Guys have been customizing cars since the beginning of automobiles, but the hot rod and custom car scene really became a “thing” in the late 40’s-early 50’s. Customizing and “hot rodding” cars pretty much started in California, namely SoCal. There were a handful of guys that made a name for themselves and were pushing the limits of custom cars back then. Over the years some of those guys have left us, others lost interest, and some just don’t get around well enough to share their skills with the world. This means the art and methods of building traditional hot rods and custom cars is slowly being lost over the years.
One of the few original customizers that was there from the start was Mr. Gene Winfield. Gene is one of the largest names in hot rods and custom cars and he has innovated a lot of the styles that have been copied thousands of times over by other car builders. Not only is Gene one of the best painters to ever hold a paint gun (he was the first to do the “Faded and Blended paint job), but he is also a metal shaping legend. He’s been making and customizing things out of metal since his 20’s and hasn’t stopped progressing. At 86 years old Gene still uses the quote “everyday is a school day” and he travels the globe teaching metal shaping to the younger generation of metal shapers.
I decided to make a trip to Harmony, PA (about 35 minutes outside Pittsburgh, PA) to Hahn-Vorbach & Associates Collector Car Restoration to visit Gene and become a student of “Windy Winfield”. The metal shaping classes are always small in size and very intimate. In his classes you won’t be sitting in a chair listening to a lecture and taking notes the entire time, Gene gets EVERYONE involved and is happy to take on any questions. Classes are normally two day events starting promptly at 9AM and lasting until whenever everyone is exhausted. If you want to attend these classes, be sure to get plenty of sleep ahead of time because it’s high paced with little to no breaks.
So back to where this class was hosted; Hahn-Vorbach is a mixed bag as far as to what they work on. When you enter the shop it’s apparent they specialize in European cars. They had some pretty high end European car projects in the shop at the time, (My favorite was the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing!) they definitely don’t turn away any classic car project. If you look through the pics you can spot some classic American iron parked in the shop as well. The shop is very clean and organized with a friendly staff working there. Upon arriving I was greeted immediately by everyone and these guys made me feel right at home as they showed me around.
The first portion of the class Gene covers the tools in the shop and shows some of his favorite specialty homemade tools that he’s developed over the years. The day before a few of the guys from the shop had taken Gene to the local metal recycling yard and got some of the key items to make into these special metal shaping tools. The items on the list weren’t what you’d think of using for tools, but once he cut them up and welded them to fixtures it all made sense. I found myself and others in the class saying “ohhhhhhhh I get it now!!” pretty often when Gene would show us his little tools and tricks. Some of the items he turned into tools were an old empty oxygen tank, a rusty old coil spring, a giant nut from some sort of bridge or industrial machine, and some slabs of 1.5″-2″ thick metal.
Gene then got into some of the tools he feels are “necessary” for any shop and started pulling items out of his toolbag he travels with. Some of these were vintage tools that are difficult to find now, but others were actually Eastwood tools that he’s been using for years. Gene has been a long time customer and even to this day still orders most of his leading supplies and other tools from us. After some playful heckling from Gene I answered some questions about tools he was suggesting to other classmates and we were ready to start banging on some metal.
The first things we learned were some tips for using the shrinker stretcher and how to make a basic shape or “blister” in a piece of 18 gauge steel. He started with a panel beater bag and mallets to rough in the shape and then smoothed it out with the english wheel, hammer and dolly, and a bullseye pick. He really made the process look simple, but with him allowing us to assist with making the panel it become a LOT easier to grasp how he quickly takes flat sheet metal and turns it into a shape. From there he showed how to metal finish the panel and gave the class a crash course on using body files and slapping files to reveal high and low spots and how to carefully bump them into shape.
After some more lecturing, story telling, and Q&A Gene moved on to showing how to make a tool that allows you to form custom window channels and trim by using a Oxy-Acetylene torch with a rosebud tip and and some flat bar steel and sheet metal. He also showed us how to shave trim holes, how to heat shrink a panel properly with a torch (I’ve been doing it “wrong” for years I’ve come to find!), and repair dented stainless trim.
Then we moved on to the part of class I was mainly here for, Oxy-Acytlene welding and leading. I’ve kind of done things “backwards” and I’ve learned TIG and MIG welding without knowing how to properly weld with a torch. Sure I can fire up the torches and burn out a rusty old bolt or heat metal cherry red to bend it, but I really only had the ability to “wreck” or heat things with a torch. Gene’s a gas welding master and still prefers it over other methods because the welds are softer are easier to work with a hammer and dolly. He showed us proper torch setup and some technique for hammer-welding a butt-joint. He also showed us how to anneal aluminum and some tricks to weld aluminum with a torch. I was eager to weld with a torch and I was surprised to find out it was pretty easy for me to pick up. I do have a fair amount of TIG welding experience so I chalked it up to that. I think I still need to practice to get get my technique down before I go warping a panel on a project car, but I feel confident enough to know I can work in the direction of becoming proficient at gas welding.
Finally the guys from Hahn_Vorbach pulled out an old donor Mercedes 300SL fender that was damaged and Gene put a big dent in it for us to try and fill by using Eastwood Leading Supplies. Gene actually travels around with small batches of our tinning butter and associated products for these classes, but I brought a fresh kit for us to play with. We got to learn some tips and tricks on technique to get the lead to stick to the panel and to keep it from just running right off the panel. I was excited to jump in and be the first to try and manipulate the lead on the panel. Gene gave me some great tips and I was able to push the lead around smooth it out a bit. I know this will take a LOT of practice to master, but learning the CORRECT way first keeps me from forming bad habits learning on my own. With the introduction of modern plastic body fillers leading is slowly becoming a lost art, but hopefully those of us that are able to learn from the pros like Gene can keep it alive to pass to other enthusiasts that want to do things the “oldschool” way. Keep an eye out for a future step-by-step tech article I’ll be posting of leading the “Gene Winfield Way” later this week!
With the class running sunday well into the evening I had to jump out to make the five hour drive back home to Eastwood country and I said my goodbyes to Gene, the crew at Hahn-Vorbach, and my fellow classmates. To say you get your moneys worth for taking a Gene Winfield class is a MAJOR understatement. I took in and learned more in two days than I probably ever have in a such a short time. I also took tons of notes and I’ll be reviewing and putting those into practice for weeks to come. Thanks to everyone that was involved in making the class a success and especially Gene for being one of the nicest and most down to earth big names in the automotive world there is. I hope we can work out a time to hold a class here at Eastwood headquarters with Gene and allow locals to soak up all of the knowledge he has to offer in the future!