History: Bill Keifer of California Custom Roadsters, interviewed by Eric Geisert of STREET RODDER magazine
We’re very proud to be partnered with the legendary T-Bucket building shop, California Custom Roadsters (CCR), in the marketing of the new digital version of their time-tested T-Bucket frame and suspension plans. First introduced in 1973, literally thousands of T-Buckets have been built using the CCR plans. This would not have happened had it not been for Bill Keifer and his love of the hobby that continues today with his family and CCR.
Twenty years ago, STREET RODDER magazine’s Eric Geisert conducted a very informative interview with Bill Keifer that offers great historical insight into not only the development and popularity of T-Bucket hot rods, but also some of Bill’s diverse interests, commitment to family and unique observations about how T-Bucket hot rods can play an important, yet fun, role in one’s life. We think it’s something you’ll find informative, entertaining and enlightening.
So where were you in ’72? That was the saying in 1982, when STREET RODDER looked back over the first decade of the magazine, checking in with the people who made it happen. One of those profiled was Bill Keifer, owner of California Custom Roadsters. Bill was one of the first people in the street rodding hobby to sell the Fad-T — arguably the first street rod. Based on a T-bucket body, and with heavily chromed (and blown) engines, the wind-in-your-face roadsters became very popular.
Bill developed a set of plans to make all the necessary parts at home, and began selling them through ads in the first few issues of STREET RODDER. Truly an original, Bill overcame a tough beginning in life to see the street rod hobby grow into a billion dollar business. He’s still selling those T-bucket plans out of his shop (once a Ford dealership in the late-Teens and early Twenties) in Orange, California.
While at the shop to conduct the interview, SRM Associate Editor Eric Geisert had a chance to talk to a 29-year-old man who walked in off the street with a motorcycle helmet in his hand. He had taken a ride in his friend’s T-bucket, and he said it scared him more than riding his Honda Hurricane 1000cc motorcycle — “There was nothing to hold on to!” He was hooked. He wanted a T-bucket.
SRM: So how did it all start? What kind of life was it for you? Where were you born?
BILL: I was born in Arkansas in 1946, and I guess you could say it was a hard life.
SRM: Was Arkansas life in general hard at that time, or was it just your circumstances?
BILL: Well, my parents separated when I was pretty young, around five years old. My dad came by one day and picked up me and my older brother John to go for a ride. We never stopped, just travelled around the country. Dad was a mechanic, so he worked during the winter in various garages. We’d pick fruit the rest of the time. We’d drive around the whole United States living out of a car. I did that from when I was five or six to about when I was thirteen.
SRM: You couldn’t have had any roots then, always moving around like that.
BILL: No, no roots. No family or relatives either. I didn’t really have aunts or uncles around, it was never like a real family. I remember once while we were driving around the country, we broke down on the side of the road and camped there for two weeks while he fixed the car. Those were the days when we could just pull off the side of the road and camp wherever we wanted. Another time we were on a dirt road for two weeks next to this riverbed. We swam in the river, packed up and left. Nobody would say anything.
SRM: So with your dad being a mechanic, would he always be tinkering on his own car?
BILL: Yeah, he had a lot of different cars — Fords, Plymouths, and we had a ’51 DeSoto for a while, and a Hudson. We lived in Bakersfield, and had a house trailer. We’d try and get it up over the Grapevine (the mountains that separate the Los Angeles area from central California) three different times, and we couldn’t make it. We ended up selling the house trailer and loading everything into the car just so we could get to L.A.
SRM: This is when you were fifteen?
BILL: Yeah, we settled down in Gardena, and he died a couple of years later.
SRM: You must not have had much in the way of schooling, always moving around like that. Were you self-taught?
BILL: Well, I don’t know if “taught” is the right word! I’d help my dad while he was working, and started doing odd jobs too. After he died I worked wherever I could find it, in Hawthorne, Redondo Beach, never living in one place for very long.
SRM: What was the first job you had where you stayed?
