Monday, February 16, 2009

Dean Jeffries- Part II

And we're back as promised with part two of my Dean Jeffries post. 

I'm hoping some people were taken enough with my description of the book to go out and get it or at least get it on order. I took some time and sat down with it again after writing about it last week and it continues to be a very nice piece of work. But, onto my visit with the great man...

As best I can figure, this was in the spring of 2000 that I had the opportunity to meet Dean and spend some time with him at his shop. Once again I have to credit my friend Tom Sparks for making this happen. He and Dean go back to when they were teen-agers, and knowing how I am about the early days of any kind of motorsport, Tom knew it would be a thrill for me to get to meet him. He was right of course. 

I had made a trip out to So-Cal with my VW GTI to deliver flat head parts to Tom for my engine that he was building and decided to stay for a week or so. We had made the rounds of the usual museums and cruise-ins when Tom suggested we look up a few of his old pals. Some calls were made and our first day out would be Tony Nancy in the morning and Dean Jeffries in the afternoon. How's that for a hot rod legends itinerary? 

We left out fairly early that day and drove over to Tony's shop. To say the least I was excited. Tony was one of the more mysterious figures from early hot rodding and I truly didn't know what to expect. I had heard stories of his great generosity and kindness, but also a good number about his tendency to boot people out of the shop that weren't to his liking. Unfortunately I would never know which way that day was going to go for us, as Tony had to leave the shop at the last minute for the first half of the day and had left word by way of a note taped to the shop door. Not only did we not get to visit with Tony that day but, sadly, I would not get another chance to meet him. He passed away just a few years later. 

So we picked ourselves up from the disappointment of not getting to see Tony and just drove on over to the Jeffries shop to see if he was ready for visitors. What will seem amazing to the custom car lovers out there is the fact that Dean's shop is not only not a private and secluded place that only a choice few know about, it is in full view of the 101 as you make your way around the backside of the Hollywood hills. From your place in traffic you can look off towards the hills and see his shop and his huge billboard with "Jeffries Custom Auto" written in big cursive sweeping letters. And if there were any question as to which Jeffries this was, the futuristic multi-wheeled Mad-Max looking movie vehicles parked around his lot took all of the guesswork away. 

We pulled up to the door and Dean was just inside and walked out to greet us. Tom introduced us and I have a crystal clear memory of Dean looking at me like I was an alien because I knew who he was. He asked if we had a friend other than Tom in common. I said no, and he went on wondering why a guy my age would know who he is, what work he's done, and would be interested in seeing his shop and meeting him. It was something far beyond simple humility...  he just didn't understand. 

That being said, I could never exaggerate how generous and kind Jeffries was throughout our entire visit. At this point in his life he would have probably considered himself semi-retired, but he had multiple projects going and was in the shop working at 9am. He did have stuff to do, but you wouldn't have known it by the time he took with us. Of course, he and Tom are old friends and that made for a nice way to get to walk along through his shop as he showed Tom all of his projects. Friend to friend. 

As you can see by the photos posted above, I was rather taken by a particularly interesting project that Dean had going at the time. Now believe me, there was a lot to see in his shop, and especially in his office that was his kind of 12'x12' scrapbook with walls covered floor to ceiling with hundreds of photographs of all of the hundreds of cars he had built and/or customized over the years. But I was not at all prepared for his GT40. 

I, like most anyone else I'm sure, had no idea that he had been involved with the GT40 program for Ford. It may not have even come up had he not shown me his race engine collection. We walked into a small side room just off of the main floor of the shop, and he had several 1960s Ford racing engines on stands hanging around. I remember that he had two 289 based engines with Hilborn injection, a side-oiler 427, and the crown jewel...   a 255ci 4-cam Ford Indy racing engine. I asked him what the story was with these and he very casually stated that he had worked for Ford when they were racing sports cars in the '60s. I didn't catch on immediately. When I asked him about that he responded by saying,"They gave me one of the race cars when we were done with the program...  it's right in here." We then walked into another room and there it was-  Ford GT4o #109. As if these cars aren't rare enough, GT40 #109 is one of 4 roadster versions that they produced, and only one of two to still exist today. In fact, the other surviving roadster is said to be in a nearly unrestorable state. 

Jeffries could see my fascination with the car and took extra time to show me around it and tell me about the car and its history with him. He also told me of his plans for it which were quite interesting. He stated that for years it had been languishing in his back room at the shop ( actually it had sat outside for most of the 1970s up against the outer back wall of his building...  laying up on its side !!!! ) and he kept threatening to run it into some kind of hot rod or futuristic custom car, but all of his friends kept talking him out of it. He said that he never really knew that it had any value until an investor in England heard about the car, contacted Jeffries, and offered him 5 million for the car sight unseen. Jeffries said that the day that call came in he began a proper restoration on the car as soon as he hang up the phone. Fortunately he was able to complete the car in time for a GT40 display at Pebble Beach a few years ago that I attended. With the exception of the original LeMans winning cars, the Jeffries GT40 roadster was the star of the show. Interestingly, the car had very limited race history as it was used mostly for testing. Even more interesting is the fact that the engine that they were trying to develop along with this car was none other than the 4-cam Indy race engine. Though it never went onto international endurance racing success, the 4-cam spent more time in the chassis of GT40 109, so that's what Jeffries has back in it today. 

Before we left I got to spend some time in his office having him show me all of his old photographs of his many creations. They were all there; The Mantaray, The Green Hornet "Black Beauty", The Monkee-Mobile, photos of the James Dean Porsche ( which Jeffries lettered with the words "Little Bastard" on its tail ). Many cars in various state's of build. Some just getting pin-striping, some getting a classic flame-job, but all receiving the timeless touch of a great artist and gentleman, Dean Jeffries. I guess you could say it was a day well spent. 

PS...  As for the photos above. I shot all of the older pics showing the GT40 under restoration, but the very nicely shot and framed photo of the Mantaray with the restored GT40 in the background was done by Adam Pepper (Thanks for that Adam).   

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

You're a lucky, lucky, lucky man. What a day! What an opportunity!