• 1950 Buick “hard-top” coupe
  • 350-hp, 364-ci Chrysler Hemi V8
  • Six Stromberg carburetors
  • 3-speed manual transmission, drum brakes
  • Popular Customs cover car 1965
  • Built by Gene Howard
  • Chopped, channeled and hard-topped
“Truly Rare” was built around a 1950 Buick. The body was channeled six inches and rides on a frame fabricated from a ’50 Buick and a ’51 Oldsmobile. The body is equal parts ’50 Cadillac and ’51 Olds. The front and sides are heavily reworked with a flowing plastic look. ’60 Plymouth taillights nestle into deep scallops in the rear fenders. The ’51 Chrysler Hemi by Don Wallace has a three-quarter-race cam and six Stromberg carburetors. Mandy Holder sprayed the original lavender pearl paint. The interior has ’55 Buick instruments, white diamond pleat leatherette upholstery and bucket seats, front and rear. The car is offered today in its final 1960s show livery. A steering wheel replaces the original “T” handle.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1950 Buick Custom “Truly Rare”
Years Produced:1950
Number Produced:119,837 Special Sedanettes (but there’s just one like this)
Original List Price:$1,899
SCM Valuation:Median to date, $23,760; high sale, $54,450 (1949–58 Buick Special coupe and sedan)
Tune Up Cost:$400
Chassis Number Location:On data plate riveted to firewall
Engine Number Location:On top of block at valley cover
Club Info:Goodguys, National Street Rod Association (NSRA)
Alternatives:Other ’50s-era custom cars
Investment Grade:F

This car, Lot 183, sold for $11,000, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Amelia Island auction in Amelia Island, FL, on March 10, 2016.

The custom car phenomenon originated in the late 1930s on the West Coast. It reached a peak in the late 1950s as it spread rapidly across the U.S, then waned by the mid-1960s, when Detroit offerings became more powerful and very stylish, precluding the need for customs.

Leading post-war custom car practitioners such as George and Sam Barris, Gene Winfield, Larry Watson, Gil and Al Ayala, and Detroit’s Alexander Brothers elevated the art to lofty heights. Dan Post’s Blue Book of Custom Cars and the Fawcett and Trend 75-cent books on custom cars spread the word, followed by countless features in Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Car Craft and Motor Trend, and later Rodding and Re-styling and Popular Customs. Those features helped ensure that custom car methodology spread nationwide.

There were a few simple customizing rules, but not everyone followed them, especially in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The fundamental premise behind customizing was to start with a low-priced older-model car and, using skilled metal crafting and attractive components from more expensive cars, alter its appearance for the better. Slab-sided Mercury customs, for example, benefited from sweeping Buick side spears, newer DeSoto and Chrysler grilles, and frenched headlights that were hand-crafted using later Ford and Mercury headlight rims.

As domestic car styling became more imaginative, canted quad headlamps from Lincolns and others were grafted onto cars that were never intended to have such a modern treatment — with predictably ugly results. Trendy taillights that were passable on some new cars were horrific when grafted onto earlier cars.

What’s the point?

Major shows, and especially the ISCA circuit, compounded this problem by awarding cumulative show points for every modification, no matter how minor. This gave rise to some customizers lathering all sorts of bodywork and trim changes on cars that really didn’t benefit from that much surgery. Some restyling treatments, like dual Appleton spotlights and extensive pinstriping, became popular custom clichés.

It always seemed strange to me that the lead sledders would carefully shave hoods and decklids, only to replace chrome ornamentation with scads of pinstripes. Ribbed DeSoto and Plymouth bumpers looked attractive on some cars, and really out of place on others. Many custom kemp creators didn’t seem to know the difference. If a mild chop was good, a radical chop was perceived as being better, even if it didn’t make a car’s resulting shape more pleasing. Oh, and they were often given silly names like “She’s So Fine,” “Moonglow,” or in this case, “Truly Rare.”

So here we have Gene Howard’s effort on a hapless ’50 Buick Sedanette. His metalworking skills were obvious. But his sense of taste, balance and proportion? Not so much.

This car received a serious chop and an asymmetric roof scoop. The roofline, which tapers elegantly into a fastback rear, is rather nice. It went downhill rapidly from there in its second iteration, with truly garish canted and covered headlights, deeply tunneled later-model Plymouth taillights, a yawning grille, and scalloped side treatments that didn’t complement the rest of the car. Inside, a blinding white interior — another popular custom practice — was enhanced with a large console, and the steering wheel was dropped in favor of a center-mounted lever. Thankfully, it’s since been swapped back to a conventional steering wheel.

Under the (nonexistent) hood is a wild, hot-rodded, six-carb period Chrysler Hemi, with everything removable chromed for maximum visual impact. There’s a header tank for cooling, so the grille has been omitted, save for one decorative element.

We didn’t call cars like this “custom rods” in the early 1960s, but that’s a good description here, melding a high-performance engine with a radically restyled car. Reportedly, “Truly Rare” won over 60 trophies and received eight Best of Show awards in period.

That was then, this is now

No doubt Gene Howard put a lot more time and money in this flamboyant car half a century ago than the recent sale price of $11,000 reflects — especially against Bonhams’ $30k to $50k estimate. But the radical modifications that won accolades five decades ago appear really dated — and ugly — today.

If the Bob Hirohata ’51 Mercury hard top, which won its class at Pebble Beach last year, were to come on the market, I don’t doubt it could reach seven figures. The ex-Jack Calori custom ’36 Ford coupe, another Pebble Beach Concours winner, realized over $300k in a sale a few years ago. Sadly, that kind of money will never be in the cards for this monstrosity.

Without a pedigree, such as a famous customizer like Barris or Winfield behind it, and despite the craftsmanship inherent in its metal reworking, it’s not worth much at all. No reserve made it a certainty to sell at Amelia no matter where the bids stopped.

With great custom cars, style and simplicity count for much more than shock value and weirdness. Still, something like this would be warmly welcomed at traditional custom car gatherings, and there is value in that. The seller probably hoped for much more than this bid, but for a buyer looking for a period custom with a high look-at-me factor, this was a decent buy.

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.

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