Rock stars have fleets of superstar cars, but few can say that they’ve personally designed them. Enter James Hetfield, lead singer and guitarist for the world’s greatest metal band, Metallica. A lifelong car fan, the wealthy California native has invested 14 years of his time and money into collecting and building some of the automotive world’s most ambitious rebuilds and built-from-scratch hot rods.
His fantasy car collection is a true art collection, so it’s no wonder that 10 of Hetfield’s finest custom automobiles have been donated to by the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Key vehicles include the 1948 Jaguar “Black Pearl”; the 1934 Packard “Aquarius”; the 1953 Buick Skylark “Skyscraper”; the 1937 Lincoln Zephyr “VooDoo Priest”; the 1936 Auburn “Slow Burn”; the 1936 Ford “Iron Fist”; the 1937 Ford Coupe “Crimson Ghost”; and the 1932 Ford Roadster “Blackjack.”
“Like his music, James Hetfield’s car collection is a reflection of his creativity as an artist,” said Petersen Automotive Museum Executive Director Terry L. Karges. “Paying homage to classic silhouettes with a hint of disregard for convention, each car on display in ‘Reclaimed Rust’ tells a unique story. We are thrilled to present this collection in an exhibit of rock star proportion.”
THIS EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTION IS
This stuff would not have happened if not the brilliant eye and mind of (custom car builder) Rick Dore. And there’s another builder who’s part of this, Scott Mumford (of Fastland Garage). His eye and hard work were essential.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GIVE UP YOUR COLLECTION TO THE PETERSEN?
It’s the pinnacle. It’s the best place to have your vehicles. Rick Dore (Hetfield’s custom car building partner) is pretty darn proud to see his creations shown in that place, as am I. This stuff would not have happened if not the brilliant eye and mind of (custom car builder) Rick Dore. And there’s another builder who’s part of this, Scott Mumford (of Fastland Garage). His eye and hard work was essential. And the cars weren’t doing me much good, just sitting in my garage. The thing that touches me the most is that they’re staying together. They belong together. I didn’t want to auction them off and watch them go all over. It’s a collection. It’s a lot like the Metallica albums that we’ve put out. The music marks my life and that’s what these cars have done for the past 14 years. I love that they’re going to stay together and tour together and more people can see them and youngsters are inspired by them and then they’ll call Rick Dore.
YOUR DAD ALWAYS HAD A PROJECT GOING IN THE GARAGE. HOW DID THAT AFFECT YOU?
It was a fun place to explore. It was a fun part of the house that the rest of the family didn’t know much about. Me and my dad would be tinkering in there with something. He had grown up without a father and he was raised by his grandfather, and I think he was neglected a lot, so he wanted to learn about stuff — what it is to be a man – and the only way he knew to do it was to do it himself. He didn’t have a lot of mentors so was in there tying his own flies, working on cars, and there were often deer carcasses hanging. A lot of things to discover while he was learning to be a man. It was a man cave.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE?
Yeah, I was always wondering what was going on in there. It was before You Tube so he was in there learning from hands-on experience – and would fail over and over until he got it right.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU LEARNED HOW TO DRIVE?
Hmm, it was about five years ago. I’m still working on it. (laughs) No, when I was growing up I couldn’t wait to drive. I had a high school buddy who got a car before everyone else. It was a Duster and we were all jealous. I just hung out with the guys who had cars to get around and hear the sounds. It was cooler than my skateboard.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAR?
My first car was one I borrowed from my brother, a ’67 Barracuda Fastback. It didn’t suck! But…I crashed it into a tree within the first couple of weeks. I fixed it – well, a friend of mine did. There’s something called Bondo. (laughs) Much cheaper than taking it to a shop. It had air shocks in the back and I would jack that thing up, but I didn’t customize it because it was my brother’s car. From there on, in the days of the Chevy Luv Truck I got one of those and you could customize those quite easily, so I did. From that point on I tinkered with anything I got my hands on.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CAR THAT YOU THOUGHT “I CAN REALLY CHANGE THIS CAR”?
