John D'Agostino Interview
(Kustom Kars of California)
He is the Master when it comes to customizing cars.
He’s displayed his cars on over 1,000 shows world wide. His cars have been featured in almost every automobile publication in the world. Most of his custom or as on display at the Paterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, his cars have won him many honors including “Best Of Show” and “Most Beautiful Custom”.
He’s been inducted into the Academy Awards Of Automobile Excellence in Branson, Missouri, the Oakland Grand National Roadster Show Hall Of Fame, the San Francisco Rod And Custom, Kuston Kemps Of America, the Darryl Starbird Hall of Fame, the Sacramento Legends Of The Autorama and a total of 7 Hall of Fame Honors.
And we could go on and on.
We are talking of course about John D’Agostino and Kustom Kars of California.
Q – John, I saw your cars on display at The Syracuse Nationals last year (2010). How did you get your car from California to Syracuse? Did you use a flat-bed truck?
A – We actually use Horseless Carriage. They’re out of New Jersey. They have a big car hauler enclosed and they go East to West. So, I actually called the Promoter (Rob O’Connor) and he actually got Horseless Carriage to pick the car up form California and brought it to Syracuse. Horseless Carriage has been around. I don’t know, 30 plus years. They’re very good at what they do. They’re very, very particular is what I should say.
Q – So, that didn’t cost you any money? The promoter picked up the expense.
A – Yeah. The promoter wanted the car there and he wanted me there. So, basically he took care of the expenses.
Q – That was very nice of him. So, what do you get out of displaying your car? Are you selling something in addition to displaying your car?
A – Basically just to sign autographs for a lot of the people that would come to me. Meeting different car owners there. I liked it very much. It was a great show. I’ll probably be back in 2011. I talked to the promoter and he definitely wants me back so I’m brining one of my other cars to the show.
Q – Didn’t you have more than one car on display at the Syracuse Nationals?
A – No. I had a car there that I actually owned in the early 80’s. It was called the Golden Sunrise, a ’57 Chrysler. Somebody from Michigan actually owns that car now, but I owned that car back in 1981, 1982, 1983.
Q – How about that Elvis car you had on display?
A – Oh, yeah. That’s the ’59 Cadillac El Dorado, the Elvis II Car. The powder blue one. A beautiful, beautiful Cadillac convertible.
Q – You bought that car for $200,000 and proceeded to customize it?
A – Well, basically a client bought the car, a fellow that I actually work with. I just helped him in the customization of that car.
Q – So, he still owns it? Was it his intention to turn it for a profit?
A – You know, supposedly I think he still owns it. I don’t know too much about the history of it. It’s in a collection.
Q – How did you get in to this business?
A – Just growing up in Northern California. That was just sort of a hot bed for custom cars. A lot of the people, especially Italian people actually had cars built by the big guys like George Barris, Keene Winfield, Joe Baylon. Those were the big customizers, back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and even current. I used to see those cars driving by my Dad’s house. When I got to 16 I wanted to build my first custom, a 1956 Chevy. I actually built it and showed it in local car shows and then little by little I started going to the bigger shows, the Grand National Roadster show in San Francisco and the Rod And Custom Show and on and on and on. Since then it’s just been something I just enjoy doing.
Q – How did you know what to do to customize a car? Did you study under somebody?
A – Basically reading the magazines Tikc Rod And Custom. Those were the monthly magazines coming out on custom cars, hanging around some of the custom shops like Joe Baylon’s. I used to go to his shop a lot. Every once in awhile when I’d go to Los Angeles I’d go by Barris Customs. I used to hang around there. Just hanging around the shops, reading the magazines. That’s basically how I got to learn about customizing cars.
Q – You went to college. What did you study in college?
A – I studied economics, business and economics. Right after high school I went to DeLight Institute Of Technology in Phoenix, Arizona. I graduated there after 2 years with a 3.6 GPS, Number Two in the class. I really liked electronics until I really worked. I went to work for a co. about a year doing electronic technician work. To me it was too boring. I just liked something to do with cars. So, after I spent 2 years there I went back to college for another 2 years over in my area, in Northern California. Graduated there. Then I just got into cars maybe 2 or 3 years after that. It’s sort of a dream that I just liked customizing cars.
Q – When you decided to go into that business, did someone have to bankroll you?
