1952 astra_coupe_16

When Jay Everett unveiled his hand-built coupe at the Petersen Motorama in 1953, it marked a new direction in custom cars.

At the time, most American customizers were basing their work on pre-existing cars from Detroit. Everett took the more difficult and more rewarding path of building his own full-bodied creation from scratch, and that new approach made a huge impact, evidenced by coverage in virtually every major custom and hot-rod publication of the time.

The car officially bore the Astra name upon its reintroduction by Everett in 1956. It also featured a number of refinements to the original design, including fresh new blue paint applied at George Barris’s shop. 

The Astra coupe proved to be the beginning of Jay Everett’s great career in design, the fruit of a skilled and imaginative young man’s will to self-expression and excellence that presaged his later accomplishments.

 

SCM Analysis

Detailing

Vehicle:1952 Astra Coupe
Years Produced:1952
Number Produced:One
Original List Price:N/A
SCM Valuation:$40k-plus
Tune Up Cost:$200
Distributor Caps:$100
Chassis Number Location:N/A
Engine Number Location:Stamped on pad on left side of block, toward the rear
Club Info:Kustom Kemps of America (KKOA), the oldest custom-car club; likely would be welcome at Goodguys or NSRA
Alternatives:None, really. Nothing compares to a historic custom at this price
Investment Grade:A

This 1952 Astra Coupe, Lot S164, sold for $45,580, including buyer’s premium, at the Mecum Monterey auction in Monterey, CA, on August 18, 2012.

When this radical coupe, with its superb long hood/short deck proportions, debuted at the 1953 Petersen Motorama in Los Angeles, it was considered really far out.

At that time, creative customizers like the Barris and Ayala brothers were chopping and de-chroming ’49-to-’51 Ford and Mercury coupes; new fiberglass bodies were becoming available from companies such as Glasspar, Woodill and Kellison, and the only American-built “sports cars” you could buy were the expensive and powerful Kurtis, the underpowered Kaiser-Darrin, the wimpy six-cylinder Chevrolet Corvette and the diminutive Crosley Hotshot. So this futuristic fastback, packing a lusty 303-ci Oldsmobile Rocket V8, was pretty hot.

Not your average ride

Think about what 1953 domestic production cars looked like: slab-sided, predictable, hardly edgy. Now put the low, lithe Astra in the picture. It was a shocker. 

Nothing about the Astra resembled typical American car construction. Instead, Everett commissioned Paul Koontz to build a sturdy frame out of two-and-three-eighths-inch steel tubing. He then fabricated a steel armature in the exact shape he wanted, after which metal wizards Jack Sutton and Dennis Powers carefully formed and welded the Astra’s alloy skin components over the latticed structure.

The Astra employed conventional Ford straight axles — a tubular front (probably a 1938 Ford) and a conventional ’48 Ford rear end, but with a clever adjustable spring perch that was serrated so the suspension height could be adjusted. The brakes were self-energizing units from a Lincoln.

Asked why his car differed so radically from the efforts of other custom car builders, then-25-year-old Jay Everett told a Hot Rod Magazine interviewer in 1954, “I’m tired of looking at lead barges.”

Future shock

Many of the Astra’s futuristic design elements found their way onto later show and production cars. Its pointy fins presaged those on Lincolns like the Futura showcar and production Premiere; the unique press-flap door handles would later surface on the C3 Corvette. The fastback roofline appeared on the Chrysler Norseman and the American Motors Marlin. And the tilt-up hood, if not unique, was certainly unusual for the time.

Jay Everett revised and updated the Astra several times, then sold it in the late 1950s. The car’s intriguing history was recounted in a detailed story by Chris Shelton that appeared in Rod & Custom in June and July 2009. It’s a great read.

Gone, but not forgotten

During the course of his research, Shelton learned that a Barris acquaintance named Dick Hoy bought the Astra from Everett, and it was likely painted dark blue at Barris’s shop.

It’s not known exactly when the next owner, Johnny Morris, purchased the coupe. He stored the car in a crowded backyard stash in Rosemead that was filled with other cars. Exposed to the elements under an open-roofed lean-to, the Astra deteriorated badly. In 1979, Fred Torrisi bought it. Torrisi’s daughter Brandy inherited the Astra in 1990 when her father died. Unable to restore it and facing mounting storage bills, she sold the Astra to Spokane artist Jeff Allison in 2004.

Allison wanted to restore the car, but the extensive work needed was daunting and beyond his budget. J.F. Launier, owner of JF Customs in Osoyoos, British Columbia, undertook the Astra’s comprehensive 10-month restoration for his customer Barry Blomme. When it was completed, the Astra debuted at Paso Robles in 2007; the connection was made there with Jay Everett’s brother and Jay’s daughter. After more than half a century, the radical coupe had come full circle.

The Astra subsequently appeared at an RM auction in 2010, where its owner turned down a bid for $120,000, no doubt thinking that sum was far too low for a freshly restored, wonderfully historic custom. Later that year, at another RM Auction, the Astra sold for $60,000.

Last summer at Mecum’s Monterey sale, it sold for a relatively low $45,580, probably much less than the cost to restore it.

Deal or no deal?

Compared with auction results for historic custom cars such as the ex-Fred Rowe Mercury or the ex-Richard Bosley sports coupe, $45k is a screaming deal. The Astra has everything going for it: a famous designer and builders, beaucoup magazine features and car show records back in the day, well-known history, ground-breaking styling, interesting engineering, and a high-quality restoration.

Chris Shelton wrote: “In that May ’56 Rod & Custom, Jay’s car made a splash that rippled for decades.” Shelton praised the Jay Everett masterpiece saying, “Whereas custom cars defined the era, the Astra was far beyond custom in the sense that it wasn’t a manipulation of an existing dream … it was, on the other hand, a unique expression of its owner, who merely used a few parts from production cars.”

Sam Murtaugh from Mecum Auctions added, “The Astra coupe hammered sold at $43,000 during our auction in Monterey, which I suppose could be considered a bargain…but I look at it as fair market value. It’s nearly impossible to put a true estimate of value on a one-of-one hand-built car.”

“The car was offered with reserve, and the seller accepted the high bid,” Murtaugh said, “which means the auction process worked. It looks like the winning bidder hails from Europe and felt that $43,000 was money well spent on a piece of automotive art.”

So what’s the problem?

Then and now, the Astra was just a little far out for most people. Chris Shelton called it “…one of the most underappreciated icons of its time,” and I agree. I thought the car could have sold for double or even triple its final bid. It still looks very contemporary, and that’s more than you can say for a chopped Mercury. Don’t get me wrong, a hammered Merc done right is a great-looking car, but there were plenty of those. There’s only one Astra. 

(Introductory description courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

 

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