When it comes to kustom cars, George Barris’ work back in the ’50s probably comes closest to crowning him the King of Kustoms. Most folks think of the Batmobile when they think of Barris, but Bill Carr’s 1955 Chevrolet, dubbed “Aztec,” is a car that put the So-Cal builder on the map in 1958, long before the caped crusaders. Starting with a workaday Chevy, Barris and owner Bill Car, transformed the car into a glistening copper/tangerine chariot, carefully blending styling tweaks and nuances borrowed from late-model cars of the day.
Here’s a one-of-a-kind kustom from a long-gone post-war Los Angeles, and it’s headed to Mecum Auction, January 2nd through 12th in Kissimmee, Florida. Now is the chance to own the coveted Northern star in the constellation of ’50’s kustom cars.
According to Mecum, “Our tale begins in 1955 when 26-year-old Bill Carr moved from Huntington, West Virginia, to sunny Southern California. His father was a seasoned mechanic and body man, and when he landed out west, he went straight to the source of the wild custom cars he’d been reading about back home: Barris Kustoms in Lynwood. He and George Barris became fast friends, and the two of them, along with pal Bruce Douglas, shared a house in the Hollywood Hills.
“Around the same time, he bought a brand new 1955 Chevrolet convertible that he promptly customized, working on it at Barris Kustom in the evenings after he finished up work as an insurance adjuster. Putting to use the skills he learned working alongside his father, he shaved the emblems and ornaments from the hood and trunk and removed the side trim, carefully filling every hole. Then, with the help of George’s brother Sam Barris, he lowered the Chevrolet’s suspension, added scoops above the headlights, grafted Packard tail lights into the rear quarters and installed fender skirts and 1956 Ford side trim.
“In time, they transformed the ’55 into a sharp cruiser, but George Barris had a vision for a far more radical version of the car that would turn the custom world on its ear. Armed with George’s sketches, Bill Carr enlisted the help of another mutual friend with a very similar name: Bill DeCarr. A master metal craftsman in his own right, DeCarr was a sheet metal worker at the nearby Ford plant who’d been moonlighting at Barris Kustom for years. Getting his start when he was just a teenager, DeCarr is largely credited with much of the work done in the building of the iconic Golden Sahara. He and Bill Carr worked out a deal with George and Sam that allowed them to work at Barris Kustom after hours, creating what would become the Aztec.
Back in the day, there wasn’t a huge aftermarket source of parts for automobiles. When it came to kustoms, borrowing trim, bumpers and taillights from OEM sources or wrecked cars, was the order of the day. Mecum reveals the factory bits that make Aztec so cool, “The Chevrolet’s front fenders were modified to accept quad headlights bezels from a ’57 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. The hood was pancaked, eliminating the vertical cut lines when the car is viewed from the front, and the grille opening was re-formed using a pair of ’53 Studebaker lower grille pans—a trick that was employed on the famous, Barris-built Kopper Kart ‘55 Chevrolet pickup, and later on the “Rod & Custom” Dream Truck.
“Around back, the decklid was also pancaked, and the rear bumper surround was formed using the same 1953 Studebaker grille pan treatment seen on the front. Expanded metal grilles were inserted in the openings fore and aft, and custom bumpers combining ’57 DeSoto, ’57 Olds, and ’49 Chevrolet pieces were set in place.
“Defining the profile of the car, the two Bills grafted in a modified set of Studebaker tailfins that housed custom tail light lenses handcrafted by Bob Hirohata, owner of the famed Hirohata 1951 Mercury custom. Sam Barris also pitched in on the project, chopping the windshield roughly 3.5 inches, before the renowned Carson Top Shop helped form the two-piece, “DeVille-style” lift-off top. Carson’s Bob Houser was also responsible for the Naugahyde and frieze fabric upholstery. “Once the sparks stopped flying, now-well-known painter Junior Conway prepped the body before George Barris laid down the candy tangerine paint, which was accented by Dean Jeffries-applied pinstriping.”
Then the car went on the show circuit heading to Portland, Oregon in December 1957 for its big reveal. Barris’ brought the Kopper Kart and Jane Mansfield’s Lincoln and turned the kustom kar world on its ear. Barris and Carr crisscrossed the country winning awards and attracting magazine coverage everywhere they went.
