Gene Winfield – Idol Genius of the Silver Screen
In Southern California, rods and customs enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the film industry. Movie directors are drawn to automobiles as cinematic and graphic devices. At the same time, a host of SoCal customizers have thrived crafting unique vehicles for the silver screen. One such customizer is the legendary Gene Winfield, a metal man without peer. Known as “Windy,” Winfield built not only some of the most recognized 1950s-era customs – the Jade Idol (pictured above), for instance – he also reigns as one of the most prolific Hollywood car creators.
Gene Winfield, now a vibrant 91, was born in 1927 in Springfield, Missouri. His parents moved the family to Modesto, California, when he was a toddler, where his father, Frank, worked as a butcher before setting up a mobile burger business (who said food carts are new?). Later, after his parents divorced, his mother, Ginny, opened a luncheon restaurant, where by age 10 Winfield worked as a carhop.
Gene demonstrated a creative streak early on, becoming an expert builder of model airplanes and, more importantly, getting hooked on photography. The focus of his attention? Cars. Particularly any car that had been modified. Not only did Gene see interesting cars through the viewfinder, he saw them in his future, as well.
At 15, Winfield bought his first car, a ’29 Model A coupe. Before long it sported twin antennas flying foxtails. He tweaked the motor in anticipation of street racing and he painted it a deep blue, his first “custom” paint job.
Winfield enlisted in the Navy as World War II was winding down in 1945. Upon his return to Modesto, the 18-year-old began customizing cars in a chicken house behind his mother’s home. A small workspace and dirt floor could not contain Gene’s creativity. He radically transformed his brother’s ’41 Plymouth, slicing three inches off the top and windshield. Word got around about his skill set and soon he was performing all manner of mods, including suspension work and custom touches like shaving emblems.
Racing drew Winfield’s attention as well. He converted a ’27 T roadster into a lakes runner that, with tuning help from Alex Xydias of So-Cal Speed Shop, topped 120mph. Later he put together a ’27 T coupe – dubbed “The Thing” – that ran 135mph at Bonneville. Winfield even held a NASCAR license, piloting jalopies in circle-track competition.
In a curious twist, Winfield had a second stint in the military, drafted into joining the Army in 1949. A year later he found himself in Japan as cook. Culinary responsibilities aside, Gene rented small shop in Tokyo to build cars, including sports cars and the odd pre-war Ford. With the help of a Japanese gentleman who was a skilled metal man, Winfield greatly improved his metal working skills, learning hammer welding and shaping. He returned to Modesto in 1951 and opened Winfield’s Custom Shop.
Winfield’s first real “custom” was a ’50 Mercury, which he built to show off his handiwork to potential customers. The plan worked, and his shop hummed along successfully throughout the 1950s.
Along the way, a few milestones took place, most notably the famed “Winfield Fade,” a paint technique whereby one candy paint color would fade into another candy paint color. The most significant example is the epic “Jade Idol,” a super-smooth 1956 Mercury custom. Built for a customer with a with robust $15,000 budget, Winfield went wild. Writer Preston Lerner described the Jade Idol for Automobile magazine this way:
“The Jade Idol put Winfield on the national map. Sectioned four inches, with canted quad headlights, rear quarter panels grafted from a ’57 Chrysler New Yorker, and an elegant scratch-built grille that was repeated at the rear, the Idol had a shark-like presence that represented a new direction in customs.”
The significant press coverage garnered by the Jade Idol made him famous worldwide. In other words, the Gene Winfield legend was born.
In 1962, Winfield’s fame caught the eye of AMT, maker of plastic model car kits. Initially, AMT hired him as a freelance design consultant before he joined full time to manage their new Speed and Custom Division Shop. There he built full-scale promotional vehicles that mirrored and/or inspired the model kits.
The AMT connection proved fruitful in an unforeseen way: It became an audition for Hollywood. Soon studio creative types called on Winfield to build cars for movies and TV. And he was prolific! His film credits include vehicles for such series as “Get Smart,” “Bewitched (the futuristic Reactor),” and “Star Trek.” By 1970, he opened a shop in North Hollywood adjacent to the studios. Eventually his creations graced more than 20 films, including Mission Impossible, Sleeper, and 25 futuristic rides for the sci-fi classic Blade Runner.
In recent years, Gene Winfield was honored as the Detroit Autorama “Builder of the Year” in 2008, and since 2013 has been a regular on the International Show Car Series circuit, chopping tops and shaping sheet metal in a special section of called “The Summit Racing Equipment Chop Shop.”
Despite closing in on the century mark, Gene Winfield is as energetic and engaged as ever. Goodguys recently spoke with him from his Mohave, California, shop. His voice was strong and clear, his enthusiasm unchecked. His secret to success? “I like people and I like to make them happy,” Winfield explained. “I treat my customers the way I would want to be treated, and I try to build a car as a piece of art. The customer wants to make a statement, a car that will make an onlooker say, ‘Wow, he made that?’”
His secret to his longevity? “I don’t drink or smoke or use coffee, never have.”
Recently, Winfield survived a harrowing experience when he broke his hip during a show in Finland. While the hip was successfully repaired, certain medical restrictions meant he could not fly home via commercial jet – and the price of a private plane proved prohibitive. Fans created a GoFundMe page and quickly funds were raised to return the master customizer to his desert hideaway.
And what is Mr. Gene Winfield up to now? Oh, just building a sectioned ’40 Ford convertible to challenge next year’s Ridler Award and prepping race cars for the lakes and Bonneville. “People ask me when I’m going to retire,” he quipped. “And you know what I tell them? When they put me in the ground, that’s when.”