Metallica frontman James Hetfield is known around the world for his music, but he’s also a passionate car customizer who recently donated most of his collection to the Petersen Automotive Museum. For those who can’t make it to California to see them, he’s also written his first book, “Reclaimed Rust: The Four-Wheeled Creations of James Hetfield” out July 28. We had a chance to talk to Hetfield about his book, his cars, and his customizing philosophy just ahead of the book launch.
MotorTrend: You have an enormously popular band. You have a fleet of custom cars. You have a family. You have a ranch. What made you think, “I should write a book, too?”
James Hetfield: The book really came out of the fact that I knew these cars needed to be seen by other people. I just wanted to have a book, basically kind of a yearbook, of all the cars that Rick Dore and I have put together.
MT: Before or after you donated the cars to the Petersen Museum?
JH: I started this book, and then the Petersen Museum became interested in the collection. Having a book is a lot easier than having all these cars in a garage somewhere.
I had a vision of not having to take care of these cars anymore because at some point…when I have these cars, at some point they have me. It takes a lot of time and effort to keep these things up and running, and in good condition. They were going to be either auctioned or donated or something. Then that did actually happen.
I’m super grateful that the Petersen Museum was able to take the collection and keep it all together. That’s the one thing that I was really disappointed about, the fact that if they went to auction and they all went off somewhere different they wouldn’t be living together anymore, and it wouldn’t be as a collection. I think word got around to them, and they offered to take the collection. I was stoked. As far as the prestige of the Petersen Museum, and my collection being in there, it’s a huge honor. It really is.
MT: The museum collection opened in February. Do you miss the cars yet?
JH: I get to look at them every day in my book, man.
Yeah, I miss driving certain cars and just being around them but, you know, they served their purpose. I got to get creative. I got to help other people get creative, all the different guys: Robert Roling, and Scott Mugford, and Josh Mills, the De Leys. I got to work with some awesome, historical people. Art Himsl, who did the paint on the Skylark. Darryl Hollenbeck. I met a lot of great people who have some old school craftwork in their blood, which I love. I got to do these things. Now other people get to look at them.
MT: You give a lot of credit to Rick Dore and to the De Leys, and other builders in your book, but it does sound like you do actually do some of these customizations yourself.
JH: Well, a lot of it is in my head and in Photoshop. I love art. I love logos. I’ve gotten pretty good at Photoshop, and being able to cut and paste, and do things on the computer to see, “How would that look? What if you took this and did that?” It’s way easier and way quicker, similar to writing a song. You put a song into Pro Tools, or Logic, or something, and you’re able to arrange it quickly without having to completely redo it and see what it looks like before you attempt it.
But as far as the metal work and things, yeah, I did some stuff on the Iron Fist or the Grinch, but I wasn’t going to go near any of the others with a torch.
I do like getting in the garage. I love it. The garage is a sanctuary for me to get in there, just disappear into detail. I love welding. I like woodworking. I like doing stuff with my hands, gardening, obviously playing guitar, stuff like that. I like manual labor. I like getting dirty.
MT: Do you use the same creative process designing a car as you do writing a song and writing a book, or is each different?
JH: No, they’re not different. Even if I thought they were different, they wouldn’t be because it’s just how things get digested creatively. Finding some of the earlier cars— doing the Grinch, which is that ’52 Olds, just finding it in a field somewhere—that reminds me of, I hear an old song and it’s got a great melody, or it’s got some lyric, or something that inspires me. Then you digest it. Then you rebuild it. You rebuild it in your own way.
The title of the book, “Reclaimed Rust,” is bringing things that still have life back to life, or even like old guitars. I have a pretty decent collection of guitars as well. There are songs just sitting in guitars waiting to have some vessel to get them out.
I think the same with these vehicles. They’ve maybe served their purpose as a proper assembly line car, and then they’ve turned into some custom piece of work down the line and become something unique and shined in a different way.
MT: The title of the book is meant to be literal, then? Some of the builds started out looking like they were heading to the scrapper, but others came from a much better place.
