Dave Shuten: Restoring the Icons of Kustom Kulture

Story by Jeff Alexander
Photos (where listed) by Mitzi Valenzuela – @mitziandco

Galpin Auto Sports continues serving as a great ambassador for kustom kulture. With lead designer and fabricator Dave Shuten’s discerning eye for detail and his relentless passion, Galpin’s commitment to preserving kustom kulture and elevating it with their builds remains unparalleled. Galpin’s custom shop president, Beau Boeckmann remains an avid collector and continues searching for the most iconic vehicles that defined kustom kulture.

 Model Terra Jackson being stickered up by Dave Shuten.
Photo by Mitzi Valenzuela.

Boeckmann’s recent acquisition of the George Barris Hirohata Merc earned widespread media attention because it has been continuously recognized as the crown jewel of kustoms. The final auction price of $2 million set a Mecum auction record for a kustom, but for Galpin, the vehicle’s rarity and pedigree outweighed the cost. Shuten reflected on the Hirohata’s historical impact.

“This was George and Sam Barris’ opus! The symmetry is perfect! Every subtle detail is spot-on and the gnarly color choices were like no other during its time. Every time I lay eyes on it there’s another nuance I discover. This Merc is king of the kustoms and in my eyes, no other vehicle really comes close,” affirmed Shuten.

George and Sam Barris designed the Merc in 1951 for Bob Hirohata and later unveiled their design in 1952 at General Motors’ Motorama event. The kustom was an immediate success and it earned its rightful place atop moto culture due to design appointments of being nosed, decked, shaved, and chopped. Additionally, the Merc’s paintwork commanded attention and its style eclipsed the production cars GM was attempting to showcase. Perhaps the design appointments are taken for granted today because we often see them attempted to be emulated, but the Barris brothers were trailblazers and remain legends within kustom kulture.

“The Barris brothers absolutely elevated kustom kulture and there’s just no better history than the Hirohata,” stated Shuten.

Hirohata Mercury photo courtesy of Dave Shuten

Shuten continues paying homage to classic kustom kulture but his reputation for enhancing kustom vehicles and moving them forward is undeniable. Originally recruited by Galpin 15 years ago, Shuten has had the unique experience of restoring some of the most celebrated and rarest vehicles. Among the kustom kulture jewels Shuten has restored is Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth’s Orbitron. Growing up in Motor City, Shuten witnessed kustom kulture’s evolution, and his excitement for the Hirohata purchase takes him back to when ‘rods and kustoms first commanded his attention.

“I was fortunate enough to attend all the indoor ‘70s kustom shows and it was my life. When I was 12, I helped my dad build a ‘72 Cutlass wagon for demolition derby races. It’s hard to kill that! I was so drawn to kustoms because they were unlike anything else out there. I was really happy to see the return of traditional hot rods in the ‘90s and I like the crazy van stuff I’m seeing now. I feel we’re living in a time that acceptance is easier, no matter what kind of weird you are,” laughed Shuten.

Shuten rose to prominence with his attention to detail and even earned some prime-time views during Discovery Channel’s Car Kings. The network wanted to further capitalize on moto culture’s mainstream acceptance and the network approached Galpin to dedicate a show to Shuten’s work and the shop’s extensive history. Focused on capturing all the pressure and details that go into building high-end vehicles, Shuten quickly stated he struggled with his new role.

“That was a difficult experience for me because I’m not one for being the center of attention. My goal is to always have the vehicle do the talking, so to speak. The timing of filming was awful because it was like one or two weeks after Covid, so the show didn’t really do as well as everyone hoped. The process was rough and a tremendous amount of work. I don’t have a big staff; it’s just me and a part-time helper, so I was getting like four hours of sleep for six months and no days off. I guess you can say one good moment was being alive after getting it done,” laughed Shuten.

Car Kings only filmed one season, and, according to Shuten, there are no current plans underway to resume.

Grass Hopper Model T photos courtesy of Galpin Auto Sports

Adamant to have his builds and kustom kulture speak for themselves, Shuten once again couldn’t escape the spotlight as he and Boeckmann recently shared the honor of being inducted into The National Rod & Custom Hall of Fame. Owned and operated by legendary kustom builder, Darryl Starbird, the honor has even stronger meaning for Shuten because he is formally recognized by a kustom kulture trailblazer. Boeckmann was also inducted for his extensive car collection and with his recent purchase of the Hirohata, we’re confident this won’t be his last award.

Shuten is currently working on restoring the X Sonic and Ultimus. He stated the X Sonic earned its place in history as the first bubble top kustom and the first to feature a hydraulic suspension. The Ultimus was owned by Tom Holden and began life as a ‘59 El Camino, but its radical, dual bubble top transformation wrote its kustom kulture legacy. Decades later, the Ultimus earned mainstream media attention after it appeared on American Pickers.

Model Terra Jackson at Galpin Speed Shop. Photos by Mitzi Valenzuela.

“The Ultimus has always been one of my favorite bubble tops and now I finally get to be with it! This car is a lot of firsts. It was the first bubble top kustom, first candy fade paint, and basically the first lo rider because of the suspension. The Ultimus was local to me and I’ve been into it my whole life and I finally have this unique opportunity to be with it, up close and personal,” said Shuten.

Galpin’s purchase of the Hirohata Merc reinforces George and Sam Barris’ legacies as trailblazers. The design and execution remain timeless and for Shuten, the vehicle’s well-deserved accolades are an affirmation of kustom kulture’s endurance.

“The Merc is reinforcement of our culture and it has all the pedigree, all the documentation. There is nothing like it and it set a record for kustoms. To me, it’s priceless, and hell, I think it’s worth more than the price paid,” concluded Shuten.

 Model Terra Jackson all stickered up by Dave Shuten.
Photos by Mitzi Valenzuela.





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