It’s not everyday that a build comes along that is so custom and so intricately detailed that it inspires the entire automotive community. But that’s exactly what the next vehicle in our Hot Rods You Should Know series is known for.
Not only did this vehicle bring customization to a whole new level, it also made a major impact on the model car industry, proved to be one of George Barris’ most well-known builds outside the Batmobile, and still, to this day, remains one of the only 2-time winners of the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster designation. We’re talking, of course, about Ala Kart!
The 1929 Model A pickup started life just like many other customs of its time, purchased initially for daily use and then only later turned into somewhat of a race machine. Owned by Richard Peters of Central California, the truck saw its fair share of back-road races in its day before Peters decided in the late 1950s that it was time to put a bit more oomph and character into the Model A. For that, he turned to George Barris and Barris Kustoms. The result was a bit more extreme than Peters had initially bargained for, but one that paid off greatly.
Mild Body Modifications
When Barris was handed the project, the first step in his process was drawing out the details – something he initially did on a restaurant napkin, with the name of the finished build. The truck became known as Ala Kart, which was inspired by an item seen on the eatery’s menu. Though the original design was only supposed to incorporate mild body modifications, under Barris’ artistic direction, the truck soon turned into a full-blown custom project.
Built throughout 1956 and 1957, the pickup was torn down to the bare frame and re-worked from there. Barris put untold hours into the bodywork of the car, which included grafting the rear part of a 1927 Ford Model T roadster to the back of the truck’s cab, hand-forming a new bed complete with chrome strips and gold inserts. Barris mated 1958 Impala taillight bezels and 1956 DeSoto taillight lenses together, then crafted a custom 3-piece hood from aluminum – which featured steel splash aprons with louvers.
He hand-formed the custom, forward-raked grille, which housed 1957 Imperial headlights, outfitting the front of the truck with nerf bars, and bobbing and peaking all four fenders. The truck was finished in Swedish White Pearl paint with gold scallops and custom purple pinstriping done by a young Dean Jeffries, and topped with a custom steel-bow top that was upholstered in White Pearl Naugahyde.
While Barris was working on the one-off body panels for the truck, a new custom chassis was built for the Model A by Richard Peters and pal Mike “Blackie” Gejeian. The frame was outfitted in true hot rod style, with a central crossmember, a 4-inch-dropped front axle with a ’32 Ford rear axle, split wishbones, and a panhard rod.
Aiming for a more performance-minded ride, the chassis was also fitted with specially-crafted coil springs and tube shocks on all four corners, as well as Cadillac air bag suspension parts. Traction Master torsion bars were added to keep the frame from bending under the torque and power of the new engine. Much of the suspension was then chromed, while the main chassis was painted Swedish White Pearl with gold and purple scallop details to match the body of the truck. Flanking the chassis were chrome reverse wheels with gold spun bullets in the centers, wrapped in Dunlop whitewalls, and Ford drum brakes.
Under the hood of the truck, Peters opted to use a Hillborn fuel-injected Dodge engine in the form of a 1954 266ci Red Ram Hemi, which Peters borrowed from his wrecked racing boat. It was outfitted with a Scintilla Vertex magneto, Isky camshaft, Dupree electric fuel pump, Jahns Racing pistons, Ansen connecting rods, and custom Sanderson headers that dumped into double chrome sidepipes that ran the length of the truck. Backing the engine was a ’39 Ford transmission with 3.43:1 Lincoln Zephyr gears.
Rounding out the build was the truck’s custom interior, an amazing aesthetic addition that was crafted by Roy Gilbert. The interior featured White Pearl Naugahyde upholstery with black velvet trim and chrome bead accessories, as well as Mouton black fur carpeting. The hand-formed dash was fitted with a ’57 Corvette gauge cluster adorned with Stewart Warner gauges and a custom ’57 Lincoln Continental steering wheel.
Though Ala Kart made its show circuit debut in late 1957, it wasn’t until 1958 at the ninth-annual Oakland Roadster Show (now the Grand National Roadster Show) that the truck saw its first claim to fame, competing for, and winning, the honor of being named America’s Most Beautiful Roadster. The following year, Ala Kart took home the same honor.
Height Of Popularity
By 1960, the custom truck was known nationwide, having won two AMBR awards, been shown and honored at a number of other renowned car shows, appeared in the 1958 movie Hot Rod Gang, and having appeared in over a half-dozen car magazines, including on the cover of the October 1958 Hot Rod Magazine. It was the truck’s notoriety that made it the perfect candidate to have a model car designed after it – an opportunity Barris had invested effort in and signed an agreement for with AMT. But not everyone was a fan of the one-of-a-kind Model A.
As the story goes, Peters’ father thought his son needed to start concentrating on the family business more than his automotive hobby. So he demanded that Peters sell the truck in 1960. The agreement for the model car had already been signed though, and this proved to be problematic, so Peters ended up selling the car to AMT to use as a promotional vehicle. In 1961, the truck was officially produced as a 1/25th-scale model kit, and became one of the best selling model kits ever produced. The model would go on to be reproduced by the Danbury Mint, reissued five additional times and scaled down even further into a Hot Wheels car.
After AMT purchased the truck, they swapped out the Hillborn injectors for Stromberg 97 carbs. The truck was shown and driven this way until an engine fire in late 1963 severely damaged the truck. Due to the damage the truck had sustained, it sat in storage for a number of months. Prompted by many letters from fans of the custom truck, AMT eventually sent Ala Kart to Barris’ Hollywood shop to be restored.
After the truck was moved to AMT’s shop in Phoenix and Gene Winfield was hired on to work on AMT’s cars, Ala Kart was sold to Jack Shira, who used the truck to promote his Goodyear Tire business, painting his logo onto Ala Kart’s doors. A few years later, after Shira’s business had gone under, Ala Kart disappeared for a number of years, presumably switching hands a number of times and remaining stashed out of sight in storage.
In 1973, the truck reappeared in a “For Sale” ad on the back cover of Hot Rod Magazine, having been significantly modified and dismantled by its current owner, Nick Vacarro. The ad didn’t lead to any buyers and Vacarro is said to have owned the truck all the way up through the mid 1990s. Boyd Coddington also owned the truck for a short time.
In 2001, John Mumford purchased the custom and later sent it off to Bill Ganahl at Roy Bizio Street Rods, and Hershel “Junior” Conway of Junior’s House of Color, to be fully restored to its AMBR award-winning configuration. In 2008, Ala Kart returned to the show circuit in celebrity fashion, competing at the Grand National Roadster Show a full 50 years after its original AMBR win. It was there that Peters, Gejeian, and Barris were reunited with the famous custom pickup. The legendary roadster continues to make appearances across the country at high profile shows and museums.