Back in the Fifties, GM Design ruled the automotive universe.
Led by flamboyant Styling Chief Harley Earl, the rest of Motown danced to the beat of GM’s design guru. His talented team introduced such styling milestones as the wraparound windshield, buxom front end styling, and of course, the tail fin. When it came to styling, when General Motors said “Jump” the Detroit’s other automakers didn’t ask why, but “How high?”
Yet, in the fall of 1956, Earl and GM brass were in for a big surprise.
Designer Virgil Exner, fresh out of stints at Studebaker and GM, set the automotive world on its ear with the introduction of Chrysler’s new-for-’57 “Forward Look” lineup. Suddenly, GM—which wasn’t used to playing catch up—was left flat-footed with a comparatively dowdy lineup.
In those days, the gestation period for a new car was 36-48 months, which left GM having to make do with warmed over ’58 models. Additionally, not only did they have Chrysler to worry about, Ford had followed Chrysler’s lead by offering similar, long-and-low styling on their all-new ’58 Continental and T-Bird offerings.
Back at GM, they were feverishly working on all-new 1959 models that Earl hoped would beat Chrysler at their own game.
Maybe, they got carried away.
When the new 1959 GM full-size cars debuted in the fall of ’58, they were stunning and outrageous.
Cadillac’s fins were sky high, Chevy had a bat-winged look with cat-eye taillights, Olds had lantern-like taillights and Pontiac grew a split grille and sprouted twin-fins out back. Probably the most underrated was the 1959 Buick. With fierce, canted headlights and jet-swept rear fins, it was a block long and belt buckle high.
In fact, the ‘59s were so wild, the market was taken off-guard as well. GM went back to the drawing board and revised the 1960 full- size GM cars with toned down styling. The 1960 models were more restrained but still extremely attractive cars in their own right.
The 1959/60 full-size GM cars were Harley Earl’s last hurrah as the head of GM Design. Conceding styling leadership, even for a year or two—to frumpy old Chrysler no less—probably accelerated his departure. Earl’s vacancy paved the way for protege’ Bill Mitchell and the era of crisp, finless, Sixties design was ushered in at General Motors.
I have a soft spot for ’59/60 GM production models and think they were some of the prettiest finned cars ever made, so you can imagine how I felt when I was wandering the halls of the 2018 Grand National Roadster Show and stumbled on “JetSun,” John Burke’s stunning 1960 LeSabre Coupe built by Aaron Lobato and Jimmy Gutierrez at US Kustoms out of Albuquerque, NM.
I was friggin’ knocked out.
Here was a very thoughtful re-think of a Harley Earl ’60 Buick LeSabre that took everything we love about this four-wheeled masterpiece and added a heavy dollop of automotive MSG.
Shimmering under the Pomona Fairplex lights in Emberglow paint, (a coppery gold confection from PPG,) it essentially took the toned-down 1960 Buick styling and turned it back up to “11.”
“JetSun” is the perfect name for the car as well. It simultaneously combines imagery of NASA, solar power and the “Jet Age,” as well as a play on the Hanna-Barbara cartoon. This is a car you could take “Rosie the Robot” to the movies in–or get her latest hardware update.
A great custom is a timeless custom and we think all the subtle alterations add up to more than the sum of the parts. It gently nudges Earl’s classic styling without getting in the way or muddling it up. As with all works of art, it takes a viewing or two to soak it all in.
The front end sports a 1960 Imperial bumper and a grille made up of multiple 1950 Mercury hood ornaments. The top’s been chopped 1 3/4-inches, crowning the laser straight bodywork and foot deep paint.
The coolest element for us is the completely reshaped curved fins. This was a tricky mod to pull off, but the US Kustoms guys hit the bullseye here. Many hours shaping the steel with the English wheel and bead roller were employed here.
Running a 525hp LS3 V8 and automatic transmission from Turnkey engines, it floats on a buffed-up factory frame, RideTech suspension and Wilwood brakes at all four corners. The crescendo, and the perfect finishing touch, is a set of 1964 Buick hubcaps with bullet center caps adding just the right period touch of Post War optimism.
Inside, the theme is “Lost in Space” with a twist of modern sensibility. JD Angel Interiors really out did themselves here. The cream and baseball-glove color scheme pops with a deft combination of materials, graining and texture. The bucket seats are out of a Camaro, the center console is made out of two T-Bird units and once again, a Imperial sacrificed it’s steering wheel. An eight-track tape player supplies the tunes.
When we caught up with Aaron Lobato, it was refreshing to talk to such a serious, talented— and down-to-earth— builder. Lobato and US Kustoms have been creating killer kars since 2002 and their work reflects a deep understanding of the history surrounding the hobby.
Originally, Lobato owned the old Buick and when he sold it to Burke, the project took off. In an era of $1M builds and big builder egos, “JetSun” created quite a stir with it’s killer, skillful tweaks and relatively modest budget.
“I’m a custom car guy,” Lobato conceded. “I’ve studied Watson, Cushenbery, Hines and Winfield et al. I’m into building cars that pay homage to the masters. When we brainstormed “JetSun,” owner John Burke and myself worked closely with wingman Jimmy Gutierrez to achieve our vision. We bounced ideas back and forth and brought the car to life.”
Lobato recounts a conversation with Burke,”After we finished “Jetsun,” I told John, go ahead and show the car, but don’t expect it to win anything. We’re competing with big names and big bucks. You can imagine our surprise when the car took 3rd place in “Radical Hardtops” at the 2018 GNRS. We showed it “closed,” which probably cost us a bit, but we were thrilled with the reaction to the car.”
Lobato has quietly avoided the pomp and circumstance associated with the current iteration of the hot rod hobby and prefers to let his builds do the talking. Indeed, with all the recognition they’ve received this year, Lobato and Gutierrez have made Albuquerque an outpost of kustom car cool. We can’t wait to see their follow up to “JetSun.”
Go to @u.s.kustoms for more pics.