Remembering custom car builder Dean Jeffries

Looking back on the life of legendary custom car builder Dean Jeffries

Photographers: Matt Howell

The late Dean Jeffries was a pioneering pinstriper and custom car builder who had a lifetime of achievements behind him. Here we take a look back at our interview with Dean which included some of his iconic creations, from the March 2011 issue of Street Machine

IN A WORLD full of self-publicists all pushing and barging for their share of the limelight, Dean Jeffries stands out as a humble and genuine gentleman. The irony is that he, of all the great builders, has arguably the most impressive CV.

Dean Jeffries learned from, worked with, or built cars for anyone who is anyone in hot rodding and Hollywood. From Von Dutch and the Barris brothers, through to James Dean and Steve McQueen this unassuming man pretty much wrote the book on designing, building and finishing the cars that really mattered for the people who count.

Going right back to the beginning of the game, what got you started with cars?

My dad was a mechanic and truck driver and built midget racers. I wasn’t too interested in school so what I did was work on cars. But I didn’t like getting greasy so I tried to stay away from that stuff and learn to design, paint and do metal work.

How did you learn to design?

Well I had no real schooling but I always did drawings. Rather than read about history, I would draw it. That’s how I learned. I served a year in the army in Germany when I was 17, in 1950. While I was over there I met a man who painted stripes on pianos and furniture, which is where I first learned to pinstripe.

How big an influence was Von Dutch?

His name was Kenneth Howard and I knew him through school. When I got back from Germany, he was working out of a motorcycle shop in Compton, California, and I had a little shop in Lynwood, California. I was working in a machine shop at night so I could spend the day pinstriping. It was through Kenny that I really learned how to stripe. I was lucky to be able to do that stuff. I tried to find whoever was at the top of their field and learn from them, guys like Sam Barris and George Cerny.

Ford comissioned Dean to build the gull-winged Cougar 406, based around a 1955 Thunderbird chassis that Ford had been using as a test bed

Tell us about your involvement with Carroll Shelby and his first Cobra.

At that time Shelby didn’t make big bucks. He dreamed that Cobra up with two or three other guys but he only had one car. He had to get it finished and take it to Detroit to show Ford to seal his engine deal. He wanted me to paint it, and said I could choose the colour. I picked pearl yellow. But he couldn’t pay me because he had no money. When I got the car it was pretty rough. The whole body was crude. But it ran, and I mean it ran like a son of a gun. So I got it painted. Shelby had a shitty old trailer and a station wagon that was beat too. But we loaded up that Cobra and off he went to Detroit. He said when he got back he’d get everything squared off with me but I said: “Don’t worry about it, sooner or later we’ll be alright.”

Dean had some cool stuff in his shed. How many guys have an ex-AJ Foyt Indy car sitting beside a ’33 tudor?

Around that time you were starting to build the Mantaray.

Yes. Shelby had said if I ever needed anything just holler, so I did and he got me the Ford 289 with Webers and four-speed for the Mantaray. Our friendship is there until this day. He’s a pretty neat guy.

Where did you find the inspiration for the Mantaray?

Like Shelby I was trying to be a part of the culture of guys building cars. But I wasn’t doing it. I had to come up with something that nobody had built. I’d done bodywork but I’d never built a whole car. My ex-father-in-law had two pre-war Maserati Grand Prix cars he had shipped to the States from Europe. He used them in a few races, then they got left in his backyard. I said to him I could make something out of them, and he said okay. I stripped one to its bare chassis. From there I started building a frame out of quarter-inch rod. I used this to create a non-symmetrical shape. At that time nobody had done that. I formed the finished shape around the frame using aluminium.

Jefferies became mates with James Dean through the sports car scene and lettered and striped the actor’s Little Bastard Porsche 550 Spyder weeks before the actor’s death

What’s it like to drive?

Oh, it works great. The chassis, suspension and brakes are still Grand Prix Maserati. It might be old but it’s still top notch. It’s not your regular hot rod stuff.

Building your own cars is one thing but getting asked to build custom cars for a major manufacturer is pretty wild — tell us how that happened.

Back in 1962 and ’63 Ford wanted to sell cars to America’s youth and so launched the Custom Car Caravan. The idea was to have leading customisers style Ford products then take the cars on tour. They signed up Barris, Gene Winfield and me. Each one of us had to pick a different car, then we made whatever changes we wanted. I chose the Falcon and completely changed it around. I hate stuff like rear view mirrors, door handles and bumpers — I’m always trying to make things clean. I also built the gull-winged Cougar 406 for Ford, which was used in the movie Under The Yum Yum Tree.

Movie and TV cars would really dominate the rest of your career from that time, right?

The Mantaray kickstarted it for me; they used it in the movie Bikini Beach. I built the two Monkeymobiles in ’66 from a pair of brand-new GTO convertibles, and the Green Hornet car. It grew to the point where I was not only building cars but doing stunt work, acting and assistant directing, up until the late 90s. Because my workshop was in Hollywood, it became a hangout for actors, including Steve McQueen, James Garner and even Elvis.

Racing cars are your real passion, though?

Oh yes. I went to Indy for the first time in 1962 with Troy Ruttman, who won the race that year. I spent the whole month of May at Indy maybe 33 or 34 times. I started off lettering and pinstriping the cars and then moved into painting the cars for teams. One year I painted 22 cars out of a 33-car field. I made a lot of good friends that way.


1. Mantaray. Dean’s most famous creation is the Mantaray. Based on a now-priceless Maserati F1 chassis, Dean built the asymmetrical body from aluminium and powered it with a Cobra 289. The car took out the Tournament of Fame prize at the 1964 Grand National Roadster Show and kickstarted Dean’s career building movie cars.

2. GT40 Roadster. Jacques Passino, head of Ford’s racing dept, gave one of only four GT40 roadsters built to Dean in the late 1960s.

GT40 RoadsterDean was at a Ford facility helping AJ Foyt with wind tunnel work when he saw the roadster and offered to buy it but Passino insisted he should just take it — and gave him a couple of quad-cam 255ci Indy Car engines, one of which is now fitted to the car.

3. Monkeemobile. While the GTO-based Monkeemobile is often credited to George Barris it was Dean Jeffries who designed and built both cars. The stretched bodies were 21 inches longer than stock!

4. Python Falcon. Dean built this wild custom ’64 Falcon Futura coupe for Ford’s special project department in just three weeks, with radical body work, interior and candy apple burgundy into black duco.

5. Kyote Buggy. For a few years, Dean was at the forefront of the dune buggy craze. Dubbed the Kyote, the prototype featured in the Monkees TV series and was later raced in the ’67 Baja 1000 by Dean and Mike Nesmith from The Monkees. Dean sold at least 500 Kyotes, including some for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

6. Movie cars. Dean built scores of cars for films and TV series, including Back to the Future II; Bad Boys; Death Race 2000; Romancing the Stone; Who Framed Roger Rabbit; The Green Hornet and The Dukes of Hazzard. He even built the moon buggy from the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever.

7. 356 Carrera. You have to be brave to take an ultra-rare 356 Carrera quad cam and chop it about. “On that Porsche I wanted to change the front end. I extended the nose and reshaped it, got rid of the bumpers and chrome. I painted it silver pearl; my very first paint job too”