Iconic American Custom Cars on Display in D.C.

By Author: Carolyn Briggs, Date: Mar 21, 2017

We love talking about what’s new and hot in the automotive industry, but sometimes the most compelling story is about what’s old. And the Historic Vehicle Association is bringing us some great old news next month.

From April 12 to May 4, you’ll be able to stop by the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and see three of the most iconic custom built cars ever made. Cars that are known not by the make and model, but by an individual name all their own.

Representing the lowrider movement, the HVA will be showing Gypsy Rose from April 12 to April 19. Commonly acknowledged as the most famous lowrider in the world, the pink floral confection was inspired by famous burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. Featuring beautiful layers of pink, a full bar, and a backseat chandelier, this car is a perfect representation of 1970’s East LA.

The Gypsy Rose we’ll see on the Mall is actually the third incarnation of the car. The original, made from a 1960 Impala, was much more simple. Layers of pink still defined the car, but it did not have the ornate flowers. The second version, built with a 1963 Impala, was much more ornate, and this likely contributed to its end; rival lowrider owners, jealous of the car’s success at southern California hot rod shows, destroyed the car.

Not deterred, owner Jesse Valadez recreated the car again with a 1964 Impala-based lowrider that is making the trip to Washington.

The next week from April 20 to the 26th we can take a peep at the 1932 Ford V8 McGee Roadster, a classic hot rod if I’ve ever seen one.

After returning from serving in the Philippines in WWII, car enthusiast and USC student Bob McGee jumped straight into building the lightest, lowest roadster on the track. The goal? To race the car at the SoCal desert dry lakes and Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats. McGee did race his 32 roadster on both of those tracks, posting respectable if not record breaking times. He also raced it across LA, as it was his daily driving car during his time at USC.

The more the car raced the more it was admired. It was featured on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine, made appearances in countless television shows, and was named the official National Safety Conference Roadster, sort of a spokescar that encouraged safety while driving hot rods.

None of this distracted the car from racing. After a couple updates, the McGee Roadster set a class record at Bonneville in 1970, and another in 1971, having achieved speeds above 165 MPH. As hard as it is to believe today, those records stood for years, earning it the honor of World’s Fastest Roadster.

To close out the month, from April 27 to May 4 you’ll be able to take a close up look at the “radical custom” Hirohata Merc. The car began as a 1951 Mercury Coupe, but the final result includes parts and design elements from Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, and Lincoln. Built by master craftsmen Sam and George Barris (you may know them from their TV cars which include the original Batmobile and the Munster Koach) for owner Bob Hirohata, the car collected more than 150 trophies in the first years of its showing career.

More than 60 years and several owners later, the Hirohata Merc is still known by that name, as one of the most beautiful and masterfully made custom cars of all time.

The cars will be on display in a glass case in front of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (which is also a really fun way to kill a couple of hours), and are free and open to the public. Stop by for a history lesson, and a look at why what’s old can be just as thrilling as what’s new.

Carolyn Briggs

I grew up on the road. As a child, my family took regular trips from Wisconsin to both coasts. That's how I've seen most of this country — through the window of a car. Years later, I still feel that excitement when I toss my bags in the trunk and get behind the wheel. That's how seeing something new always begins. I've scaled mountains, dived with sharks, and stepped to the very edge of the Grand Canyon, all because I spent hours in a car. This site combines my passion for the road with my actual talent — communication and journalism. In college I rose to the position of managing editor for The Badger Herald, the largest independent student newspaper in the country at the time. I spent a year after graduating in social media marketing before moving off the grid to explore the wild beauty of West Virginia.

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