Master metalshaper Marcel De Ley dies at age 89

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Photos courtesy the De Ley family, except where noted.

From the pressures of war, Marcel De Ley created not only art in steel and aluminum, but also a legacy as one of America’s most prominent and talented coachbuilders, even if he didn’t call himself one. With his death last month at the age of 89, it now falls to his son Luc to continue that legacy.

“I wish I knew what he forgot,” Luc De Ley said last week from his shop in Norco, California. “I feel I have metalshaping skills, but he was an artist. He had a vision in his head and he would build it.”

Marcel De Ley had to grow up quick. At 14 or so, with the German Army occupying his homeland of Belgium during World War II, he left school to go to work building cabs and bodies for military trucks. While neither the trade nor the age at which he entered it were that unusual, Luc said, the circumstances were. German occupying forces had either imprisoned or conscripted most, if not all, of the skilled workers in the factory, so rather than serve an apprenticeship under another worker, he had to learn the trade himself with occasional bombs dropping around him.

Over the next 20 years, he continued to build his skills as a metalshaper and, sometime in the late 1950s, built a custom car for himself. According to Luc, an American soldier–Chasten Bowen–spotted the car while stationed in Europe and offered a deal: In exchange for building another custom car, Bowen would set up Marcel with a job in a collision shop and sponsor American citizenship for Marcel and his young family.

“My mom and dad became real good friends with the family,” Bowen’s son, Troy, said. “They actually started it over there in Belgium and brought it here to California around 1962 or 1963 to finish.”

Marcel completed the Ford Taunus-engined two-seat custom sports car (which never really got a name, but remained on the road throughout the 1980s and still exists in body only in Troy’s possession) in his off-hours from the collision shop. He also soon discovered that a number of cars brought into the shop–among them Ferraris and Duesenbergs–were forced to sit and wait for the shop’s owner to locate the hard-to-find or impossible-to-find parts necessary to fix the cars. So Marcel took it upon himself to hand-shape the required parts and by 1974 decided to open his own shop–Marcel’s Custom Metal in Corona, California–to replicate or repair rare auto bodies on a full-time basis.

“He loved it,” Luc said. “It’s what he liked to go do every day.”

Pretty soon both Luc and his brother Marc began to learn metalshaping and work alongside their father. At first, Luc said, the shop turned out chops and other custom metalwork for hot rods. “We fixed whatever we could fix, but eventually the cars were getting so bad with rust that dad said ‘How about we build you a new body?’”

And it wasn’t just hot rods the trio worked on: They built bodies for sports cars, Full Classics, and more recently bodies for French-inspired one-off customs like James Hetfield’s award-winning Black Pearl. All by hand, mostly using just the English wheel and some hammers. Just bodies, no paint, upholstery, or mechanicals.

Marcel De Ley-bodied 1932 Lincoln KB Boattail Speedster. Photos by Patrick Ernzen, courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

“Dad just liked cars, it didn’t matter whether it was a hot rod or an antique,” Luc said. “Every project he was just as excited about as the last.”

Along the way, the shop also picked up a number of high-profile clients. While most people who have heard of the De Leys learned of them through Boyd Coddington‘s TV show, Marcel and his sons have also turned out bodies for Chip Foose, Rick Dore, Roy Brizio, and Jerry Kugel. “There aren’t many builders out there we haven’t worked for,” Luc said.

Though that roster of clients and their increasingly intricate projects took up most of Marcel’s time, he still hammered out a few cars for himself, including a Mercedes 540K lookalike. “He didn’t like making a copy of anything,” Luc said. “It always had his own twist on it.”

And save for a limited run of cars built for Kugel, pretty much everything the De Leys built remained a one-off. “For each car we still had to make a buck, but it was good for one car,” Luc said. “Seldom did we use an eggcrate buck. Mostly Dad would just eyeball a shape, pound it out over some square tubing, and that was our buck.”

Nor did Marcel ever use plastic body filler; he always finished his bodies in lead. “That’s just a total art,” Troy Bowen said.

About seven years ago, both Marcel and Marc retired from the business, leaving Luc to run the shop. Marcel did so due to a spell of declining health, but Luc said he started to feel better soon afterward. “He started to come by once a week to check in on how I was doing. Then a month later, he started helping out a bit. Then another month later, he was in the shop for five days a week. He did it mostly to keep busy, but I think he liked to tell me what I was doing wrong, too.”

That lasted until 2014 or so when Marcel’s health began to decline again. Still, his death May 21 “was really unexpected,” Luc said. Also unexpected, Luc said, has been the response he’s heard from other metalshapers. “I didn’t realize how much of an inspiration he was to the younger guys picking up the trade. That’s been really neat.”

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