True to Form ... and Func­tion

Scott Roberts’ ’54 Merc


Back in 1935 when Clark Gable came to Pasadena’s Bohman & Schwartz re­quest­ing their ser­vices in cus­tomiz­ing his Roll­ston-bod­ied Due­sen­berg Model JN con­vert­ible coupe, do you imag­ine there was any ques­tion­ing on be­half of de­signer Welling­ton Everett Miller when it came to the 6-foot 1-inch ac­tor want­ing the wind­shield height low­ered and laid back? Nope. For Gable, it was about be­ing seen, not the abil­ity to see … this was a cus­tom, one of the ear­li­est recorded forms of such as a mat­ter of fact, and tra­di­tion­ally speak­ing, func­tion typ­i­cally takes a hun­kered-down back seat to form when it comes to mak­ing au­to­mo­tive state­ments. Why else would any­one ever con­sider re­duc­ing for­ward vis­i­bil­ity, let alone omit any means in which to en­ter the ve­hi­cle via ex­te­rior de­vices or even have the abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate a speed bump at any speed greater than a 1/2 mph? Be­cause practicality is not a word found in the cus­tom dic­tio­nary.

Func­tion fol­lows form—of­ten way be­hind—in the eyes of the cus­tom afi­cionado. It isn’t about go­ing fast, it’s about “look­ing” like you’re go­ing fast … es­pe­cially when you’re not mov­ing. That’s al­ways the way I’ve sur­mised; a cus­tom is as much a per­sonal state­ment as it is a work of art. It takes more than a set of Lancers, fuzzy dice, and dummy spots for one to make that au­to­mo­tive procla­ma­tion—quite a bit more—but not so much as to go over­board with restyling, as many have done in the past. That’s what lit­er­ally side­tracked me as I was hur­riedly mak­ing my way from one build­ing to an­other back in 2016 at the Grand Na­tional Road­ster Show: the stun­ning form of Scott Roberts’ ’54 Merc as it was be­ing set up for its de­but. I can’t even tell you where I was headed, let alone whom I was in­tent on meet­ing up with …

all I re­mem­ber is spend­ing time tak­ing every­thing in that sat be­fore me. The color, the chop, the stance, every­thing cu­mu­la­tively was pre­sented per­fectly, and that’s com­ing from some­one who’s very crit­i­cal when it comes to the ex­e­cu­tion/pre­sen­ta­tion of a cus­tom.

How­ever, this isn’t an era-cor­rect cus­tom, a fac­tor some will use against my de­scrib­ing it as per­fect in any man­ner. But in to­day’s traf­fic en­vi­ron­ment, cer­tain ex­cep­tions are of­ten re­quired, ones that bet­ter ac­com­mo­date these an­tiq­ui­ties to the con­di­tions in which they must co­ex­ist. Ameni­ties such as disc brakes, over­drive trans­mis­sions, and even air-ad­justable sus­pen­sions (though they’ve been around since the late ’50s), to me are ac­cept­able non-pe­riod com­po­nents—not so much due to the fact they’re not eas­ily de­tectable, rather be­cause they make it eas­ier (and safer) to drive. Scott never gave those so-called con­ces­sions a se­cond thought, as orig­i­nally this was sup­posed to be his wife’s car … sup­posed to be.

“I pur­chased the car with the in­ten­tion to build a fam­ily cus­tom for my wife to drive,” Scott ad­mits when I asked him to fill me in on how the Merc all came about. “I wanted it chopped but more of a back­yard build. I pur­chased the car on Craigslist. It was owned by an older gentle­man who re­cently lost his li­cense due to his vi­sion prob­lems. It was a su­per­clean stock car—no sur­prises un­der­neath. I first took the car to Matt at No­ble Fab­ri­ca­tion to have airbags in­stalled. Since my wife was go­ing to be driv­ing the car he in­stalled an AOD trans and front disc brakes. He also went through the car to make sure every­thing was me­chan­i­cally sound.”

