Legendary customiser and TV prop-maker Gene Winfield held a remarkable open day at his house in the desert. AutoClassics had to be there!
Once a year legendary hot rod creator Gene Winfield opens the doors to his shop in the Mojave desert. On a dry dusty part of Sierra Highway surrounded by tumbleweed and cactus, you’ll find Gene’s oasis. Hundreds of hot-rodders, customisers and bikers have shown up to say hi to Gene.
There’s a pop-up tent out front with folks lined up for autographs. Gene’s got a huge smile on his face, he spends time with everybody, signing prints for dads and kids alike. As you wander the compound you start to get an idea just how long Gene has been creating. In one corner is an original car from the Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series, over there are cars from RoboCop, there’s The Reactor, over there is Back to the Future, and there’s the Jade Idol from 1959 – the car that made Gene famous. Gene’s whole shop is open.
The sign on the door says ‘Welcome to Winfield’s sleep deprivation headquarters 9am-9am’. He’s got multiple bays for fabricating, with several works in progress. His hammers and metal-shaping tools are worn from years of use, and big metal-shaping machines line the walls. You can only imagine the sleepless nights with pressing deadlines.
Keep walking through into the yard behind: rows and rows of car stuff sitting in the sun. Bumpers, doors, grilles, fenders and cars in various states of decay. Keep walking, there’s an acre of cars sitting, all with the same desert patina – Edsels, Cadillacs, and even a pair of old Jaguars from the ’60s.
Back in front a crowd has gathered. A bunch of old guys have grabbed a girl from the crowd and thrown her in the front seat of a vintage dragster. They’re walking around the dragster with a pair of jump leads and a starter. One leans over to her and says ‘Don’t touch a thing!’ And with that the car erupts into life, the ground is shaking, the crowd cheers, iPhones are capturing the moment… it’s so loud you can’t talk. They race the motor, eye-burning fumes fill the air – and with that it’s quiet again.
Syd Mead, 'designer of the future', has made it out today. John D’Agistino of Celebrity Kustoms is greeting folks, some guys are selling memorabilia, there’s a baby chopper, others demonstrate car wax, one booth is custom-painting skateboards. It’s a relaxed environment, the band is playing rockabilly tunes, the snow-cone vendor has been shaving ice all day. But there’s one line everyone wants to get in.
Gene’s house is his own personal museum. In between autograph signing he gives tours, and I jump in line. We file in one at a time: the first room is a small workshop filled to the ceiling with packages of old car parts, tools, bicycles, lamps, licence plates, a cash register...
I go up a stair into the next room. I hear ‘And don’t forget to sign the guest book'. Next to the guest book are signed 8x10s of beautiful famous girls, ‘To Gene, with love’, and the toys, model after model of his cars, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars still in their packages, one of the original Terminator robots in the corner with a spray gun in his hand. A few more steps brings me into a 1950s Happy Days diner, red and white bar stools in front of a long counter, black and white checker floor, vintage Coca-Cola signs and milkshake makers.
Gene pushes us along. We’re in his living room now – you forget we’re in the middle of the California desert. He grabs an electric guitar saying, ‘Billy Gibbons made this for me, Elvis gave me this, it’s his concert belt, here’s my first trophy, and this is my 1963 Strip Star competition car,’ and yes, it’s a car sitting inside.
We keep walking into the kitchen, and he points to a group of framed business cards. You look closer; Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Thomas Edison, A. Lincoln… ok, ok!
Now we’re looking at old motors next to his bed. He shouts out, ‘Who knows the jet size for a…’ We’re all quiet. ‘And this is a pinball machine a guy in France made for me as a birthday present, cost him $2500 bucks just to ship it too me…’
But I haven’t seen the Star Trek room yet, so I wander off. Gene has an entire room built like the inside of the Enterprise. I stand at the doorway – there’s the Captain’s chair, the command deck, a signed William Shatner one-sheet poster, original show props, a Phaser, a Communicator, even a Tribble. I walk back to the kitchen, Gene is taking pictures with visitors, and with that the kitchen door swings open, the bright sun hits our eyes and we’re back outside.
This was quite a ride, As I walk back to my car a freight train rumbles past. I wonder if this is why Gene never sleeps. As Syd Mead once said, ‘There are more people in the world who make things than there are people who think of things to make.’ I look back at Gene’s yard. It’s a field of dreams.