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King of the Kustoms
John takes time off from his European tour for a chat with DRCReview
How did you get into customs?
I started building model cars when I was growing up in Pittsburg, California, and there was a lot of custom activity in the area. People like Joe Bailon and Gene Winfield sparked my interest in the hobby and magazines like Rod & Custom just got me going.
When did you start building cars?
When I was 16 (in 1967), I customised a 1956 Chevy, which I sold two years later. It was lowered, moulded, and painted in a two-tone royal triton purple and white by Frank DeRosa in Pittsburg. Iíve often wondered where that car went. It disappeared and I havenít seen it since.
John's first creation was this custom '56 Chevy
Who were your influences?
People like Bailon, Barris, Winfield, Larry Watson, lead man Bill Hines, and Bill Cushenberry all had a great influence on me while I was growing up Ė especially as most of them were relatively local and you could see their cars at the local drive-ins.
Do you build cars just for customers or do you get to build the cars you really want to?
I build for myself, but there are always customers who come along and ask me to build something special. Most cars are pre-sold; itís been like this for the past 18 years. I kept a couple back over the years, like the Elvis car, which I put through an auction recently.
The Elvis Cadillac
So how do you go about creating a DíAgostino custom?
I visualise it and then have someone put it down on paper, and we use that as a starting point.
Do you physically do the work?
Some I do and some I farm out, but itís my project and I oversee every part of the build.
So, if I came to you with a 1958 Cadillac, for instance, and asked you to build me one of your trademark customs, what sort of outlay would I be looking at?
It would cost about $200,000 to build a nice car with all of the running gear Ė but thatís on the low side. My cars sell for $300,000 to $350,000, and the Gable car actually made $450,000 back in 2004. The Elvis car, which sold at auction eight months ago, went for $305,000.
The amazing Gable car
How many customs have you built?
Iíve built over 70, and currently I have three on the go for myself and three for customers. Weíre doing a í56 Lincoln Mk 2, which weíre making into a two-seater, and I have a í58 Packard, which is about halfway done.
I built Aladdin, a 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire Convertible, back in 2008. It did all of the car shows and I sold it about three months ago to a guy at Pebble Beach. He also wanted me to build him a killer 1959 Cadillac custom, so I told him we should start the Elvis II car with a rare Eldorado Biarritz Convertible Ė the best possible starting point for something so special. We found a lovely stock version and so far thereís around $250,000 invested in the project, and weíre far from finished. Weíre working on cutting and fitting a new convertible roof and it will be a beautiful car when finished.
Aladdin is currently doing the rounds of the Scandinavian car shows
So how does your operation work?
I work out of two shops, one in Orville, Northern California, and one in Anaheim, Southern California. Bert Carlson and Dwayne from Boydís former shop set up their own business - American Hot Rods and Celebrity Customs Ė in Anaheim a few months ago, and I got onboard with them recently. Weíll do everything there that we do at our North Cal location, so if a customer in So Cal wants a car built, Iíll fly down to LA and meet with him and we start the project right in the shop. Alternatively, customers in North Cal can go to Celebrity Customs, a business I set up with my associate, Oz Welch, who Iíve worked with since 2001. Oz is a great young guy, and together weíve produced some knockout cars, such as the Caribbean, Cadstar and Gable Ė they all came out of Ozís shop. Weíve built about eight or nine cars so far.
Are you surprised that this style of custom is so popular, and why do you think that is?
I like to keep a car, especially a í50s car, traditional. I like to keep the same silhouette. We might change the headlights and taillights, but I donít like to radically change a car with good design because you can go off at the deep end and just lose it.
Golden Star - a masterful transformation of a '57 Oldsmobile
What would you say are your trademark custom touches?
I like to chop my cars and I like new front and rear tail light treatments. I donít use flames, but I do use candies or pearls, and when you lower these cars with air ride suspension they have to have the right stance. The car has to flow. One of my trademarks is blended candy pearl paint jobs, which help to bring out the shape of a car.
Side profile of Golden Star
What specific shapes do you prefer working on?
Currently, Iím working on a 1940 Cadillac 62 Series, which is being made into a hardtop, so it will look similar to the Gable car but with a real elegant look similar to my Stardust í40 Mercury. It will be air-bagged and subtle, yet dynamic. Itís a body style that nobody sees anymore, so hopefully it will shake up the scheme when it debuts.
About a year ago, someone bought my old Stardust car and took it to Roy Brizioís shop to be restored just the way I had it. The car was nice to begin with, but this guy wanted a 100 per cent, money-no-object rebuild, so they blew the car apart, stripped it to bare metal and managed to put it back together just in time for the Sacramento Autorama, and my God, it was out of this world. It looked fantastic and itís just won the Goodguys Custom Car of the Year, which I didnít think was a bad achievement for a 25-year-old custom. It came out really nice, in black cherry with a leather interior replacing the former mohair trim.
The rebuilt Stardust Mercury
Whatís your favourite custom of all time?
I would probably say the Matranga Mercury. There was something about that car that just blew me away. It was the roof treatment and the way Barris did those curved side windows and all that. Up there with that car is the Hirohata Mercury. This car came after the Matranga Mercury, which was the first to feature that custom hardtop look.
Do you have any other automotive ambitions?
People ask me when Iím going to build a truck or a muscle car, but there are so many more customs I want to build.
Where do you see yourself ten years on?
Who knows? I might have run out of cars to do and I might have to start on something else. Maybe going back into the í30s could provide new inspiration, but right now I have 10 to 12 cars in my mind that I want to do. Itís going to be interesting!
Want to read more about John D'Agostino? Check out his web site at http://www.johndagostinokustomkars.com/
Story: Andy Kirk
Photos: John D'Agostino and Traditional Rod & Kulture