Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Custom Car builder Herbert "Bud" Unger

So every now and then you hear about a body shop or a body man from back in the days that you have not heard about all that much. Recently I was given a copy of Speed Age magazine from October 1949 (thanks to David Zivot). And inside was an article on a body man I had only heard about once or twice. 
His name… Herbert "Bud" Unger. And despite the fact I had never heard about Bud, I did now about one of the Custom Cars he created in the late 1940's the 1936 Ford Roadster for Ray Giovannoni which was featured in the November 1948 issue of Hot Rod magazine, Trend Book #102 Hot Rods, but in none of these magazines the name of the builder was mentioned. And I always assumed Ray was not only the owner but also the builder of this fantastic car.

One thing that I always noticed, was the wonderful styling of this 1936 Ford. Very much like the work of Harry Westergard or early Barris or at least something that could have come from California in the 1940's. It had that typical - what we now know as - California look to it. But Ray Giovannoni was from Washington D.C. the East Coast. 

Lets take a step back, and take another look at the Speed Age magazine article on Bud Unger. The body man I had never heard about and who has apparently turned out some amazing looking early Custom Cars.
The article takes on two and a half page (a full spread and a half page) which is quite a lot for the time. And the full spread is wonderfully laid out with partly cut out photos of some of the Custom Cars Bud had created. Now we would say that it is unfortunately these cars where positioned partly on top of each other hiding some nice details. But back in 1949 this was really state of the art.

Bud Unger is from Rockville Maryland and he learned how to shape metal in the air corps forming aluminum for the airplanes. The techniques he learned here would come in handy when he opened his own body shop. The regular repair work was done during the day, but in the slow and after hours he would work on his secret hobby of Hot Rods and Custom Cars. 

Bud Unger working on the Ray Giovannoni 1936 Ford.

The magazine mentioned he had studied California styling on Hot Rods. But it does not tell if Bud actually went to California to study the cars in person, or used magazines books or photos to do so. I guess he must have visited California himself, since there just was not much written on these car back then.
Ray sure had a great feeling for CUstom Cars and styling. His cars really capture the Californian looks from the 1940's.
In the article Bud also made a statement that he will not work on any cars newer than 1948. "The lines are not there" he claims!

In any event his first car was his own 1947 Chevy (no photos). And it turned out so good he soon would have his first customer who wanted him to do his Custom work on his car. 

1936 Ford for Ray A. Giovannoni 

This first customer happened to be Ray A. Giovannoni with his 1936 Ford Roadster.  
Bud chopped the windshield, made a custom grille surround to fit the Packard grille and added a set of 1939 Buick headlights which where much longer and more streamlined than the stock Ford headlights. This gave a whole new appearance to the front of the 1936 Ford. He removed the door handles and removed the running boards to replace them with smooth units about half the width of the originals. To fill the gap bog front and rear fenders where extended down. 1941 Ford bumpers where used front and rare, and at the rear Bud create a splash pan from the body to the new bumper. On that he would mount the chrome license plate frame with the plate set behind glass. On the splash pan he installed a white light to illuminate the plate at night. 

The 1948 Hot Rod article mentioned that Ray drove his car to the California to have his padded to made there. And in the Speed Age photo it looks like Ray's 36 Ford has a soft top, perhaps the photos where taken before his California trip when he had the padded top made. And Bud or a local upholstery guy made a soft top to fit the chopped windshield.
Ray Giovannoni had a speed shop in Washington D.C. and would later establish himself a very good name with his racing cams when he moved to Florida and opened a speed shop there.

1941 Ford Convertible
An other car featured in this Speed Age article is a really great looking 1941 Ford Convertible. 
Another great sample of an California's styled Custom on the East Coast. Bud installed a 1948 Cadillac grill in a modified front of this car. But he left the headlights stock. The hood was welded solid and a new pieces of metal was shaped to fit where the stock center grille used to be. The side trim and fender trim was removed for a much cleaner look. The windshield was chopped, but only mildly, and it looks to have a padded top. But since there is only one photo showing this car its a bit hard to tell. 
Black wall tires, Hollywood SIngle Bar flipper hubcaps and a stainless steel rear fender rock shield are finish up the California look on this car. The magazine did not mention an owners name.

