Larry (left) and Mike Alexander midway through grafting '60 Mercury quarter-panels to Bob
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.
Building an Empire
The brothers' first project as a business, this '31 Ford pickup, turned into the "Grasshop
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, the brothers treated the rear to two Stude chin pans. They
"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 Victoria, the brothers made a grille from '53 Studebaker ch
Sy Gregorich's car underwent several subsequent restyling sessions, ultimately acquiring w
Toledo, Ohio's Dan Tschan brought this '56 Chevrolet to the brothers. They created the asy
More of the brothers with the El Matador and the custom car show circuit.
Mike said he tried to talk Leroy Brooks into buying a nicer car than the '53 Ford he owned
Chili's pal, Don Vargo, had a '34 cabriolet in similar need of lower-body attention. The s
Alexa was the brothers' ticket to jobs for the manufacturers. It's tough to tell the car t
"We got George in the shop and he was really impressed," Mike enthused. As Barris noted in a prepared statement, "I walked into the shop, slipped on ice, and fell down in front of a fantastic-looking kustom car. I even forgot what kind of car it was because I just couldn't grasp the idea that two super craftsmen could be doing such beautiful work in the snow and ice of Detroit."
"We told him that every time we sent something (to the West Coast magazines) it would come back, 'The lighting's not right,' or 'We don't like your background in the pictures,'" Mike noted. "So George says, 'Shoot up one of your cars and send it to me.' We did and he got it into the magazines and that was it. Pretty soon we were sending things to people like Alex Walordy.
"Business started getting better so we moved to a bigger facility on Littlefield (and Grand River)," Mike said. "Our first project there was a '60 Ford Starliner for Bill Whetstone. We did it with acrylic grilles front and rear. Actually we did the Adonis three times, always doing a little more."
Nobody knew him by anything but Clarence Catallo until Larry dubbed him "Chili." (As Mike tells the story there was a nearby neighborhood restaurant that served chili that Catallo thoroughly enjoyed and would always grab a bowl when at the shop-hence the nickname.) "He was a fiery Italian guy," Larry remarked.
The rear of the Alexa capitalized on the afterburner-style taillight design only the broth
"He brings in this beat-up '32 three-window coupe," Mike added. "He took it to a custom shop named Pete's Custom, which was on Five Mile near Telegraph. He had it channeled there but the guy would only work on it in his spare time. Well Clarence pulled it out one day and asked us, 'You got any ideas for this thing?'"
In the end the brothers trimmed the door bottoms and eliminated the rockers for a grid of aluminum strips and fashioned a tail pan and tilt-forward nose in the fins' likeness. "We tried to talk Clarence into chopping the car, but he wouldn't go for it," Mike said. "We did cars for Clarence and they were all Cobalt Blue-not a good color for the car," Mike observed.
"Chili took the car with him when he went to California for school," Mike said. "He started hanging out at night at George's (Barris) shop and met Tubbs (Roy Johnson) and Junior (Hershel Conway). They talked him into chopping it and painting it that pearl blue, which is what the car really needed." The rest, of course, is history: Chili's car gained immortality in both the hot rod and music world by appearing on the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe album cover.
It wears a Barris crest for the chop and paint but the majority of the work on Clarence "C
The brothers soon learned that the big jobs brought with them a unique burden. "The heavy hitters weren't profitable," Mike observed. "Business-wise, it was terrible. The young kids who had jobs back then, well they had car payments, insurance payments ... so they didn't have much disposable income. Some of the prices we charged were terribly low."
Case in point, Bob Massaron, who later won the Don Ridler Memorial Award with the "Venturian," recalled paying the brothers for sunken aerials and side pipes with money he got from his graduation party. "I was 17," he said. He later went to work for the brothers prepping cars. "My buddies teased me that I worked for the A-brothers during the week but every Friday I'd give the money back for work they did on my car." As Mike explained, "It was the only way we could get the business. The mild work was really what made the money."
A series of unique opportunities changed that. In 1962 the brothers met an up-and-coming designer named Harry Bentley Bradley. "When he was going to school ... he would send his sketches to the little magazines," Mike said. "We really liked what he was doing there so one day I called him up. He says, 'Perfect timing; I'm moving to Detroit.' So he came over to see us and we hit it off.
"When we'd get into a radical one we'd sit down with him and tell him what we were looking for and turn him loose," he continued. Only, there was a catch: "We could never use his name," Mike said. "Harry moved to Detroit to work for GM. We always referred to him in articles as Designer X ... because he would've been fired for doing work for us."
The association still brought windfall success. "Ford was trying to get into the youth market, so they were working with AMT's Bud 'The Kat from AMT' Anderson," Mike said. "They started the Ford Custom Caravan with a few influential guys: Cushenbery, Winfield, Barris, Jeffries, and so on.
