork for a life of lead and sheetmetal. Frank also got some much needed autobody experience at a local body shop owned by Bob Dughi, just before Frank started his time in the Navy. When Frank returned from duty, he-like a small group of other Central California-based custom car "freaks," like the Barris brothers, Bailon, Cushenberry, Winfield, and Westergard, just to name a few-began modifying cars and making a name for himself in the fledgling custom car industry. Unlike most of Frank's custom car peers who made the move down to Southern California for presumably greener pastures, Frank stayed in his hometown and because of this, made quite a name for himself locally, as well as worldwide.

Some of his most famous creations include The King of Mercs, a 1951 Mercury with what could be considered the heaviest chop on a Merc known to man; and a little Cadillac built to out-do the original Batmobile, as well as grab the attention of anyone who laid eyes on her, that went by the name of the Sharkmobile or Land Shark. The Sharkmobile started life as a 1960 Cadillac El Dorado convertible before it was sliced and diced in every direction. The roof is sort of a combination of a Cadillac and a Buick Riviera; the taillights are from a '56 Packard; and other features include handmade gullwing-style doors, a '53 DeSoto grille, and 1963 Ford Thunderbird interior. But that's just the borrowed pieces from other cars; this beast was also treated to a list of serious body modifications. First off, the Caddy was lengthened to a whopping 20 feet 7 inches with the help of the Lincoln fender sections with Packard taillights and the flipped-upside-down DeSoto grille, scratch-built fender skirts that extend 6 feet beyond the rear wheels, a set of shark "gills," or louvers for all the non-aquatic cars. Believe it or not, the Caddy was also widened and finished off the old-school way, or rather the Frank DeRosa way, with lead and sweat. Not to let the bodywork be outdone, Frank applied one seriously intricate and very involved multicolored flamed and scalloped lacquer paint job with a padded vinyl roof to top the Caddy off right. By the way, the Sharkmobile was originally named Vendetta, a much more suiting name for some strange reason, at least in our opinion.

Today, the DeRosa shop is still kept in line by Frank himself, however, Frank's son, Frank Jr., has grown up into not only a crack custom car builder, but also a successful body shop manager. This father-and-son team has their hands on some of the latest and finest custom cars around. In fact, the DeRosas have been working with the likes of John D'Agostino, Art Himsl, Gene Winfield, and Oz's Customs, adding their paint and bodyworking skills to the finest full-show cars to come out of Central California. In November 2005, the DeRosa father-and-son team was invited with six other famous names to build a '51 Caddy the "old-school" way on the popular Discovery show "Monster Garage." With that kind of recognition, six-yes, count them, six-Hall of Fame inductions, 40 or so magazine features, and countless happy custom car owners over the past 60 decades, the DeRosa name will forever be known as one of the "greats" of the automotive industry.

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1952 Cadillac Convertible - The Golden Edition

Frank De Rosa Spent His Life Planning To Build This Custom

Photography by Mike Chase

Rod & Custom, August, 2009

Fans of the television show "Monster Garage" may remember an episode from about three years ago on which a team of top-level customizers built a '51 Cadillac convertible custom in five days and nights. That team included Frank DeRosa Sr. and Frank DeRosa Jr., father-and-son builders from Pittsburg, California. Since then Frank Jr. has completed another incredible Cadillac--this '52 convertible. This time, however, the project took a little longer--like a few decades.

Frank Jr. grew up around the family auto shop, DeRosa Custom Auto Body, his famous father started 60 years ago. He remembers first seeing this Cadillac when he was a little boy. It belonged to the owner of a local bar, who had bought it new. Over the years, he continued to see it, and when he got older he began asking the owner if he would be willing to sell the car. He kept asking for ten years, with no success. After the owner passed away in 2000, his family agreed to sell the car to Frank. Several other people had tried to buy the car, he learned, but the family had decided to sell it to him because he had shown so much interest for so long.

"The most memorable part of the restoration was right in the beginning," Frank told us. "Just being able to move the car from that garage to my shop was an amazing experience. Having the Cadillac in my shop and finally knowing it was mine had to be my favorite part of the whole process."

Of course, that was just the beginning of the process--the physical process anyway. Frank had already spent years planning the build-up in his mind. There were many reasons he wanted to keep a lot of the outward appearance intact, including the fact that it was a one-owner car, the body was very straight and rust-free, it was a true convertible and it was a "Golden Anniversary" Cadillac (as Cadillac called the '52s).

Frank did much of the build, with help from his father and others, including fellow Grand National Roadster Show Hall of Famers John Aiello, Marcos Garcia, Dick Falk, and Bill Reasoner. Most of the stock chassis was restored and modified with air bags from Air Ride Technologies at both ends. Power comes from a GM factory-direct 330-horsepower small-block--dressed up to keep up with the style that's all over the rest of the Cadillac. That includes the interior, where every mechanical component and every bit of material was selected for excellence and appearance. Of course, none of that makes any difference if the car didn't make an excellent first impression.

