Profile: Larry Watson

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Car Culture, People of Interest
Tags: , ,

Larry Watson single handedly changed the way we paint custom cars.  He is best remembered for his innovative panel paint jobs, and the huge impact they had on the custom car world in the late 1950s and ’60s while he was painting, and throughout the subsequent decades as his work influenced custom car painters that followed.

Watson's first pinstriping on his 50 Chevy

In 1955, a 16 year old Larry Watson sat on his bicycle outside of Barris Kustoms in Lynwood California, and watched the pinstriping artist Von Dutch stripe a car.  He spent the next two days striping the dash of his own car in his driveway using paints and brushes from an art supply store. That car was a 1950 Chevy that would later be known as The Grapevine, an influential custom in its own right.  Before long, every time he got home from school there were three or four cars sitting in the driveway waiting to be striped, including Duane Steck’s 1954 Chevrolet – The Moonglow.

Watson's Grapevine

Clone of the Moonglow


While still a high school kid, Watson experimented with other custom paint techniques like seaweed flames and scallops, drawing further from the work of Von Dutch and other painters working at the time. 

After graduating from High school in 1957, Larry opened his first paint shop called Watson’s House of Style.  Larry was determined to find new ground for custom car paint work, where the paint itself was the customization.  To that end, he purchased a brand new ’58 Thunderbird, had some basic custom bodywork done to remove the door handles and unwanted trim on the nose and rear deck, and proceeded to bury the car in six coats of pearl over a silver base.  He then taped out the natural body lines of the car and shot candy apple burgundy over it.  This was perhaps the most recognized and most influential paint job of its day, and Larry’s ’58 Thunderbird remains an icon today.

Watson's '58 Tbird outside his shop

In 1966, after a brief hiatus from painting to try his hand at acting, he opened up a new shop in Lakewood.  Larry was determined to announce his return to the show car circuit in a big way, and was painting a ’64 Pontiac Grand Prix that his client was to debut at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in the spring of ’67.  Larry recalled a story that Von Dutch told him about cleaning up his shop one day:  Dutch removed a lace doily that had been sitting on the work bench, and found a beautiful overspray pattern left behind.  He liked the look so much, he sprayed clear over it to preserve it.  Larry spread sheets of lace table cloth over the vast Pontiac and invented the lace job:

Watson invents the lace paint job

Watson later left the custom car scene to pursue a TV and film acting career.  He painted more than a few luxury and sports cars for directors, producers and actors to get a foot in the door, and between 1967 and 1985, Larry appeared in over a hundred TV show episodes from Mission: Impossible, to The Dukes of Hazzard and MacGyver

Larry retired in Apple Valley, California where he created a private museum full of photos and items from his custom car and acting careers.  On July 20 of 2010, we lost Larry to cancer at age 72.

Larry Watson’s influence on the custom car world is staggering.  He was a primarily self-tought visual artist who opened our minds to the idea that what paint we put on the body of the car can be as custom and as radical as the hand formed steel under the paint.  His ’50 Chevy, the Grapevine, has long been a favourite of mine, as you might have guessed by the contents of my garage.  In 2008 on my first trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats, I drove out onto the salt for the first time, as luck would have it, right behind Randy Rhoad’s clone of the Grapevine; it was like a religious experience.  Watson was also responsible (quite indirectly) for the demise of my great grandmother’s lace table cloth.  Maybe I’ll tell you that story some day.

For now, I’ll leave you with some of Larry’s amazing work to drool over.

Thanks, Larry.  We miss you.

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  1. [...] The body work was sculpted by hand using newspaper and plaster to build up the basic shapes, then overlaid with fibreglass and the hardened plaster was chipped out from the inside. A messy and inelegant process, but effective. After its completion, the body was painted candy yellow by noted painter Larry Watson. [...]

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