"After the first year Ford decided that if we gave them a sketch they'd give us so many dollars to build a car for the Caravan and we had so many weeks to do it," he continued. "So we had Harry [Bradley] do a nice sketch of a '64 Ford Galaxie. It was fairly wild." Ford gave them a car.
Bob Massaron's Venturian was one of the brothers' first collaborations with Harry Bentley
Bill Whetstone's '60 Starliner "Adonis" underwent three major reconstructions and ultimate
Restyling highly sculpted cars like Mike Budnick's '60 Pontiac was a highly challenging ta
Drag racers weren't ignorant of stylizing but Connie Kalitta was one of the first to incor
The headlights on the Tasca 505 and John Dahlinger's Boss Hoss (seen here) came from an un
The brothers restyled a number of cars for dealers, including this Mustang fastback for Bo
Chrysler donated a Barracuda after Deora's construction. The road-race themed "Show and Go
"They came and looked at the Alexa when we were done and said, 'You mean you can take a sketch and do a car from it?'" Mike said. "See, when they built a concept car at Ford they had to do all those engineering places and it cost them a fortune and took forever.
"They picked up on that and next year they sent us a sketch and we went ahead and built it from 'em. After that we got one or two a year from them. That's what really got us into the factory work."
"Those were the cars that were just out when I first got up the nerve to tell (Larry) that I lived a few doors away from him," recalled Ken Yanez, would-be founder of Special Projects Inc., a shop contracted by manufacturers to build concept cars the likes of the Cadillac's Sixteen, Ford's GT sports car and Flex crossover, and Pontiac's Solstice. "He used to hang on the fence outside so Larry hollered at him one day, 'Why don't you come in here, grab a broom, and sweep the place so you can see what we're doing in here,'" Mike said. Though only 14, "Ken was a natural," he added. "We got him stripping cars then priming and he just kept going." "Ken was really tight with Larry," Ray Kulakowski observed. "He was like Larry's son."
With contracts from both Ford and American Motors in the pipeline and a Don Ridler Memorial Award under their belt (Massaron's "Venturian") 1965 looked to be a stellar year. "We were looking for something more like a shop," Mike said. The one we were in was an old-style gas station with about five stalls." An impending highway expansion that threatened the existing shop only underscored the urgency. "We ended up buying this place on Westbrook and Schoolcraft," he said. "The timing was perfect. Besides the contracts from Ford and American Motors, we were modifying the wheelbases and painting the Ramchargers for Chrysler Corporation."
The rear seat was replaced with a box and a half 'cage with a spare-tire mount
Even though Mike and Larry had on a lot on their plates they said they still wanted to build another shop project, specifically another shop truck. "We sat down with Harry [Bradley] and said we wanted to do a truck, the cab-over-engine one," Mike said. "I remember the day the drawings arrived because it just blew everybody's minds," Yanez recalled. "They were going to stripe it and maybe fill the emblems and change the grille a little bit ...'til they got those drawings."
"We said we'd go to Dodge first so we showed them the sketch," Mike said. "Captain Crunch (Bob McCurry) approved and gave a truck to us if we were going to build it like that." The goal was to finish the truck in one year, but with the growing demands of the shop, the year came and went. "We built the Deora in our spare time, so it took a few years," Larry noted. "After a while Chrysler forgot about the car."
In this shot with Larry Alexander, the lineage of the Deora's windshield and lid is obviou
In the meantime the relationship with Chrysler grew. "Later (Chrysler) said they'd give us a car if we'd put (Plymouth) on the sides and back," Larry continued. "That was a good story," Mike chimed. "For some reason or another they wanted a car to look like some kid would want to own. They had a stylist give us a couple sketches but they told us to do anything we thought would look nice on it." "That was late 1965 so it was probably the '66 Barracuda," Yanez speculated. "This concept became known as the 'Show and Go Barracuda,'" Mike noted.
That one job opened a host of other doors at Chrysler. Starting in 1966 the brothers painted the Ramchargers' Coronet AFX, Roger Lindamood's "Color me one," Bill Flynn's "Yankee Peddler," Steffey and Rupp's AA/FD, "The Prussian," and Dick Branstner's mid-engined "Dart Charger" that Garlits later campaigned.
Another Tasca car to get the treatment was this '66 Fairlane, aka the TGT. Probably most o
The brothers finished their truck project "Deora" in late 1967. "We ended up showing it at the Autorama and got the Ridler and eight other awards," Mike said. When asked if Chrysler wanted to see it, "They didn't seem too interested," he recalled. In fact, "They sent a very junior guy out to look at it."
"Well I think the next day a bus with Chrysler people pulled up to our shop," Mike continued. "They couldn't believe what we'd done." In the end Chrysler leased the Deora and paraded it around the country.
