Cal Automotive: Fiberglass T-Bucket Body Pioneers, Part 2
It starts with an institutional food service size mayonnaise jar. As you may have noticed in the Custom Associates ad in Part 1 of the Cal Automotive story, interested parties could send in twenty-five cents for information. It was Bud Lang’s idea that when the mayonnaise jar filled up with quarters they would use them to get a business license and start their fiberglass T-Bucket business. Such a one gallon jar will hold over $800 in quarters. That means that over 3000 Car Craft magazine readers would need to send away for this info. At the time, Car Craft’s circulation was around 180,000 per month and that would have represented a 1.7% response rate for their ad which was entirely achievable in the days before the Internet and Toll Free 800 numbers.
One day, while driving through Compton, California, they saw a relatively nice looking stock Model T Ford sitting in a driveway. They pulled over, rang the doorbell, asked the man who came to the door if the Model T was his, and when he said yes, but that he wasn’t interested in selling, they quickly responded that they weren’t interested in buying his Model T — they just wanted to rent it. After telling him why they wanted to rent his car and assuring him that they would return it with the body in better condition than it was, he said he wanted to get his employer’s thoughts on the proposition before doing anything. It turns out he worked on a car lot and, like most used car guys, his boss was pretty shrewd and savvy. He insisted that Curt and Bud enter into a contract with the Model T owner that stated the condition in which the car was to be returned to its owner and also stipulated that it had to be returned by a specific date.
By that time, Curt and Bud had both been actively working as photographers in the hot rod and custom world and, as a result, had developed a lot of good contacts. Initially, they wanted to work with an up and coming young customizer named Karl Krumme who had been dubbed “The Bondo King” by George Barris because Karl would use huge amounts of Bondo like modeling clay. The fact that he couldn’t weld had something to do with it as well. (Karl’s sculpted Bondo customizing technique would later be chronicled by Bud Lang in the May, 1961 issue of Car Craft magazine). At that time, Karl was trying to get his Kustoms Inc. business established and he had a partner whose mother had some money and let them customize her brand new 1959 Oldsmobile. That car was photographed for the July, 1960 issue of “Custom Cars” magazine by Bud Lang. Unavailable to work on the T-Bucket plug, Karl would later work on the Cal Automotive 1927 T-Bucket mould and eventually was hired by Barris.
Becoming frustrated and aware that their rental contract specified when the Model T had to be returned, Curt Hamilton turned to a buddy at whose Hollywood shop he hung out, Dean Jeffries. “I’m a painter, guys,” said Dean, but as a favor he did the body work to remove all the bumps, dings and wrinkles from the Model T so that a suitable fiberglass mould could be made.
Coincidentally, Jeffries was located in a small complex of shops and one was occupied by a young man named Nat Reeder who had developed quite a reputation for doing fiberglass bodywork on Corvettes (many of which would be repainted by Jeffries) and had even started producing his own line of fiberglass replacement parts for Corvettes. The word was that one of Nat’s friends was the parts manager for Harry Mann Chevrolet, the nation’s largest Corvette dealer. Nat would order a Corvette part from Harry Mann, make a mould from it, and return it for a 10% restocking fee. With that kind of fiberglass mould expertise, Curt and Bud asked Nat if he would build their T-Bucket body mould. Nat replied that Jeffries would never let him build the mould there in his small facility but that he had some beer drinking buddies named the Kelly Brothers who were movers and might have space available to build the mould in their warehouse. It turned out the Kelly’s gave Nat a tiny 10’x10′ space surrounded by tall wooden moving and storage crates in which he built the T-Bucket mould.
Before Nat got started on the mould, though, Curt Hamilton said that he didn’t like the kicks that came out the bottom rear of the Model T body so he enlisted aluminum fabrication guru, Bob Carroll, to make a nice aluminum rolled panel at the bottom rear of the body — a custom touch copied by virtually every other fiberglass T-Bucket body manufacturer from that point on. Another custom touch added by Cal Automotive was to have the Model T passenger door seam clayed up so there were no opening doors in the body. Nat completed the mold and Curt and Bud were able to return the Model T to the lessor during the term of their contract. Needless to say, he was happy with the nicely cleaned up body he got back on his four decades old car in addition to the rent for its use.
