TAMPA — In the early 1950s, a short, quiet man who ran an auto upholstery shop began a 60-year odyssey that would literally reshape American cars and the way they are marketed. Perhaps more than any other person, Nat Dinofsky, better known as Nat Danas, brought the trade of accessorizing vehicles — from floral seat covers in the 1950s to today's keyless ignitions, navigation systems, power sunroofs and DVD players — into the mainstream.
In the process, peers say, the auto restyling industry he organized caught the eye of automakers, who adopted many ideas conceived by restylers into their new factory models.
Mr. Danas, who in 1951 founded Auto Trim News, which allowed disparate styling shops to communicate and improve their growing businesses, died May 21. He was 89 and had suffered from heart and lung ailments, including fibrosis.
"He really was pivotal in organizing a lot of the fragmented businesses and creating an industry out of them," said Travis Weeks, who publishes the current Auto Trim & Restyling News and Hotrod & Restoration in Torrance, Calif.
Mr. Dinofsky adopted the shortened surname "Danas" as a response to anti-Semitism in the 1950s, a time when the magazine he founded in the Bronx was quickly becoming a coveted item in auto restoration or "trim" shops. His reputation grew despite a distinct lack of self-promotion.
Thanks in part to the magazines he published, the detailed manuals he authored and the trade shows he started, the auto accessory business took huge strides in each subsequent decade since the magazine's founding. America's love affair with the convertible may have faded somewhat after the 1950s, but restylers sold hundreds of thousands of simulated convertible tops in the 1960s and 1970s.
They tore off door panels to embed stereo speakers, installed 8-track tape players and replaced carpets burned by dropped cigarettes and marijuana joints.
Customized cars hit Hollywood, too, in everything from the first Batmobile, adapted from a Lincoln Futura, to Farrah Fawcett's 1970 "Foxy Vette" with fur interior or Zsa Zsa Gabor's gold Rolls-Royce.
The godfather of restyling himself dressed frugally and drove a Mercury Grand Marquis, a Buick LeSabre and a Ford Escape. He had a teacher's patience and was a mentor to thousands, colleagues say.
"He was a pipe smoker," said Rick Jones, whose Auto Sunroof of Hackensack, N.J., covers five Northeastern states. "He would sit back, kind of mull everything over and come out with what he thought was his solution."
Mr. Dinofsky was born in New York. After the military turned him down due to his hay fever, he followed in his father's footsteps in the auto upholstery business. In 1951 he started Auto Trim News, a 16-page magazine. He started the National Association of Auto Trim Shops in 1952, building a network that in turn supported the magazine.
"We used to call it the bible of the industry, because if you weren't reading it you weren't dialed in and didn't know what was going on," said marketing consultant Ellen McKoy, an editor of Trucking Times who edited ATN in the 1980s.
Along the way, Mr. Dinofsky penned guides for craftsmen, including a definitive manual on installing convertible tops.
"He wrote a step-by-step manual so the guy in Outer Mongolia could look at it and say, 'Oh, now I got it, now I know how to do it,' " said Jones, 68.
The industry grew as customizing vehicles appealed to car owners who might not be able to afford a Mercedes, but could install a wood-grain dashboard just the same and change cloth seats to leather, said Kevin Halewood of Clearwater, who worked with Mr. Dinofsky for more than 20 years.
Eventually, Detroit automakers got the message, too. "In the beginning, I think they looked upon us as poor second cousins," said Halewood, 57, who publishes Mobile Tech News and Detailers Digest. "Then they realized we weren't really in there to compete and it would help sell more cars. You could take a plain-Jane Chevy Nova and put on a vinyl top, a two-tone paint package, wheel covers and graphics, and it would add value to the dealer."
In the early 1990s, Mr. Dinofsky sold his magazine, which had grown to 286 pages and changed its name to the Auto Trim & Restyling News. At the time he had recently helped form the Professional Restylers Organization, a trade group within the Specialty Equipment Market Association.
He last appeared at a trade show about three years ago in Clearwater, Halewood said. Admirers there sought him out for autographs.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.