A – It just started with one car. I just saved my money and built my first car. Then after I sold that car, got my money and built another one. I just been doing that for a number of years.
Q – Right now, you must have a lot of help in your business.
A – No, basically I do my own stuff but, I do have a partner of mine that it’s his shop. I sort of hang out and do my own thing there. He basically builds his motorcycles, builds his cars. He has a few clients going on all the time. It’s a good place to go to and actually work on my stuff.
Q – You’re going to have your own reality show in the future?
A – Well, I’ve basically been doing a lot of guest appearances on a lot of different shows like Discovery, MTV and I’ve talked to a few producers of different shows. Possibly I might be doing a reality show later this year (2011). End of August we might be doing some kind of reality show, end of September. I just got back from L.A. last week and talked to a producer there. He’s trying to get some kind of format that I could work out of and make in happen.
Q – Well now, how would that work? Would they show how you customize a car in a shop?
A – I’d probably get a shop. They’d probably set up a shop in Southern California and I’d sort of work out of there 2,3,4 days a week, maybe every other week do something. That’s what they were talking about. Hopefully it’s going to happen.
Q – And show how you customize the cars and the work you do?
A – Right, from start to finish. Yes.
Q – Do you have celebrity clients that come to you?
A – I’ve sold a couple cars to this young musician Travis Parker. He had a group called Blink 182. He bought one of my cars several years ago. About 3 years ago he purchased another car from me for some t.v. show he had. His wife actually contacted me. She wanted to buy the car for his 30th birthday party. So, I sold him the car and it went on the big t.v. show about 2 weeks later. It was on MTV. It was a nice gesture actually. Then I saw it on t.v. several times, actually after it was sold. I’m sure he still owns the car as of now.
Q – Didn’t Jay Leno come out to look at one of your cars?
A – No. I actually met him at one of these car functions, galas and all that. Usually when I go to a gala and I meet a lot of celebrities we take pictures together and I post it on my webpage. I know Jay personally. I talk to him probably 5 or 6 times a year. He does a lot of functions in Monterey and the Los Angeles area. If I’m there I’ll come and talk to him. He’s a very good guy to talk to. He’s very easy to talk to. He loves cars. He loves Classics especially. He likes Hot Rods. Customs, he likes ‘em but, he doesn’t really own many customs. He’s more of a purist, a Pebble Beach type of guy.
Q – Do you have a lot of competition on your line of work?
A – Oh, yeah. There’s definitely guys. Guys always comin’ up. Younger kids comin’ up tryin’ to make a name for themselves. There’s competition. I do shows all over from the east coast to the west coast, around the world. There’s a lot of guys into the custom cars today.
Q – Is that a good thing or bad thing? Probably a good thing because the art of customizing cars will never die.
A – It’s a good thing because back in the early 70’s when I was starting to produce a couple of custom cars, customs were really, really down. You’d go to a custom car show and there’d be 2 or 3 customs in the whole show. So, the interest was not there. Then, little by little back in the late 70’s it started to get better and now it’s pretty strong even though the market is soft and the money is not there you can build a car, try to sell it-----the money is not there today. Hopefully it’s gonna come back. When the money comes back the cars will come back and they’ll sell for a little more money. But, right now it’s pretty tough to build a car, especially a quality car and get your money out of it.
Q – The Syracuse Nationals certainly brought the public out.
A – Oh, yeah. I really enjoy the Syracuse Nationals. I thought it was an excellent show. It drew a lot of people. I had a lot of in put. I had a lot of people coming to me. Shook a lot of hands. Signed a lot of autographs. I come across a lot of celebrities. I just finished a celebrity function last week in Los Angeles over at the Peterson Museum. I talk to a lot of these people that are into cars. A lot of people come and they want me to build them a car. Actually I built some cars for some other celebrities but you know it’s hard to build. These cars usually take a year to build. So, it’s hard to build 4 or 5 cars a year which I could probably do, but, I’d need a lot of help. And the thing is, the quality control. When you’re building 4 or 5 customs a year, the quality is not going to be there. I try to do one or two custom cars a year. That’s my goal and usually when I do one or two custom cars a year I show ‘em. I display ‘em at the Peterson Museum. That’s one of my all time favorite museums to actually showcase a car so; I always have a car or two at the Peterson Museum. Then usually clients come to me and I’ll sell the cars and I’ll just keep moving on and on. I’ve been doing dozens and dozens and dozens of these cars.