BILL: While we were living in Compton, my dad used to work for John Templeton, who had a welding shop. He was one of the smartest men I’ve known, and he had an Engineering Degree from a college. He must have been 60 or so when I first started working there. We used to build the racks used in grocery stores that hold the six-packs of beer. They were made from angle iron and spring loaded, so when you’d pull one out the next one would slide down. I must have made thousands of those racks. I worked there during the Watts riots — even got shot at a couple of times. When I got older and wanted to build a car, I went to him and asked him if I could use the back of his shop.
SRM: What kind of car was it?
BILL: I had a ’29 roadster pickup that I was turning into a rod. I was going to cut down the bed, split the wishbones, and put a suicide front end on.
SRM: Were you aware of what was going on in the streets then? Was there a lot of cruising?
BILL: We had ’55 Chevy that we street raced. We’d cruise Hawthorne Boulevard from the A&W up to Inglewood to the Witch Stand. And sometimes we’d go up to Harvey’s and get into some races up there. There was always somebody interested in racing you. But it was different then. You could drive down the street, each of you side by side, and you’d start slowing down. Eventually you’d catch a signal, and it would become the starting light. You’d race from signal to signal. Now you couldn’t do it, too many people cutting in front of you.
SRM: Was all the racing on the street, or did you go to organized drag races too?
BILL: Oh year, we went to Lions Drag Strip. We’d change the tires and the gears and tow the car down there. I belonged to a car club that used to meet in a parking lot once or twice a month, and we’d all go street racing. In ’65 or ’66 you could go down to the Dodge dealership and buy a race car right off the showroom floor. Kinda took the fun out of it.
SRM: What happened after the welding shop?
BILL: I used to hang out at different places, and at Ted Brown’s shop, where he and Dick Fletcher were building race cars. I ended up renting a small place on Clark Street in Bellflower. I’d work there at night and still work at Templeton’s place in the day. By this time I had met my wife Diane. We had lived in the same apartment complex, and I met her there. We ended up moving to Buena Park after that. A lot of the hippie thing was going on at that time too.
SRM: Los Angeles was really happening in the late Sixties, was it the same where you were?
BILL: Oh sure, and I had long hair, and got in some trouble over it. We’d go into a restaurant and they wouldn’t serve you because of the hair. We went down to Tijuana, Mexico, and even they gave us a hard time. You’d walk down the street and guys would whistle at you. But we went to a lot of concerts, like Credence Clearwater Revival, and saw Jimi Hendrix out in Long Beach. I liked Dylan a lot, and saw him whenever he came to the local colleges.
SRM: Speaking of college, did you ever pursue any of that because of all the school you missed early on?
BILL: No. I was too busy. By then the kids were on the way and I didn’t have time.
SRM: How many kids do you have?
BILL: Four. Bobby, Jerry, Mikel, and Michelle.
SRM: Is this the same time you got into motorcycles?
BILL: Oh yeah, they were always kind of there. I had a ’47 Harley Panhead that I eventually crashed into the side of a street sweeper when it made a quick U-turn in front of me. I broke my arm in three places and gashed my head and leg. We also had Triumphs and BSA’s too. When the Japanese bikes came out we built a few of the 750cc chopper bikes. Parts were cheap on the Hondas, and you could build a whole Honda for what you could spend on a few Harley parts. Harleys have always been expensive.
SRM: So what happened while you were working out at your own shop?
BILL: I started doing more things for Ted Brown Chassis over on Atchison and Clark in Bellflower. I’d round up steering boxes and rear ends and stuff to sell to him. My shop was only four spaces down from his in this little industrial complex. The guy working under Ted quit one day, so I took his place. I’d do piece work, and he’s pay me for what I was able to do. We eventually became partners 50/50. And that lasted for two or three years.
SRM: Did he introduce you to the T-buckets?
BILL: Yeah, I think he and Dick Fletcher already had that going. We used to buy the fiberglass bodies, and make a lot of our own parts. T’s used to be more popular, and there were more stock T’s around. There was a company called Greenland that sold parts for the stock T’s, like the brass wings and lantern lights, step plates for the runningboards, and more. We had a little showcase out front and we’d handle the Edelbrock and Offenhauser stuff out back.
