The futuristic car with a rocket-ship interior and the biggest fins on the block was named one of the top 10 custom cars in the nation in 1960 by Car Craft magazine. Two years later at...

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The futuristic car with a rocket-ship interior and the biggest fins on the block was named one of the top 10 custom cars in the nation in 1960 by Car Craft magazine.

Two years later at the Seattle World’s Fair, it took top prize in the “Futurama” custom-car competition.

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But not long after that, the custom-car craze died, and the flashy ’56 Chevy known as “Madame FiFi” disappeared, believed to have spent its final days in a local wrecking yard.

Seattle car collector Dan Holms, smitten by Madame FiFi when he first saw her in 1959, spent about 30 years trying to find the car. He gave up a few years ago.

“I had been looking for years and years and years,” said Holms, 62. “Then we got the bright idea, ‘Why don’t I just clone it?’ “



“Drag king to show champ”



Here is how Madame FiFi was described in the February 1961 Car Craft magazine

“From drag king to show champ in three busy years is the record John Buchan has set with his stylish, Seattle, Wash., ’56 Chev.

“The top has been chopped 3½ inches while dropped spindles in conjunction with a C’d frame take care of the lowering problem. Suspension is assisted by air units. Interior of John’s Bel Air is done over in Naugahyde and Freize, the seats resembling something from a rocket ship due to their original styling.

“Front and rear pans are reworked Studes, fitted with tube grilles. Fins are cold rolled sheet metal, hammer welded, leaded to panels. The engine is a full house 1959 Corvette.”

That idea has turned into a makeover project of a ’56 Chevy Bel Air that Holms found a few years ago in Lewiston, Idaho.

The project has brought together a kind of all-star team of Seattle-area custom-car buffs who have pitched in one way or another to transform the car into the second coming of Madame FiFi.

Many are men in their 60s who remember seeing the original Madame FiFi at Seattle-area car shows in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (The name, which came from first owner Curtis Shuck, is a play off the then-revolutionary fuel-injection engine.)

Tom Nielsen of Mukilteo is one of them. The retired teacher, who entered his own customized car in the World’s Fair contest (a ’41 Mercury convertible), has written a history of Madame FiFi in which he recalls seeing it for the last time.

“She was sitting in a gas station on Aurora,” Nielsen wrote. “The engine and signature seats were gone and the rest of the car was for sale. It was sad to see such a beautiful car end up in a situation like this. No one knows what happened after that, but it is likely that she was crushed.”

COURTESY OF DAN HOLMS
The original Madame FiFi changed colors several times before reaching the end of its road.

It’s unlikely the new Madame FiFi will face such a fate. Holms said he doesn’t even plan to drive it much, if at all, when he’s finished with it, despite its powerful 392 Chrysler Hemi engine, as the original car had in 1962.

Holms said it will be used solely as a show car, and he intends to take it to shows around the world.

To ensure historical accuracy, the Madame FiFi team is working from about 300 photos and dozens of articles about the original car, Holms said.

Shuck created the original as a “mild custom,” with no chopped top or big fins, Nielsen said.

COURTESY OF TOM NIELSEN
The new Madame FiFi peeks out of the shop earlier this year.

The second owner was Bellevue homebuilder John Buchan, who turned the car into “a radical custom,” Nielsen said. Buchan kept the title and has given it to Holms, a longtime friend. Buchan gave Holms his first ride in Madame FiFi back in 1959.

The project is expected to be completed sometime in 2006.

The extensive reworking of the body was done by Jack Veness of Yelm. The finish work is being done Scott Bailey, and upholstery work is being done by Tim Norman. Bailey and Norman are Seattle-area custom-car craftsmen. Noted local car historian Bruce Heather, who saw the original Madame FiFi at the World’s Fair, is coordinating the re-creation.