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.

Cal Automotive Custom Associates fiberglass T-Bucket Body ad
Cal Automotive: A Legend is Born

Curt Hamilton described the momentous day when the jar was filled and he and Bud took it into a United California Bank location near Vine Street in Hollywood where Curt remembers seeing a plaque noting that on that location D.W. Griffith made the first feature-length Hollywood movie, “Birth of a Nation”. Curt and Bud took the proceeds, opened an account, got a business license and set out to make fiberglass T-Bucket hot rod bodies. But first, they had to find a T-Bucket body to use as a buck for their first fiberglass mould.
Model T Ford
Model T Ford

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.

Clayton Crowe's Karl Krumme customized '59 Olds
Clayton Crowe's Karl Krumme customized '59 Olds

So, as soon as they took possession of the Model T, they delivered it to custom body man Bill Ortega in Bellflower, CA, who worked with George Barris on the “Aztec” ’55 Chevy convertible which was named by Motor Life readers in 1958 as “Custom of the Year” (Ortega later changed his name to Bill De Carr). It turned out he was too busy to get the Model T in shape for the boys on their limited budget within the time on their contract so they retrieved their deposit and moved on to another well respected “body man” contact. Their second stop was legendary customizer Bill Hines, who received their deposit and returned it later under the same circumstances.
Dean Jeffries pinstriping
Dean Jeffries pinstriping Moon discs (also note Grabowski T-Bucket engine)

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.
Dean Jeffries studio of style
Dean Jeffries' Studio of Style, 5807 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood

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.
Nat The Glass Man Reeder
Nat 'The Glass Man' Reeder at 5807 Sunset, Hollywood

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.

Cal Automotive Glass-Tee Fiberglass T-Bucket body
September, 1961 "Car Craft" ad

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.

Winged Express with Cal Automotive T-Bucket body
Winged Express with Cal Automotive T-Bucket body

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.

Cal Automotive T-Bucket display at 1961 Oakland Roadster Show
Cal Automotive T-Bucket display at 1961 Oakland Roadster Show

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…

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19 thoughts on “Cal Automotive: Fiberglass T-Bucket Body Pioneers, Part 2”

  1. Hello Frank, I was wondering if the V12 Allison Mustang funny car still exists? I’m planning to visit Pomona in February for the National Roadster Show and would love to see that awesome monster if it has survived, and is still located in the LA area. Thanks!

  2. I worked for Tex Collins in 1964,65. I learned to weld at his shop in north hollywood. he built a second Munster Car and I drove it all over the valley. Has anyone seen it? anywhere. Tex’s father in law told me that tex went to collect money he loaned someone with guns. they knew he was coming and there was a gun battle. Tex and two other men were killed the that fight. All Tex’s car were taken by people who knew him or worked for him. Anyone know where the cars are? I know some of them are still out there. Ken

    • This is Ken again. I found the 2nd Munster car and bought. I added a clothe top to it and shock on the front axle. I drove it to Bob’s Big Boy a lot and finally sold it to Frank Collins who is in the process of restoring it back to the way it was in the mid 60’s. You know with all the carburetor pipes sticking out of the engine. I an still friends with Frank and I am very proud of what he has done with his life. I first met him when he was a small boy abound Tex’s shop. Tex was a really great guy. Ken

  3. Curt THANKYOU for the info!
    —–This is what the card says in the middle back of tub—-By the way I saw no fuse lines or marks between the tub and the pickup bed…..strange?
    6914 FARMDALE


    • Thanks Curt and Jim.

      Jim, I think this might be the glassed in card you mention.

      Cal Automotive Tex Collins Body Card

      And, I believe this is the image that isn’t very visible, which has been used many times by many others over the years to demonstrate the point that “there is a difference”.

      There is a difference cartoon as used in Tex Collins Cal Automotive ad

  4. In answer to Jim’s body: It is more than likely a Ford Duplicators body that Tex Collins produced, and brought to Cal Automotive when we first joined companies prior to Tex purchasing Cal Automotive in its entirety in late 1967. It was his copy of a 1915 to 1922 and would require the early posts as the cowl was “pinched” because of the shorter & narrower firewall than the later ’23-’25 model that was produced originally by Cal Automotive. However, if the body was produced in late ’66 it is technically a Cal Auto body nonetheless! Curt Hamilton January 01, 2011

    • Where can you find the fiberglass 1915 to 1922 t-bodies? Seems like what is available is the 1923 to 1925 and that is not the look I want. Thanks!

  5. I actually have a what I believe is a late 60’s cal automotive body. The funny thing though is the bed was attached to the tub and I saw NO seams, flat firewall and no opening doors…..
    The dimensions were very weird….
    It is supposedly the 1924 roadster pickup, but the only windshield I could fit to it (besides a dune buggy ws)
    Was a 1909 -1912 model t……
    2 gallons of fiberglass resin and short hair repair,
    and I have a very unique car. Wish t-buckets were considered at car shows, those rat bastards!

    • As you may know, Skip, Tex was killed many years ago and as to the disposition of his estate it’s anyone’s guess.

      There used to be video online showing one of his Allison powered trucks as well as the Allison powered Mustang, but I can’t find it any longer.

      When I get around to posting Part 3 of the Cal Automotive story it will include some info about Tex, who didn’t found Cal Automotive, but later purchased the company.

      • This story has been quite entertaining I hope when you write the next part about Tex Collins you get the facts straight like when the company was actually purchased and why he purchased from it from curt how Tex actually died i’ve heard the story told 100 different ways but no one has actually told it correctly please remember there’s always two sides to every story.


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