Q –Do people really drive custom cars or are they just for show?
A – People do drive them, believe it or not. Most of these cars are really driven cars. They don’t drive ‘em out and drive ‘em on a Sunday, weather permitting. These are basically all driveable cars. Most of these collectors I talk to, these Pebble Beach style collectors, they like driving their cars. Very few are just trailer cars is what I call them. Very few of ‘em are just museum cars, something to look at.
Q – Did you ever meet Elvis?
A – I did meet him. I went to 3 of his concerts. I think I went to the one in ’70, ’72 and ’73. At that time I was 20 years old, 22 years old. I did meet him personally. I shook his hand. It was just a great feeling. I was just ecstatic to meet Elvis at the time. I was so happy. The guy was exciting. You would talk to him and it seemed like he was so sincere. He’d give you the time and I was just a young kid. I was 21, 22 years old. I went backstage and sat down. He came over. I shook his hand. He sat down. I must’ve talked to him for 5, 6, 7 minutes. It was great.
Q – Lucky you!
A – Yeah, yeah. But, I have a lot of Elvis memorabilia. I got a lot, a lot of stuff by Elvis. I’ve got letters. Somebody that I actually knew about 7 or 8 years ago, I guess the wife passed away. They collected a lot of Elvis stuff. They were actually ‘groupies’ from about 1965 to 1977. So, I ended up getting their collection. The husband said, ‘Johnny, I love your cars. I love the first Elvis car you did which was in 2006’. He took a liking to me and I ended up purchasing all this Elvis collection. It wasn’t that expensive, but still he wanted me to have it. He said, ‘I don’t even want to look at the stuff. It bothers me. I was married to this woman for 35 years. She passed away. It’s basically her collection. I know you like Elvis. I know you built this beautiful Elvis Tribute car and I want you to have it’. So, I ended up purchasing this collection and there’s some one-off stuff when he was in the service, Polaroid pictures, signatures by him, stuff with Joe Esposito, stuff with other stage managers. There’s so much stuff I haven’t even looked through it all yet.
Q – You could probably put a book together with the material you have!
A – Without a doubt. I could probably put Volume One to Volume 20 together, believe it or not. Great stuff.
Q – When you refer to her, the wife, as a ‘groupie’, are you saying she was an ex-girlfriend of Elvis?
A – It was basically husband and wife. I think she was Swedish and he was American or vice-versa. Anyway, they traveled. They went to his appearances and then they would get all the backstage passes and they would just hang-out with him. So, they would go to his parties. They’d go where he’d go. They collected all this Elvis memorabilia. She ended up passing away 5, 6, 7 years ago and I just happened to have an Elvis tribute car. The fellow actually lived in my area. He just came to one of the car shows and said, ‘John. I have this collection of Elvis stuff. I’m a Disney collector. She was the Elvis collector. I don’t even want to look at the stuff anymore. It brings back so many memories of me and my wife. She was the only one I’ve ever really been with. Come and take a look at it. I’ll give you a deal of a lifetime’. I didn’t pay that much for it. All those boxes of memorabilia. I’m a true Elvis fan. I have a nice collection of stuff to look at every once in awhile. It’s just great to have all this Elvis memorabilia.
Q – I wonder who they knew in the Elvis camp.
A – I think he actually knew a stage manager. I don’t recall his name right now, but, I think he was the stage manager for, Elvis. When he appeared they’d go right in the front row. After the show was over they’d go in the back. They’d go to the parties. They were just part of Elvis. Twelve years of doing that. They hit almost every concert. Figure they must’ve gone to 40 or 50 or 60 concerts.
Q – Too bad the wife passed away. Imagine the stories she could tell!
A – She was the one who was really, really into Elvis, more that he was. He was the Disney collector, all the Disney characters kind of stuff. She was the Elvis collector. So, at least I have a lot of stuff to go through when I have some time. I haven’t even looked at all the stuff. So many letters. Elvis in Sacramento when he was attending someone’s wedding. She was there taking pictures. A lot of pictures. A lot of letters. I’m gonna love to love going through all this stuff.
Q - You almost have a second career ahead of you. When you get through with cars you can go into the Elvis business.
A – Probably. Without a doubt. I have a lot of stuff to look at and a lot of stuff to put together. I’m sure I could put some kind of book together. I could probably come out with something without a doubt.
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