When I hear the phrase “back­yard build” and chop­ping a top is in­volved—a hard­top at that—well, let’s just say my men­tal pic­tures are not that pretty. As Scott con­tin­ued, my mind was put to ease, es­pe­cially when he let it be known that one of my heroes, John Aiello, was

part of the process. “I met Brandon Penserini of Altissimo Restora­tion at the Dead­end Car Show. He was driv­ing his newly com­pleted ’55 Cadil­lac and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I im­me­di­ately struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with him and he told me he did all the work. Af­ter see­ing his work I de­cided to let him chop our car. He then told me John Aiello worked at his shop and would be do­ing the chop. I drove the car 400 miles to his shop and dropped it off. The plan was to have him chop the car and then I would take it home where me and my friend would do some mod­i­fi­ca­tions and re­turn it to Brandon for paint. Well once Brandon got the car he did not want to let it go. The build slowly started to take a turn. Hav­ing been in­spired by Mark Mor­ton’s ’54 Mer­cury, the thought of pos­si­bly hav­ing our car that nice was tempt­ing. I could tell Brandon re­ally loved the car and wanted to build some­thing spe­cial. My wife and I de­cided to do it. This meant hav­ing to put every­thing else in our life on hold. I picked up all the OT I could at work.” Scott was quickly learn­ing, the only cor­ners you cut when build­ing a cus­tom, are those on the doors, hood, and trunk.

Above and be­yond the vis­ual ef­fect of the re­design styling el­e­ments, color plays a very im­por­tant role in how well a cus­tom is re­ceived—both in­side and out. “When it was time to paint the car I wanted some­thing time­less and sub­dued. I also wanted a color that would con­trast with the tail­lights, as they are such a dec­o­ra­tive piece of the car. Af­ter choos­ing the color (Spies-Heck­ler cus­tom-mix Chile Verde), we went to Chris Plante at Plante In­te­ri­ors. The



out­side of the car was go­ing to be smooth and sim­ple so we took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach with the in­te­rior: two col­ors of leather with metal-threaded fab­ric in­serts.”

I asked Scott how the ex­pe­ri­ence was go­ing from what was ini­tially a home­built to what it ul­ti­mately turned out to be—and how his wife likes her new car. “This was the se­cond car I have built and the first one was any­thing but fun. Build­ing this car with Brandon and John was an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence. Brandon and I have be­come very close friends and I can­not thank him enough. Without him this car would not have turned out like it did. We are al­ready talk­ing about our next build to­gether. And, I still owe my wife a car … she doesn’t drive it be­cause it’s too nice!”

• Altisimo’s Brandon Penserini on the “Aiello Way”

John Aiello’s role was not only cre­at­ing, pro­por­tion­ing, and per­fect­ing the chop, he also has a way of soft­en­ing the feel of the car. Aiello has mas­tered the art of sub­tlety in cus­tomiz­ing. So, while the chop in it­self is ob­vi­ous, there’s some­thing more about cus­toms that he’s in­volved in that have a way of bring­ing you in, com­pelling you to study the car and walk around it, spend time with it, search­ing for an­swers of what was done. The Aiello way is to soften tran­si­tions, ra­dius cor­ners, and mold­ing pan­els to pre­vent ugly tran­si­tions. His cus­tom tricks of­ten go un­no­ticed, as he doesn’t change things just to be cus­tom. That theme was car­ried through the car—in­side and out.

By elim­i­nat­ing ver­ti­cal tran­si­tions of the body (i.e. door to front fender or rocker to fender), the panel is seam­less, thus the eye is undis­turbed. The flow is con­tin­ued without hit­ting ob­struc­tions (dead-ends). Break­ing up pan­els cre­ates a choppy feel, fur­ther sep­a­rat­ing that tran­si­tion. In­stead, the fo­cus be­comes seam­less and form­less. No other cus­tomizer has such a keen eye for the art of soft­en­ing.

The re­sult is its viewer is mes­mer­ized by the over­all and not by the ob­vi­ous. The car, the body, and its tran­si­tions in­vite—even urge—you to stay and ex­pe­ri­ence an in­ti­macy with these sub­tle cus­tom, some­times un­de­tectable touches. Of­ten­times, we see the viewer come back for a se­cond or third view of the same thing, study­ing the car as a work of art.

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