The Wichita hot rod builder behind one of the most popular model cars in 1960s America has died.
David “Dave” Stuckey – who took a 1932 Ford two-door sedan and sculpted it into a custom car that ended up at the 1964 World’s Fair and inspired the Li’l Coffin Monogram model car – died Monday, his family said. Stuckey was 79.
Any boy who built a model car in the 1960s would have seen that car.
“He was probably one of a handful of customizers in the world … that you could call good,” said his former wife, Rayletta Stuckey.
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One of the first skills he learned as a teen was welding. “He could weld just about any kind of metal you handed him to weld,” she said. Then he learned the art of sculpting car bodies, and for him that talent was “just a natural thing,” she said.
Stuckey bought his first car – a 1934 Ford, still one of the most sought-after American cars, known for its “cool” factor – at age 13. The boy brought it home and started modifying it.
Intentionally or not, Stuckey “terrorized the neighborhood” with his hot rods, Rayletta Stuckey said with a hearty laugh.
“Dave Stuckey” became a legendary name in the Wichita custom car and racing car world, and his legend extends far beyond Wichita.
According to a Jan. 3, 2014, article by Daniel Strohl in Hemmings Daily, “In the 1960s, there likely wasn’t a car-crazed kid who didn’t build a scale-model copy of Monogram’s Li’l Coffin show rod, the candy apple red Ford-two door sedan with a cantilevered roof accompanied by a relaxed skeleton on the box-top art.”
The article tells the story of the Wichita teenager, Stuckey, buying a 1932 Ford sedan from a used car lot in 1954. He said he paid $50 and kept customizing it over the years, his ex-wife said.
The ‘32 Ford traveled the show-car circuit and ended up in the hands of Monogram, a company that made model cars. It had been displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The attention helped Stuckey get a job as an automotive stylist with American Motors Company in Detroit. Working in clay modeling, he learned finer details of craftsmanship, Rayletta Stuckey said.
After Stuckey left for the Motor City, where he worked a few years, he ventured to New Orleans, then returned to Wichita. He was always shaping cars. He had a shop in Wichita since around 1968, Rayletta Stuckey said. They married in 1975, and she helped him in the shop. For a while, he built a lot of so-called funny-car race cars, then shifted back to customizing, she said.
People came to him for advice on how to build hot rods, she said. “Day and night, guys always in the shop.”
He was a perfectionist: “David had a reputation for taking forever for finishing a vehicle, especially if it was his own.” He put very little plastic into car bodies. He used a lot of lead.
Stuckey suffered a stroke several years ago. “It slowed him down” for awhile, she said. But he kept working on projects, including a new version of his original Li’l Coffin, which he called Li’l’ Coffin AH-SO. She described his new version of a 1932 Ford as “radical, radical, radical,” with hand-formed fenders and shiny detail work.
In the past six months or so, Stuckey was tempted to work on the car but had difficulty because of health problems.
Another of his favorite cars he crafted over the years was an 1951 Mercury. “It was total customized,” Rayletta Stuckey said, with two upside down taillights on either side.
With any of his cars, she said, “Most people you’d talk to would say they were works of art.”
Larry Wolfe of Wichita is one of the people lucky enough to end up with one of Stuckey’s customs, a 1965 Pontiac Catalina. Stuckey started modifying it around 1968 and used it as a daily driver before selling it around 1970. Years later, Wolfe learned that the car had been in Delaware for decades. Wolfe managed to acquire it and has been working on it the past four years.
One of the big questions, Wolfe said, is what color scheme to paint it. It had changed colors since Stuckey had painted it “kandy wild cherry over black.”
“He was a craftsman .. and a hell of a painter,” Wolfe said.
At the hospital last week, Stuckey opened his eyes, saw that Wolfe was visiting him and asked whether Wolfe had decided on a color.
Wolfe told Stuckey he was going back to what the master modifier had chosen decades ago: “kandy wild cherry over black.”
Funeral arrangements for Stuckey are pending.