By Brian Earnest
Brett Johnson is very familiar these days with Bob Metz and his custom car legacy. Actually, Johnson has become a bit of an expert on Metz.
He just wishes that he had found out about Metz a little sooner. If he had known earlier about Metz’s accomplished but somewhat overlooked career as a fabricator, craftsman, visionary and radical custom car builder, Johnson would no doubt have taken a little different approach to restoring his 1950 Buick Super custom.
By the time the Indianapolis resident had learned about Metz and figured out that his Buick was one of Metz’s first big custom creations, he had already rebuilt the car to suit his own tastes. Now he figures the unique Buick is historically significant enough to warrant another makeover — one that would turn it back into the car Metz had intended it to be when he painstakingly pieced the car together in 1951 at the Monfort-Olinger Sales shop where he worked in Shelbyville, Ind. The almost-new Buick had been wrecked in a collision with a train. Four months later, the car was transformed from a mangled sedan into a one-off convertible with a chopped removable hardtop.
Metz showed the car at some local events for several years, including the Indianapolis Custom Car Show, but he had other cars to build and other challenges to tackle. The 1950 Buick Super — the first of two radical 1950 Buick Supers Metz built — eventually changed hands many times while Metz was busy making a name for himself with a number of high-profile hot rods and Hollywood movie cars.
Metz got into the car business as a mechanic and body man after a stint in the Navy during World War II. He often scoured salvage yards for parts he could integrate into his custom projects to give them unique personalities. Eventually, his work began to gain notice nationwide and his cars appeared many times on the covers of national publications such as Rod and Custom and Rodders Journal, which profiled Metz’s career in its Summer 2008 issue.
The second of the two 1950 Buick Supers that he built was named the XM105. It featured prominent rear fins, unique bodyside contours and a pillarless hardtop roof (the posts were removed). The chopped-and-lowered Buick gained fame as a movie car in H.G. Wells’ film Time Machine, but it wasn’t the only custom that got Metz noticed. He gained acclaim for the radically finned Rod and Custom “Dream Truck” he helped build, and a racy convertible creation he called “LaRocket” that combined Cadillac, LaSalle, Buick and Olds parts. Almost all of his well-known customs used wild, over-the-top fins, often in tandem. Pieces such as headlights, bodyside trim spears and bumpers could come from just about anywhere. Metz was anything but shy when it came to marrying seemingly mismatched parts from different makes and even different eras.
“What’s interesting about Metz is that he was a Shelbyville [Ind.] guy,” noted Johnson. “He could have stayed out in California, but he always kept his shop back home. When he moved out from the dealership and started his own shop, that’s where he worked the rest of his life.”
Johnson had never heard of Bob Metz until about 2009, and by then he had already owned one of Metz’s early cars for around 27 years. The whole saga started innocently enough. Johnson, a lifelong car fanatic and accomplished collector, was simply looking for a fun, low-budget car he could buy for his wife to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. “I had actually just bought a ’51 Buick two-door sedan to customize and I was looking for parts, or sources for parts, and I saw this car listed for $1,700, I think it was, in Old Cars Weekly. And it just happened to be about five miles from where I lived.
“It was very, very radical. It was chopped and channeled. It had this steel removable hardtop. The fins on the back were all handmade. The top, as far as I could tell, was handmade. The scoops on the fenders were handmade. But it was rough! It was not a pretty car. I offered the guy $1,650 and he didn’t take it. Then I thought about it for a while, and I figured, ‘Why am I arguing over 50 bucks when this car has got thousands of hours in it?’ So I gave him his asking price and took it home.”
Johnson got the car running and learned a lot about its quirks and shortcomings over the next few years, but he held off on doing anything major to the Buick. He had no real desire to stick big money into the car, and he had other hobby cars to play with. The Buick also had an overheating problem that made any voyage behind the wheel an adventure.
“When this car was customized, it was done to the era and the engine was not [a visual] part of the car,” Johnson said. “The engine was the part that didn’t show. Well, to make the radiator fit in the car, they smashed it with a hammer … and did the same thing with the air cleaner. The overheating was a real pain, and as it turned out, when we put a new radiator in it, it still overheated. Of course, that was because the motor was full of junk, so we had to re-do the engine… But we made it semi-dependable for seven or eight years.”
Eventually, an impending family wedding got Johnson motivated to give the custom Buick a more thorough restoration. The overheating problem was fixed, the car was given a beautiful blue-on-blue flame paint job, chrome pieces were re-plated and the carpet and upholstery were re-done and repaired.
“I had no history on the car. I just wanted to make it the way I wanted it to look,” Johnson noted. “So I just built it to my own tastes.
“It had the original ’50 Buick bumper ends on with a big piece of rolled sheet metal with a dent in it. For that I got a ’52 bumper off a Buick that fits perfect and goes straight across. Then it’s got a ’53 Chevy grille with the extra grille in the middle of the opening with the turn signals from a ’50 Buick recessed in.
“I radiused the openings to the scoops on the hood, which make it look a little better, I think. It had louvers on the hood, and the one thing I’m not going to do is unlouver the hood. Actually, it didn’t have those originally, but they actually work to cool the motor and it’s an incredibly hot car … And it’s too hard to unlouver a hood. That would be a lot of work.”
