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Paint it Red – The Story of Joe Bailon

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Paint it Red – The Story of Joe Bailon

I’ll admit it…I did not know about Joe Bailon until it was too late. When I read that he had passed away, at 94 on September 25th, I felt bad that I didn’t get to appreciate his work while he was still alive. And that was especially true after I read about his life’s work and found out that he was the man who invented Candy Apple Red, a color that took ten years to perfect!

Paint it red: The origins of Candy Apple Red

You’d be hard-pressed to find a vehicle that didn’t look good in a shade of red. There’s, of course, arrest-me-red, fire engine red and Ferrari red, but the one that people know the best is Candy Apple red. Even if they don’t know exactly what it looks like they know that with a name like that it’s going to be gorgeous.

The process is easier said than done. First, you need to apply a coat of gold paint. Then add red paint over it, and finally a layer of clear coat. The trick is to mix red paint with the clear coat to get that rich, saturated red that looks good enough to eat. Bailon’s paint jobs were famous for looking ultra-smooth, and thick enough to cut with a knife before hitting bare metal.

The inspiration for Candy Apple red, according to the American Hot Rod Foundation, came from Bailon’s fascination with how taillights looked at night in the rain. That rich shade of red made him think about how an entire car would look in that color. The story goes that he was driving one night and noticed the taillights in the car in front of him glowing in the night. That image was burned into his brain, and for the next ten years he set to recreate that color by mixing countless paint combinations in his shop.

It wasn’t until 1956 that he finally got it right. He sprayed a layer of gold and chased it with a shade of extra-brilliant maroon and topped it off with clear lacquer. The rest is Kustom – you know, custom with a ‘K’ – history.

Joe Bailon, Kustom Art

Born on March 18th, 1923, in Newcastle, California, Joe Bailon was the youngest of ten children. Bailon is a legend in the hot rod community and was a master builder when it came to kustom cars (and no, that’s not a typo).

Today we call it modding, but in its heyday it was something entirely different. It took the hand of a craftsman and the eye of an artist. The ability to imagine a car made up of parts from others in order to build a vehicle that was different but familiar at the same time. Try taking an Audi R8 and imagine improving its image by using body parts from a Ferrari, dash from a Lamborghini and wheels off a Bentley. Granted, back then cars were way easier to take apart and modify. No computers, sensitive tech or carbon fiber, just pure steel and chrome. Add heat, and a bit of melted lead, and you could mold fenders, bumpers, or body panels into whatever shape you needed to fit on your custom sled.

The car that put Bailon on the map was Miss Elegance, a 1941 Chevrolet that he rescued after it had been wrecked. According to the full story at Custom Car Chronicle, the Chevy had rear-ended a Navy truck. The front end and side were damaged. As these cars were built like tanks, Bailon simply removed the damaged fender, fixed the radiator fan, and was able to drive the car back to his shop.

Soon after, Bailon started working on it. He chopped the roof about 3 inches and ordered new fenders for the car, molding them to the body to create a smoother look. The rear fenders were off a 40’s Cadillac; they were longer, and gave the Chevy a sleeker look. Later the front fenders were swapped for a set from a 40’s Oldsmobile, the same size but longer – that really changed the Chevy’s looks for the better. The third version of the car came when Bailon was inspired by the legendary Tucker Torpedo, when he again reshaped the rear fenders.

The front end was custom as well, and over the gestation of Miss Elegance Bailon created seven different fronts for the car. An artist’s biggest critic is himself, so Bailon was always modifying the Chevy after it was done because he kept thinking of new ideas to make his vision a better reality. The taillights were fitted from a ’49 Ford. The wheels were crafted from farm equipment and cut to 16 inches with a Studebaker door ornament as the centerpiece. And the steering wheel was taken from a ’52 Lincoln.

The interior was another feat. He removed the dashboard and made a new one from scratch using black sheet metal. He created holes to fit 13 gauges and 32 dash knobs to make it look luxurious and futuristic. To top it off he had the whole piece chromed. The interior was dressed in dark red velvet, upholstered by Bailon’s second wife. Miss Elegance’s color was a base coat of yellow over a maroon finish with silver to add a hint of sparkle, giving the car a dark, rich shade of red. This was pre-Candy Apple red.

Miss Elegance was shown at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1952 and again in ’53, winning several awards in both. By 1953 Bailon sold the car because he needed the money for other projects. Miss Elegance was sold to a used car dealer for $400 bucks, after it was estimated to be worth of up to $12,000. The problem with custom cars is that it can be hard to get your money back – it’s custom, meaning it may not be to everyone’s taste. Miss Elegance sat on the lot for a while before being sold.

Bailon recalls seeing his car around town a few years later, parked on the side of the street. The paint was ruined and it had a big dent in the roof. Then it was sold to a new owner who repaired the roof, fitted a Hemi engine, opened up the fenders and fitted big tires in the back. He used Miss Elegance for drag racing…from award-winning Kustom to drag racer.

Unfortunately for Miss Elegance, by the 1970’s the owner had gotten divorced and the car was crushed. The owner managed to remove the custom-made hubcaps and the junkyard removed the custom dash before destroying the car. The dash was later returned to Bailon, who used it as inspiration to build a Miss Elegance II. The car would be built around the dash. A project that was meant for spare time and was an off-and-on build, but was sadly never completed at the time of his death this past week.

A Pioneer in Automotive Art

Joe Bailon will live on in the imagination of anyone who wants to see their vehicle in a rich candy color, whether it’s a wrap or a full paint job. What I admire about Bailon, and car builders of that era, is their genius for detail. I can’t imagine how long it would take me to build a car the way they did. The imagination and skill involved is nothing short of amazing, and should be recognized and admired for generations to come.
Thank you, Joe Bailon, for inspiring those after you and giving us the technique to create one killer paint job. May you forever rest in peace.

photos from [customcarchronicle.com and hotrodhotline.com]

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Jesus Garcia

Freelance Writer, Vintage Automotive collector. Struggling Auto Journalist/Writer looking for an opportunity. Visit my website for great car stories & articles! gearheadlogic1991.

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