A Visit with Gene Winfield (at the Syracuse Nationals)
By Jim Amado
Gene Winfield is in fact a "model citizen' Indeed, for
many years he was associated in various capacities, with AMT, the model company
which many of us old timers remember from our youth.
In July of this year, Mr. Winfield left his responsibility
in California to spend a weekend as a guest of the Syracuse Nationals, in
Syracuse, NY. This show attracted some 7,000 vehicles and over 80,000 people,
from all over the northeast.
A youngster in his eighties, our guest willingly took time
out from his work, to come here and work. Go figure. Lucky for us, however. Not
only did he bring lots of goodies and nostalgia to share with us, but he also
sat down for a few minutes and spoke with us about some of his history. Our
chat on July 16th was interesting, informative, frustrating, embarrassing, and
The frustration, embarrassment, and humor all caused by the
realization he and I had something in common "Sit here", Mr. Winfield
said, indicating to his right - "I have a bad left ear" - I cringed
"So do I", I said. So, with my bad ear next to him I unfortunately
had to ask him to repeat some things, but overall I believe we did ok.
Long time modelers will recall that AMT, formerly "The
official model makers to the industry", had made promotional scale models
since about 1948, In the early '50's they had offered a few of their 'promos'
(as they eventually became known) as unassembled models, but it wasn't until
1958 that they began producing the "3 in I Customizing Kits", which
most old timers are familiar with. In 1961, and again in 1962, AMT included
customizing tips from George Barris. In '63, they began to feature Budd
Anderson. Also in '63 we first saw the AMT Customizing Team, which included
George Barris, The Alexander Brothers (Mike & Larry), Bill Cushenbery, and
Gene Winfield. In addition to listing these gentlemen's names on the outside of
the model box, the instruction sheets of some of the kits included tips or
suggestions from the team members.
When Mr. Winfield and I sat down, he asked what I wanted to
know. I said I'd like to explore the model connection, but that we'd enjoy
learning about whatever he wished to share with us. I began by asking how long
he was with AMT. He said he was initially with them as a consultant, from 1962,
then later was asked to replace an individual in running the Speed & Custom
Division (of a model company?) where he built show cars which AMT made models
of and promoted. He was summoned to Detroit by AMT for an interview, and was
hired. Within six months he had the Speed and Custom Division in the black.
However, the job required that he fly three times a week from Santa Monica, CA,
where his own shop and his home were located, to the AMT facility in Phoenix.
In 1969, AMT relocated that facility to Santa Monica to be closer to the movie
Prior to working with AMT, Mr. Winfield had constructed a
radical, futuristic custom car which he called "The Reactor". There's
a photo of it in the Automobile Magazine article. He related how he took the
car to Fox Studios and effectively opened some doors for himself. He told the
security guards a fib. "The Transportation Department wanted to see this
car", so the guard waved him in. The ploy was successful, so he started
using it at other studios as well, and soon the studios began calling him. He
was by this time a consultant to AMT, a member of the customizing team, listed
on the model boxes. The studios began working with both him and AMT for cars to
be used in both television series and movies.
One of the cars which would be familiar to modelers is the
Piranha, which was intended to be a production sports car, selling for $5,000,
though the original cost $9,000 to build. I do remember AMT hyping Cycolac ABS
plastic, a material which they produced some model kits in, and we were told
that it was better than the styrene plastic we were familiar with from most of
the then current model kits. Apparently it was so durable, and such a
revolutionary product, that the Piranha's body was made from it. Cycolac was a
product of the Marbon Chemical Division of Borg-Warner. At some point AMT
bought the rights to the CRV (Cycolac Research Vehicle) and renamed it Piranha.
There were actually only a few Piranhas made in some
variations, including a dragster. There is a Piranha website which may provide
more information. Here we're interested in Mr. Winfield's involvement, and the
scale model connection.
The “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” TV car was made by Mr. Winfield
from a Piranha, and given to the studio to use in the production of that show,
but one of the stars didn't like it— he felt it was too difficult to enter and
exit. The studio retained the car for a couple of years, then Mr. Winfield
bought it, and took it to car shows. He eventually sold it to a gentleman in
Connecticut. When the man attempted to register his new car, the state would
not allow him to do so. He tried two other, presumably nearby, states with the
same result. His next attempt was to call Mr. Winfield and try to sell the car
back to him.
Ultimately a woman in Colorado bought the car, intending to
store it and later sell it. Some years later, Robert Short, a gentleman who was
a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” fan, located the car and purchased it. He called Mr.
