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Kustom kar kings' Dean Jeffries dead at 80

Wed, 08 May 2013 00:00:00 -0700

UPDATED: Dean Jeffries, a contemporary of California's great kustom kar kings in the early 1950s, who would go on to fame making cars for TV and movies, died Sunday, May 5 at 80.

Jeffries grew up in Lynwood, Calif., across the street from Indy racer Troy Ruttman and around the corner from Sam and George Barris' shop. He spent his days hanging around the greats: George Cerny, Von Dutch and Big Daddy Roth. He eventually landed a contract job striping cars for Barris where, among many IndyCar bodies and racers' helmets, he painted the “Little Bastard” logo on James Dean's Porsche.

Jeffries moved out of the Barris enclave and opened his own shop in Hollywood, eventually settling in the famous Cahuenga Boulevard location he would call home for decades. For years you could drive by that shop, a couple blocks up the street from the Hollywood Bowl, and see the multi-wheeled and outrageous “Landmaster” from the movie “Damnation Alley” backed into its semi-permanent parking spot. If you got too close you'd be greeted with a sign saying not to come in unless you had made an appointment. That didn't stop the likes of Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, James Garner and Jay Leno from visiting the shop.

“Dean was probably the smartest human being I ever met,” Tom Cotter, who wrote the book “Dean Jeffries, 50 Years in Hot Rods, Racing and Film,” told Autoweek. “He was very self-conscious about his lack of a high school diploma, but his lack of education had nothing to do with his incredible intelligence.

“If you had $9,000 and needed to land a rocket on the moon, Dean would find a way to get it done.”

Jeffries was perhaps most famous for the Mantaray, a bubble-topped creation built around a Maserati chassis and a Cobra engine. The car was the height of kustom kar extravagance in the early '60s. The Mantaray would remain closely associated with him the rest of his life. “His car designs were world-class and rivaled anything out of Italy,” said Cotter.

“We looked at his cars for inspiration when making the 'Cars' films,” said Pixar's Jay Ward. The filmmaker called Jeffries the guardian of the 'Cars' movie franchise. “Dean had taste. He thought about the best application. His designs weren't necessarily the flashiest; they had to suit certain needs instead of just being flashy.”

There were photos of him in the Mantaray with a girl leaning on it, there were scale models of it. The Mantaray and other Jeffries creations launched the imaginations of a million SoCal kids who wanted to be Dean Jeffries. Or at least have the Mantaray. Or the girl. While he kept making great cars after that, he did it more and more without fanfare. He made big money making movie cars, most famously the Green Hornet, Monkeemobile and the beginnings of what would become the first Batmobile, the car George Barris famously finished. “His trouble-shooting abilities made him an asset on movie stunt sets and his regular pilgrimages to the Indy 500 [where he once painted 22 of the 33 starters!],” said Cotter.

“Dean's legacy will be most closely identified with hot-rodding and the entertainment industry,” said car-collector extraordinaire Bruce Meyer. “Cars like the Monkeemobile and the Green Hornet's Black Beauty may be Dean's legacy, but his real love was racing. His time spent at Indy turned out more creative paint jobs, lettering and striping than any other single painter. If you wanted it done right, you went to Dean.”

In what became a lifetime rivalry, Barris was happy to allow others to ascribe credit to him for many cars that his one-time prot

By Mark Vaughn