By now, demand for their fiberglass T-Bucket bodies had grown beyond the quarters sent in for information and Curt and Bud had started receiving deposits from their soon-to-be first customers. Curt and Bud then quickly moved the mold into a production facility on Regentview Avenue in Downey, California, which was one of a series of war surplus quonset hut buildings. Again, they were beset by good furtune to learn that just a few huts away was a small business that was making fiberglass table tops and chairs for the growing McDonald’s fast food chain. Curt asked the owner of that business if he would mind if he were to offer some of their fiberglass layup guys some after-hours work making T-Buckets and he was agreeable. The result was that from the beginning, Cal Automotive’s hand laid fiberglass bodies were very well made.
The first print introduction of the Cal Automotive name was a brief new product announcement in the February, 1961 Car Craft with a photo of their fiberglass T-Bucket turtle deck. A year and a month after Curt and Bud’s “Custom Associates” ad tested the waters and they’d had time to actually produce a few fiberglass buckets, the first real Cal Automotive ad appeared in the September, 1961 issue of Car Craft magazine. The cost had risen from $109.50 to $129.50 (probably after having a chance to look at the realities of production costs) and because they were actually in production a C.O.D. deposit of 50% rather than 30% was required.
One might wonder about the “Used by National Champions” reference in the ad. According to Curt Hamilton, they got a call one day from Jim’s Auto Parts who’d heard about their work with fiberglass bodies. They had a drag roadster and wanted to replace the 1929 Ford body with something lighter and they needed it right away. Therefore, the need was met with the regular production Cal Automotive fiberglass T-Bucket body, which years later was described as being “so thick you could sit on the side rails and it wouldn’t even budge.” The person who said that was Al Marcellus in speaking about “the very first altered to use a Cal Automotive fiberglass T-Bucket body” — the legendary “Winged Express” built by Jim Harrell (Jim’s Auto parts) and driven by Willie Borsch.
Shortly thereafter, Cal Automotive introduced their “race weight” T-Bucket bodies which only used a single layer of fiberglass, rather than the two layers used on regular street bodies, and a flanged rather than full firewall. Speaking of the T-Bucket firewall, that brings up another very interesting Curt Hamilton observation. Their first T-Bucket bodies were produced without a firewall. When somebody asked for a firewall, Curt came up with an innovative solution. He scrounged a large piece of plate glass, placed the body firewall side down on the plate glass and then went about laying up a fiberglass firewall. This process worked nicely, but before long Curt noticed something rather disturbing. When looking at the body placed on end, with the firewall on the floor, he noticed that one side of the body was actually longer than the other. From all other views, the bodies looked nice and symmetrical, but when rested on end Curt could see that the driver’s side of the body was actually longer than the passenger side. This could have been for one of two reasons. The original steel bodies had an opening passenger side door and because of the door opening it was possible for that side to stretch after years of various applied forces. The other reason was that it was quite likely the Model T bodies were not symmetrical to begin with given their low cost design and the early construction techniques employed. Future Cal Automotive body molds were modified to make the body length even and to also include a molded-in flat firewall, except for the race weight versions.
In 1961, Curt ventured north to the Oakland Roadster Show where they had invested in booth space for Cal Automotive. Arriving with a U-Haul trailer filled with T-Bucket body, hemi engine, chassis and suspension components Curt and Ed began assembling a T-Bucket on the show floor so that prospective customers would recognize the simplicity of this do-it-yourself hot rod. Adjacent to Cal Automotive’s booth was young Andy Brizio who was promoting Northern California’s Champion Speed Shop and his extensive line of hot rod manufacturer decals. Observing, Curt and Ed assemble the T-Bucket on the show floor, Andy remarked, “My God, an Instant T!” Thus was born a few years later another new entrant in the T-Bucket market: Andy’s Instant T. The Cal Automotive story will be continued…