Winfield and they met at a publicity event. Though some of the electronics
didn't work, Mr. Short apparently had better luck registering the car, than
previous owners had, as he drove it on the street. That is until he got tired
of the police stopping him. For this reason he stopped driving the car.
The real car can be seen on a DVD of “Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
episode. The DVD includes an interview with Mr. Winfield. The Piranha scale
model was reissued by AMT a few years ago in their Buyers' Choice program. The
original model was issued around 1967, and several variations, including the “Man
From U.N.C.L.E.” version were released periodically thereafter.
At one point Mr. Winfield received a call from the Ford
Motor Company which resulted in him building some show cars for them, including
the Mercury Marquis, and a ‘67 Thunderbird 4-door concept. Why didn't AMT make
a model of that?
Though a dyed in the wool car guy, not all of his work
involved cars. As a fan of the "Bonanza" TV program in my youth, I
was fascinated to learn that Lorne Green ("Pa Cartwright") owned a
portion of the Ponderosa program. He contacted Mr. Winfield and had him
build... are you ready for this.., the "Ponderosa"... in three
Fruehauf trailers! The front exterior was in one, and the interior in two
others. I would have never guessed.
Some of his creations were "out of this world"!
One such is the Shuttle Craft which Mr. Winfield built for the Star Trek television
Among his more down to Earth creations, which both model car
and television fans should remember, are the Chrysler Imperial, which wore
steer horns for the "Hero" TV program, and the Sunbeam Tiger, for the
original "Get Smart" TV program. AMT duplicated both of these cars in
Remember the AMT '40 Ford sedan delivery kit, "Gene's
Moving Van"? AMT has recently contacted Mr. Winfield regarding reissuing
the model again.
So, as you can see, Mr. Winfield has contributed much to our
hobby, as well as the automotive hobby, and at age 80+, he's not done yet. He's
been a guest at car shows not only throughout the U.S.A., but also Canada,
London, and Australia.
Knowing that his past was, and his present is cars, as an
afterthought I asked if there's a connection between him and the other Mr.
Winfield, of carburetor fame. He said: "Ed and Bud are distant cousins,
whom I don't see very often, but know very well. I used their carburetors and
cams in my flatheads, and cars I built". See? The teachers always told me,
you don't learn unless you ask questions.
Our conversation was finished, but Mr. Winfleld's work was
not. Before returning to his booth to work some more, he headed over to the
model car contest to select a worthy recipient of the Gene Winfield Award.
Thank you, Mr. Winfield! May God bless you, and keep you young!
Jim Amado is the proprietor of Uptown Automotive a Hobby Shop in Utica, NY.
First published in Kustom & Hot Rod Models, Fall/Winter 2012, issue
Gene Winfield - Canoga Park, California now in Mojave,California
sunny afternoon we jumped on the 101, heading toward Canoga Park, and made our way out to the custom hot rod shop of
Gene Winfield. While checking the scenery it became a kookie realization that this L.A. suburb which could be
"Anywhere, USA" is the home of the hot rod master, Gene Winfield. Gene is known all around the world as a master of
the custom chop-top, and the painting style known as "The Fade-away".When we finally arrived at Gene's shop and were
warmly greeted and shown into Gene's office. Jaws dropped at the sight of walls full of memorabilia from the fifties
to the present. There tacked to the walls are pictures of Gene throughout the years with models, movie stars and of
course his famous custom rods. We talked about some of the shots on the wall, and one that caught my eye was a shot
of William Shatner (Capt. Kirk of Star Trek) in one of Gene's creations "The Reactor" which was built in 1962. Gene
is also a master at building cars, from some of the examples on the walls I could see that he could take any kooked
idea and build it for you from the ground up.
So we got into the scrap book and Gene was describing each and every shot, I mean it was dazzling! Fifty years of
building, customizing, racing, and painting cars, preserved in this kooked out scrapbook.
And so the stories went on and on then Gene showed us around the shop and explained some of his technics. He was apperently gearing up the start fabricating chop-top Merc bodies out of fiberglass! He was into all kind of things, front ends, hubcaps, desks built to simulate the front end of particular cars. . .and then of course, there was the "Batmobile"!! So we hung out for the better part of the afternoon, long after the interview tape ran out. Finally, it was time to head back to town. It was a privaledge to be in the presence of such genius! For as old as Gene is, there's no stopping his quest for exellence. He is truly the King.
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