HOLLYWOOD’S INNOVATIVE KUSTOM KULTURE LEGEND | DEAN JEFFRIES

Legendary painter, customizer, racer, and stuntman Dean Jeffries is one of those guys whose soft-spoken nature has allowed other, more self-promoting figures (read: George Barris, the Don King of Kustom Kulture) to steal a lot of his thunder.  Barris has tried to hire on Jeffries as an employee many times over the years, and Jeffries always rebuffed– preferring either to rent his own space, or work freelance.  Their histories are forever entwined, and the tales of rivalry, and particularly Barris’ trickery, are the stuff of legend.  Many of Dean Jeffries’ most recognized works (like the Monkeemobile, for one)– George Barris came behind and unrightfully claimed credit for them. It’s dumbfounding and downright sleazy– we’ll get to that later.

Dean Jeffries grew up immersed in Los Angeles auto culture– his dad was a mechanic, and next door to his dad’s garage was a bodyshop.  The young Jeffries was drawn to the creative expression allowed in bodywork over turning a wrench (“too greasy!”) like his ol’ man– the bodyshop became his hangout of choice.  After returning from the Korean War, he became buddies with another future legend of Kustom Kulture– Kenny Howard (AKA Von Dutch), and started pinstriping.

“We’d do freelance pinstriping on our own, then get together and hang out. I also worked during the day at a machine shop doing grinding. But pinstriping really took off then–I was painting little pictures and medallions on cars. My first job was pinstriping a boat. I didn’t have no shop back then. You were lucky if you got $5 for a whole car. If you got $25 in your pocket in a day you were King Kong. I thought it was great.” –Dean Jeffries

More than anything else, I’ll always remember Dean Jeffries for painting the infamous “Little Bastard” badge on the Porsche owned by his racing buddy– James Dean.

“For years Barris claimed he painted it– now he just says he can’t remember and somebody in his shop painted it. Sure. I used to bum around with James Dean. I wasn’t trying to be his movie friend. We just had car stuff between us. We hung out, got along together real bitchin’. But one day Dean asked me to paint those words on his car, and I just did it.” –Dean Jeffries

Love this pic.  There’s the obvious knockout pinup, Carol Lewis (Dean Jeffries’ high school sweetheart in front of his ’47 Merc), posing for his pinstriping pleasure, but also check out Dean Jeffries’ paint box.  “The Modern Painter Has Arrived.” It’s an incredible piece of work in itself.

“The above shot comes from a publicity shoot done ironically, at Barris’ shop, with George behind the camera. Jeffries was just out of high school, and Barris tried to hire him, but Jeffries wanted to sub-contract to Barris, so Barris cleaned out a storage area in his shop, and Jeffries based himself out of there. Pretty slick on Barris’ part– he could grab Jeffries any time he wanted a striping job.” –Thanks to Irish Rich for the story on Carol Lewis.

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Carol Lewis’ custom 1956 Chevrolet– Dean Jeffries high school sweetheart.  –image via Kustomrama “It was Jeffries who was having dinner across the street from Barris’ shop when he spotted the smoke coming from the start of the disasterous Dec. ’57 Barris shop fire. He ran across the street and broke in, and managed to get Lewis’ 56 Chevy out of there before the flames got too out of control. Lewis’ Chevy was done in a similar style as Jeffries’ ’47 was.” –Irish Rich

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A young Dean Jeffries with his late ’30s Horch sedan. While serving in the Army during the Korean War, Jeffries was stationed in Germany– and on weekends he’d hop in the Horch and explore Western Europe.  While overseas, he’s said to have first learned to pinstripe from an old German furniture maker who took Jeffries under his wing.

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“Troy Ruttman (1952 Indy 500 winner) lived across the street, and I bummed around with him a bit, learning about race cars. I liked it, liked the people. Then I ended up tying up with Mobil. They would paint anybody’s race car for free at Indy. So I did A.J. Foyt’s car, and Parnelli’s, and Jim Rathmann’s…everybody wanted me ’cause I was doing things a little different than plain old paint jobs. One year in the early 1960s, I did 21 of the 33 cars in the race. I was doing pretty good!” –Dean Jeffries

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“This shop asked me to paint three Porsches for them. I really didn’t know how, but I did it anyway– and they turned out really nice. So I thought, ‘I’ll start painting cars, too.’ About this time I bought a real cheapie Porsche Carrera, but I couldn’t stand the look of it so I redid the whole front end in metal and welded it back together– there was no such thing as Bondo back then. And I painted it real bitchin’. That car got lots of recognition.” –Dean Jeffries
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Dean Jeffries was also innovative the the field of Kustom Kulture clothing.  He got into airbrushing, and is oft credited as being the first guy to airbrush custom tees and sweatshirts– check the handiwork he’s wearing in the pic above.  Back when he was hangin’ around with Von Dutch (who was fond of painting a third eyeball on his forhead), it’s said that Jeffries created the now iconinic “flying eyeball” that Von Dutch and Ed Roth were known and credited for.  Whatever the case may be, Jeffries doesn’t seem too worried about it.  Another first credited to Dean Jeffries– the metalflake paint job.

