Sitting There and Looking Cool: Teenage Heaven in the Mid-1960s

February 24th, 2011 by Art Chantry

One of the things we’ve forgotten about is just how cool Los Angeles was in the mid-sixties. Maybe our forgetting was intentional, actually. After them hippies went all “real” and “authentic” on us in the Haight/Ashbury, LA was forever denounced as “plastic” and all things Southern California were dismissed out of hand as “the man.” The only “real” and “cool” stuff came from the hippie-dippie minds of those in touch with their “inner selves” and “doing their own thing;” not going “plastic-showbiz-phony” and pursuing the “establishment dollar.”

I beg to differ.

If you examine what was happening in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, it was the coolest scene of all time. Hollywood, TV, teen dances, garage rock, surfing, hot rods, kustoms, rat fink, folk/psych, hip fashion, beach culture, bikers, and sun sun sun. It was teenage heaven. When we think about everything that we think is cool about retro teen culture and American “outsider” artwork, we’re thinking pure Los Angeles, 1965.

Take, for instance, this photo I’ve posted today. It’s a little later than 1965 (I think), and I don’t even think it was shot in LA (that house looks really San Franciscan to me, but I’m just guessing), but just look at it. The fake psychedelic (“hallmark psychedelic”) graffiti, the girlie-girl mini-dress fashion, the long straight hair, the hot rod culture, the exuberant jump in the air, the pretty smiling sunny face, the pink “L’eggs,” and, of yes, that car!

This is the Voxmobile – at the time, an extremely famous celebrity kustom kar, commissioned by the Vox guitar company. Mid-Sixties LA was the apex of rock ‘n’ roll culture of the era. Sure, there was the British Invasion and later there was the San Francisco scene, but the music that came out of the Los Angeles music scene was the real deal, the best and hottest rock scene maybe ever. All the more famous scenes paled in comparison. The Byrds, the Seeds, the Mothers, the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Chocolate Watchband, the Buckinghams, the Grass Roots, Captain Beefheart, Love, the Standells, Jan & Dean, the Doors, all those surf and hot rod records by Gary Usher and Davie Allen and Terry Melcher. Shindig, Hullabaloo, the Munsters, the Monterray Festival, even the rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was recorded there. It goes on and on and on. LA was the hub of everything from the Banana Splits to the Manson Family.

And, of course, there was the wonderful Los Angeles heartbeat of the American kustom kar kulture. Starting with Von Dutch, Ed Roth, Dean Cushenberry, Daryl Starbird and the bull-goose looney of the lot, George Barris. Los Angeles supplied us with our mightiest custom-built dream cars. When it came to those peculiar cars that were exhibit cars, or entertainment tie-in cars, the territory crossed over into pure American advertising at its best.

There have always been advertising automobiles. If you look into the history of the car, you’ll always find enterprising people who turn their delivery trucks into rolling billboards for their business. Crazy showmen would turn their cars into giant rolling pickles or even rockets or vacuum cleaners or giant animals to advertise their wares.

However, when grand master car customizers like George Barris got into the game, there was no looking back. He’d already made a big name for himself with beautiful customs like the Ala Kart and Golden Sahara. He had built a small business empire around his various personally endorsed paint products and how-to customize books. He was practically a household name.

Then along came telelvison and Hollywood. He was asked to build the Batmobile. After that it was a steady stream of commissions to create one crazy car after another like the Munster Coach and the Dragula for the Munsters on TV. Before long, he was the crazy custom car guy to the stars. Soon no self-respecting rock star could be seen cruising the strip unless they had thier very own George Barris-designed kustom. Sonny & Cher had matching Mustangs (and matching Honda 90 cycles!).

Soon every kustom car designer in town was doing them. Paul Revere & the Raiders had the Raiders Coach the Monkees had the Monkeemobile. The Addams family had the Druid Princess (designed by Ed Roth, no less). The cars showed up at publicity events and grocery store opening, to teen spectaculars and the beach parties – everywhere the stars didn’t want to go. At one point there were even something like four or five Batmobiles making their rounds. The car shows listed the krazy kustoms with star billing as if the Monkees were actually making an appearance and not their car. It was really kool and krazy.

It was an easy step for the marketing industry to move in and start making their own krazy advertising kustoms as well. Vox musical equipment had become the guitars and amps of choice for most of the coolest LA bands (they had the coolest shapes!), so they decided to jump into the krazy kustom battle and have a Voxmobile built by Barris. This photo shows how kool it was. It’s shaped just like a Vox guitar!! Amazing, huh?

Bands all over town had their publicity photos taken draped over it as if it were their own car-about-town. In fact, the car was probably a bigger star than 90% of the bands that had their photo taken with it. For several years, this car was a star, but where is it now? Nobody knows. In a museum? In a private collection? Was it pieced out to build other cars? Did it burn in the infamous “Barris Custom Shops” fire? It seems to have gone the way of the Vox guitar – all show, no go.

There was a big fad among kustomizers to build cars out of everyday objects (so the giant Vox guitar idea was no isolated concept). There were cars built out of telephone booths, WW2 german helmets, bathtubs, even the Munsters’ Dragula was built out of a gold plated burial casket.

The whole krazy kustom kompetiton as it emerged in the media kept on going. For almost another half decade, the kustomizers kept bulding more and more extreme cars. I remember as a kid actually going to a car show (to see the Batmobile) and crawling inside of a car with pink shag carpeting covering the entire interior. It had six wheels and was shaped like an alien space craft. It was by Cushenberry, and called the “Pink Panther.” It had amazing chrome engine work and sticks shift steering. You couldn’t drive it legally on the road (I don’t even seem to remember windows). So, was it still a car? I think it had actually crossed the line into sculpture.

In fact, in that same show I saw a car called the “Moon-Rover” or something like that. It looked like a big black spider and had extended extra set of double wheels on a long retractible arm about 20 feet in from of the six wheels on the chassis itself. I couldn’t even see a place for the driver to sit. Definitely sculpture, not automobile.

I think it’s a big shame that these amazing objects have somehow managed to be completely missed by the modern art establishment. why aren’t the extreme creations of Ed Roth, Von Dutch, George Barris, Starbird, or Cushenberry in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC? They have shows about car art made by “real” artists who have no real connection to cars, but they don’t seem to include these extraordinary sculptural objects (that happen to look sorta like cars) as any form of “real” art. Why the hell not?

You might claim that these aren’t “artworks” but rather, real cars. Never mind that most of them are completely undriveable and many don’t even have engines. They simply sit there and look cool. Isn’t that the only real definition of “art” that survives the ages?

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