SRM: What kind of motors were you running in these rods?
BILL: Mostly the 327 Corvette motor, some with fuel injection. A lot of them had blowers. T’s were very popular, and so were the ’40 Fords and ’32 Fords. The ’33 and ’34’s didn’t catch on until the mid-Seventies, and you couldn’t give away some of the ’37’s and that sort of car. I think T’s will always be around — it’s a great starter car. Most rodders probably started with a Fad-T, and it’s an inexpensive car to get into. An open car is the greatest thing. People look at you, and will come up to talk to you. You can look around and see everything. If you took the same drive in a closed car, you wouldn’t be a part of it — you’re just passing through.
SRM: Were you going to any rod runs or car shows?
BILL: We’d go to a few, and the promoters were always calling you up to bring your cars out to the show. R.G. Canning always wanted us to show up, because the Fad-T’s were always more showey. There is so much to look at with these cars. With anything else you’re looking at a paint job and a set of wheels. There’s a lot going on with a T.
SRM: What happened after you bought Ted out in the early Seventies?
BILL: I changed the name to California Custom Roadsters. It scared me to death. Here I was in this big shop, and I was by myself. Sometimes I’d work 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week to make ends meet. It was almost 3,000 square feet. I Almost missed watching my two oldest kids grow up (Bobby and Jerry). When the business got better, there wasn’t so much of a demand for my time, and more time was spent with Michael and Michelle. Back then, we were right off Bellflower Boulevard, and there was a lot of cruising on Bellflower. And in the mid-Seventies, the car clubs really came on strong.
SRM: What were you driving at the time?
BILL: We always seemed to have a roadster around the shop, in case somebody wanted to go for a ride and see what it was like. I met Tom McMullen through the chopper bikes back then too. He was also in the L.A. Roadster Club, and we used to do things with them, and to to the Roadster Show at the Great Western.
SRM: Did the musclecar era in the late-Sixties hurt your business?
BILL: Not really, we were doing all sorts of work at that time. We’d chop tops, or do custom work, and still build a few T’s. We’d do a lot of engine swaps on the Model A’s. Somebody would show up with a flathead or a hopped up four cylinder, and want a Chevy V-8 and transmission. Most times you’d leave the stock transmission in, and use an adapter to match up an Olds or Cadillac or Chevy to a Ford transmission, and you’d have all this horsepower in this car. Pretty soon people were willing to pay for a little nicer setup. Early on, you get this Chevy in a Model A, rev it up, and it would twist the body so bad the doors would pop open or it would break the windshield.
SRM: Were stronger frames next?
BILL: Yeah, we boxed frames and did a lot of work to them. We got to the point where it was easier to make a new frame than to fix up an old one.
SRM: Is that when you started offering plans to build your own frame at home?
BILL: Right. We started making the Fad-Ts, and making patterns for all the parts (brackets, etc.). The more we welded, the better we got. You’d know if you made a nice weld, you wouldn’t have to grind so much off when you were done. I had all these patterns drawn out on paper, so I thought I’d package them together and sell them to the home builder. Once he could get the chassis together, then he could get a body shipped to him. That’s when we started advertising in STREET RODDER, and after a story came out about the plans and the shop, things really took off.
SRM: Did you get a few letters about how easy it was to build one of your T’s?
BILL: Sure, we got a few from people who actually got married in our cars, and a lot of father/son teams, because about the time the kid turns 14 or 15, he thinks he knows it all. And he wants to break away from the parents. But the parents need to really bring them in at this time, and building a rod is a great way to do it. At that age, you’re about to get a driver’s license, and you need to know how a car works. This way, you learn about caster, toe in, tow out, brake pressures, interior, wiring, paint, making stuff — a real building process. And when you’re done, it’s something you can be proud of. If you get a little rattle somewhere, you can say to yourself “Damn, I knew I should have put a lockwasher on that bolt.”
SRM: How did you get into your present location in Orange?
