Howard Gribble's 1961 Ford Starliner
1961 Ford Starliner restyled by Carl Darling for Howard Gribble of Torrance, California. Howard bought the Starliner from a used car lot on Hawthorne Blvd. in Torrance early in 1965. He believes the price was about $700, and he remembers getting about $300 as a trade-in on his 1957 Chevrolet 2 door sedan. This Starliner was very clean, white with red interior, and equipped with the "Police Interceptor" factory option. This package consisted of three two barrel carburetors on a 390 cubic inch V8, along with heavy duty extras like beefed up three speed transmission and suspension pieces. It was one of the first of what would come to be called the factory "muscle cars".
Howard thought it was pretty cool driving around a fast factory race car. He got some used cheater slicks for the rear and when they soon wore out they were replaced with huge 10 inch wide slicks. By now Howard's Ford had a pretty mean stance and that was exactly the look he was after at the time. But before long mechanical issues came along in the form of a blown head gasket, crunched transmission and a bad rear end (probably caused by the huge rear tires).
By the middle of the summer Howard was working full time at North American Aviation making pretty good money. A few months later a couple of friends of Howard announced that they were opening a custom body shop and rented a one car garage, while still working their day jobs. Howard got the idea that he wanted to turn the Starliner into a boulevard cruiser and his friends were more than willing to have him as their first customer. And at little or no cost to Howard, at least for labor. So that was the new plan for Howard's Starliner. The shop didn't last that long, maybe a couple of months, but Carl helped restyle Howard's Starliner after the shop was closed.
In late October or early November of 1965 Howard and his friend Carl Darling, one of the partners in the "custom shop", attended a car show at the Long Beach Arena. It was the first car show Howard had been to in several years and he was very much impressed. Lots of great cars and bikes on display! Larry Watson had a section featuring cars he had painted and Howard was particularly impressed by two of Larry's creations: Don Loster's 1959 Ford Galaxie and Jim Boyd's 1963 Ford Galaxie. In a short time Carl and Howard would be borrowing ideas from each of those show cars to apply to Howard's Starliner.
Obviously a cool custom would need a custom interior. So it was that the last Friday in November Carl and Howard drove a couple of hours south to just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico to get the upholstery done. There were many shops in Tijuana doing exactly this kind of work at the time and many, if not most, street customs from the Los Angeles area would have interior work done there. The big attraction was price. Howard paid $100 for the complete Naugahyde tuck and roll treatment, seats, headliner, door panels, package tray and even the top of the dash! There were stories about the quality and popular urban legend had it that you should bring your own thread and watch to make sure that the pleats weren't stuffed with dog turds. But everyone Howard knew was well satisfied and the end result was quite attractive. American shops, by contrast, often did not have a lot of demand for custom work and when they attempted it the results did not always compare favorably with the stuff from south of the border.
Within a week or two the padded tuck and roll on the dash started to come loose. Plus the reflection on the windshield was near blinding. So the new padded dash was stripped out and and the metal prepared for paint. Carl had heard an interview with Larry Watson on a local radio station in which he stated, among other things, that he also sold custom paint supplies. So Howard headed over to Larry's shop on Paramount Blvd. to get some pearl green paint for the dash. Influenced by Don Loster's Candy Lime over Pearl Galaxie, Howard had already decided that the car would be green. He met Larry Watson, and surprisingly, despite his radio interview, he seemed kind of surprised that Howard was there to buy paint. But he was helpful and soon found enough green paint to do a dash. The cost was $10 or $15 at the most. When Carl and Howard opened the can it was nowhere near the hue of the Loster Ford. So Carl dumped a lot more pearl in it and when sprayed it looked pretty good. Shortly after that Howard took the car to Joe Andersen of Joe Andersen's Custom Shop, and he pinstriped the dash.
Things were moving pretty fast with the build and it was time to move on to that most basic of custom tricks... lowering. Carl heated the front coil springs and lowered the car a little. Howard was aware of hydraulic lifts and had plans to have them installed but had little idea where to go or who to see. Or how much it would cost. So that would have to wait for a while.
Somewhere along about this time Howard and Carl found out about a car show that would be held in San Bernardino in late January. They decided that they were going to try to have the car ready for that show. So it was now urgent to get on with the other planned modifications. With Carl doing most of the work, and with both of them also working full time real jobs, they removed the inboard two of the four head lights. The remaining head light lenses were set into the tail light housings and molded to the front fenders. A custom tube straight bar grille spanned the distance between the head lights. This idea was inspired by Mike Perello's 1960 Ford Starliner, a local custom Howard had seen cruising the streets of Torrance. These modification made the car look much wider.
Moving to the rear, the plan was to have deeply tunneled tail lights like the Boyd and Loster Fords. With the car's original tail light housings now on the front fenders they were working with a clean canvas at the rear. There were some 1957 Ford headlight rims laying around and they seemed to fit nicely into place where the taillight housing had been. Next he went to a sheet metal fabrication shop on Artesia Blvd. in Redondo Beach and had them make two tubes with an inner diameter matching the inner diametere of the 1957 Ford head light rings. Luckily, when he got the tubes they slip fit right onto the head light rings! There was an overlapping seam the length of the tube where the metal joined but that was smoothed over with bondo. A little welding and bondo and they were installed, giving the appearance of twin jet engine exhausts on a fighter aircraft! The tubes were not terribly expensive and Howard was uncertain of exactly how much they would need so they were ordered at 18 inches in length each. When it came time to install the stock taillight lenses in the tunnels Howard decided -- what the hell -- and they were each mounted about 18 inches down the tube. A hand and arm would disappear into the hole, right up to the elbow! Howard has never seen any other taillight tunneled that deep, before or since. If necessary, they figured the lights could always be repositioned to a more conventional location closer to the opening. Finally, a three tube grille matching the front was installed between the lights and the rearward angle of the fins on the rear fenders was reversed, another subtle idea borrowed from Don Loster's 1959 Ford Galaxie.
