“Reclaimed Rust”

The Petersen Automotive Museum Showcases Metallica’s James Hetfield’s Heavy Metal Car Collection

Rock stars and cool cars are a solid combination. Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Jimmy Vaughn, Keith Urban, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons are just a few of the major rock musicians whose unbridled passion for modified cars is totally in sync with their musical accomplishments.

And then there’s James Hetfield.

Metallica’s acclaimed singer, songwriter and guitar virtuoso shares his colleagues’ love of custom cars – but he’s arguably produced more cool rides than any of them. And he just gave most of his cars away. More about that in a moment…

Hetfield describes his adolescence as ‘always looking for his Dad, who was hanging out in the garage,’ and getting to drive a fast car – his brother’s Plymouth Barracuda — as soon as he could. He grew up in Downey, CA, in the midst of the hot car scene, haunting the drive-in restaurant parking lots, on his skateboard,  and loving “…everything that made loud noise and annoyed his parents.”

In the early 1980’s, as his thrash band began its meteoric rise, Metallica’s frontman joined the “Beatniks of Koolsville,” an exclusive car club, studded with multi-tattooed members who’ve built some of the baddest wheels on the planet. As soon as Hetfield could afford to seriously personalize his cars, he did so, with the help of fellow Beatnik, and Custom Car Hall of Fame legend, Rick Dore, one of the foremost practitioners of the customizer’s art.

“James definitely knows what he wants,” Dore says, “and I give him a little guidance when he needs it.”

After he joined the Beatniks, James says, “ I started seeing all the beauty that they were doing. Then with Rick Dore’s influence, I started going to the next level, seeing a lot of the big car shows, especially the (Grand National) Roadster Show, where you have people winning awards and making amazing pieces of art. Rick was the one who allowed me to get to that next level. Financially I was in a really great place, because this band I was in was doing pretty well. And then we were able to hook up and join forces to create some art that no one had done before.”

Ten of Hetfield’s most outrageous cars are on display at the Petersen until October 20th, after the biggest opening night crowd the museum has ever had. Hetfield’s early efforts with Rick Dore (who built seven of the ten cars on display), were customized versions of popular older models, like his sleek 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr coupe, a rad ride he calls “The Voodoo Priest.”

But he’s moved on to one-of-a-kind coachbuilt creations like the “Black Pearl,” a midnight-hued fastback with gold accents, which started life as a 1948 Jaguar sedan, and “Aquarius,” a low-slung silver stiletto of a roadster.
“Aquarius” steals the show, slowly rotating on a turntable. Capped with a rakish removable hardtop, “Aquarius” resembles a coachbuilt confection that famed Parisian artisans Figoni and Falaschi might’ve hand-crafted in the mid-1930’s for Delahaye.

No two cars here are alike. “Skyscraper” is a slammed ’53 Buick Skylark, It started life as a serious collector car that’s seldom ever customized. You could say it’s too nice to mess with and you’d be right. But Hetfield’s pale purple convertible retains the essence of GM design guru Harley Earl’s famous Skylark, with its dipped beltline and fully radiused wheel openings – but it’s been de-chromed, the surfaces smoothed off, and quite honestly, it’s even nicer than the stock version. “That’s what started our relationship, building cars,” says Dore. “When James asked me, I said, ‘I’d love to do it. Who gets to do a Skylark?”

Other cars on display include a radically reshaped 1936 Auburn Speedster re-creation called “Slow Burn,” and three chopped and lowered old Fords – a 1936 Ford five-window coupe named “Iron Fist,” a hard-topped 1937 Ford Coupe that Hetfield calls “Crimson Ghost,” and a pristine, fenderless 1932 Ford Highboy Roadster called “Black Jack.” Period-perfect, it was built by Josh Mills & Co., Marietta, CA, to resemble a 1940s-era roadster that would have cruised the streets of LA in the early days, and would have been raced on the Dry Lakes. (Oh, and it’s not black; it’s a very dark brown).

