Larry (left) and Mike Alexander...
Larry (left) and Mike Alexander midway through grafting '60 Mercury quarter-panels to Bob Massaron's '56 Chevrolet "Venturian." Massaron, who worked for the brothers in the early '60s, won the Don Ridler Memorial Award with "Venturian" in 1965.
A collective moan seemed to wash over the custom car world on August 25, 2010. It followed in the wake of the news that Larry Alexander, cofounder of Alexander Brothers Custom Shop, had died. Despite his faltering health-specifically the stroke he suffered earlier in the week-his death hit as hard as if he was half his 79 years.
Tragic events give us pause to reflect on a person, to understand the significance of their contributions and their place in our lives. Only it's impossible to appreciate Larry Alexander without including the person who achieved greatness alongside him, his brother Mike.
The Alexander brothers didn't merely work with each other to build cars; they inspired each other to create works of industrial art. "They fabricated and painted and even worked ideas together," trimmer Ray Kulakowski observed. "It was quite a team." Within a dozen years they went from restyling cars for friends to restyling cars for the manufacturers. That the companies who built the cars hired them to show what could be done with them justifies the notion that the Alexander brothers left an indelible mark on production automobile design.
We owe what follows partly to a series of interviews that Larry and Mike granted for their entry in the Darryl Starbird Hall of Fame column in STREET RODDER magazine. Only this time we have lots more space and lots more input from Mike. In fact, we included a number of stories from their closest colleagues and friends.
The brothers' first project...
The brothers' first project as a business, this '31 Ford pickup, turned into the "Grasshopper." Mike bought the pickup back from Don "The Egyptian" Boeke and restored it at Metalcrafters where his son, Mike, works. He finished it at Special Projects Inc., the shop founded by longtime friend and former employee, Ken Yanez.
Larry and Mike Alexander's idea to quit their day jobs in 1957 was brave but far from hasty. "I started messin' with cars before I joined the Army," Larry revealed. He was 17. The following year, 1949, Mike bought his first car: a three-window '32. He was 15. "It was channeled but it wasn't much," he admitted.
"When I discharged I could go to school under the GI bill," Larry recalled. "So I enrolled in the autobody program at Wolverine (a trade school in Detroit) in 1952." Mike also enrolled at Wolverine when he discharged in 1954, albeit he chose a different course. "I was always into cars but I was leaning more toward the mechanical side of it," he said. "But Larry told me I had to take the body school too" he said. "I ended up taking that first because I knew if I took the mechanical end first I'd say 'to hell with the bodywork.'
"Well, you could bring in one of your cars and paint it," he recalled. "I had a Model A that Larry and I did some work on. All they did was wash 'em down in enamel but I convinced the instructor to let us shoot it in lacquer."
Though it wasn't built to do so, the coupe earned the brothers a bit of credibility and a few small jobs. "It had to be 1955 because we were doing mild custom and repair work after hours in our parents' one-bay garage," Mike recalled. "In 1956 Larry bought a house with a two-car garage. It had a cement floor too so we moved ur work there.
Just as they did in the front,...
Just as they did in the front, the brothers treated the rear to two Stude chin pans. They also tunneled '55 Mercury wagon taillights into the rear quarters.
"At the time Larry worked at a machine shop and my father-in-law was with the Wayne County road commission," Mike explained. "He was going to get me into the mechanical shop. I would've probably had it made but Larry wanted to go into business and he wanted me to go in on it with him. We got a list of people who wanted stuff done so we thought we'd give it a try.
"We got our first commercial shop on Northwestern Highway near Evergreen Road," Larry remembered. "He bought this old truck," Mike added. "We needed a shop truck and we thought we'd show people the work we do so we built it up."
What was the Alexander brothers' first business project turned into the "Grasshopper." Flathead-powered and the color of '52 Oldsmobile Glade Green Poly, the Model A pickup generated considerable buzz. "Then a guy named Sy Gregorich brought us this '55 Ford Crown Victoria," Mike remembered. Ultimately reshaped with Studebaker chin pans and endowed with a '59 Chevy bumper as a grille, Gregorich's Ford fit the image of a proper custom car. "We titled the car 'Victorian' and we redid it three times," Mike noted. "Sy's (Gregorich) was probably the one who did the most for us because it hit at the right time. People started getting a little more interested.
"It was right about then that Bill Hines ended up with a bunch of cars that someone else had started," Mike said. "He told us, 'I'll teach you how to paint candy if you come over at night and work on my cars.' That would've been about 1958 or 1959. Bob Larivee Sr. called and said he had some people he'd like us to meet," he continued. It was George Barris.
For Gregorich's '55 Ford Crown...
For Gregorich's '55 Ford Crown Victoria, the brothers made a grille from '53 Studebaker chin pans and separated them with a '59 Chevrolet bumper. The headlight doors came from a '55 Olds.
Sy Gregorich's car underwent...
Sy Gregorich's car underwent several subsequent restyling sessions, ultimately acquiring wild cherry candy paint. One early publication listed the side trim as '57 Ford rear spears but it looks a bit more like two sets of cut-down '55 Plymouth Belvedere trim to us. Car Craft magazine dubbed Gregorich's '55 Ford Victorian car Top 10 status in 1960. It survived largely intact and last we heard Cruisin' Customs' John Kouw was restoring it for its current owner.
Toledo, Ohio's Dan Tschan...
Toledo, Ohio's Dan Tschan brought this '56 Chevrolet to the brothers. They created the asymmetric hood scoop and fashioned the taillights. A dramatic "Z" in the frame made the car exceptionally low. The aerials doubled as switches for the door controls. Artie Epstien bought it and Lou Calisabetta owns it now.
More of the brothers with...
More of the brothers with the El Matador and the custom car show circuit.
Mike said he tried to talk...
Mike said he tried to talk Leroy Brooks into buying a nicer car than the '53 Ford he owned. But after making concave rockers to replace what rusted away, reshaping the front for '58 Chevy headlights, and painting it purple, the "Purple Pelican" took flight. Brooks still owns it.
Chili's pal, Don Vargo, had...
Chili's pal, Don Vargo, had a '34 cabriolet in similar need of lower-body attention. The side pipes they crafted are actually dummies. Vargo's finances dictated a more modest drawer-pull grille, something Mike said he wasn't excited about. Still, the Sixty-Niner went on to show-car fame.