Harvey Thomas Maltese Surfer

With all the current hoopla concerning West Coast Customs and the Iron Cross symbol being used on everything from baseball caps to Converse, one might think this axe is a brand new guitar for the biker set. But no, it comes from the 1960s, and the story of the maker is as interesting as the guitar itself—a Harvey Thomas Maltese Surfer.Thomas was a real character. A country-western guitarist and luthier based in Midway, Washington, he repaired, customized, and manufactured instruments from the late ’50s until the ’80s, though his heyday was in the mid ’60s. His style of guitar making was faintly reminiscent of Semie Moseley and Mosrite, with small necks, zero frets, single-coil pickups, and German-carved bodies. However, Thomas took inspiration from his own warped mind, and began specializing in custom-made doublenecks and triplenecks, as well as guitars shaped like naked ladies, axes (pre-Gene Simmons), shotguns, and any other oddball designs he could think up.

Of all these designs, none has become the stuff of legend more than the Iron Cross guitars of the mid 1960s. There were two models: the slightly flashier Maltese Falcon with its hook peghead and glitter pickguard, and the base model, shown here, called the Maltese Surfer. Thomas ordered pickups and tuners from a wholesale outfit in Germany, but, other than that, everything on this guitar was custom made by Thomas, whose inlays and pickup covers were often done with poured resin. Dig the tiger-stripe metallic finish, or the tilted square fretboard inlays, or the way the neck seamlessly connects to the body, defying gravity and string pressure, yet remaining quite strong. This guitar actually plays very easily, and it sounds great. Jazzy tones come spilling out of the neck pickup, trebly twang reminiscent of a Tele comes from the bridge pickup, and there are some great dual pickup tones perfect for surf.

That being said, most of Thomas’s instruments were too fragile—and too twangy—for grunge music, which is probably why Kurt Cobain and the other Northwest rockers never used one. An odd celebrity endorsee of the Thomas Cross guitar, however, was Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, who supposedly found one in a pawnshop years after it was made. And, hopefully, you’ve figured out by now that there was no connection to the Vox/Thomas Organ Company—though most books and eBay listings seem to mistakenly associate it with the later Vox guitars. Thomas is now dead and gone, unfortunately, but the Iron Cross guitars live on. We salute a true American original who followed his heart to bring us some of the most unique instruments ever made. Huzzah!

Special thanks to Denise Thomas Pressnall, Rick King, and Mike Medina.