JH: There’s quite a few of them that probably were [headed to the scrapper], but certain ones… obviously the Skyscraper or the Zephyr, or the ’32, they might look like they were scrapped, but someone was going to do something with them because they’re such iconic cars. Yeah, there was quite a bit of rust on some of these. Then, like you said others, the Black Pearl and the Aquarius, they were pretty much built from scratch. There wasn’t really any rust on them.
I messed with so many different titles, but it had to do with rebirth, rust rebirth, whatever. There was a lot of that. Giving things a second chance and giving them a second life. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a nostalgic part of me that loves that. I think anything deserves a second chance.
MT: Speaking of names and titles, you’ve named all your cars, but do you believe all cars need names or do only certain cars deserve names?
JH: I guess it comes from, I don’t know, like when I’m writing a riff, I have to name it. I have to name it to give it a little character or something. It’s like a pet. You name it. After a little while, it’s got a character to it, and that’s what it is.
Things having a name I think is important, but it also helps with the character, and it helps with the color choice, the interior, and especially the show car. You got to have something that’s… I don’t know. I’ve always loved that. I loved logos. I loved the visuals of it. I’m pretty grateful that they’ve all got their own characters, and they’re not just a car.
I think like naming songs, there’s a lot of visualization that comes along with a name. I do like adding a visual, or some type of, I don’t know, made up storyline around it. Writing lyrics to songs, you’re sitting there working on a song, and it’s got a working title for a while for a reason.
The song “Black Squirrel,” we wrote that in Toronto where there’s a bunch of black squirrels, or something. It’s got something connected to it, and eventually the lyrics give it more of a character. I like the visuals. I like logos. If it’s got a name, then you can attach a look to it. That’s what I enjoy about that.
MT: Do you have any interest in doing a concours restoration at some point, or do you have to tinker and modify the cars that you own?
JH: I love the customization of it. I like having something unique, creating a prototype, or how a lot of prototypes, when you first see them, they look amazing. You think, “Wow, they’ll never produce that.” No. It’s just so—probably—costly, or it’s a little too narrow of a like. It’s not watered down enough for the general public.
As far as songwriting, most of my tastes are that. They are unique, and they’re different and not liked by everyone. That’s okay, but as far as cars, I think the closest, the Blackjack, the ’32 Ford Roadster, that is close to a bolt-correct restoration because it’s difficult to improve that ’32, but everything else really, it looked like it just needed a little help and needed to be a little more unique.
MT: Do you at least feel like certain cars need period-correct engines and modifications?
JH: There’s not a lot of huge thought put into that. It’s great that they run and drive around, but I know a lot of people think that the engine is the heart of the vehicle. To me, they all have a body, shape, and a face. The cosmetics, the outside, the silhouette, that is the character of the car for me, the engine a little bit less.
Like the ’32 Ford, it had to be a flathead. The whole idea was to bring that car… A ’32 Roadster, what would it be like if some kid from the ‘40s got ahold of his dad’s old car and wanted to hot rod it? That was fun. That was more of a story we were trying to follow. What was available in ’46, ’47 as far as speed equipment goes for the flathead? Most of the other ones, it didn’t matter as much as far as the engine goes.
MT: I’m getting the impression how the cars drive and handle aren’t top priorities in your builds.
JH: Well, [that’s not the case with] these, and [they’re] not my daily drivers for sure, as far as the handling and whatnot. Most of these cars, they’re so low, they got airbags (suspension kits), they’re not riding great. They’re just not, but it is a sacrifice for the look, having the wheels tucked way up under there, sitting low in the weeds. There is just something really cool that I find really attractive about it being low and sleek.
As far as the handling, all these cars have been driven. Some drive better than others, and some that you expect would drive terrible actually drove really great. It was a little less about the car’s handling than the artistic part of the body, and the shape, the silhouette.
MT: Is there a certain aspect or element of design you feel every one of your creations has to have?
JH: Well, I think that it’s like taking what’s already there and make it a little more noticeable. In the ’30s long and sleek was the look. We would take—just like the Zephyr, the ’37 Zephyr, we threw ’38 rear quarters on it because they were even longer, and stretched that thing out. Yeah, I guess there is something about low, and long, and sleek that…it’s just beautiful. Obviously, the Aquarius has that look with the full-fendered front and rear, just like it’s floating along the ground.
