Preeminent Custom Car Builder Mike Alexander 1935-2014, R.I.P.

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
preeminent custom car builder mike alexander 1935 2014 r i p

Mike Alexander, the surviving member of Detroit’s preeminent custom car builders, the Alexander Brothers, passed away in July at the age of 80. Mike and his brother Larry made some of the most famous and influential customs of the 1960s and because of a new toy called Hot Wheels and a Beach Boys song & album the “A Bros” ultimately affected American culture and how the world sees us. They were as important to the world of hot rods as Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were to rock and roll. I had the great privilege of interviewing Mike Alexander last year as part of a project I’m working on about the Dodge Deora show car, and then meet him in person at the 2013 Eyes On Design show, where I was in the right place at the right time to witness Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo hand Mike a blue ribbon for the Deora, which was on display as part of a group of Alexander Brothers’ cars at that show. Mechanical and fabricating geniuses, Mike and Larry were perhaps the most technically adept of all the builders during custom cars’ golden era.

Rather than rewrite someone else’s obituary of the man, the following has been excerpted and revised from my as yet unpublished book on the Dodge Deora.

Full gallery here.

Ever since Harley Earl came to Detroit from Los Angeles in 1927 to start GM’s “Art and Color Section”, those two cities have been the epicenters of automotive styling in North America. It was true in the 1920s and it’s still true today. The Lexus LF-LC, which is in development for production, was designed at Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in Newport Beach, California, not far from LA. The Toyota Tundra pickup truck was designed at Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just down the road from Detroit. What is true about production cars and trucks is also true about those who customize them. It’s tempting, with people like Dean Jeffries, Gene Winfield, George Barris, Bill Cushenberry and others having been located on the West Coast, to think of the custom scene as dominated by California car guys, and it’s undoubtedly true that a lot of car culture in many forms has come out of California, but it’s also true that the West Coast customizers eventually had to compete for magazine covers and premium displays at car shows with Motor City customizers and fabricators like the Alexander Brothers and Chuck Miller. Hot Rod magazine said that the Alexander brothers were as important to the automobile world as Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were to rock and roll (video below). Yeah, that important. In fact it can be argued that Larry and Mike Alexander created the most famous custom car ever [ that wasn’t in a tv show or movie], the Dodge Deora.

Larry (L) and Mike (R) Alexander working on the Deora.

The story of the Deora goes back to 1964. In the early sixties, all three big Detroit automakers introduced cabover vans, the Dodge A100, the Ford Econoline, and the Chevy Sportvan / GMC Handi-Van (along with the Corvair vans which also had cabover driving positions). The Alexander brothers were intrigued by the possibilities of building a radical sport pickup out of one and they commissioned car designer Harry Bentley Bradley to draw what became the Deora.

Full gallery here.

The Alexanders were always on the lookout for design talent and they had spotted Bradley when he was still a student at the Pratt school of design. He had been a regular contributor to popular magazines that covered the custom scene like Rodding and Re-styling, Customs Illustrated, and Rod & Custom. After Pratt, Bradley got a job with GM design and came to Detroit in 1962, but he continued to do side work, eventually designing a total of 10 cars for the Alexander brothers. Of course that had to be kept secret from his bosses until he left GM in 1967, feeling somewhat stifled at GM Design. Bradley’s move from Detroit back to his native California to work at Mattel’s Hawthorne headquarters is probably another example of the Detroit-Los Angeles yang and yin.

Full gallery here.

The Alexanders’ plan was to use Bradley’s exciting drawings to entice one of the OEMs into ponying up a free truck for the project. The design, as radical, fresh and clean today as it was almost 50 years ago, worked because it was pretty much a clean slate approach. Bradley saw it more as a concept car than as a custom.

“What I wanted to do was get rid of that phone booth cab and integrate the upper (section of the body) with the lower. The finished truck would have no doors on either side. I didn’t want cutlines. We were always told at GM to play down cutlines. If cutlines were wonderful, Ferraris would have them running down their sides.”

