Alexanders the Great – The A-Brothers
As Neil Young once wrote, rust never sleeps. It’s this immutable law of nature that drove a divide in the development of post-WWII hot rodding.
The warm, sun-dappled roads of California meant the Model Ts and Deuce coupes of the 1920s and ’30s were waiting, rust free, for modification. Back east, such vintage tin had often melted into Neil’s memorable phrase, casualties of salty roads.
The result is that hot rodders and customizers east of the Rockies lacked the inventory for early rods and pivoted to customizing later-model rides. And no one was more talented in doing so than the famed Alexander brothers, Larry and Mike.
Natives of the Motor City itself, Detroit, the Alexander brothers were born into a car-centric family – dad ran a one-bay repair shop – in the early days of the Depression. Older brother Larry tinkered on cars during high school before joining the Army in 1948. Mike was drawn to the mechanical side of car crafting. He joined the service in 1952. Once discharged, both formalized their training at the Wolverine Trade School, funded by the G.I. Bill.
The brothers briefly worked with their father in his shop performing basic repair duties and the occasional custom touch. When Larry purchased a house, though, the duo moved into his two-car garage. Initially, they constructed a cool shop truck, a ’31 Model A pickup. It featured a dazzling Jade-green hue, breathed-on four-banger, wide whites, chrome wheels, and lettering that announced, “Alexander Brothers Custom Autos.” Later dubbed the Grasshopper, the truck earned Best Paint at the 1958 Detroit Autorama.
With their business – and reputation – growing, the duo opened a dedicated custom shop where, from 1957 to 1969 they constructed more than 60 fully customized cars, including 30 historically significant customs.
During this period, they also received a promotional boost from a far-off admirer, George Barris. Larry and Mike helped fix a few mechanical gremlins on a Barris entry at the 1961 Detroit Autorama, and Barris returned the favor by talking up the brothers to the West Coast automotive press. Soon, Alexander Brothers handiwork was appearing in Hot Rod, Car Craft and the like.
One magazine standout was a slick ’57 Chevy Bel Air owned by Dave Jenkins. The A-team shaved the hood, deck, and door handles and added shrouded lakes pipes, dual frenched antennas, and silver scallops over black lacquer paint to create a clean custom cruiser.
Yet another page-turning A-styled ride was the ’55 Ford Crown Victoria owned by Sy Gregorich, an exec at the AMT Model Company. Mike and Larry’s metal tricks included front and rear grille openings formed from ’53 Studebaker valence panels, a front bumper purloined from a ’59 Chevy, ’55 Olds headlights, and ’55 Mercury taillights. The hood was rounded and peaked, and, well…you get the idea.
The Alexanders’ most mind-bending creation was arguably the Deora, based on a Dodge A100 pickup and penned by Harry Bradley. (Bradley and the Alexanders collaborated often in the 1960s.) It took home the Ridler Award in 1967. In addition to being chopped and sectioned, it had no side doors, but rather a hinged windshield hatch fashioned from a ’60 Ford station wagon tailgate creating a front entry for driver and passenger. AMT soon made a successful scale model kit and the Deora became legendary as part of the original 1968 Hot Wheels lineup.
The Deora’s Ridler award was one of three such trophies the A-brothers bagged during a five-year span, starting with Bob Massaron’s’56 Chevy, the Venturian, in 1965 and finishing with Larry’s Top Banana ’23 T in 1969. Three Ridlers in five years? Unprecedented.
By 1968, the Alexanders had been creating awe-inspiring customs for nearly two decades. However, when Detroit re-routed a highway through their shop location, they shifted careers. Larry secured a position in Ford’s engineering department. Mike soon joined Ford’s in-house fabrication/concept section and later moved to ASC, where he helped develop the Buick GNX among other projects.
Yet, they never lost their love for customs. In 2012 Mike made one last run at a Ridler, entering a ’33 Ford roadster penned by Chip Foose and built by Mike and his son. The Vision 33 just missed the big trophy, but did earn Great 8 status. Talent never grows old.
Custom cars have been a vibrant foundation of hot rodding’s historic appeal. It’s why the Goodguys Gazette has profiled many of the discipline’s finest practitioners – Barris, Jeffries, Bailon, Winfield, Trepanier, Foose, and more, a list on which Mike and Larry Alexander undoubtedly belong.
Photos by Eric Geisert and from the Goodguys archives