A funny incident happened about this time. Howard was coming home from Carl's place and it was just after midnight. As he turned left from Crenshaw on to 190th St. a police car pulled up behind and turned on the red lights. Howard knew he hadn't violated any traffic laws and figured, correctly, as it turned out, that his half finished custom car was the object of his interest. Very soon there was another cop car on the scene and a total of four officers. They were polite enough, as was Howard, and informed him that they suspected that his car might be too low. Howard knew this not to be the case, at least by his understanding of the law, which required that no part of the vehicle could be lower than the rim of any wheel. But he didn't protest, figuring they could just check it. The officers didn't have a tape measure with them and so Howard helpfully offered to lend them his, which he knew was in the car. But ultimately they declined the offer and just shined a light up under the car and declared it to be within the law, though he did add that another provision of the vehicle code required that the center of the headlight be a minimum of 24 inches above the road surface. He said Howard might want to check that. Howard replied OK but figured it was nothing to worry about since they had only lowered the front end a little, maybe 2 to 3 inches. Later Howard did measure the distance and, sure enough, it was less than the two feet required. Actually, 1961 Fords, and probably many other American cars of the time, came from the factory with head lights mounted 24 inches above the ground. Howard had no idea, so it was a good thing they couldn't find that ruler! They sent Howard on his way with a compliment on the work that had been done to the car. But not before Howard noticed another of the cops shine his flashlight up the deep tunnels and bend over to look up inside. Fortunately, the early morning encounter was now all but over and he wasn't ask to account for the sunken position of the tail lights! Afterward Howard don't know what he could have said to that question. So he was soon on his way, having escaped what could have been a big hit to his custom car plans.
Sometime around the new year they set about painting the car. Carl, having little experience with either, figured that it would be easier to spray metalflake than candy or pearl. So Howard decided on a green metalflake. He don't recall the materials being particularly hard to get or expensive. There was plenty to work with. A compressor and spray gun were rented for a day and the actual painting was done in a garage next to the house Carl rented on 228th St. in Torrance. Howard arrived early on the morning the job was to be done and the first thing Carl told Howard was that he hadn't slept much the night before. He asked why and Carl said, "I'm worried about this paint job!" Howard was dumbfounded as previously he'd expressed nothing but the greatest confidence! But it was time to get to work and soon the metal flake was flowing from the gun to the car. There were many coats and they would find out later that the pressure was way too much and much of the flake bounced off the car and ended up on the garage floor. Many coats of clear were added next, with Carl and Howard having no idea how much was needed. Fortunately, the materials weren't that expensive. Later, out in the sun, it was obvious that despite all the metal flake, total coverage was not complete in some areas. But the overall result was pretty impressive as a fully metal flaked paint job. And with that, they were ready for the show.
The next car show, the first of the year, was in San Bernardino. It was promoted by Gary Canning's Car Show Headquarters, the biggest player in the game at the time. Howard sent his application and a couple of pictures and was elated to receive a notification of acceptance in the mail. On move in day he took off work and Howard and Carl headed out to the Orange Show Grounds in San Bernardino. As they neared their destination the wind was blowing hard off the mountains and huge tumbleweeds were rolling across the road. Seeing this, Carl quickly pulled his car ahead to block one of them that looked to be headed for the side of Howard's show car. This was the first car show move in that they had ever attended and of course it was exciting to be part of it. They met some of the other exhibitors and checked out the many cool cars. According to Howard, this show was not quite on the level of the Long Beach or LA Sports Arena shows of the time. He believes his display consisted decorative white rocks spread around on the floor with the edges neatly trimmed with a broom. Sunday night they returned, half hoping to win Best of Show or Best Paint (or something) but of course knowing they wouldn't. He did go away with a "participation trophy", but so did every other entry. So the first car show had proved pretty exciting and Howard was looking forward to more.
But that was to be the last show for the car. A short time later Howard was again headed toward home from Carl's house and while making a left turn from Western on to 190th St.the driver of a pickup truck ran the red light and smashed into the side of the metal flake Starliner. It probably could have been repaired but Howard didn't have the heart to start over again. By now he was looking to get himself a real muscle car and by that summer he would indeed buy a brand new Plymouth with a 426 hemi engine. He sold the wrecked Ford to Carl for $200. Carl stripped it down and cut it up in pieces, keeping most of the custom features that weren't damaged. A couple of years later Carl acquired a 1961 Ford Starliner. Using the custom pieces from Howard's car he built an exact copy of Howard's Starliner. Carl painted the car a pearl green with lace on the sides and installed hydraulic lifts front and rear. It was entered in several car shows, including the Tridents Rod Custom Autorama at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Howard can't remember what became of that car. Doing most of the work himself, Carl was forever building new cars to suit his tastes and moved on to other things, like his lifted Ford F100 pickup truck. Unfortunately Carl Darling died in 1976 but by that time he'd built many cool and innovative customs. Today Howard is very thankful for the work he did to make his Starliner the stylish custom that it was.
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