When Custom Was King

It is sometimes said that ‘where America leads, Britain follows’. This is not always a good idea. For example; after Burt Reynolds stormed across our screens with his hillbilly slang in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit movie the popularity of Citizens Band radio rose exponentially across the USA, with every self-respecting truck driver becoming known by his or her road handle. Needless to say, this aural epidemic caught on, like swine flu, over here. When are Brits going to realise that trying to speak American is just plain wrong.

It’s the same with our car culture. Americans have, almost since the invention of automobiles, enjoyed customising their motors, especially since the rise of the modern era popular surfing culture of the 1950‘s. In the Sixties this craze died down but re-emerged in the 1970s as the age of the flame effect decal was born. Newly developed metal flake and pearlescent paints signalled the rise of the customised 50’s hotrods and classic car restorations. Move on a few years and cross the pond to poor old Blighty, just entering the Thatcher era (if only we’d known) after the horrors of the three day week, Trade Union confrontation and a car industry doing its level best to shoot itself in the foot.

Whey-faced youth across the land saw what was happening in the USA and were in awe. They wanted some of that hot auto action and rushed out to buy copies of Custom Car magazine, setting about their Ford Cortina with a will. On went the Wolfrace wheels, the rear suspension was jacked up three or four inches – delivering handling akin to a wonky shopping trolley – and, in the absence of funds for custom paint, copious decals with flames and skeletons were applied along with dangling things hanging from mirrors. Muscle car graphics and a plastic body kit on a knackered Austin Allegro.

Like many automotive aspects, Americans just seem to do things better than us. Certainly they’ve lagged behind in car design, both mechanical and aesthetic but I think that’s through choice. They just love their big motors and custom pick-up trucks compared to we poor souls cowering under the EU eco-automotive, it’s-for-your own-good, yoke of pain.

Sure, it’s a well known fact that older American cars can’t go around corners but then, for the most part, they don’t have to. Their major roads go for on forever in a straight line towards the vanishing point. What do Americans call a dead dog on the highway? A chicane. It’s hard to put into words but, here in the UK, we seem to have somehow missed the point of customising and thankfully the trend has long since died down in the face of our new ‘lifestyle’ car culture.

It may be that British built cars are simply too familiar and don’t have the same magic – to us at least – of, say, a Pontiac Trans-Am or a ‘57 Chevy. It may also be that copying a trend isn’t the same as inventing it, as the verbal horrors of the UK CB scene demonstrated. We do classic car restoration very well and it may indeed be that the high cost of motoring in Britain is a major factor but it’s probably best to leave the real custom conversions where they belong – in the past, in the USA and on distant Sky channels.
Ten-Four good buddies and watch out for Kojak with a Kodak.
Geoff Maxted