The 263-cid inline eight and Dynaflow transmission are both original, as far as Johnson knows. He added other custom touches that are hallmarks of the period, including a pair of dummy spotlights and lake pipes.
“It had dual exhaust pipes coming out each side. It didn’t have the pipes when I first got it,” he said. “It had the 8-into-1 exhaust manifold and then had another port welded on it for another exhaust pipe … We threw that manifold out, but I probably should have kept it.
“It’s got Cadillac tail light housings — they are ’48 or ’49s. The fin is much longer than the period Cadillac fins and it’s all homemade. It’s got a fairly sharp ‘V’ on it … The rear cowl is extended forward, which makes the rear seat have absolutely no foot space at all … It’s got the period GM rear window treatment. The rear window must be laminated because I assume it could be ground off. The windshield on it, the bottom is ground off … I think the side windows are the normal side windows, but they only roll up as far as they can go because they run into the top. The guy who built the car was a body guy, and as far as I know, when he built it, he worked at a car dealership and he used the convertible windshield and both the convertible doors.”
Cadillac chrome adorns the functional vertical vents on the rear fenders. The fender skirts were home-made by Metz, Johnson figures. Ditto the wild integrated snorkels on the hood just behind the headlights. “And, of course, everything is de-chromed,” Johnson noted. “Most people who see it, unless they are really sharp and know that period, they think it’s a Cadillac. The sharp ones that know Buicks can tell it’s a Buick.
He didn’t tell his wife Julie about his plans to renovate the Buick, and she didn’t see the car until he drove up to the church at her sister’s wedding. “She wasn’t unhappy, but she was really surprised,” Johnson said. “I hadn’t told her I was doing anything to it. It had just been sitting in a building at work and she didn’t know about it.”
Johnson figured he was about done messing around with the custom ’50 at that point, and he took the car out for occasional joy rides and car show appearances periodically during the mid 2000s. Then things changed when he got some pictures taken of the car in 2009.
“I had a guy come out and shoot some photos of the car, and he’s a hot rod guy and he does calendars and things. He’s a car guy, too,” Johnson said. “Well, he comes out to do the shoot, and he says, ‘That looks a lot like a Bob Metz car.’ Well, I’ve never heard of Bob Metz. I had the car for about 15 years while Bob Metz was still alive. I could have found out everything about the car! He only lived about 30 miles from me, but I didn’t know it.”
Johnson soon began investigating Metz’s career, asking around and searching for people who might know something about his Buick. He quickly discovered that the car was more than just an obscure old product of some ambitious amateurs back in the day. “I went over to Shelbyville, and everybody who talked to me had amazing stories about the car … about how Bob Metz would walk into junk yards looking for parts, and every piece he would wind up fitting by hand. He was just an amazing craftsman. He did a lot of general bodywork, too, but he did a few hot rods, and this was the first one he ever did.
“I contacted the local hot rod club in Shelbyville and they gave me his son’s [Dennis] phone number. I called him and he had pictures of it, even though he was too young and had never seen it. The car has never left this area. I kept going to shows and I kept meeting people who had seen it at various times and it was always for sale. I guess it hit its low ebb in about 1962 when it was for sale for, like, $500 on a used car lot … People in Shelbyville were aware that the car was still around, but nobody knew where it was. It was never being shown a lot because it wasn’t very pretty.”
Some guys would struggle with the obvious question: What do you do with the car now? In its original custom state, the car has got plenty of historical significance. Authentic period hot rods, particularly those connections to high-profile builders, have never been hotter. On the other hand, Johnson spent a lot of time, effort and money making the car look like it does today.
Surprisingly, the answer is a no-brainer for Johnson, regardless of the investment involved.
“I’m an authenticity person and the only reason I did what I did was because I didn’t have any idea what it was,” he said. “The correct thing would be to put it back to what it was … other than unlouvering the hood, which I don’t think is justifiable. I want to leave as much of the original stuff as possible. I did lose the original Buick front bumper, so I bought another one. I’ll put the front back the way it was… unradius the scoops, put the tail lights back on it and take off all the shiny stuff. None of it should be that hard to do.”
The idea of piecing the car back together the same way Metz did is actually pretty appealing, Johnson admitted. And what would he ask him if he could have a conversation today with Metz? “Boy, I’d really like to find out about the top. What it was made from, what the decision was to do that. That, and channeling the car. How it was done on a car like that? Channeling a car like this would have been really unusual. I don’t know how many full-bodied cars were done like this, but it was an incredibly difficult process. All the body mounts had to be raised, and everything on the body has to be raised. It would have been very labor-intensive.”
Johnson said he is going to take his time, gather some more parts, and enjoy his Buick in its current state for at least another year or two before he embarks on yet another remake of his fascinating Super. The car has already traveled a strange and unlikely road — from brand new car, to train wreck casualty, to award-winning 1950s custom, to forgotten beater that nobody seemed to want. This big change, though, should be the Buick’s last.
“When its back to normal, back to what it was, it can go to the more prestigious shows and be something that was from that period,” Johnson concluded. “I’m looking for color period photos of it. That would help the process. Right now it’s kind of a hodge-podge, and it’s not really that fun to drive because it’s so hot. You don’t got any air in it… and it’s too big to fit on my trailer!
“Putting something back to the way it was is virtually always the right decision. Putting this car back to the way it was originally shown when Bob Metz built it, I think is the right thing to do.”
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