Designer Harry Bentley Bradley’s original design for the Deora. The door was later split in two because the A pillars could not bear that much weight. The result, with a clamshell top and a center pivoted bottom, was much more dramatic.

This may distress Murilee Martin, but the A100 was not Bradley’s first choice, nor his second. The Alexander brothers didn’t care. They happened to approach Chrysler first. While Bradley thought the other two vans were better looking, considering what a radical custom the Deora is, I doubt the donor would have mattered. In any case, the plan worked. For the manufacturer’s cost of an A100 based pickup and about $10,000 in mid-1960s money, Dodge ended up getting publicity that still has residual value today. As it is, though it is mechanically 100% Dodge, the Alexanders actually used a few Ford and Corvair bits. The exhaust ports on the Deora’s sides are Mustang taillights turned sideways and the roof and front windshield are actually from the back of a Ford station wagon. Whether Dodge noticed or cared isn’t recorded. My guess is they knew, and laughed all the way to the bank, carrying the money Chrysler made from the production A100s that the Deora helped sell.

Harry Bradley’s 2001 account of the history of the Deora, though it was in 1967, not 1966 that the Deora won the Detroit Autorama’s Ridler Award

The Hot Wheels version of the Deora was not the only toy Deora sold. The AMT plastic model company was involved with the Deora project long before Mattel made their first little die-cast cars. Over the years the AMT brand has used the Deora molds to offer a wide variety of model kits based on the basic design.

In the AMT scale model of the Deora, the lower section of the door swings down, unlike the actual Deora’s door, which pivots in the middle. That was either a production neccesity or, more likely, the model’s design was set before the fabrication was finished on the car. AMT was involved with the Deora project very early on. Models of popular and award winning customs were and continue to be good sellers for model companies so designers have worked closely with model companies. It’s a symbiotic relationship and a major source of income for some custom designers. In fact, a number of the model kits for 1960s and 1970s era customs, besides the Deora, like Chuck Miller’s Fire Truck and Red Baron, have been reissued. In recent years, high dollar full size show car replicas of 1960s era model kits have also been made like Monogram’s Black Widow by Troy Ladd.

The Deora was no one-hit-wonder. Operating their own shop for over a decade by the time they won the prestigious Ridler Award with the Deora, the Alexander brothers also won Ridlers in 1965 with their ’56 Chevy based Venturian and in 1969 with their T-bucket pickup Top Banana. They had quickly developed a reputation with the Detroit custom and hot rod crowd but it took a while for the brothers to get some national attention. The custom and hot rod magazines were almost all based in California and more than a little bit West Coast centric in their views. Ironically, the Alexanders got their break with those magazines when George Barris’ XPAK 400 hovercraft car itself broke at the 1961 Detroit Autorama and Barris’ crew needed a competent local shop to fix the car.

Mike and Larry Alexander at their shop on Northwestern Hwy, one of two A Bros shops that had to close because of highway construction. Can you identify the car they’re working on?

Barris asked the show organizers which builders were the most competent mechanics and was told the A Bros. The Alexanders fixed the “flying” car, George graciously put a good word in for them with the West Coast editors, and the Alexanders started getting some national press. Well, not completely graciously. According to Mike Alexander, Barris, true to form, told the editors that the A brothers were the East Coast division of Barris Industries. Whose car broke down and who fixed it should tell you something about the relative build quality at Barris Kustom City and Alexander Bros. Custom Shop.

Cars built by the Alexanders had exceptional build quality. In September of 1967, Rod & Custom editor Spence Murray test drove the Deora for a number of miles, more than the Alexanders had driven it to that point, and was impressed. “Our test drive went off without a hitch. Larry Alexander knew that (the) Deora would perform up to the standards of any mass-produced pickup truck, but I had to prove it to myself.”