Then the story takes a couple of twisty turns. According to the seller, “By 1961, Bill Carr had his fun with his radical custom, and he decided it was time for a new car. As if the first part of the Aztec’s life wasn’t sensational enough, the next few years played out like something from a movie. As the story goes, a gentleman from Arizona plunked down the cash to buy both the Aztec and a Porsche that belonged to pinstriper Dean Jeffries. Unbeknownst to the sellers, he financed his purchases by robbing banks back east. It wasn’t long before he was apprehended, and the Aztec was confiscated and eventually auctioned off.
“Sometime later, another hot rodder spotted the Aztec on a used car lot back in Arizona. He snapped a photo and submitted it to the editors of “Rod & Custom” magazine, who ran it in the magazine where it was spotted by Virginia customizer Sunny Daout. While radical ’50s customs had begun falling out of favor by the early- to mid-’60s, Daout recognized the Aztec and sent a driver out to Arizona with enough cash to buy it and drive it home. Once the deal was done, the young man apparently couldn’t resist the urge to enjoy his time behind the wheel of the famous custom a little longer than planned, and he spent an extra couple of weeks cruising around the countryside before returning the Chevrolet to a very anxious Daout in Virginia.
Before the end of the decade, the Aztec would see two more owners and was muddled up along the way. Daout added new hood scoops before selling it to drag racer and car show promoter Bill Holtz, who had the seats reupholstered in alligator and repainted the car bright candy red.
Then, in 1967, Holtz hauled the Aztec to a car show in Cleveland where he wound up selling it to Walt Trappe, a service station owner from Verona, New Jersey. That marked the beginning of Trappe’s 24-year ownership of the Chevrolet, and it also led to Barry Mazza’s exposure and ownership
Mazza a lifelong car guy, saw the car sitting at Walt Trappe’s gas station in New Jersey and for the next ten years tried in vain to by the car. Meanwhile, Trappe sent the car to a restoration body shop where narrowly missed a date with oblivion.
The seller elaborates, “After being disassembled, the chromed pieces were sent to another shop to be re-plated, the interior was stashed at the body shop owner’s house, and the body was stripped and sprayed in a single coat of primer. Work was sporadic and time dragged on to the point where Trappe became more frustrated and less interested in the project. The car sat outside year-round, allowing the harsh New Jersey winters to take their toll. Parts were stolen, the interior was lost when the shop owner went through a divorce, and in a bizarre twist of fate, the car was once again confiscated by the feds when the shop owner became involved in some illegal affairs and was arrested.
“When Trappe finally reclaimed his once-famous custom, he wrapped it in plastic and stashed it in his garage. There it sat, entombed for years until Barry Mazza was finally able to convince him to sell it in 1991. By then, Mazza had all but given up on ever owning the original Aztec and had begun collecting parts to build an exacting recreation of the legendary show car. So when the incomplete original landed in his garage, all the components he’d been collecting gave him a bit of a head start on the restoration. Still, it was a herculean effort.
“At the time, he was still living in New Jersey and had partnered with body shop owner Bob Nitti on the project. Nitti replaced the floors, quarter panels, and rockers, and he and Barry installed new doors and hand-crafted the sculpted cruiser skirts. Nitti also began restoring the rest of the custom work DeCarr and Carr originally completed 60 years prior.
“By 1994, the bodywork was far enough along that Barry was able to coat it in primer for an appearance at the Lead East custom car show in Parsippany, New Jersey, that year. Then, in ’95, he relocated to Fort Pierce, Florida, where the restoration would be completed. Mechanically the entire suspension was restored, and a detailed 350 Chevrolet crate engine and 700R4 transmission took the place of the long-gone 265 Chevrolet and Powerglide. Barry also installed power steering to make the car easier to wheel around, but he modified the factory column to allow him to keep the shifter on the tree.
“Untold hours were spent massaging the bodywork and correcting aspects that had been changed since the car’s heyday. Since the hood was in rough condition and had already been modified by Sonny Daout in the ’60s, Barry sourced two replacements, and he and metalman Rod Crouview modified and combined them to match the sculpted and scooped original.
