John D’Agostino: Biography of a Legendary Car Customizer
Born in Pittsburg, California, and now residing in Discovery Bay, California, John D’Agostino got into building and customizing model cars when he was a child. John was lucky because his hometown of Pittsburg and nearby Antioch were hot spots for custom cars when he grew up. Cars built by Barris, Bailon, Winfield and others showed up at the local Hazel’s and Panther drive-ins through the 1950s and 1960s.
Inspired by the works of Barris, Winfield, Hines, Starbird, and Watson, D’Agostino’s first custom was a ’56 Chevy hardtop that was lowered, molded, and painted in a two-tone royal triton purple and white by Frank DeRosa in Pittsburg. John was driving his kustom to high school and showing it at local shows. When he attended college in Phoenix, Arizona, he drove a mildly customized pearl white and gold ’63 Pontiac Grand Prix, cruising the streets with cool tunes spun on his 45-rpm record player, which was installed in the car.
Just before leaving college, however, John ordered a brand new ’70 Pontiac Grand Prix and took it straight to Art Himsl in Concord, California, to be customized. It was first shown at the ’70 Oakland Roadster Show, where it won “OUTSTANDING CUSTOM.” The car was lowered, molded, and painted different shades of candy gold and tangerine. Even in those early days, this car had D’Agostino’s trademark, chromed wire wheels. He showed the Pontiac at all the ISCA shows on the West Coast during 1970 and 1971 (about 14 shows in all).
After owning two older-style customs, a black ’49 Olds Coupe and a ’60 Buick in midnight blue pearl Invicta, John got another new car, a ’72 Buick Riviera “Boattail” that he took to Himsl for some wild customizing. “This time, I had a top designer sketch an artist’s rendering of the car for me, before we got started,” says John. Among the modifications were the grille, headlights, taillights, and the wheel wells, which were radiused and flared. Art Himsl and Mike Hass also painted the Buick in candy red metalflake, toned to different shades of tangerine with silver scallops. It was awarded “INTERNATIONAL CLASS CHAMPION” in the full custom category in the 1972-73 season. “I can remember taking pictures alongside baseball great Reggie Jackson in front of the Buick at the San Mateo show that year” says John. “Customs were scarce in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I showed my customized Lincoln ’72 Mark IV that was built at Himsl’s Custom Paint Studio in Concord, California. The Lincoln was sold right out of the Oakland show to a Lincoln dealer in San Francisco.”
In the summer of 1973, John spent some time with car customizer Bill Hines and his son Mike in Los Angeles. One night they took John to see the movie American Graffiti. “I immediately wanted a custom ’51 Mercury,” he says. He found one nearly restored in nearby Concord, but the car was so nice that he simply finished the restoration and showed it for the first time at the 1973 Santa Rosa Autorama. He decided to buy another Mercury to customize; this one was owned by a fireman in Castro Valley, CA, and would later become the “Midnight Sensation.” D’Agostino took that Merc to Rod Powell’s shop in Salinas, California, for a top chop–the first such surgery on a Merc that was done at Powell’s. Next John took the Merc to Bill Hines’ shop in Bellflower, California, for a lowering job. At the shop he decided to have some additional customizing work done, including the installation of a ’54 Pontiac grille, ’52 Lincoln taillights, and ’53 Buick teardrop headlights. “With all the work done and the car in white primer,” John recalls, “I remember cruising down to the parking lot at the 1975 Oakland Roadster Show, then finding the car.
After the ’82 Oakland show, John owned and showed the custom Winfield-built ’58 Chrysler “Golden Sunrise.” “It just happened that I traded the Chrysler to Harry later for my old Merc,” he says. The “Midnight Sensation” was taken back to Powell’s again to be completed and painted. With a candy ultraviolet and lavender pearl paint job and a new Kenny Foster sculptured interior, it finally made its debut at the November 1983 San Francisco Rod & Custom show. Later, at the ’84 Oakland show, the “Midnight Sensation” won several top awards, including the Sam Barris Memorial Award, presented at the Sacramento Autorama.
D’Agostino’s next custom, which was also a hit on the show circuit, was a Bill Reasoner-built ’53 Merc named “The Royal Tahitian.” It was a mild custom with a candy apple red paint job, and it won “Best of Show” at the popular West Coast Customs Paso Robles show in 1986. John showed it at the ’87 Sacramento Autorama before trading it for the Gene Winfield-built ’56 Merc, “Jade Idol.” “We traded right after the awards ceremony at the show,” says John, “and it was a childhood dream to drive the Idol home that foggy Sunday night. I could not wait to call Winfield Monday morning about it.” The plan was to have Winfield redo the car exactly like it was when he built it in the late ’50s.
