CadZZilla – Billy Gibbons’ Mind-Bending Cadillac Custom
Hot rods and rock ’n’ roll have been symbiotic forces in American pop culture since the 1950s. They go together like wide whites and steelies, guitars and wah-wah pedals. The most famous guitar is even named after a car part — Fender.
And the songs? Who can forget the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Shut Down,” Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” Jeff Beck’s “Hot Rod Honeymoon,” Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets,” to name just a few.
Heck, in the early 1950s, Hot Rod magazine itself joined in the fun, producing a handful of jazzy hot rod themed tunes featuring famed vocalist Scatman Crothers belting out lyrics penned by Stroker McGurk cartoonist Tom Medley.
In the modern era, no rock band is more closely associated with hot rods than ZZ Top, the decibel-driven group led by front man (and beard stylist) Billy Gibbons. A few months back, we profiled the Eliminator Coupe, made famous as ZZ’s signature ride in several hit MTV music videos.
The idea for a swoopy, customized early Cad first came to Vintage Air impresario Jack Chisenhall while daydreaming about wind-cheating shapes for Bonneville. He shared his thoughts with Larry Erickson, a friend who worked for GM’s design studio. Using the 1948 Caddy as a starting point, Erickson whipped up a rendering. “Larry nailed it,” Chisenhall told the Gazette recently, “It was an incredible interpretation.”
Chisenhall then approached Gibbons, a longtime friend and fellow Texan. A series of meetings took place during 1988 with Jack, Larry, and Billy finalizing the plans. Next a low-mileage, rust-free Caddy was plucked out of the arid Arizona desert and shipped to Boyd Coddington’s shop in California.
There the transition from Erickson’s sketch to reality was led by bodyman extraordinaire Craig Naff. To help with the process, Erickson hand painted a full-size drawing of the car on butcher paper hung on the shop wall.
What Naff pulled off in metal was just short of miraculous. Consider: The chopped top was essentially built from scratch, with a one-off windshield. The hood and front fenders were sectioned and combined into a tilt nose. Headlights were frenched and custom taillights crafted to fit the reshaped rear fenders. The front bumper was fitted with high-mounted Dagmars framing a Moon tank in the grille opening.
Under the hood pulsed an on-brand 500-inch Cadillac V8 built by Art Chrisman. Custom-built Holley fuel injection delivered the petrol. A Currie 9-inch rearend put the rubber to the road. The exhaust flowed through the rear bumper. Koni coil-overs orchestrated the ride, dampening a Corvette-based front suspension. The 16-inch wheels were carved out of billet by Boyd himself. The exterior was finished in deep purple (accidental rock band reference…) from House of Kolor. Incredibly, construction took a mere six months.
Aware of the car’s breakthrough design, the team adopted a skunkworks mentality to keep details secret. To manage the publicity that was surely to follow, the team worked with Hot Rod magazine on an exclusive debut, which included a swanky press introduction in New York city and an in-depth profile, featuring a giant fold-out photo spread.
Reaction was immediate. The hot-rod press lost their collective minds. While the shape echoed the Merc leadsleds of the 1950s, its modern sensibility, otherworldly profile, and exquisite craftsmanship was unique. Hot Rod’s Gray Baskerville called CadZZilla “the most incredible transformation he’d ever witnessed.” Even the stodgy Consumer Guide, in their History of Hot Rods & Customs, called it “the first really new type of custom since the heyday of the 1950s.”
Gazette Retro Rumblings columnist John Drummond recently chronicled an epic cross-country trip in CadZZilla by writers Steve Anderson and Rob Kinnan, a 2,200-mile jaunt that included numerous triple-digit speed runs. Goodguys also booked the ’ZZilla as a publicity hook for events in the early 1990s. For all his celebrity, Gibbons enjoyed sharing the car with the public.
As the de facto project manager of CadZZilla, Chisenhall fondly remembers the entire experience – the countless flights between San Antonio and L.A.; Erikson doing likewise from Detroit; the negotiations with Hot Rod magazine; coordinating with Gibbons as the band continued to tour; working with Naff to keep construction on track and on budget.
But mostly, Chisenhall remembers just how unique CadZZilla really was. “Remember,” he explained, “that was 30 years ago. No one had ever seen anything like it, and it was associated with one of the most famous rock bands. It was a revolutionary car.
“When CadZZilla hit the streets, it was like something had landed from Mars.”
For us humble earthlings, the car is currently on display at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles, a fitting landing spot for one of the most legendary hot rods of all time.