A Visit with Gene Winfield (at the Syracuse Nationals)
By Jim Amado
Gene Winfield is in fact a "model citizen' Indeed, for many years he was associated in various capacities, with AMT, the model company which many of us old timers remember from our youth.
In July of this year, Mr. Winfield left his responsibility in California to spend a weekend as a guest of the Syracuse Nationals, in Syracuse, NY. This show attracted some 7,000 vehicles and over 80,000 people, from all over the northeast.
A youngster in his eighties, our guest willingly took time out from his work, to come here and work. Go figure. Lucky for us, however. Not only did he bring lots of goodies and nostalgia to share with us, but he also sat down for a few minutes and spoke with us about some of his history. Our chat on July 16th was interesting, informative, frustrating, embarrassing, and humorous
The frustration, embarrassment, and humor all caused by the realization he and I had something in common "Sit here", Mr. Winfield said, indicating to his right - "I have a bad left ear" - I cringed "So do I", I said. So, with my bad ear next to him I unfortunately had to ask him to repeat some things, but overall I believe we did ok.
Long time modelers will recall that AMT, formerly "The official model makers to the industry", had made promotional scale models since about 1948, In the early '50's they had offered a few of their 'promos' (as they eventually became known) as unassembled models, but it wasn't until 1958 that they began producing the "3 in I Customizing Kits", which most old timers are familiar with. In 1961, and again in 1962, AMT included customizing tips from George Barris. In '63, they began to feature Budd Anderson. Also in '63 we first saw the AMT Customizing Team, which included George Barris, The Alexander Brothers (Mike & Larry), Bill Cushenbery, and Gene Winfield. In addition to listing these gentlemen's names on the outside of the model box, the instruction sheets of some of the kits included tips or suggestions from the team members.
When Mr. Winfield and I sat down, he asked what I wanted to know. I said I'd like to explore the model connection, but that we'd enjoy learning about whatever he wished to share with us. I began by asking how long he was with AMT. He said he was initially with them as a consultant, from 1962, then later was asked to replace an individual in running the Speed & Custom Division (of a model company?) where he built show cars which AMT made models of and promoted. He was summoned to Detroit by AMT for an interview, and was hired. Within six months he had the Speed and Custom Division in the black. However, the job required that he fly three times a week from Santa Monica, CA, where his own shop and his home were located, to the AMT facility in Phoenix. In 1969, AMT relocated that facility to Santa Monica to be closer to the movie studios.
Prior to working with AMT, Mr. Winfield had constructed a radical, futuristic custom car which he called "The Reactor". There's a photo of it in the Automobile Magazine article. He related how he took the car to Fox Studios and effectively opened some doors for himself. He told the security guards a fib. "The Transportation Department wanted to see this car", so the guard waved him in. The ploy was successful, so he started using it at other studios as well, and soon the studios began calling him. He was by this time a consultant to AMT, a member of the customizing team, listed on the model boxes. The studios began working with both him and AMT for cars to be used in both television series and movies.
One of the cars which would be familiar to modelers is the Piranha, which was intended to be a production sports car, selling for $5,000, though the original cost $9,000 to build. I do remember AMT hyping Cycolac ABS plastic, a material which they produced some model kits in, and we were told that it was better than the styrene plastic we were familiar with from most of the then current model kits. Apparently it was so durable, and such a revolutionary product, that the Piranha's body was made from it. Cycolac was a product of the Marbon Chemical Division of Borg-Warner. At some point AMT bought the rights to the CRV (Cycolac Research Vehicle) and renamed it Piranha.
There were actually only a few Piranhas made in some variations, including a dragster. There is a Piranha website which may provide more information. Here we're interested in Mr. Winfield's involvement, and the scale model connection.
The “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” TV car was made by Mr. Winfield from a Piranha, and given to the studio to use in the production of that show, but one of the stars didn't like it— he felt it was too difficult to enter and exit. The studio retained the car for a couple of years, then Mr. Winfield bought it, and took it to car shows. He eventually sold it to a gentleman in Connecticut. When the man attempted to register his new car, the state would not allow him to do so. He tried two other, presumably nearby, states with the same result. His next attempt was to call Mr. Winfield and try to sell the car back to him.