BILL: My father in law had a motorcycle shop down the street, and he told me about this place when it came available. It was pretty big — 19,000 square feet. We went from 3,000 square feet in 1976 to 19,000. It was a pretty big step. I guess I was at the right place and the right time, and had some luck making it all work. I know with training I would have done a lot better. Back then, there wasn’t too much competition, and nobody really advertised. You pick up STREET RODDER today, and you’ve got a whole page of advertisers selling stuff. It was a time when everybody knew each others voice when they called on the telephone. Steve Davis, John Buttera, Dan Woods — we all knew each other pretty well. Boyd Coddington was building cars out of his garage, and John Buttera was building Model A’s on top of Deuce rails, using his four-link setup. That was around ’74.
SRM: That was before the big gas crunch?
BILL: Just before. It hit the automakers bad. They started making gas mileage cars, but didn’t care what they looked like. You couldn’t buy a good looking car in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
SRM: And that helped you?
BILL: Sure. Why have an ugly car when I can get an old car, put in a V-8 and an automatic, and have a nice car. People started moving away from the high-horsepower rods and into resto-rods. Stock outside, but hopped up on the inside. People began building cars to go across country to the Nationals instead of building a car to race from light to light.
SRM: Are you surprised by the size of the industry nowadays?
BILL: No, not really. I think it’s always been growing. I talk to guys who said they used to be into it, got out when things started dying out, and recently got back into it. It didn’t die off, it was always here. They just left and came back. But you can get tired of the work. I have. You stay away for a while, then go to a run, and then get back into it. You get inspired, and then jump back in. Government regulation is what should scare people. If they come down and tell us there is no more modifying of cars, then there are going to be a lot of people out of work.
SRM: You weren’t doing too well, health wise, about two years ago, right?
BILL: Yeah. I was sick for a long time, almost a year, and it was something that really made me sit back and look at what was going on in my life. Working all the time and not doing anything else.
SRM: And you went to Sturgis, South Dakota, this year for the big Harley cruise.
BILL: I always wanted to go, so I thought I should while I still could. I think I’ll go back next year too. There were roughly 150,000 bikes, and around 300,000 people.
SRM: And another diversion, you’ve got a grandkid.
BILL: I’ve got two! Jerry has a son named Alex, and my daughter has a boy named Dylan. It’s great.
SRM: Do you spoil them like a good grandfather should?
BILL: You bet, every chance I can get. Maybe it’s just me, but I know sometimes you don’t know why you’re here — maybe it’s the grandkids. I know one thing’s for sure, if I have the chance to do something, I’m going to do it.
Sadly, Bill Keifer passed away in 2004 but Bill’s wife Diane and son Jerry continue the tradition building some of the highest quality T-Bucket bodies, chassis’ based on the original plans, T-Bucket kits, accessories and complete high-end T-Bucket roadsters.
Jerry Keifer’s reflections on his father touch on Bill Keifer’s many facets that are not so recognized outside the hot rod field. “My Dad was also very interested in collecting rare coins. He had the largest collection of Hobo Nickels in the U.S., went to coin shows and loved buying gold and silver. He enjoyed going to swap meets and the mountains with friends.”
“He loved photography, had his own studio and darkroom. He photographed lots of cars and did shoots for most of the well known hot rod companies (Mr Gasket, Street Rodder, Bitchin Products etc.) and had a collection of cameras most of the pros envied. He loved cars and owned just about every type of automobile made throughout his life. He was into antiques, old and unique guns and safes.. buying, restoring then selling.”
“My Dad stepped away from CCR around 1995 but kept an office and his large tools with us. He started building custom Harley’s and went back to working on customers and friends cars till the day he passed away. My Dad loved playing with his Grandkids, he had five of them (now seven that Diane gets to enjoy).”
TBucketPlans.com originated in 2005 as a personal blog extolling the virtues of T-Buckets. In 2009 I blogged about Chester Greenhalgh, the "how to" genius who wrote the legendary, out-of-print “How to Build a T-Bucket Roadster for Under $3000”. That led to a friendship with Chester and our partnership in marketing the updated eBook version of his T-Bucket building bible. The T-Bucket fire burns stronger and stronger.