"The first thing everybody notices is the incredible paint," says Frank. The Candy Brandy Wine shows flawless sheetmetal, the result of hours of effort by the owner. The Carson top was the hardest part of the job, he said, especially since it was the most important part of keeping the silhouette correct. The chopped top and dropped stance create the illusion of a section job, but the body is uncut.

Frank told us a story about the Cadillac that his father told him during the build-up. In 1953, the original owner brought the car into Frank Sr.'s shop with a scratch on the fender. Fifty years later, while sanding down the paint, Frank Jr. uncovered the red oxide primer his dad had sprayed while making the repair--probably the first work ever done to this Cadillac.

"I have to say that this is the greatest custom that has rolled out of our shop, and my family has been in the business since 1949." Maybe he's biased; after all, he's had his eye on this Cadillac since he was a boy. Then again, maybe he's absolutely right. Either way Frank's not about to rest now; he's looking towards the future and says he'll most likely have to sell the "Golden Anniversary" Cadillac that he'd wanted for so long, in order to make room for the next project to roll into the family shop.

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Barry Weiss’s Cowboy Cadillac is a custom 1947 Cadillac originally built by legendary cardesigner Frank DeRosa. Barry purchased the car after selling his purple Frank DeRosa custom 1951 “King of Mercs.” Frank DeRosa’s daughter shared some of Barry’s history with her dad’s cars in the Jalopy Journal forum where some were questioning Barry’s choice of tribal flames for the paint job:

“When he sold the “King of Mercs” he flew up here and bought that Cadillac UNFINISHED on site. Barry says he gets way more chicks driving those cars than his vette or jag….go figure ~ He’s a true maniac but has a heart of gold and luvs that car! He loved the stripes but just wanted to change it up a bit for the Ponoma show.”

Frank DeRosa’s daughter (I’m sorry I don’t know her name) comments that Barry uses his DeRosa customs as his “every day” cars, which I thought was funny – but not as funny as some of the other threads on the forum that often used the phrase “drove it like he stole it” when referring to Barry! (Sounds perfect, right?) Here’s a description of the “Cowboy Cadillac” from someone that apparently had firsthand experience with it – and with Barry:

“Frank DeRosa built car like others Barry has owned. It is as radical as it gets. One of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever been in and I have been in my share but still a blast to cruise around in esp when Barry is piloting. Have seen that car evolve from when he first got it. Its pretty insane. Mostly a piece of art in my opinion. Definitely form over function.”

And don’t think for a second that Storage Wars was the Cowboy Cadillac’s big break! It actually made an appearance in the Outkast music video for their song “Roses!”

 

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Where George Barris can point to the Batmobile as his chef d’oeuvre, his contemporary, Frank DeRosa, can claim this 1960 Cadillac for sale on Hemmings.com as his own masterpiece. In fact, Pittsburg, California-based DeRosa, who has since been inducted into the Oakland Roadsters Hall of Fame, has said that this car was specifically built as his answer to the Batmobile. Starting with an Eldorado convertible, DeRosa stretched the car to more than 20 feet in length and added a roof from a Buick Riviera, along with a 1953 De Soto grille, 1956 Packard taillamps, the interior from a 1963 Thunderbird, custom lakes pipes and his signature padded vinyl top. The culmination of four years of work, DeRosa originally called it Vendetta, but it has since been nicknamed the Sharkmobile and the Land Shark. From the seller’s description:

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From August 21st to August 26th of 2005 Jesse James of MONSTER GARAGE in Long Beach, California assembled six automobile customizers from various parts of the county to customize a 1951 2-door Cadillac “Old School Style”. 
On the super talented team were:

