Dean Jeffries died on Sunday. He was 80. Some great heroes of automotive culture leave behind a vast wake of acknowledgement when they pass. Men like Carol Shelby, who died a year ago today, are known and mourned among their fans and detractors alike. Their names are spoken and recognized in enthusiast circles near and far.
But others don’t really go in for all that. They don’t care much for fame. They don’t need people to buy them drinks wherever they go, and they don’t need to carry a sharpie. Dean Jeffries was one of these men.
To summarize his life is a bit of an injustice. You could call him a pinstriper, movie car builder, and show rod customizer, but to miss the details is to miss most of his life. And Jeffries was all about the details. Yes, he built the Monkeemobile, the Green Hornet Black Beauty, and the Landmaster from Damnation Alley, but the story of how he got there could be a movie in itself.
For instance, Jeffries grew up in Compton California during WWII, right down the street from aspiring racing driver and best friend Troy Ruttman (and right around the corner from George Barris’ shop). He and Ruttman quickly sharpened each other’s love of cars, and that Jeffries’ father Edward was a mechanic couldn’t have hurt. The Korean War was in full swing by the time Jeffries was old enough to serve, and he spent the war on an Army Base in Germany.
Like some kind of Merlin or Miagi, an elderly German furniture and piano finisher befriended Jeffries and taught him the art of pinstriping. Jeffries then bought a Horch sedan (that might have carried the German version of Capone’s gang), and striped it stem to stern.
When he returned to the States, he again met up with Ruttman, who by now was a well-established racing driver, and somehow connected Jeffries with enough people to land him deals painting 22 of 33 of the 1953 Indy 500 starting cars and their drivers’ helmets. He painted race cars for years.
Often writers of historical fiction like to cross the wires of history a bit and cause great contemporaries to meet, collaborate, and swap ideas. Dean Jeffries’ story needs no such license. Jeffries painted “Little Bastard” on the tail of James Dean’s Porsche. He had a shop with Kenneth “Von Dutch” Howard. He rubbed shoulders so much with George Barris that Barris tried to take credit for the Monkeemobile.
And in 1962 he hooked up with Carroll Shelby himself. Jeffries painted Shelby’s very first AC Cobra when it was the only one yet built. Every night. Shelby needed to give investors the impression that he had more than one Cobra, so he had Jeffries put a different coat on it before every meeting. Nor did Shelby have the money to pay him at the time, but when the little Cobra took off, part of his compensation was a Ford racing V8 and a four-speed, along with four Weber carbs.
Then came Jeffries’ Excalibur, his mythic weapon of choice- the Mantaray. By 1964 he’d been customizing metal work for some time, but was allured by Al Slonaker’s “Tournament of Fame” rod show. This was a meeting of the best of the best. And the grand prize was $10,000, a trip to Europe, and a new car. (Search as we might, we can’t find out what that car was).
So Jeffries set to work. He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to do something no one had ever done before, and he wanted to do it without fiberglass. His Lady of the Lake was not a fairy princess, but his father-in-law, a wealthy racing enthusiast with a yard somehow full of rusting Maserati F1 cars. Thus gifted, Jeffries scrapped the bodies and engines (which he later regretted, knowing what they were worth) and paired two racing chassis to form his own. Instead of forming the body of fiberglass like so many of his contemporaries, he built a wireframe in its exact shape, then welded in 86 individually shaped aluminum plates. Experts today can’t find the seams. To shape his Plexiglas bubble-top, he heated it, sealed it off, and blew air into the cavity until he had the right shape. He cut it the next day, and got it right on the very first try.
Remember that 289 Shelby had given him? He put it to good use, bolting it between the frame rails, complete with the four-speed and the Weber carbs. He drove it through the streets of LA, sans plates, to at least one TV feature.
Needless to say, he won. The Mantaray catapulted Jeffries to the top of his field. It ran the show circuit for several years before it was retired, and it was featured in the 1964 film Bikini Beach with Frankie Avalon. As it turned out, old Frankie didn’t know how to drive stick, so Jeffries himself performed the driving scenes.
And that’s when he added stunt driving to his resume. He went on to drive in The Blues Brothers, Damnation Alley, Bad Boys, The Fugitive, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and others. For 1981’s Honky Tonk Freeway, he jumped a huge truck and broke his back. Wary of doctors, he fashioned his own brace and wore it until he healed.
He built many other star cars, too. Aside from the Black Beauty and the Landmaster, he worked on the 1966 Batmobile, the monstrosities in Death Race 2000, and the Monkeemobile.
Yet for all his accomplishments, for all the true legends he wrote with his skills, he seemed to always shrug off his own abilities, explaining how he did things with such simplicity that he might as well have spoken his creations into existence. He wasn’t much of a profiteer, never really seeking to see his name stamped in gold leaf, always content to simply sharpen his craft and churn out smiles.
He’ll always be remembered for the details.