Petersen Archive: Drivetrains and Dragons

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When Merlin Windham walked into the O’Leary Buick dealership in October 1954, he had already accumulated many awards for his custom car designs. By 1954, Windham had built five custom cars which had granted him trophies and two drag strip records. He was not at the dealership, however, to buy a car. He had a different plan for his next custom. He wanted a new 1955 Buick Century. Yet, instead of restoring an old model, or buying a new Buick himself, Windham went directly to Bob O’Leary in Downey, California to ask for “a sponsorship for custom work” and importantly, noted the author of the November 1955 issue of Car Craft Magazine, “a free hand in exploiting his plans.” In return, Windham offered O’Leary the ambitious plan to “put your new ’55 Buicks on the Southern California map!” with increased sales, publicity, and trophies. Windham’s friends called his approach “zany.” O’Leary, however, did not, and agreed to give Windham a 1955 Buick with which to work his custom magic.

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The result of Windham’s efforts was this car, which contestants at local drag strips dubbed the “Dragon Wagon.” To customize the car, Windham first filled in the fender portholes. He then de-chromed it by removing the badges on the hood, side, and trunk. “Radical lowering,” executed at the O’Leary Body Shop, gave the car “the custom look.” For further customization, however, Windham turned to Barris Kustom’s Restyle Shop. Barris’s shop rerouted the exhaust tips of Buick through the taillight housings, a popular customization at the time. This gave the car the appearance of the super deluxe Buick models. Finally, the Buick was given a coat of purple and white paint.

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Windham, however, did not stop there. He let Gaylord’s Kustom Auto Interiors work its wizardry on the interior of the car. Gaylord’s shop gave the car a purple and white Naugahyde interior in “a beautiful double diamond design.” The shop also added a perforated chrome screen, its “latest combination,” to the door panels and back seat of the Buick. Finally, Windham “unleashed” Von Dutch the “striping king of Southern California” on the car to give it “an array of surrealistic images.” One of which, included a snarling dragon’s head on the side of the car.

Windham’s “Dragon Wagon” went on to add gold to O’Leary’s lair, winning trophies at Southern California drag strips and auto shows. The car appeared on the November 1955 issue of Car Craft Magazine, along with Windham. It was also featured in the 1955 International Motor Revue at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. With his “Dragon Wagon,” Merlin Windham had indeed succeeded on his quest to produce a truly magical Southern California Custom.

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