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James Dean with his “Little Bastard– great view of the tail stripes and Dean Jeffries’ handiwork. “James Dean had entered the Salinas Airport Races for the Oct. 1st weekend of 1955. Dean was a provisionary racer with the Calif SportsCar Club and Sports Car Club of America. He did not have a permanent race number. He selected 130 which was available. Dean Jeffries, who had a paint shop next to Barris did the work which consisted of– painting ‘130′ in black non-permanent paint on the front hood, doors and rear deck lid. He also painted “Little Bastard” in script across the rear cowling.”  –Lee Raskin, Porsche historian, and author of James Dean At Speed.

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“A famous customizer, Bill Cushenberry, had won the Oakland Roadster Show, and I said to myself, ‘If I want to be a customizer guy like him or Barris, I gotta learn and do that kinda stuff– make something quite unique and different, a winner.’ I was lucky, because my ex-father-in-law had two prewar Grand Prix Maseratis rotting away in his backyard, with weeds growing through ‘em and everything. I asked if I could have one, and he said, ‘Sure. Nobody wants ‘em.’ Can you imagine what they’d be worth today! Anyway, I tore it all down to the chassis, and I started forming a shape out of little quarter-inch rods– I didn’t know how to beat metal around wood back then.”  –Dean Jeffries

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To create his masterpiece, the Mantaray, Dean Jeffries took two old Maserati single seater chassis and welded them together– then hand-fabricated the Mantary’s sexy curves from no less than 86 sheets of metal. Aside from four Weber carburetors, the car is in Jeffries’ own words, “true-​​blue American, right down to the 15-​​inch magnesium-​​cast Halibrand wheels and the bred-​​for-​​Indianapolis Goodyear Blue Streak Speedway Special tires.”

“I curved every piece just by looking at it and referring to a drawing I’d made. Then I took the framework down to California Metal Shaping, and for $800– which wasn’t bad back then– they shaped the aluminum body pieces in about a week. Of course, when I brought all the pieces back to the shop I had to adjust ‘em and trim ‘em to make it all work. But there isn’t a shred of fiberglass on that car. I made the plastic bubble roof by myself.” –Dean Jeffries

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“I won the Oakland Roadster Show (with the Mantaray), which included a free trip to Europe. And I got on the cover of Hot Rod. That was the tops. And what happened to my business after that you can’t believe. I was a lucky guy.” –Dean Jeffries

“Steve Allen saw my car somewhere and had me bring it onto his show. So this movie producer sees me on TV, and he calls me up and says he wants my Mantaray for his new movie. That was ‘Bikini Beach.’ Well, first of all, Frankie Avalon couldn’t drive a stick-shift– he could barely drive an automatic. So I ended up driving the car on camera, doubling up for Frankie Avalon’s Potato Bug part. I didn’t get a lot of money off that movie, but it did get me into the business– I met a lot of directors, producers, stunt guys. So I started making cars, model airplanes, boats, trucks, whatever the movies needed. I enjoyed the heck out of it.” –Dean Jeffries
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First AC-Shelby-Cobra CSX0001, Road & Track September 1962. This is the first AC Shelby Cobra. It arrived at Dean Moon’s speed shop from England minus engine and transmission and in bare aluminum, no paint. Shelby and Moon dropped in a new Ford Hi-Po 260 V-8, and 4-speed transmission and polished the body with Brill-O Pads. via

“Carroll Shelby brought the first Cobra back from Europe.  It was crude– and it ran like hell. The body was a mess– all-aluminum, but it wasn’t quality. Because I’d been trying my hand at aluminum work, I redid that first Cobra for Shelby– painted it, too. Shelby couldn’t even afford to pay me– he hadn’t gone to Ford yet. So, we loaded that Cobra on a crappy old trailer and off he goes to Ford– says, “I’ll pay you when this thing clicks.” Well, he goes and he gets tied up with Ford– booms out, 90 miles an hour! But he only had one car! So he comes back, and now he’s gotta show everybody that he’s got all these cars. So I’m painting that damn car over and over…they show it one day, then at night I paint it again, and the next day he shows it somewhere else. It was like he had five cars, but there was actually only one!” –Dean Jeffries
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1967 Pontiac GTO Monkeemobile. Pontiac GTOs were featured in a number of TV shows in the 1960s, but perhaps the most famous was the 1967 Pontiac GTO Monkeemobile. Penned by famed Los Angeles car customizer Dean Jeffries (George Barris also falsely claimed to have had a hand its design as well), this wild creation transported The Monkees on their TV show and at live appearances around the country. Although the car was equipped with a standard 335 hp engine and automatic transmission, the body was radically lengthened, and featured a new nose, utilizing the stock grilles. A nonfunctional GMC 671 blower was bolted onto the 389 cid engine, and a spacious custom interior with four-bucket seats was created, with an extra seat in the open trunk. Two original Monkeemobiles were built, along with a replica years later.  –Image © Car Culture/Corbis

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Dick Dean, who assisted Dean Jeffries with the build of legendary Monkeemobile.