Besides the Barracuda? Because I really changed that one. (laughs) Well, we were on tour and a friend of mine was working on the tour, I just love the Tri-Fives. (1955, 1956 and 1957 Chevys). I love the ’55 and he had a bead on one so that started it. It was a simple car that ran really fast. I put an engine in it that was way too big for it. When we were recording an album and got frustrated, I’d hand the keys to (producer) Bob Rock and say “Here, go let some steam out.” The tires would come back bald.
WHAT WERE YOUR CAR CULTURE INFLUENCES?
Growing up in Downey, California I had two older half-brothers and there was a hot rod scene at the corner where the first ever McDonald’s was. Mostly Tri-Fives, but my brother had a Volkswagen (cringes). You go with what you can afford. I liked anything custom that made noise. Anything that bothered my parents.
WHEN MUSIC CAME INTO YOUR LIFE, HOW DID THAT ALTER WHAT YOU WERE DOING CREATIVELY WITH CARS? IS THERE ANY CROSSOVER?
Loudness and bothering my parents. Growing up, music was a major part of our family. My brother played drums, and there were musical instruments around the house all the time, so I was able to mess around on those electrical toys. Then some tough childhood stuff happened. My father left, my mom passed away, I went to live with my brother, finished high school – and music was my friend. It spoke to me, it spoke about me, and it wasn’t going to leave me, so music became my best friend.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CAR THAT YOU BUILT?
Before joining Beatniks Car Club, I got a hold of a ’53 Buick Special convertible and turned that into a sled (custom build from a junk car) by myself. Then I had a friend fix it and make it drive straight. I was super into daring-to-fail, like my dad. I’d never welded before, so I learned how to do it. I was fortunate to be able to begin to afford some of these toys.
WAS THE BEATNIKS CAR CLUB KEY TO YOUR SKILLS AS A CAR BUILDER?
Definitely. They’re bunch of artists that didn’t really seem to fit in with the world and they formed their own car club. At the time I was looking for family and that was my family for a little while. The custom culture inspired me, for sure. The Bubble Cars, and the Big Daddy Roth stuff, fiberglass artists, and rat rods, but it was mostly sleds, white walls and a couple sleeves of tattoos.
WHAT DID YOU MOVE ON TO NEXT?
In the ‘70s it was all about muscle cars. Loud, fast. The Beatniks were very different: easy, slow and low in the weeds. I got into the Beatniks because I was driving a ’23 bucket that was insane. It had a glass body so I was pretty much driving an engine around on rails. Pretty dangerous but that got me into the Beatniks. Then I began to see all the beauty that they were doing with Rick Dore’s influence, walking me through the auto shows. Amazing pieces of art. He was the one who allowed me to get to that next level. Financially, I was in a really great place because this band I’m in was doing pretty good, and we were able to join forces and create art that no one had done before. I got pretty good at photoshop, drawing cars that existed in my head — how to shop ‘em, how to ‘chop ‘em. We’d experiment with paint, chrome, and brass on the grill which was a whole new avenue for us. There are truly a lot of people who put their passion and craft into each car. We’re just good at finding those right people.
WHAT WAS YOUR PROCESS FOR CHOOSING THE CARS FOR YOUR CUSTOM DESIGNS?
Well, at one point I had 40-something cars and they were all projects…to be. So, I thinned it out to what we thought were the most important cars in the hot rod world. The ’32 Ford, the Skylark, and a couple cars that we invented — the Aquarius and the Black Pearl — which are hand-built from scratch from a drawing. It blew my mind.
YOUR CUSTOMS ARE GENUINE WORKS OF ART.
They are, but it was very important that they drive, too, because these are cars that I took my kids to school in…though getting over the speed bump in the parking lot was always difficult. For school fundraisers, I donated that I would drive the winning bidder’s kids to school for a month in the hot rod of their choice. That was always fun.