John never got around to doing that because he was building his next big winner at the time, a ’40 Merc Coupe called “Stardust” that was customized and painted by Bill Reasoner. The “Jade Idol” was later sold to a guy back East, where it remains today. “Stardust” made its debut at the 1988 Oakland show and went on to win many awards, including “Best of Show” at the Paso Robles Show and the “Sam Barris Memorial Award” at the Sacramento Autorama. It eventually ended up at Harrah’s Museum in Reno, Nevada, where it was displayed for a few years before it was sold. It was last seen at the “Men and Machines” exhibition at the Oakland Museum in 1996.
The next D’Agostino winner at Oakland was a a ’56 Lincoln built by Winfield and Reasoner called “The Royal Empress.” This won the Al Slonaker Award at the 1991 Oakland show and was chosen for the Harry Bradley Design Achievement Award at the Leadsled Spectacular the same year. Bill Abate of New Jersey now owns the Lincoln. In 1993, John debuted the ’57 Cadillac Eldorado “Starfire” at the Oakland show. John first took it to Farcello’s Kustom Creations in Reno, Nevada, to have it chopped and then Bill Hines finished it in lead before he painted it in the fabulous candy apple red, with crushed diamonds for Mrs. D’Agostino.
In 1995, John had two new customs built for the show circuit. John Aiello and Darryl Hollenbeck of Sahagon’s in Concord built the ’57 Lincoln “Royal Emperor,” painted in shades of mint green pearl and candy organic green by Hall of Famer Gene Winfield. The “Royal Emperor” was sent on a Northern European tour the following year garnishing every major custom award. The second custom was a ’61 Olds, “Golden Starfire,” which was a mildly customized vehicle in the ’60s style and painted in a candy pagan gold color by Hollenbeck.
1997 a radical “concept style” ’57 Chrysler Imperial called the “Imperial Royale” with Acme Customs in Antioch and Gene Winfield teaming up to build a new winner. Shown along with the Imperial at the Sacramento Autorama was a chopped ’61 Thunderbird named “Firestar” painted candy apple red with gold scallops by Marcos Garcia of the Lucky 7 Custom Shop in Antioch, California.
1998 “Marilyn” was a ’53 Eldorado Biarritz with a chopped Carson top built by John Aiello. It was painted by Darryl Hollenbeck in a light yellow pearl with golden highlights. The interior was done in a shell white Swedish Elmo leather and gold brocade inserts by Craig Willits Custom Interiors.
1998 a ’57 Biarritz that was named “Cool 57.” The car was first customized by Gene Winfield for a Hollywood movie producer but was never finished, so John and A&A bought it and took it to the Acme Boys in Antioch.
1999 a 58 Continental Mark III named “Cool Cadinental” which was customized at Acme Custom Cars in Antioch. Darryl Hollenbeck painted it in shades of a kustom mixed DuPont Ice Blue Pearl. Bob Divine stitched the handcrafted interior. This new Lincoln made its debut at the 50th Grand National Roadster Show in San Francisco and won plenty of awards.
2000 Grand National Roadster Show, John introduced two more Cadillacs, with a ’54 Coupe DeVille called “CAD STAR” as his own new car. Again it was built by Aiello and the two legends, Gene Winfield and Frank DeRosa. Winfield painted the Caddy in a color-shifting House of Kolor lime gold candy color with another Divine kustom interior.
The second Caddy was a project called “The Cadster” and was built by A&A, Slawinski, DeRosa, and D’Agostino and painted by Art Himsl. It started out as a ’59 Caddy Coupe DeVille but restyled to look like a Motorama Concept Kustom of the ’50s.
2001, the 1967 Continental kustom, “Golden Sunset,” is his latest. It features a chopped top and many Kustom bodywork modifications by Oz’s Kustoms of Oroville, CA. DeRosa’s Customs of Pittsburg performed all the body finishing. It features a House of Kolor blended candy copper to white pearl kustom paint by Winfield and a sculptured interior by Bob Divine of Martinez, CA.
Next Event: 22nd Annual BC Classic and Custom Car Show Fri- Sun April 20-22, 2018
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