ZZ Top front man Billy F. Gibbons is no stranger to custom cars. After his ’33 Ford Coupe became an MTV icon in the early ’80s, Gibbons turned to Boyd Coddington to build him a ’49 Cadillac unlike any other. The resulting car helped light a new fire in the kustom car world, and established the styling language of the modern kustom.
The 1949 Cadillac is an historically significant car in its own right. Designed by Harley Earl himself, the tail fins were shaped to resemble the twin-tail of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane, and captured post-war America’s fascination with speed and sleek aeronautical design elements, sparking a tail-fin war in Detroit that would reach its apex a decade later before vanishing from the landscape completely. To many purists, the notion of cutting up a ’49 Caddy is sacrilege. Fortunately, Gibbons, Coddington and designer Larry Erickson had no such reservations.
Gibbons wanted a car that reflected ZZ Top’s music: An homage to traditionalist roots, with a strong mix of modern technology to combine the best of both eras and create something new. The original design included a huge motor, roll cage and exotic racing style suspension components. A sober re-think changed the design to be more Bonneville Salt Flats inspired look, with more conventional off-the-shelf mechanical parts to better suit the car’s intended life as a music video and car show star.
Boyd’s shop built a custom frame for the car, and outfitted it with ’85 Corvette front suspension and a Ford 9 inch rear end. A new fuel injected 500 inch Cadillac motor from GM settled into the frame rails, and the heavily re-worked body panels began to take shape around the car.
Drawing on Bonneville influences again, the wheels are one-piece 22 inch aluminum units that look like a hybrid between old style Caddy sombrero caps and smooth, spun aluminum salt flat discs. In the grille sits a polished Moon style tank, a hot rod part unheard of on a kustom, but somehow it feels right at home in CadZZilla’s mouth. The hood and front fenders have been welded together into one fixed assembly, and the entire front end tilts forward for access to the engine room. The rear wheels are fully skirted and enclosed, and the side window trim on the hard-topped roof borrows from the iconic styling of the Matranga Merc from a generation ago.
All of this was accomplished in six months, and in 1989 CadZZilla rolled out of the shop to begin eating Tokyo. It’s been over 20 years since CadZZilla was unveiled, and it still looks as current and jaw-dropping as it did then. I’m a staunch traditionalist at heart, but this car has always represented enough of the old ways combined with new technology to hold my attention for a couple of decades now.
Go dig out your vinyl copy of “Rio Grande Mud” and have a drool over the wonder that is CadZZilla…