From garage build to garage find

The author’s 1949 Chevrolet custom retains its 216-cid “stovebolt” straight-six, which has just 50,000 miles.

By Somer Hooker

As a youth, I spent a lot of time at the corner drug store reading the “little pages,” those car magazines sold in a 5-1/2 by 8 inch format. Publications such as Rodding and Restyling, Custom Cars, Car Speed and Style, and the still-published Rod & Custom neatly lined the bottom shelf of magazine racks. After school, I would peek inside those magazines, sometimes even buying a copy if there was an extra quarter in my pocket. How else was I going fuel my automotive fantasies during math class the next day?

Darryl Starbird, George Barris and Ed Roth became names embedded in my vocabulary from reading those magazines where custom, of course, was spelled with a “K.” Words such as lowered, decked and shaved were used freely to describe how to “deal” with a car. Alas, the 25 cent investment was as far as I ever went in building a car.

Recently, while scanning online classified ads, I happened upon a true “period car” that took me back to those little pages. This wasn’t a piece that had been built to replicate an old custom from back when — it was from back when! The dangerous thing about the advertisement was that the car — a 1949 Chevrolet custom — was just 30 miles away in the Nashville, Tenn., area!

After a few e-mails and a phone call, the owner discouraged me from purchasing the period custom. I am 6-feet-4, and he said I simply wouldn’t fit in the car. He said he was 6 feet tall and his head touched the chopped roof. Regardless, I drove the short distance to check out this period custom to satisfy my curiosity. When I arrived, the time warp Chevrolet looked straight off the “little pages” and was too irresistible. I had to buy it.

The Chevrolet was a true convertible. It had been built in the early 1950s by Willie Guateri, the car’s second owner. One winter, while the Chevy was in Guateri’s care, a critter had torn up the top. That gave Guateri the impetus to build the car into a full custom. He replaced the original top with a Carson-style top, built using a handmade top frame work with custom upholstery. Carson-style tops such as this were an economical route when chopping a top, because a car’s original top frame did not have to be chopped, and the new top could be built at home.

Real lead was used when the car was shaved and decked. Many other subtle touches were completed, including the use of a period Oldsmobile grille frame around a Kaiser grille bar. Later bumperettes from a 1955 Thunderbird finished off the bumper, and 1957 Cadillac headlamps were molded into the front fenders. The windshield is a one-piece Buick unit that was chopped and flanked by dummy “spots” on each pillar.

At the rear, the original tail lamp openings were filled with lead and motorcycle accessory tail lamps were installed inboard. By virtue of their lip, the fender skirts are probably Mercury. Since the trunk was shaved, remote access was granted by a cable from within the gas cap lid.

Sometime in the 1960s, Cragar mag wheels were added. An owner later installed bucket seats from a 1964 Mustang. The seller was correct regarding head clearance inside the custom Chevy, but I was able to lower one of the Mustang seats, and it barely accommodated my height.

The custom Chevy later was parked after Guateri began a ’32 Ford project. His son-in-law told me, “I helped him build it. It was all done in a garage. We used real lead.” The car was allegedly featured in Popular Hot Rodding in the 1970s, but I have not been able to find a copy.

Regardless of its possible appearance in a publication, the car remains a great tribute to the great garage ingenuity of hot rodders during the 1950s. It was a true garage build, and now a great garage find.

A view inside the Carson-style top.

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