“Fortunately, the car was so well documented in its many period magazine features that any missing pieces could be handcrafted. But it wasn’t easy, and Mazza’s undying dedication to accuracy led to lengthy searches for OEM parts like window regulators and stainless trim, and for materials like the correct upholstery fabrics (sourced based on a color photo from a late-’50s Portland car show) and the fluted aluminum side trim inserts.
“Restoring the tail lights required another such scavenger hunt. As mentioned, Bob Hirohata crafted the red lenses and clear backup lenses in 1957. The clear lenses miraculously survived, but the only thing left of the red tail light lenses were broken chips of plastic. Barry was able to have the pieces analyzed and matched by a plastics shop in New Jersey, he then used sheets of the new material to carefully replicate Hirohata’s originals.
“During the restoration, Mazza also discovered tiny remnants of the original candy paint in the glovebox and inner fenders. They were carefully scraped loose and sent to House of Kolor’s lab where they were evaluated and matched exactly. The custom-mixed, two-stage candy Golden Honey hue and contrasting scallops were laid down by Dale Warrington, and Sunny Ackerman added pinstriping to match Dean Jeffries’ original design. The finishing touches were the original Barris Kustom crests, supplied by fellow custom car aficionado Terry Cook. They’re nestled in the leading corners of the side trim, just as they were when the Aztec was first completed.”
The Aztec’s significance in the history of kustom cars can’t be understated. Like finding an ancient arrowhead buried in a riverbank, it’s all that remains of a long lost civilization. Bill Carr’s Chevy is the automotive equivalent of the aforementioned stone age tool and tells a lot about America after WWII and sadly, the people (and country) that built it have long since slipped over the horizon.
Like restoring the Mona Lisa, it’s probably best to leave fine art alone, only nudging gently, to preserve and maintain a famous masterpiece. As this story sadly reveals, old kustoms deteriorate rapidly when left in the hands of a careless shepherd and the Aztec didn’t enjoy the luxury of such an approach. The authentically restored car we see here is a testament to the thoughtful and respectful resuscitation by Mazza which preserves the car for future generations and a new owner.
The Aztec is probably priceless, what it will bring at auction is another matter. We’ll have to wait and see when it crosses the block at Mecum Kissimmee in January.
Magazine Cover Features
- Motor Life, March 1958
- Car Craft, May 1958
- Motor Life, July 1958
- Hot Rod magazine, August 1958
- Custom Showcar Annual, 1958
- Custom Cars, January 1959
- Kustoms Illustrated, No. 11
- The Rodder’s Journal, No. 22
- Barris Kustom Techniques
- Classic Chevy World, 2003
- KKOA Trendsetter, February 2004
- Cars & Parts, 2006
- Kar Kulture, 2018
- Rod Authority 2019
Magazine Articles and Other Coverage
- Dig magazine (Elvis Issue), May 1958
- Rod & Custom, May 1958
- Custom Cars, June 1958
- Northwest Rods and Sports Cars, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1958
- Custom Rodder, February 1959
- Custom Car Grilles, 1961
- Custom Scoops and Sculpturing by George Barris, 1963
- Custom Car Wheels & Lowering, Hot Rod Magazine Custom Library by George Barris, 1963
- Custom Car Engines, Hot Rod Magazine Custom Library by George Barris, 1963
- How to Customize Cars and Rods by George Barris and Wayne Thoms, 1963
- Custom Car Yearbook No. 1, 1963
- King Of Customizers Hot Rod 1978
- Custom Rodder magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1979
- Rod & Custom Show Annual, 25th Anniversary, 1980s
- Hemmings News, 1985
- Die Hards 1993
- Custom Cars of the 1950s by Andy Southard, October 1993
- Barris Kustom of the 1950s, October 1994
- Hot Rod Magazine Annual No. 1
- The American Custom Car by Pat Ganahl, 2001
- Custom By Tsr 2000
- Big Book of Barris, 2003
- Rolls & Pleats, 2003
- Car Collector, 2007
- Street Rodder, June 2011
- Rod & Custom, July 2011
- Hot Rod Magazine (Center Fold Out), June 2011