Chevrolet La Jolla Custom Coupe
Named in honor of noted designer Harry Bentley Bradley’s California hometown, the La Jolla is one of the very few period customs that have survived intact to the present day and it continues to be an important historical document of the heyday of the restyling art form. The 1951 Chevrolet that evolved into the La Jolla was actually the first car owned by Bradley, which he purchased in 1954. Although young Harry promised his parents that he would not modify the car, the customizing process was already well underway the day it was purchased. As later related by Bradley, he was simply following his creative instinct and nothing could stop him.
Despite limited funds, Bradley’s attention to detail and sophisticated design parameters resulted in a finished product that remains attractive and fresh over 50 years later. Early on, Bradley joined forces with his friend Herb Gary, who skillfully “pancaked” the hood and trunk – a complex technique where the hood and rear deck lid were molded into the adjoining fenders with new and smaller openings cut out of the flatter top panels. To open the hood, Bradley added a pair of electric screw drives, which also allowed engine heat to be vented in traffic. Next, the hardtop roof was chopped three inches, the lower windshield moldings were modified and the doors were reshaped, combined with massaged A-pillars and custom one-piece side windows. The car’s sleek and unique profile was enhanced with a Continental spare tire kit, a highly modified rear window treatment, radically extended fenders and floating Plexiglas rocker panels.
Other notable custom touches included frenched headlamps, a pair of Marchal driving lamps, a circa-1949 Mercury grille opening and a handmade copper grille insert, in addition to a smoothed front bumper and a license plate guard liberated from a 1949 Chevrolet. Additionally, fine copper wire accents neatly delineate the headlamp surrounds, grille opening and rear fender peaks, while a unique star-shaped ornament projects discreetly from the center of the grille.
Although the La Jolla was conceived and executed from the outset as a stunning custom statement, Bradley had no interest in just showing the car. As such, he eschewed the use of lowering blocks, which compromised handling and reduced suspension travel. Instead, he beefed up the frame with a convertible K-member and cleverly raised the rear frame section by 3 ½ inches, effectively lowering the car while maintaining the original ride and handling characteristics. A lowered floor panel preserved headroom under the chopped top, while a raised transmission tunnel was added both for stylistic reasons as well as for driveshaft clearance.
For power, Bradley installed a powerful new Chevrolet small-block V8 engine and, as he still suffered from the effects of polio, which he contracted as a child, his friend Floyd Martin installed a set of hand controls for the throttle and brakes. Completed in 1956, the car was maintained and frequently driven by Bradley until 1999, at which point it was sold to Jack Walker. Walker then enlisted the help of Bradley for its subsequent restoration, with Bradley designing a new white and light-lavender interior with a custom floor console before the exterior was beautifully refinished in dark purple. As presented, the La Jolla has clearly received professional care and proper storage and comes complete with a substantive selection of correspondence from Harry Bradley, describing the design elements of the car and enumerating in detail the vision of a master designer and customizer.
This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in September 2009 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California.
4.6L Chevrolet V8 engine, three-speed automatic transmission, independent lowered front suspension with unequal-length A-arms and coil springs, semi-floating rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 115"
Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel