You might think when you hear the phrase "retired autobody man" that the person in question might have already had a full life of working on cars and that he might want to find something else to do with his newly found "spare" time. But that man wouldn't be Ed Britz.

Some folks remember high school auto shop as their introduction to customizing automobiles but, for those who have been around seven decades, they can look back to a time of building a crude, wooden soap box derby-type of racer when they were 12 years old as their entry into the world of hot rodding. By the time Ed was 13 he had already bought his first "real" car, a Model A coupe, and he practiced driving in the backwoods and fields near his home.

Having an affinity for fixing up cars became a vocation for him and, after many years of service, he eventually retired from owning his own shop. Ed, from Delmont, Pennsylvania, then took the opportunity retirement gave him and began looking for a project to work on. Ed says he likes to build "unusual" cars, and the fact that he'd never seen another '55 DeSoto Fireflite that had been customized led him to want one for himself.

After making parts for the war effort, DeSoto created a whole new look for their cars in 1955 and identified their vehicles with a "forward look" tagline (created under Virgil Exner, no less). The company had given up on their line of straight-six engines by that point too, and built only V-8s from then on. The 291-inch, 185-horse Firedome Hemi engines were available in '55, but the Fireflite came with a 200-horse Hemi.

Britz had decided on locating a '55 DeSoto, and it took him a year before he found one in Hemmings. Located in Salt Lake City (more than 1,800 miles away), the car was solid, or so said its owner. It wasn't running, but Ed asked the owner to send more pictures of the car to him and it looked even better. Ed made a deal, overnighted a check for $5,000, and contacted a shipper to bring his new car to him.

When the car arrived Ed was both surprised and disappointed. It seems the owner had sent him photos that were 15 years old-back when the car looked much better than in its current state. Ed learned it had sat outside under a tree for all that time, but was determined to build the car of his dreams. He did the work in his home garage, doing everything from the chop to paint, leaving only stitching up the interior to another professional.

Though it looks like every item on the car has been touched (and it has), it was in the bodywork (Ed's specialty) where the biggest changes occurred. The most obvious is the chop (3 inches), but the roof was lengthened too, to create a visor over the windshield. The backlight was a bit of a trick as Ed decided to flush-fit the glass with no moldings or rubber gaskets, and cutting the curved windshield wasn't easy either.

To accommodate the chop, the vent windows in the doors were removed and the door and side windows were recut with tempered glass. And though the emblems, door handles, and "gingerbread" were removed to gain a smooth look, the Fireflite's signature design-the twin-trim pieces that run down the side of the car-were left intact.

The rear bumper was also flipped upsidedown and tucked into the body, with a '53 Studebaker license plate frame being added in the middle. Up front, the '55 grille was replaced with a '56 unit, with the parking lights (with custom amber lenses) being shortened 4 inches and recessed into the grille.

There were a fair amount of changes to the inside of the car too. The rear package tray was fabricated from a '56 DeSoto dash and customized to match the car's dash. Controls for the Vintage Air system are hidden behind what looks to be the ashtray, and the controls for the RideTech suspension system are in the console. Power motors are everywhere in the car, and run the '00 Eldorado seats, windows, antenna, mirrors, and even the pull-down trunk mechanism.