I got to do a shout out for Scott Williamson who did the photography, who did a spectacular job in this book because all of this stuff looks like it’s Photoshopped post, or just cut out and put on a black backdrop but it is not. This is all his studio. He took weeks with each car to get the look right, and the lighting, and everything. He did an amazing job on that.
MT: You mentioned rat rods in the book, but all of your creations are very clean, especially cars like Aquarius. Have you ever done a rat rod?
JH: Well, there were a couple that started off as that. Iron Fist started off more as a rat rod, just open hood and straight pipes, and all of that. Rat rod is fun because it’s easy to do, and there’s no rules. If you’re not really talented at metal work, you’re not the best welder, or this or that, you’re able to put together some unique creations.
It’s like art, just like art. You see certain pieces of art that, they have their own character because they’re pretty much thrown together from a junkyard. Or you’ve got these pieces like the Aquarius that are just unbelievably smooth. You can’t believe that that was built from scratch. Marcel and Luc De Ley, they were just these unbelievable metal workers.
I think there’s room for everybody out there at the car shows that I’ve gone to. I’ve seen it all. I think the rat rod world is really cool to have people get started in it. That’s where I got started, and it went on from there with Rick Dore with his eye, and hooking up with these certain pretty high end folks it just took it to another level.
MT: In the book, specifically regarding the Skyscraper, you tackle the debate between preserving or modifying rare cars, and you come down on both sides of it using the example of a Tucker Torpedo as one you wouldn’t touch. Where do you draw the line?
JH: I don’t know. That line probably, if I had a Tucker I probably, certainly, wouldn’t do that. There’s a uniqueness to it. I think I don’t know what that line is. I really don’t. Everyone has their own line. For me there were enough of the Skyscrapers out there that were restored and in good shape. Between Rick and I, we had this vision for it.
Yeah, we could have taken something else, something that wasn’t the ’53 Skylark that was already somewhat customized and done this thing to it. But I had a bead on a Skylark that needed restoring anyway. Finding the original parts was pretty difficult. We started with that and went for it.
MT: Now that nearly all your cars are off in the museum collection, is there a new project in the garage?
JH: There’s not, really. I get the inkling every once in a while. As I’m looking at my book here I see…I’m pretty obsessed with the ’30s cars. There’s nothing from the ‘40s in here. Well, I guess the chassis for the Black Pearl is from the ‘40s but nothing with the style of the ‘40s. Sitting in my garage right now is a ’47 Chevy Fleetmaster two door convertible that I just love.
It’s an easy and beautiful car to drive. It’s pretty much stock. I haven’t done anything to it really. Where I live in Colorado, there’s about three months out of the year where you can hang out in your convertible. You better be near some kind of overhang or something around 3:00 pm because between 3:00 and 6:00 there’s always a thunderstorm that rolls through.
As far as more projects, this was kind of a chapter of my life. I don’t see it as ever being a big collection like this again. There might be a one-off that I keep. I still have the Grinch, which is a daily driver. No, there’s not really anything in the works as far as that goes. There’s more to life and I’m moving on to the next chapter. I’m not sure what it is yet.
MT: Is the Grinch a car you can keep forever, or are you always going to need something new and different to work on to spark your creativity?
JH: Creativity will always be there. It sparks itself really. That’s more of the challenge. Can I see a vehicle and not want to do something to it? The Grinch, I just love that car. It’ll be a daily driver and I’ll have it forever and who knows, pass it to my kids if they’re interested. Yeah. I like it.
Sometimes I feel a little, I don’t know, a little selfish in a way where I’m driving around a car that, especially in Colorado not a lot of people have custom cars, or cars from the ‘30s, ‘40s, or ‘50s just because of the weather and where we live. Sometimes it feels a little weird getting a little too much attention, and people pointing, and all of that.
That used to be something I really, really craved. Now it’s different. It’s like, “I don’t want to be noticed, man.” I like the anonymity and living in a small village here, but still there’s a part of me that loves cars, and being unique, and so be it.
