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An Iowa Custom Car Resurfaces

1961 Smith Six – One Of The Last 1950’s Sport Customs Built in America

Posted on September 20, 2011 by Geoffrey Hacker, Undiscovered Classics

Who doesn’t love dramatic and sweeping curves on any type of sports car built? I know I’m a sucker for ‘em, and the more dramatic (and probably less practical in practice…) the more I like the car. That’s what happened when Tom Chandler (he and his wife Barb own a beautifully restored Glasspar G2) showed me a picture of a sports custom car in the central part of Iowa – sitting all alone in a field.

It had been there for decades, apparently, and was stunning when I first saw it. I thought it might be a Grantham Stardust, but I knew one thing…..I fell in love with the design from afar. We had to save the car, and I pressed Tom into action. About a year passed (sometimes I’m slow to “action”), and Tom contacted me with good / bad news. The car had been saved, and someone in Iowa had purchased the car and was going to restore it.

I like how the world works sometimes. You know….the most important thing was the car had been saved. We wouldn’t lose another car to the crusher, and some day I would see it again at a show – all shiny and new. I couldn’t wait until that would happen….it would be a “good” kind of jealous feeling, but the best news…it was saved. Be careful what you wish for…..Enter Nick Whitlow.

The Iowa Custom Car Resurfaces:

So….earlier this summer I got an e-mail from Nick Whitlow – esteemed historian for the CRV / Piranha sports cars. He shared that there was a cool old custom on the HAMB (Jalopy Journal Message Board) for sale. And a link to Craigslist too.

Be still my heart….it was the car Tom Chandler had shared with me before. A car that I was now calling “Cinnamon Girl” given its rust colored hue and low curvaceous lines. Seemed a pretty good name to me. After all, we didn’t know the history of it, and everything needs a name. “Cinnamon Girl” it was.

What an interesting picture this makes from ground level, taken while the car was still on the trailer in front of my home.

I traced back the info from the HAMB to Craigslist, and the owner told me it was still for sale. I hate when I hear that phrase. Were the fiberglass gods playing tricks on me? I’ve bought fiberglass. I’ve bought aluminum. I’ve bought plastic. Cars, that is. I’ve never bought a metal car before. Most of the metal sport customs of the 1950’s have been destroyed, and many weren’t finished to this high level of styling.

So….I pulled the trigger and with good friend Rick D’louhy’s help, purchased the car. Then, I had it transported to Tampa, Florida for it to begin its someday restoration and retirement – simultaneously. That happens a lot down here.

Bob Cunningham To The Rescue:

So….”Cinnamon Girl” arrived and we set out determining what we had. What was the history? Who built this car? What were its specs? The “build specs” were easy. The car was here. It was built on a Henry J frame, and the 6 cylinder Supersonic engine and 3 speed transmission with overdrive were retained and moved backward about 12 inches.

Everything about the car spoke of a highly skilled “build.” The welding, metal shaping, indications of a tonneau cover and convertible top. The carpet that remained showed it had been stitched with seams on the edge. This was one nice car back in the day. If only we knew more about it.

(begin playing U.S. Cavalry music here….in your mind)

So…I sent some pictures to good friend Bob Cunningham. This is not your run of the mill “Bob.” Bob and his wife Cathy have written my favorite books on obscure cars called “Orphan Babies.” Click here to learn more about his books in print. Bob immediately recognized the car, knew where it had been, and within a very short time had provided the contact information for the previous owners – who turned out to be the children of the man who built it: Duane L. Smith. Way to go Bob!

On the day the car arrived here in Tampa, Florida. "Cinnamon Girl" is named for her current color. And boy is she low to the ground!

History Reunited: The Car Recovers Its Heritage

I was quickly able to connect to Jerry Smith – Duane’s son. Jerry filled me in on what he could remember, and has begun looking for more family pictures and movies of this special car. He did have a surprise for me, though. An article published in 1961 about the car in a local newspaper. Here’s what Jerry shared with me via an e-mail:


This article was printed in the Ames Tribune Nov. 11, 1961. The article was done right after Duane was invited to put the car on display at the ISU Armory for the public and students and teachers at the College to view.

His was not the only project on display the Amory was full of projects built by all sorts of companies and people. But the only Sports Car.

Talk to you Later

Jerry Smith

So….as a tribute to Duane and his family, allow me to share the text of this article with you below.

Fourteen Cars, Tractor, Boat: Stir Well

Ames Tribune Nov. 11, 1961

Acting on an idle dream, Duane L. Smith, 145 Hyland Ave., combined parts from 14 cars, a John Deere tractor, and a boat to make a stylish sport car. Total cost of the car is $402, and three years of work. Beginning as a project, the car developed into a long-time hobby for the ex-mechanic.

Smith worked as a mechanic for nine years before switching to automobile sales, but as this car shows, he couldn’t keep his hands entirely clean, even when working “out on the floor.” He got full cooperation from his wife, Phyllis, and the rest of the family during the project, he said.

“On time when she didn’t think I heard her, she told some friends, ‘I never have to worry about him or where he is, he’s always out in the garage’,” he said.

The biggest expense on the car was the initial investment for the frame and engine, though the $50 price was nearly matched by the cost of a special convertible top. “I started with a Henry J,” he said, “because it had the 100-inch wheelbase that most sports car manufacturers use.

The front fenders are cut down from a Buick, and the rear ones are from a 1940 Chevrolet. They are the only ones I could find that curve up in the back like the Corvette,” Smith said.

“People razzed me about having a little Henry J engine in the car, but I’m not ashamed of it,” he said. “I took the grille emblem off the old grille and put it on this one just for that reason. I made this car just to fit me and my wife,” he said, “and it will go to the boys when they are ready for it.”

Smith and his wife have three sons, Walter, 10, Gerald, 8, and Scott, 3. The car bears a crest with the Latin inscription, “I Am Ready.” Smith is about five feet, eight inches tall. He said it would be his luck if the boys grew more than six feet in height. A six-foot frame will fit, but barely, in the little car. “The parts are all those that can be picked up in a junk yard or out of a parts-bin,” he said.

It does take a while to get the parts together, however, Smith plans to upholster the dash, add side curtains and mount the gymkhana plaque on the dash in addition to other projects. His plans don’t stop with this car, either. Adding a final comment to information provided on the car, Smith said, “If just a few fellows could get together and design a pattern they could make fiberglass bodies…”

Here’s the picture and caption that came with the article:

Thoughts on The Article:

Jerry told me that his father Duane, indeed, did give the car to his sons and they drove it thru the early to mid 1970’s – then shut it down. It sat in the outdoors since that time. His father made the decision to sell the car about 2 years ago – just before he passed away.

While the car is mostly complete, I’m still trying to figure out where the part from the “John Deere Tractor” is. Time will tell….

It’s also interesting to note that at the end of the article above, Duane mentioned “fiberglass” possibilities for the body. Jerry tells me that “fiberglass” always interested his father, and in the mid 1970’s they started their own fiberglass company and built boats and other items for customers for many years. So there is a link to “fiberglass” in our story, after all.

Interesting point that they thought the body could have been built out of fiberglass. It certainly would have been a striking design, although the “car culture” at the time was favoring more Italian designs. The era of the swoopy sport custom styling had passed earlier in the 1950’s, and given this….Duane’s car may be America’s last built all metal sport custom – an era started in the late 1940’s when young men built the sports cars of their dreams – and may have ended with the realization and “build” of Duane L. Smith’s hand built sports custom.

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