1939 Ford Convertible
The last Custom Car shown in this article is a very clean and again California styled custom based on a 1939 Ford Convertible. Bud removed the winning boards and added a custom made panel to hide the frame where the running boards used to be. Both front and rear fenders needed to to be extend to fill the holes where the running boards where mounted to them. Bud chopped the top and made a soft top to fit the new windshield. The side trim was removed and he installed 1948 Lincoln pushbuttons on the door. This time Bud used white wall tires and Flipper hubcaps. Unfortunately no name was given. Unfortunately also one photo of this car appears in the article. And I have not been able to find any additional photos of this car, nor the 1941 Ford.

The last car in the article is an Alfa Romeo which was damaged on the boat on the way to the US. The car can be seen in the spread view of the article. The whole rear deck was gone, and Bud recreated it from scratch.

Bud Unger would later in and around 1953 be hired to do an series of articles for Speed Age magazine called Customizing Questions and Answers and Customize it yourself. 

If you have any more information about Bud Unger or the cars he built Please contact us at:Rik Hoving Kustoms


Kustoms Illustrated #31 will be at the printer soon.
Included in this issue is Part 4 of the Larry Watson
Personal Photo Collection which is all about Chevy
Customs painted by Larry Watson.
If you love Custom Cars but don't have a subscription
to this magazine do your self a favor...
You will not regret you did.


  1. Hello Rik!
    It's well that unsung artisans such as Herbert Unger are rediscovered late than never rediscovered at all. He really does appear to be influenced by the Southern and Northern California custom car ethic. This was for the best because that is for all intents and purposes the wellspring of all things tasteful. If he had been following the Massachusetts or Michigan stylings things might not have been so aesthetically pleasing. I encourage further investigation into this man's work, especially the '39 Ford and '41 Ford ragtops.
    Thanks for this gem quality research!
    (David Zivot)

  2. Hi, My name is Brian and I'd like to speak with you about your blog, please email me at your earliest convenience.

  3. Found this site through a friend. Bud Unger is my dad. He is 91 and still active. What a treat to read about all he did while I was still a child.

    Joy Unger Henning

    1. Hello Joy,

      I saw your message on my blog about your father. I would really like to get in touch with you/your father to see if we can do a bit more to give your father his well deserved recognition for the fantastic Custom Cars he has created. Please contact me at: rik@rikhovingkustoms.com

      Thank you

      Rik Hoving

  4. Rik,

    Bud is my grandfather and growing up I saw all of these photos and heard the stories. Here's what you don't know. Around 1982 he gave me my Great Grandfather's 1966 VW Bug and I asked him to help me "fix it up". I was 14. I spent the next two years in his garage watching him heat hammer and heat again. It was amazing to watch him do all of his work with a torch, hammer and metal blocks. The result was a fully custom looker that featured many of the items described in your blog (custom running boards and extended fenders that were all welded/formed to make one piece). Nothing was left untouched. We (he) won "Best of Show" in Orlando, FL in the only event we ever entered and the car wasn't even finished yet! I remember the crowds asking "who did the paint?" and they couldn't believe that it was this older gentlemen that had to borrow a friends paint booth for the final coats. Thanks for featuring such such an amazing artist.

    Are you aware of the work he did for Briggs/Cunningham developing and designing LeMans race cars? His design had never been seen before. It looked like Speed Racer's car to me as a kid. I think it was simply called the C-6 or C-7.

    I'm digging for photos now.

    Mark Unger

  5. Rik,

    Bud is my Neighbor, I was looking for information about his work with Briggs Cummingham. The car he work on was a Le Mans race car the c-6r it raced in 1955 the big year when they had a massive wreck, which the c-6r fortunately was not envolved. I went over to his house one day to talk and he is so awesome to talk to, we talked for probably for a hour or two about the things he did. We went threw some pictures of vehicles that he worked on. Which he gave me a couple of pictures that were duplicates and a few copies of the C-6R.