The current owner of the restored Deora, Tom Abrams, who also owns Reliable Carriers, the specialty automotive transportation company, says that it’s a fully functional, perfectly operational vehicle, albeit with an awkward driving position.

The original Hot Wheels Deora from 1968

Having gotten their entre to the West Coast buff books, the Alexanders’ cars became popular. Besides having a different aesthetic sense than what was popular in California, the Alexanders also necessarily had to do things differently because of their location. In the late 1950s and early 1960s you could still find rust free ’32 Fords in arid Southern California but around Detroit (there it is again) the snowy winters and use of road salt meant that few old cars survived and many of the cars they worked on were badly rusted particularly along the lower edges.

1996 Hot Wheels Deora reissue

The Alexanders were more likely to use later model cars than their West Coast colleagues and do more radical reshaping of the sheet metal. The fact that the cars were rusted gave them a bit of freedom. If they had to make an entirely new panel, they might as well shape it to their desires, and not do a restoration. Their ’56 Chevy based Venturian is an example. Except for the windshield and doors, it’s very hard to see the Chevy underneath. By working on newer cars and doing older cars differently, Larry and Mike carved out their own niche and gained some measure of fame and success. While the name Alexander Brothers meant little outside of the custom car and modeling communities, the cars they were building were starting to percolate into the general public’s consciousness.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the Beach Boys’ song, Little Deuce Coupe, a tribute to the 1932 Ford that has gone on to inspire even more popularity for that iconic automobile. Well, the actual “Little Deuce Coupe” that inspired the song was a ’32 Ford three window coupe owned by Clarence “Chili” Catallo, who lived in Taylor, Michigan and bought the car for 75 bucks in 1955 as a teenager. He had an Oldsmobile V8 installed along with a GM Hydramatic transmission and had the Alexander brothers do the original bodywork and blue paint. They sectioned and channeled the body, created a custom fiberglass nose with four stacked headlights, rolled the rear pan, altered the frame, and covered the framework with polished-aluminum fins.

When he became a legal adult in 1958, Catallo took his car out west where he got a job as a janitor at George Barris’ shop, then located in Lynwood, California. Chili bartered his salary for work in the shop, which is where the car received a chopped top and a new paint job and became more of a show car than a drag racer. Competing on the West Coast car show circuit, Chili Catallo’s ’32 Ford with the unusual front end caught the attention of Hot Rod magazine and it was on the cover of the July 1961 issue. That brought it even more attention and two years later, when the Beach Boys released their Little Deuce Coupe album, Catallo’s car was displayed prominently on the cover.

Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo about to award Mike Alexander (seated, signing autographs) another blue ribbon for the Deora at the 2013 Eyes On Design show.

Album covers, magazine covers and awards, from 1963 to 1969, the Alexander brothers were on a roll, but despite the Alexanders’ fame and the success of their cars, making a living in the labor intensive custom car craft has never been easy, particularly if you pay more attention to quality than publicity. The pending expansion of Northwestern Hwy into an expressway meant they were soon going to have to move their shop a second time, highway construction having already forced a move from their original location on Schoolcraft. After winning three Ridler awards in five years, pretty much at the peak of the custom car game, both Alexander brothers decided to get straight jobs in the auto industry. Finding work wasn’t a problem. The Alexanders were highly respected in the industry at large, even outside custom and hot rod circles, having worked with OEMs on projects like the Deora.

Injection molds can last a long time.

In 1968 Larry Alexander went to work for Ford as a metal model maker in the body engineering department, shaping prototypes there until his retirement. Since model makers, even master MMMs, rarely get credit for the important contributions they make shaping and fine tuning car designs, I haven’t been able to yet determine which significant Fords he worked on, besides a coworkers reference to Alexander helping him with the clay model of a Fiesta subcompact. He was a modest man but his coworkers and superiors knew of his stature in the custom world and held him and his work in high regard. Larry, the older of the two brothers, passed away in 2010.

