Redemption: Bruce Van Etten’s “Rebel Design” 1959 Edsel Ranger

Photography – Kurt Borden and Bruce Van Etten
Rod Authority recently brought you the story of 1950’s Ford’s styling chief George Walker and we recounted his meteoric rise as father of the two-seat Thunderbird in 1955, to head honcho of Ford design in 1957. His tenure would last a mere four years, the result of poor overall sales, controversial styling, and most significantly, the disappointing introduction of the Edsel, considered by many to be the biggest automotive flop of all time.

1958 Edsel styling was controversial to say the least.

Debuting in the fall of 1957, the Edsel had four models, 90 color combinations and entered an already crowded mid-priced field. The car’s styling was derided as looking like an Oldsmobile “sucking on a lemon” or worse, a 1950’s version of a #metoo pink hat.

The 1959 Edsel lineup was simplified and toned down. Especially the “horse collar” grille.

Above: Stylist Roy Brown, (under George Walker’s tutelage) is considered the maestro that penned the Edsel. He went on to design the Ford Cortina at Ford of Europe and then back to Lincoln-Mercury. He recounts folks asking him “What were you thinking when you designed that car?” The red 1958 model pictured here had the wildest, undiluted styling of the three year run. After a long and varied career, Roy Brown died in 2013 at 96 years old.

The styling was toned down for 1959 and by 1960, the Edsel was merely a Ford with a revised grille and soon after, quietly passed on to the great scrapheap in the sky, the butt of car jokes for decades to come.

Although the Edsel is now a textbook example of marketing gone wrong, time has been kind to the car named after Henry Ford’s only child. The styling has aged well and compared with other contemporary, space-age styled Detroit cars of the ’50’s, it’s easy to wonder why folks thought the car was so “out there.”

Meanwhile over on the “Left” coast…

California’s goulash of car culture was setting the tempo for automobile customization after WWII with Los Angeles holding court at the epicenter of the creative maelstrom. From the garages of Larry Watson, Ed Roth, George Barris and Dean Jefferies to the emerging lowrider scene in the barrios of East L.A., the blueprint now known as the SoCal Kustom emerged. Often confused with lowriders, the two genres share attributes of a lowered stance, Tru-Spokes/Supremes and paneled paint jobs but diverge from there. Chevrolets and Fords have long been the canvas for a SoCal kustom and few deviate from the blueprint.

Until now.

Dig “Redemption,” Bruce and Kathleen Van Etten’s 1959 Edsel Ranger Hardtop with an incredible Rebel Design masterwork panel paint job by automotive Da Vinci James Dean. Rod Authority first laid eyes on the car in 2015 when it debuted at the Sacramento Autorama with (surprisingly) little fanfare. Since then it has taken many awards and created quite a commotion in NorCal kustom car circles. 

Bruce, Kathleen, and their son Jay Walding hail from Citrus Heights, California, a suburb of Sacramento and are well known in the Nor Cal club scene as key players in the Relentless Left Coast car club. With nine member families in it’s NorCal club, Relentless has eight chapters around the country, including one in Japan.

Bruce and Jay were original members of the Poorboy’s car club in Sacramento, and orchestrated seven Midnight Mass rod shows around the Sacramento area before branching off to form Relentless Left Coast.

Son Jay is also a Relentless member and his 1962 Chevy is very cool as well.

Van Etten first came to know about this old Edsel around 2011 when a kid offered it in trade for a 1940 Chevy pickup he owned. He recounts “The car was a clean, original car that had previously been owned by a rodder mag journalist. It was cream with a red rood and coves, had new wiring, a rebuilt front end and had been resprayed by a local tech school.  I knew the previous owner and called him and he gave the backstory of the car and aside from some tin worm in a rear quarter and the rocker panels, he said this was a solid old Edsel…”

This is the way the car looked when Van Etten first bought it.  He bagged it by the time this photo was taken.

After driving the car as-is for a year or so, Van Etten did his first tweak on the car. He had painter Jon Boy spray the coves gold and panel the top. From there, the car went back into service cruising NorCal byways and car shows.
Van Etten was no stranger to late ’50’s Fords. His first car he owned was a 1959 Ford Galaxie Convertible and he built Edsel models when he was kid. He wanted this Edsel to prove that Ford’s forgotten misfit was the perfect palette for a SoCal kustom. That’s when he met up with painter James Dean.

With Supremes and skinny whites.

Based in Roseville, California, Dean’s Rebel Design is best known for motorcycles but has recently taken on cars and “Redemption” is one hell of a calling card for his talents. Van Etten said “James wanted to be the sole artist on the car, without anyone underfoot. I trusted him, so we talked about colors and strategy and I let him do his thing. We chose a black and silver theme, kind of like a tuxedo. I didn’t want any lace, scallops or flames, but a new, fresh take on a paneled paint job.”
Larry Watson must be up there smiling.

Van Etten elaborates further, “My wife Kathleen, wanted a touch of color so she suggested adding a teal color to the mix via hibiscus graphics. We added the flowers to the cove around the car as well as some Tiki heads on the dash and C-pillars. I really love the water drop effect we created on the fenders as well.”
The car employs many other patterns and embellishments to savor so take your time soaking it all in.

Look closely at the cool water droplet effect on top of the fenders.

“The windshield was cracked, so we took that out and that made it easier to paint the dash. I’m really happy with the result,” Van Etten said, “We took the car to James in October 2014 and he had about 4 months into it, putting  in roughly 400 hours.”

The car is running its stock frame that’s been C-notched, bagged, with a 4-link rear suspension added by BC Fabrication. 
The old Ed rolls on Tru-Spoke reverse 15×6 spokes all the way around and the tri-stripe tires are a one-off set that complete the look with a unique finishing touch.
Van Etten explains further, “The door handles and all emblems have been shaved. All the chrome was done and stainless polished when it was painted. We’re running bellflower exhaust with mini glass-packs behind powder-coated intake manifold and headers. We also replaced all the weatherstripping with Steele Products as well.
For motivation, Van Etten stayed stock with the original 292 V-8 but backed it up with a modern C6 automatic transmission.  Manual steering and drum brakes at all four corners round out a no-nonsense, reliable foundation. This is a testament that for cruisin’ around town, big-buck running gear is optional, not mandatory.
The  black and white interior is simple and clean with just the right skosh of custom tweaks. Van Etten says, “The upholstery was done from a kit and was installed when I took ownership, but we added carpet and painted the upper surfaces of the door panels and dash.  Mostly though, it was much as you see it here when I bought it.”  Of course, to battle the Sacramento heat, the car is fitted with air conditioning and the trunk has been finished as well with a signature “E” and stitched together by Art the Handyman.
Redemption debuted  at the 2015 Autorama Rebel Designs booth and created a stir, but didn’t win any awards. It was one of my favorite cars that year and after some tweaking and finessing, the car has started to get the recognition it deserves.
Awards To Date:
  • Bombs Mag Supershow First in Class 2018
  • Sacramento Ford and Mustang Show – Best of Show 2017
  • Devotions and Socios car shows – Best Paint Awards
  • Candy Apple Joe Bailon Award-Best Paint
  • Sacramento Autorama 2018 – Best In Class
For now, the Van Etten’s are enjoying the car up in sunny NorCal while simultaneously vindicating George Walker and Roy Brown’s misunderstood prodigy.

Redemption achieved.

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
Read My Articles

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