By June 1, 2012 Read More →

Gene Winfield Interview

InterView Gene Winfield By Chris Murphy

The pictures on this page are owned by Peter Hischier and Gene Winfield

Beginning in a chicken coop converted to a garage on Modesto’s west side at 1309 Figaro Street, the legendary Gene Winfield honed his skills in designing amazing car creations and pioneered world-changing paint finishes like Candy Apple Red and Pearl. Gene had served in the Navy and then started modifying cars. Due to a less than a year stint, he was drafted into the Army in 1950 and during his service in Japan, learned to hammer-weld; his car-modifying career would never be the same. He later moved his shop to a location across from MJC at 451 Tully Road, near where Kruse-Lucas Imports stands today. Gene designed some of the most famous car creations for TV and movies and even developed custom space ships for Star Trek.


Modesto is still home to classic car customizer shops and newer shops like Neville Brothers, Burnside Body Shop, and Graffiti Classic Customs in Turlock. Gene Winfield visits regularly and in 2012 was advising on classic cars being modified by Bart Bartoni. Customizing cars is in the blood and never fades and Gene Winfield is still active and cutting up cars and pushing his creations to the edge.   Gene will be attending the Ribbon Cutting of the Historic Cruise Route and will be the Grand Master of the Kiwanis Cruise Parade.


Let’s catch up with Gene Winfield.


Did you want to race professionally or just go head to head with your buddies?
At first, it was just to make my own stuff go fast and get with the local guys, then I got into Jalopy racing. We would build fast cars and go to El Mirage and then Bonneville in ’51. I am still doing it today.


Where did you race around town?
We did some out racing out on Paradise road and later we had a county road out by Empire. We would go out at night and do all kinds of racing, and we marked off a ¼ mile and a full mile track. We would take off with a rolling start and people would go down and wait in a driveway and watch us come by.


Did you cruise 10th and 11th Streets?
All the time! I first cruised on 10th .   At first it was only 10th back and forth, and then later they opened it up and made 10th one way and 11th back and it was a loop.


Did you like it as a two-way or a loop?
I think is was better when it was two ways. We would go down and around Burge’s Drive in and then go back.   Go down the other way around the Grey Hound and Pep Boys and we would turn around and go back.

How did it come to be that Dennis Wilson would design the front of the Winfield shop at 451 Tully?
I bought an old radiator shop on Tully and reworked it. In late 57 the city came along and wanted to widen the street and put in curbs and gutter. I had to donate 10 ft. of land off the front of my property. For me donating, they had to cut off my building and I lost 10ft and they had to put a new front on it. I took that money and added some money of my own and added on to the back of the shop and made a nice front and put a nice showroom in as well.


When were the Century Toppers founded?
We put the Century Toppers together in late ’47 Some of the original members wereDick Petz, my brother Frank Winfield, Bob Petz, Ray Rossin, and Tommy McGee. Evelyn Horn lived next door to my mother and was our club secretary for the entire time. Pete Hischier and Bart Bartoni came along a little later.


What was the first car that made Gene Winfield a national name?
The Jade Idol was the first radical custom car. I started building it in ’59 and I showed it in ’60 and ’61.   I took it back east and it won all of the shows. It would wine best engine, best upholstery, best of show, best paint, sometimes it would win 3 or 4 trophies at one show. On the way back from one of the shows, they flipped it upside down.   It was then known as Gene Winfield’s Jade Idol, but it really belonged to Leroy Kemmerer of Castro Valley


The Jade Idol was the first radical-radical paint job that went nationwide.   I had done some blended paint jobs in ’57 on a new Chevy. But the Jade Idol was radical and hit nationwide.  I called the owner a couple of years ago, and he wanted $150,000 for it and then I called him last year and he wanted $400,000.

I heard that you had a specially designed house here in Modesto.
I designed a house over on Linwood St and even though it was a contracted house in a subdivision, I did a lot of the designing of the house myself and lived there for quite a few years.

One of your own cars came from Pete Hischier; how did that work out?
I bought his ‘50 Merc and I put a 51 Merc back end on it with 54 tail lights.

In late ’53 the new cars came out, and I went down to the showroom, and ordered the taillights right there and then before the 54 even hit the market. That was the first car I put those 54 tailights on and I had to order new 51 fenders to fit those tail lights.

Think back on the early days in Modesto, what was it like?
Well it was a fantastic city, I love it and it was a very very nice city.   I have lots and lots of friends in Modesto.



About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.