If you’re wondering about these car names, giving a modified car a sexy moniker is a practice that was popular in mid-century. Practitioners of the custom car art still like to do it. So every car in Hetfield’s stable has a name. Some of them, like the 1963 Lincoln four-door hardtop that Hetfield calls “Dead Kennedy,” probably compliments the band by the same name, but its resemblance to the JFK ‘death car,’ especially with its mix of flat and glossy black paint, makes it a bit eerie.

Str8ight Edge, is a stretched, crew-cabbed ’56 Ford pickup that’s scallop-painted and taken to the next level, far beyond anything practical, but that’s the essence of customizing. Says Hetfield: “Scott Mugford of Blue Collar Customs, who did that truck (and “Iron Fist”), was someone that I really related to. He would say, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s try this. Let’s go for it.’”

Rick Dore explains: “I think James learned from me that you just didn’t go out and get a car and customize it for the sake of customizing it. You picked a model that appealed to you right from the factory. This was what we did, pre-“Black Pearl,” it’s cars like the “Skyscraper” (Buick Skylark), the “Voodoo Priest,” not the coachbuilt cars. You stood back and looked at the lines, saw something nice that Detroit gave us and thought about what (changes) would work for this car. What would give it more rhythm, more elegance, and more attitude. That’s what makes a great custom car.”

“James is always involved,” Dore explains, “and James has good ideas and his own sense of styling. But he was always busy or on tour. He’d pick a style that he liked, or that I liked, towards the end. And he’d leave a lot of it to me, although I’d check in with him a lot.”

“Black Pearl” was the car that broke the mold for this dynamic duo. “There were no renderings.” Dore says, “we ‘winged’ (sic) the ‘Black Pearl.” James and I wanted to do a car that was from the ‘30s, that was a fastback, but like a concept car. Luckily, we were in the door with Marcel De Ley, one of the top metal shapers in the US – I said, it was a rare opportunity. He said, “Let’s go for it.” I threw out some ideas. James pretty much left it up to me until the color. He wanted a black pearl, which we were really never able to pull off. There’d be phone calls back and forth. He usually went along with what I’d suggest. The front of the windshield looks like a Jaguar because that was what Marcel was looking at.”

“Before “Black Pearl,” Dore admits, “I knew nothing about coachbuilding, (literally building a custom car from scratch). Marcel and his son Luc taught me a lot. I’m not a metal shaper. I remember Marcel telling me,’ if we only had a picture, Rick, just a drawing.’ Of course it went way past that. It came out really good. I got smart after that. For Aquarius, I contacted a top designer, Eric Brockmeyer. You need an educated car designer and a great team of craftsmen to build a coachbuilt car.”

Why is Hetfield donating all these cars?

Rick Dore explains: “James accomplished everything he wanted. If he was hunting to make a mark in the custom car world, he did it. He’s won everything multiple times.”

“He was going to send a few cars to other museums, scatter them.” “I said. what about the Petersen; it’s a destination point. Everybody goes to Los Angeles.”

Petersen Museum Founding Chairman Bruce Meyer says, “James Hetfield’s cars clearly fit into our history and the diversity of our exhibits. They check every box of hot rods and custom cars with their beauty and uniqueness. The quality and magnitude of James’ donation raises the bar to a whole new level.”

Rick Dore adds: “James’ legacy is giving these cars to the Petersen with them being on display as long as possible. Opening night was a trip. It was a mob. They were there to see James. I’m in the front row. He gives me a lot of credit. And he does love cars – it’s not a fluky thing.”

James Hetfield sums it up: “These cars are drivers, they’re cars that I took my kids to school in. Getting over the speed bump in the parking lot was always difficult. And the Petersen is the pinnacle. There’s no other place, man! It is the best place to have your vehicles. And I know Rick Dore is pretty darn proud to see his creations here, as am I.”