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Winfield produces hot cars in a hot climate

October 15, 2006|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

The desert gets hot out there in the middle of nowhere. Some days it hits 111 degrees. One day last year it hit 117.

In that baking sun of the Mojave, Calif., desert, where the cacti suck back the last ounces of water and the earth cracks from exhaustion, there's a little shop that's sometimes swallowed in the dust and is sometimes noticed by no one.

"Winfield's Rod & Custom," the sign reads on a white wall of peeling paint.

The name couldn't be more historic.

In the searing heat and the scorching sun, a 70-something Hollywood legend is coming up with another creation. It might be another movie star in the making. It might be another technique to make fiberglass bend a special direction, or a power door to open a different way.

If the laws of physics will allow it, Gene Winfield will make it work.

In a little shop on the edge of Death Valley sit the most amazing creations known to the automotive world.

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Oh, you've seen them.

His futuristic SUX 6000 appeared in Robo Cop. His Reactor, based on a front-wheel-drive 1964 Corvair with power doors and power, was a Hollywood star for Michael Landin and Bill Cosby. There was the vehicle for "Get Smart," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and Star Wars.

And, of course, there was "Blade Runner."

"We did 25 cars for that film," Winfield recently told CarTV Video, an internet TV show sponsored by Autobytel.com. "We had three shops and 50 guys working on that project. It was really something."

But, then again, so is Winfield, a car crafter who has done more for Hollywood than he has for himself.

Originally a hot-rodder kid growing up in California, his auto career dates back to the post-World War II days when he built his first roadster.

Winfield was born in 1927 in Springfield, Mo. When he was 18 months old his family moved to Modesto, Cal. At 15, he got his first car, a Model A coupe. There wasn't a lot of hot-rodding activity in Modesto during wartime, and Gene experienced the same frustration as any kid growing up far from the action. His car didn't have a radio, but he installed an antenna anyway, just so he could hang a foxtail from it. "I put 'wig-wag' taillights and goofy stuff like that on the car," he once told Rod & Custom magazine. "Then I started hopping up the engine, put a straight pipe on it, and did a little bit of street racing with it."

A career was born.

"I really didn't know how to weld, but I was learning with a gas torch. I warped (a lot of metal), but I got it to work."

Through trial and error he taught himself the art of customizing, chopping (lowering the roof), welding and painting, opening his own place, called Windy's Custom Shop, in a converted shed in Modesto in 1947.

It was out of that shed that came the rear-engine Reactor, a car that he took to Hollywood in the 1950s.

"I showed it around the studios and had all kinds of people sit in it to try and grab attention," he said. "That sort of got my foot in the door and later studios would call and say, 'Can you do this car for our movie?' or 'Can you help us on this TV show?'"

One thing led to another, and Winfield had quickly gained a reputation as a go-to guy in Hollywood. At the same time he began working with legendary car customizer Sam Foose, the father of Chip Foose, doing studio cars and model kits of movie cars out of a shop in Phoenix, Ariz.

In the early 1970s, Winfield opened his own operation in North Hollywood, Calif., and continued to build movie cars and commercials. He did Goodyear tire commercials for 18 months, Shell Oil and Monroe shocks.

But his big break was coming.

After doing a series of cars for the TV series "Bewitched" and "Batman," he began moving toward the big screen and eventually became connected with the art director for "Blade Runner" starring Harrison Ford, a fantasy film that depicted the future.

It was the beginning of an incredible following.

For about $600,000, Winfield's team developed a fleet of vehicles for the film, which quickly became a cult classic.

"It was a complete surprise," Winfield said in a recent interview with BladeZone, an Internet site devoted to the movie.

"I had no idea there would be this much of a cult following and this much interest. In hindsight, if I had known, I would have saved more things from Blade Runner."

He continued in movies, doing extensive work on "Robo Cop," "The Last Starfighter" and "Back to the Future."

And he hasn't slowed a bit. He still churns out car projects. He still tours the country looking for interesting creations, buying old parts and even running into his older works in shops around the world.

He's even trying to give a little back.

Last winter, if you were a student in the Custom Car and Concepts program at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., you would have been pleasantly surprised to see Winfield show up in Room 163 of the Occupational and Education Building on the first Monday in March to demonstrate his metal-forming techniques.

"Winfield is a master of custom car creation," the seminar bulletin said. "A trend-setting custom car painter."

Winfield, a deeply pleasant man with a gravely voice wouldn't take the credit.

"It's all about the cars," he said that night. "I'm just here for the ride."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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