Unfortunately what followed wasn't so kind. A headline in the Detroit News announced that the freeway wouldn't take out the location they left a year earlier after all. "Instead they decided it was going to jog down Schoolcraft," Mike said. The new shop, the big gamble that facilitated the brothers' great success, was in the way. "That was it," Mike said, "They took imminent domain. We had nothing to do but wait 'til they took it, but once they paid us off my brother wanted to leave the business." Larry took a job at Micrina Bros Minibikes in late 1967.
Though he worked for mini-bike maker Macrina Bros., Larry frequently helped Mike build con
"Larry had a job to go to but I didn't," Mike said. "I was going to try to buy another shop with the money I got from the buyout. When you're bought out like that they say they'll loan you seed money to get going. I went to fill out the papers and they said 'We don't know when we're getting the money.' So Yanez and I stayed in the shop and built three more cars. Larry and I agreed that we would each build a car. First we started on Larry's car, and Andy's Instant T.
"Also, we built a yellow car for Lincoln-Mercury," Mike said. "That was the last car. We threw a party one night and that was it." If 1968 had a saving grace it was that the Deora was immortalized as one of the first batch of 16 cars Mattel cast as part of its new Hot Wheels line.
Heinz Prechter, founder of American Sunroof Corporation (now American Specialty Cars) went to see Mike. "Heinz was good friends with all the top executives at Ford, Chrysler, and GM," Mike said. "In the meantime I went to see Don DeLaRossa to see about continuing building show cars. He says, 'You know, things may change down the road.'
The relationship the brothers struck with Dick Teague led to numerous painting and restyli
"What I didn't know was that Prechter had talked to DeLaRossa to tell him to be negative when I came to talk with him," Mike admitted. Presumably Prechter wanted Mike in his employ but Mike called upon Larry Shinoda, with whom he'd developed a working relationship. Almost instantly Mike went to work for Kar Kraft Design Center, the concept-car shop Larry founded when he followed Bunkie Knudsen to Ford earlier in 1968. "I got a beautiful spray booth there and we hired about 11 guys and we started building show cars for Ford," Mike said.
A few events in made 1969 seem like a good rebound year. For one, the Instant T Andy Brizio built won the Don Ridler Memorial Award. Then Bunkie Knudsen and Lee Iacocca went head-to-head. "And Bunkie lost," Mike lamented. Shinoda, who owed his existence at Ford to Knudsen, was dismissed a week later.
Ray Kulakowski remembered it. "Well one day he went into work but the doors were locked and all his tools were inside," he said. "I remember going to his house to pick him up. My partner was Heinz Prechter, so we sat down and talked." Mike remembered the occasion. "He hired me on the spot," he said.
Another more agreeable version of a production car was the Fiera, a chopped-top proposal f
Within a year he was promoted to run ASC's technical center, a position he etained for the duration of his career. "We did a lot of 'out-of-pocket' concept cars that would sell programs at ASC," he noted.
The projects were numerous and quite influential, including the reintroduction of the convertible. "Everybody thinks that convertibles went out because of safety," Mike said. "They were happy to get out of them because they leaked, they squeaked, and they had a hell of a lot of wind noise. But we changed that, starting with the '82 Riviera."
After a brief stint at Macrina, Larry joined his brother Mike at ASC. "But he didn't like it," Mike noted. Eventually Larry went to work at Ford's body engineering department. "It was great because it had a retirement plan and all." In effect Larry became a full-scale model builder. "They would set up cars," Mike clarified. "They would get pre-production parts and they would actually build them on a pilot fixture to verify if the parts were right." To try to numerate the projects to which Larry contributed would be folly. Actually, it would be redundant; likely every body design Ford produced during Larry's tenure endured his scrutiny, if not bore his mark. "I retired when I hit 65, but continued to consult for ASC and Metalcrafters for the next 10 years," Mike said. "Larry made it to 64."
The Alexander Legacy
Here's the brothers' take on the Dart Swinger 340. Only that model didn't exist until 1970
By modifying the way a car looks or how it performs the customizer challenges our notions of what a car is. In their hands the ordinary become exceptional. But Larry and Mike Alexander changed more than the way we think about cars; they transformed the way we think about the people who modify them.
Upon their entry into the industry, the image of the car customizer was that of the lone craftsman working cross-legged on a cold garage floor. Their work was largely a labor of love, as the mere idea of stable income was questionable
Upon their exit, though, Larry and Mike Alexander were more than customizers. They were fabricators, craftsmen, consultants ... dare we say artists. That modifying cars can be considered a legitimate career much less a path to stardom and possibly great wealth is due in large part to their contribution.
Larry (foreground) and Mike ham it up during the autograph session at Darryl Starbird's Na
The Deora lost many of its unique elements when it was rebuilt in the late '70s. Thanks to
Arguably one of the finest early A-brothers efforts was the "Grasshopper" here during its