Full gallery here.

Mike Alexander kept the shop open until it was razed in 1969. When Henry Ford II hired GM executive Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen to be president of Ford Motor Company, Knudsen brought along some talent with him, including Corvette StingRay desginer Larry Shinoda. While at Ford Shinoda would design the Boss Mustangs. After the Alexander brothers closed their last shop, Shinoda hired Mike Alexander to be in charge of design at Kar Kraft, Ford’s fabrication shop for show cars and special runs. It should have been a good fit for Mike, but but by then not only had Knudsen been the target of Lee Iaccoca’s successful political infighting, resulting in The Deuce firing him in late 1969, but also Shinoda, who has been described as a bit of a character and non-conformist, had managed to wear out his welcome with the styling studio bosses and he was fired as well. With his two patrons axed, in 1970 Mike moved to American Sunroof (now ASC), where he ran the body shop operations for their newly established Custom Craft Division. To Cadillac and Lincoln dealers, ASC Custom Craft offered, “..a complete line of luxury customizing and classic automotive finery for the personalization of your customer’s cars. I am sure that you are finding that in recent years more and more car buyers are interested in adding to their cars these special touches of excitement and luxury.” Dealers could install the accessories or have Custom Craft do the installation at ASC’s Southgate, Michigan facility.

ASC Custom Craft brochure for el Deora and Cadillac Astro Estate Wagon conversions. Mike Alexander ran the ASC body shop that fabricated these conversions.

When ASC Custom Craft started up, available products included custom grilles, faux classic headlight shells and trim, custom hood ornaments, padded half landau roofs, landau irons, fender skirts, rear deck lids with continental kit styling, rear deck trim, color keyed wheelcovers, oval or diamond shaped rear windows, and a dash-mounted 3” television. In other words, Custom Craft made pimpmobiles. Now before you look askance, the song Be Thankful For What You Got, by William DeVaughn, with the lyric Diamond in the back, sunroof top, Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean, Gangster white walls, TV antenna in the back sold over 2 million copies in 1974 (though unlike the Alexander bros, DeVaughn in fact was a one hit wonder). The Superfly look was very popular with pimps, wannabes and drug dealers. Car dealers, on their part, have always tried to make a buck with add ons. While there aren’t many shops still doing the precise thing today, pimpmobiles do have their spiritual heirs. There is no shortage of custom and tuning shops today with more technical skill than aesthetic taste, and they will gladly bling out whatever you roll in.

Mike and Larry Alexander with their masterpiece, the Dodge Deora at the 1967 Detroit Autorama in Cobo Hall.

ASC Custom Craft even reprised the Deora name, well sort of. They offered a converted Cadillac which was called the elDeora (which further mangled the original’s botched Spanish) including making at least one stretched Eldorado version. If you think about how long the last truly full size Eldorados were, that must have been one eye-catching pimpmobile. If a stretched Eldo wasn’t a big enough Caddy for you and all of your working girls, Custom Craft also marketed the Fleetwood Talisman El Deora, which was an elongated version of Cadillac’s already stretched factory built Fleetwood limo. The brochure pictured above from the early 1970s (those are pre 1973 bumpers), offers the limousine with two, count them, two sunroofs, the elDeora DeVille (“beautiful, massive, and masculine”), the Eldorado based elDeora Coupe (“stunning individuality, taste”), the Astrella Two Door Wagon (Eldo based and “exquisite, practical”), and the Fleetwood based Astro Estate Four Door Wagon (“stunning, functional”).

After the Deora won the Ridler Award in early 1967, Chrysler leased it for two years to promote Dodge cars and trucks.