Frank DeRosa Sr., 79, Pittsburg CA

Frank DeRosa Jr., Pittsburg CA

Darrel Starbird, Afton, OK

John Aiello, Pacheco CA

Jeff Myers Ark City, KS

Dennis McPhail, Wellington KS

A majority of the builders on the team being from automobile customizing “Hall of Fame” alumni from all over the United States. Also included on the build team was Bill Hines, 83 years young from Bellflower CA, adding his “Old School” leading skills for 2 days. The super talented Jesse James worked right along with all of the guys (and ate his meals with us also). The marathon build began on Sunday morning when the 1951 Cadillac arrived on a flat bed truck . Billy “Cad Man” Gibbons of the famous ZZ Top music band was also on hand to consult and help with the design team. Soon the entire build team began to energetically tear into the “old 50’s piece” and over the next 5 days and nights totally transformed it into an even more cool and beautiful creation! Everyone had a job to do and helped one another to achieve our common goal of succeeding with building a radical style custom that none would forget. The project was chopped (after discarding the hard top roof) and a frame for a new “carson” type top was formed. The body was sectioned through the rear, the tops of the doors were rolled to achieve a sleek look, air bags and new suspension were installed to front and rear ends for an easy ride, a Ford rear end was installed and new set of skirts were hand crafted by Darrel Starbird and Frank DeRosa Jr. Mean while, the master craftsman Jesse James installed a new front clip that held a new 500 horse power engine. New custom vents were formed at the front of the rear quarter panels, headlights and tail lights were customized. All the while, the film crew from the Discovery Channel shot the entire working time on this project; day and night with 2 ground cameras and 1 large overhead camera that sort of snuck up on you like a bill collector! All meals, drinks and snacks were served on the set of MONSTER GARAGE so once you arrived on set in the early morning there was not a reason to leave until the late nights when your work was finished for the day.

All of us builders agreed in unison that we had never worked harder, faster and been so “pumped up” to achieve our goal of completing a project on time and with the absolute best quality to match. The film crew acted the same and really kept the morale going when it got tough. It truly was a "labor of love" for all of us, Jesse James included. When the deadline came for completion, we were 1 1/2 hours ahead of schedule! We each received our paychecks and a promise of a MAC tool box with power tools included with an estimated worth of $4,400. Happily, we didn’t have to experience the shame of failing and having Jesse James tow our project to “The Crusher” with the sole purpose of being destroyed. 

This master piece of custom work performed by the all star crew will air November 21, 2005 on the Discovery Channel. 

Ask Frank DeRosa Sr., and he will guarantee you that Jesse works as hard as the crew and knows the trade well.

I have worked on many, many cars in my lifetime. I honestly have to say I had so much fun doing this project! It brought a renewed hunger alive within~As demanding as it was to do in a week, I felt ALIVE and couldn't wait to get to work! I couldn't believe how "pumped up" I was about this build and working with true artests such as; my son, Jesse, Darrel and Bill along with the other men. It was a great team effort by all. 


Copy Written By: Frank DeRosa, Hall of Fame 2005 

 

   

For more information please read:

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Daniel D. Hutchins - Wheels Across America: Carriage Art & Craftsmanship

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Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - A History of Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - Cars and Coachbuilding: One Hundred Years of Road Vehicle Development

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

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Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Brooks T. Brierley - Auburn, Reo, Franklin and Pierce-Arrow Versus Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard

Brooks T. Brierley - Magic Motors 1930

James J. Schild - Fleetwood: the Company and the Coachcraft

John R. Velliky - Dodge Brothers/Budd Co. Historical Photo Album

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 1

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Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 3

Dennis Adler - The Art of the Sports Car: The Greatest Designs of the 20th Century

C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities

C. Edson Armi - American Car Design Now

Penny Sparke - A Century of Car Design

John Tipler - The World's Great Automobile Stylists

Ivan Margolius - Automobiles by Architects

Jonathan Bell - Concept Car Design

Erminie Shaeffer Hafer - A century of vehicle craftsmanship

Ronald Barker & Anthony Harding - Automobile Design: Twelve Great Designers and Their Work

John McLelland - Bodies beautiful: A history of car styling and craftsmanship

Frederic A. Sharf - Future Retro: Drawings From The Great Age Of American Automobiles

Paul Carroll Wilson - Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Nick Georgano - Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work

Matt Delorenzo - Modern Chrysler Concept Cars: The Designs That Saved the Company

Thom Taylor - How to Draw Cars Like a Pro

Tony Lewin & Ryan Borroff - How To Design Cars Like a Pro

Doug DuBosque - Draw Cars

Jonathan Wood - Concept Cars

D. Nesbitt - 50 Years Of American Auto Design

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Lennart W. Haajanen & Karl Ludvigsen - Illustrated Dictionary of Automobile Body Styles

L. J. K Setright - The designers: Great automobiles and the men who made them

Goro Tamai - The Leading Edge: Aerodynamic Design of Ultra-Streamlined Land Vehicles

Brian Peacock & Waldemar Karwowski - Automotive Ergonomics

Bob Thomas - Confessions of an Automotive Stylist

Brooke Hodge & C. Edson Armi - Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays

Gordon M. Buehrig - Rolling sculpture: A designer and his work

Henry L. Dominguez - Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team...

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl and the Dream Machine

Serge Bellu - 500 Fantastic Cars: A Century of the World Concept Cars

Raymond Loewy - Industrial Design

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Philippe Tretiack - Raymond Loewy and Streamlined Design

Angela Schoenberger - Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial Design

Laura Cordin - Raymond Loewy

 




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