“That’s one of many bad spots in regards to that man (George Barris). He sure does take credit, but he had nothing to do with it. I made the car. Every bit of it. He also says he made the Green Hornet’s car, still does to this day. He puts his name on a lot of things he had nothing at all to do with. My contract stated that when filming was done, I had first right of refusal to buy the cars back. So after the shows were over, the producers offered me the Monkeemobile and the Green Hornet for $1000 each. I said, ‘Heck, I could build new ones cheaper’– this was back in the 1960s, remember. So I turned them down. And George ended up with both cars. Then the company that made a Monkeemobile model ended up saying that legally George now has the rights to the car. I said, ‘Yes, the rights to own the car. But not the right to say he built it.’ But they went ahead and put his name on it anyway. I don’t go any further on the why and how in this situation. But it’s not over, that’s for sure. That’s all I can say.” –Dean Jeffries

“I admire the hell out of what he’s done all these years. I knew his brother, Sam, a very talented man, a very good metal man. I used to hang around their shop. George is not a metal man– I’ve seldom seen him do anything with it. I’m not bad-mouthing him. He’s a good promoter. I just don’t care for somebody who puts their name on something they had no part of.” –Dean Jeffries

Related TSY posts:

THE LEGENDARY STRIPER VON DUTCH | STILL ALIVE AND LIVING IN ARIZONA ’72

ED “BIG DADDY” ROTH | RAT FINK KING OF SOUTH CALI KUSTOM KAR KULTURE

“LITTLE BASTARD” | THE SILVER SPYDER PORSCHE/DEAN MYSTERY REVISITED

THE SNAKE & THE STALLION | HOW SHELBY KICKED FERRARI’S ASS

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Read more on Dean Jeffries here

Get “Dean Jeffries: 50 Fabulous Years in Hot Rods, Racing & Film” here

9 thoughts on “HOLLYWOOD’S INNOVATIVE KUSTOM KULTURE LEGEND | DEAN JEFFRIES

  1. Great post and lesson in car culture. Dean Jeffries is a pioneer. I’d love to try my hand at custom cars.

  2. Classic post… back in the day when sheet metal workers actually “worked” sheet metal…and not just “replace body panels”
    Gotta love the comment “About this time I bought a real cheapie Porsche Carrera…”
    If only I could say that these days…

  3. In your first photo, the car is Jeffries’ “rolling billboard”, his ’47 Merc convertable. The shot comes from a publicity shoot done ironically, at Barris’ shop, with George behind the camera. Jeffries was just out of high school, and Barris tried to hire him, but Jeffries wanted to sub-contract to Barris, so Barris cleaned out a storage area in his shop, and Jeffries based himself out of there. Pretty slick on Barris’ part – he could grab Jeffries any time he wanted a striping job.

    Barris used several models in the above shoot, including Ada Joan Hume, but I believe that the blonde in that picture was Jeffries high school sweetie Carol Lewis. Barris used Lewis in a bunch of his car features at that time.

    It was Jeffries who was having dinner across the street from Barris’ shop when he spotted the smoke coming from the start of the disasterous Dec. ’57 Barris shop fire. He ran across the street and broke in, and managed to get Lewis’ 56 Chevy out of there before the flames got too out of control. Lewis’ Cheve was done in a similar style as Jeffries’ ’47 was.

    BTW, thank you very much for the link from your links page to mine – Applied Machete. Very cool, didn’t know it was there!

    • Irish Rich–

      Thank you so much for filling in the gap. I was dying to know the story behind the model and Merc… and along you come all encyclopedia-like. I love it.

      Thanks for keeping the history alive.

      Best,

      JP

  4. Dean is truly the real deal…incredibly creative, talented and modest. BUT what you did not mention was his stunt driving life… he’s a brave dude!!! Check out the book on Dean Jeffries by Tom Cotter…
    The Selvedgeyard is just THE BEST and keeps coming up with THE coolest stuff. Thanks so very much!!!!

  5. Such a good post man… quite impressive resources !
    well done, as usual :)

    always a pleasure to read your blog…

    keep on the (very) good work

    greetings from France !

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