Many of the Cadillac based station wagons that come up for sale from time to time are Custom Craft products. For the original Deora, the Alexanders put the back end of a Ford wagon on the front a Dodge van. For the Cadillac wagons, ASC took the back half of full size GM station wagons and grafted them on to Cadillac front ends. Some designs were more successful than others, aesthetically and commercially, but the four door Fleetwood based cars looked good and sold fairly well. In the 1970s, ASC exported over 100 Fleetwood Brougham Astro Estate Wagons to Saudi Arabia.

The Alexander brothers could have used any of the Big 3’s cabover vans but Dodge gave them an A100 to work with. The folks at Dodge either didn’t notice or didn’t care about all the Ford parts on the finished Deora. Notice something familiar about those exhaust ports?

All of the stretched limousines and station wagon conversions made by ASC Custom Craft were done under the direct supervision of Mike Alexander. That you can still find some for sale over 40 years later and that they look good enough to pass for factory jobs are a testimony to the high standards that Mike and his brother Larry set. The same is true of all of their custom cars. They are built to concours quality and engineered well. I think that I still prefer the original Deora to an el Deora.

Mike Alexander, the shorter of the two Alexander brothers, demonstrates ingress.When they demonstrated how to get in and out of the car, it was usually Mike, who was shorter, who did the demonstration – there’s not a lot of headroom left in the Deora after the 22″ chop they did.At 57″, the Deora is more than half an inch lower than the 2013 Dodge Dart and the Dart isn’t built on a truck chassis.

I’d hate to end Mike Alexander’s tale with pimpmobiles and Cadillac station wagons used to shuttle around some sheiks’ harems. After the gaudy ASC conversions, Mike continued to influence the auto industry. While at ASC, Mike had a role in the development of the Buick GNX, the even higher performance version of the Buick Grand National. The GNX was unique from regular Grand Nationals. The GNX had very wide tires with different wheel diameters and offsets front and back. The back wheels were 16″, large for the day. For tire clearance purposes the GNX has significantly flared fenders. Those functional flares add to the car’s aggressive, almost malevolent look. The front fenders also have functional louvers to aid in brake cooling.

The Deora at the 1967 Detroit Autorama. Old time hot rodders will note the Gratiot Auto Supply banner on the wall.

ASC was contracted, along with McLaren Performance Technologies, to build the GNX at ASC’s Livonia, Michigan facility. Nearly finished cars were trucked from GM’s assembly plant in Pontiac to Livonia where the GNX bits were added including cutting the fenders and installing the louvers and flares. That was mostly hand work. Production of the 547 GNX cars took place in Livonia but according to Dave Roland, who was an important part of the team that developed the Buick Turbo V6 engines for the Grand National and the GNX, the Southgate ASC facility was involved with the build of the prototypes and some of the GNX parts. Roland said that many of the prototype GNX photos in his personal collection were shot at the Southgate facility. Mike Alexander was running the body shop at the Southgate facility when the GNX was prototyped at that facility.

Mike retired from ASC in 1995, though he continued to consult at Custom Craft, working on the retractable roof of the Cadillac Evoq show car in 1999. As a matter of fact, if your car has a retractable hardtop roof, you can probably thank Mike Alexander. While at ASC he became a bit of an expert on folding metal roof and was granted at least 19 patents on the topic.

By all accounts, Mike was a fine gentleman, a mensch. The automotive world is better because of him and he will be missed. Mike Alexander is survived by his wife Elaine and their three children. Rest in peace.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Join the conversation
2 of 10 comments
  • Zbnutcase Zbnutcase on Sep 05, 2014

    Amazing how true pioneers are often the ones you never hear about. Everybody knows Thomas Edison, but is Harvey Hubbell, the man who invented the electrical plug and receptacle as we all know and use, a household name? Great story, Ronnie!

  • Hardway Hardway on Sep 07, 2014

    Sad to hear of Mike's passing. I truly enjoyed reading this piece and learning about Larry and Mike's work. As "hand crafted" cars and other items are gaining more spotlight each day I think more people in the world would be interested to know more about the Alexander Brothers. Thank you for posting this up.

  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