The Vandergriff Chrysler

The Vandergriff Chrysler

Back in 2007, I somehow managed to get up the nerve to ask one of my heroes for an interview. At the time, I didn’t know Gary Howard well and didn’t know what to expect. By the time the interview was over, I considered Gary a pal and when he passed in 2019, I considered him family.

But it was during that first interview that Gary laid something on me that will stick forever. I asked him something along the lines of, “Is there a historical custom that means something more to you or that influenced you more than others?”

“…the Clif Inman ’57 Chrysler that Joe Wilhelm built is probably as close to a ‘perfect’ custom as I’ve ever seen. I just admired Joe so much for keeping the car so simple and beautiful. Sure, he did some weird stuff later on but as a whole his portfolio is inspiring. And he did everything on his own terms in a little shop behind his house – never succumbing to the financial forces that a lot of other guys did.”

“Hell, I guess I just said it. I look up to Joe Wilhelm. The Clif Inman ’57 inspires just about everything I do.”

I think one of the reasons this quote was so impactful to me is that as Gary softly spoke the words, I could see the famous photograph (Andy Southard Jr.) of Inman’s Chrysler pinned to the wall just behind him:

To this very day, whenever I see this picture I think of Gary and smile. To him, this car was perfection… and if something is perfection to Gary Howard, it’s perfection to me too.

***

Danny Vandergriff (GotGas) shares a similar perspective. Back in 2008 or so, he picked up a ’57 Chrysler out of a field with dreams of building the car along side his old man. From the start, he had no intentions of building an Inman clone. Instead, he picked a target year (1959) and then built to the period – withdrawing influences from the Inman car and others.

Mechanically, it’s a very simple formula. To get the stance, Danny just turned down the torsion bars up front and added a couple of 2″ blocks out back. A hint of late-50’s custom rake is created purely through rubber – 15×5 on ’56 Ford centers with 7.10-15s up front and 15×7 reversed wheels out back with L78s.

The driveline is just as simple. The stock 392, however, does benefit from a modern TKO 5-speed and to slow down all that mass, Danny did throw some discs up front. The car was built to be driven and it has been.

But the thing is, the damn thing looks and feels like a pampered show car. Like many of you, I watched this car get built on the HAMB. When I finally had an opportunity to study the car in person, I expected a nice homebuilt custom. What I saw was something far more than that – ultra detail where it was deserved, perfect gaps, and build quality you would expect to see from a well regarded professional. Somehow, Danny managed to make a black car look effortless.

The body is largely unchanged. There’s no featured chop like on the Inman car and as a result, you get that beautiful greenhouse framed by graceful pillars and a huge amount of glass. This is accented by subtraction – everything that could be shaved was shaved sans the distinctive side trim.

There were, however, a couple of important additions. The first might be my favorite – the hood scoop. Believe it or not, it was formed by the leading edge of a 70’s era Jeep. And then, there’s the absolute brilliance of the front bumper liberated from a ’57 Desoto and filled with gold mesh.

“Gold,” you ask… Yes. Gold. And it was done with purpose. As we move on to the interior, the first thing you notice is the swivel seat taken from a ’59 Imperial. It sets the foundation for tastefully stitched custom upholstery done in black and sliver with pops of GOLD accents. Everything used, from materials to colors, speaks to cohesiveness and a level of creative intelligence that you don’t often see.

You don’t look at Danny’s car and instantly think about Clif Inman’s own ’57. But you do think about Clif Inman… or maybe more appropriately, Joe Wilhelm. Both Danny and Joe built black ’57 Chryslers with sensibilities that were born from similar mothers. Meaning, these cars are not clones of each other, but they do share similar thoughts and ideas… and it’s this intellectual property that makes them both so special. It’s simple grace.

***

Before writing this story, I had a hard time deciding which angle to lean on. Obviously, I had to mention Gary Howard as he was really my introduction to the importance of the Inman car. But I also really wanted to play up two angles that Danny mentioned on his tech sheet.

The first is the idea that Danny picked a build period (1959) and used it as a gauge for everything he did. This is a practice I learned by watching Lee Pratt through the years and something I don’t feel is done as often as it should be. Sticking to an actual build period with religious dedication is absolutely necessary for the kind of cohesiveness this car has.

And secondly, Danny wrote something that made me smile:

“Getting to build this car with my dad has been one of my favorite experiences in life. He encouraged me every step of the way, and he’s the one responsible for the bodywork and paint. It was a ton of work, but very rewarding!”

Generational support on a car inspired by another generation is something that can’t be bought or otherwise obtained through unnatural ways. It’s something that happens because it was meant to happen. This car is fate. Joe Wilhelm would be so proud… and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gary Howard had a shot of Danny’s car hanging up in his afterlife shop.

***

Special thanks to Tom Davison for shooting this car at the Round Up for me. Car shows are a difficult venue for photoshoots, but Tom never disappoints.

Also, a thanks goes out to Danny as well… He went out of his way to let Tom shoot his car at the show and then went above and beyond on his tech sheet.

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