Ultimately a woman in Colorado bought the car, intending to store it and later sell it. Some years later, Robert Short, a gentleman who was a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” fan, located the car and purchased it. He called Mr. Winfield and they met at a publicity event. Though some of the electronics didn't work, Mr. Short apparently had better luck registering the car, than previous owners had, as he drove it on the street. That is until he got tired of the police stopping him. For this reason he stopped driving the car.
The real car can be seen on a DVD of “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” episode. The DVD includes an interview with Mr. Winfield. The Piranha scale model was reissued by AMT a few years ago in their Buyers' Choice program. The original model was issued around 1967, and several variations, including the “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” version were released periodically thereafter.
At one point Mr. Winfield received a call from the Ford Motor Company which resulted in him building some show cars for them, including the Mercury Marquis, and a ‘67 Thunderbird 4-door concept. Why didn't AMT make a model of that?
Though a dyed in the wool car guy, not all of his work involved cars. As a fan of the "Bonanza" TV program in my youth, I was fascinated to learn that Lorne Green ("Pa Cartwright") owned a portion of the Ponderosa program. He contacted Mr. Winfield and had him build... are you ready for this.., the "Ponderosa"... in three Fruehauf trailers! The front exterior was in one, and the interior in two others. I would have never guessed.
Some of his creations were "out of this world"! One such is the Shuttle Craft which Mr. Winfield built for the Star Trek television series.
Among his more down to Earth creations, which both model car and television fans should remember, are the Chrysler Imperial, which wore steer horns for the "Hero" TV program, and the Sunbeam Tiger, for the original "Get Smart" TV program. AMT duplicated both of these cars in 1/25 scale.
Remember the AMT '40 Ford sedan delivery kit, "Gene's Moving Van"? AMT has recently contacted Mr. Winfield regarding reissuing the model again.
So, as you can see, Mr. Winfield has contributed much to our hobby, as well as the automotive hobby, and at age 80+, he's not done yet. He's been a guest at car shows not only throughout the U.S.A., but also Canada, London, and Australia.
Knowing that his past was, and his present is cars, as an afterthought I asked if there's a connection between him and the other Mr. Winfield, of carburetor fame. He said: "Ed and Bud are distant cousins, whom I don't see very often, but know very well. I used their carburetors and cams in my flatheads, and cars I built". See? The teachers always told me, you don't learn unless you ask questions.
Our conversation was finished, but Mr. Winfleld's work was not. Before returning to his booth to work some more, he headed over to the model car contest to select a worthy recipient of the Gene Winfield Award.
Thank you, Mr. Winfield! May God bless you, and keep you young!
Jim Amado is the proprietor of Uptown Automotive a Hobby Shop in Utica, NY.
First published in Kustom & Hot Rod Models, Fall/Winter 2012, issue
Gene Winfield - Canoga Park, California now in Mojave,California
sunny afternoon we jumped on the 101, heading toward Canoga Park, and made our way out to the custom hot rod shop of
Gene Winfield. While checking the scenery it became a kookie realization that this L.A. suburb which could be
"Anywhere, USA" is the home of the hot rod master, Gene Winfield. Gene is known all around the world as a master of
the custom chop-top, and the painting style known as "The Fade-away".When we finally arrived at Gene's shop and were
warmly greeted and shown into Gene's office. Jaws dropped at the sight of walls full of memorabilia from the fifties
to the present. There tacked to the walls are pictures of Gene throughout the years with models, movie stars and of
course his famous custom rods. We talked about some of the shots on the wall, and one that caught my eye was a shot
of William Shatner (Capt. Kirk of Star Trek) in one of Gene's creations "The Reactor" which was built in 1962. Gene
is also a master at building cars, from some of the examples on the walls I could see that he could take any kooked
idea and build it for you from the ground up.
So we got into the scrap book and Gene was describing each and every shot, I mean it was dazzling! Fifty years of
building, customizing, racing, and painting cars, preserved in this kooked out scrapbook.
And so the stories went on and on then Gene showed us around the shop and explained some of his technics. He was apperently gearing up the start fabricating chop-top Merc bodies out of fiberglass! He was into all kind of things, front ends, hubcaps, desks built to simulate the front end of particular cars. . .and then of course, there was the "Batmobile"!! So we hung out for the better part of the afternoon, long after the interview tape ran out. Finally, it was time to head back to town. It was a privaledge to be in the presence of such genius! For as old as Gene is, there's no stopping his quest for exellence. He is truly the King.
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