MT: You mentioned the eras you’d dabbled in. I noticed that, too, in the book that you range from the early ’30s to the early ’60s. Was it ever a conscious decision, or is it just that time period in cars spoke to you?
JH: It was more or less the car, and the trend at that time. The ‘30s was very Art Deco, and very sweeping, and really long, and sleek. There’s just something…You look at the profile of these cars and they look fast. The ‘30s cars, they look fast even when they’re just sitting there.
The ‘40s got a little boxier, I think, and just weren’t as smooth or nice-looking. The ’50s was boxy as well, but the Skylark had some roundness to it. A lot of the Buicks did, which I really like. That was certainly not, “I’m going to do just ’30s cars, or just ’50s cars.” No, there was no idea behind it.
It was: what are some iconic cars throughout American history, and how can we manipulate or modify to make them even cooler? That was pretty much the idea. You see it and you want to do something with it. Some just don’t lend themselves to that, like that ’47 Chevy sitting in my garage. I wouldn’t mess with it. It is what it is.
MT: I noticed, too, you don’t seem particularly loyal to any one brand.
JH: Why discriminate? If it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. Collecting a certain brand makes sense for some people, but for me, I don’t like to feel limited with it. I would say that I do get a little more biased, or a little more…Well, when it comes to trucks—I’ve always had trucks in my life, too—but Ford is my go-to, just their history. They’ve been good. They’ve been really good at making trucks.
No, I’m pretty loyal in most other places. Loyalty has a positive. I think loyalty in seeing beauty and stuff like that is more of a negative if you’re a little closed minded around it.
MT: I’m curious if you own a Ford now, or what James Hetfield daily drives.
JH: Well, I’ve got a Tesla that I’m in love with, but I love scaring people in that thing. Yeah. It’s the P100D [Model] S and it’s fast. It is fun and it handles really great. I know there’s plenty of people out there that are possibly anti-electric, but I don’t like to limit myself. I thought there’s no way I would ever love an electric vehicle, but this thing has some spectacular torque, and the handling, I love it.
Then I have a Ford Raptor that’s my daily driver as far as just a getting around truck, heading out to the ranch and all that. There’s a nice combination of elegant, fast, and rugged at the same time.
MT: Does the Tesla give you any ideas about customizing an electric car?
JH: It doesn’t, no. I’ve got the Tesla because, living in California for a while, we were close by. I was very intrigued by it. I guess that could be something if I was going to build something that I wanted to race around or something. There is something about a vehicle that looks like one of these in the book, and having it have an electric motor. I don’t know. It would be different, very different, not having the sound of that decade.
It would be interesting, but just like back in the ’50s someone had to modify the first Merc (Mercury), taking a new car and chopping it up, and making it different. I don’t know really if you could chop up the Tesla, make it look a little better.
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James’ lifelong passion of restoring and customizing classic cars into incredible pieces of automotive art is now chronicled in a gorgeous coffee table book, “Reclaimed Rust: The Four-Wheeled Creations of James Hetfield.” The standard edition is currently available for pre-order at Metallica.com, where you can also enter for the chance to purchase the limited edition deluxe box set. Visit Metallica.com for more information including two unboxing videos from James himself.
MT: You said “race around.” Did you mean literally? Do you do any racing?
JH: I do. I have fun. There was a time when I really liked drag racing. We’d take some of our hot rods down to Sears Point and do some bracket racing on Wednesday night. Really into the horsepower and all that stuff.
I’ve gotten really awesome opportunities around the world being able to go onto certain tracks and hop in vehicles that I can’t believe they hand me the helmet to get in these things and drive them around, like in Brazil or down in the south. Get to ride along in a stock car. I got to go 175 miles an hour around a corner in a NASCAR. He just yanks the wheel. It’s like, “Are you kidding?”
I got sit in some old-school dragsters, front engine or some old gassers, which are awesome. I’ve got to stand at the Christmas tree when top fuelers go off. That is a brain scramble. Oh, my God. Between the nitrous oxide and the noise, and the rumble, the thunder, I mean, it scrambles every one of your senses, and even senses you don’t have.