June 5, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Dean Jeffries' Coolest Custom Cars


Dean Jeffries' Custom Cars Are Out Of This World

Hot rod culture reached its peak in the 1960s in Southern California—and Dean Jeffries was the greatest custom car builder of them all.

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He's A California Transplant

Dean Jeffries is a California icon, but he was actually born in Iowa. He might have lived the life of a farmer, except for one thing...

The Monkeemobile, photographed at the 2006 SEMA Show in Las VegasEspsko, Wikimedia Commons

He Was Born In The Depression

Jeffries was born in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. His father had no job prospects in Iowa, so the family packed up and headed to the Sunshine State in hope of a better future.

From his revolutionary pinstriping work to his custom cars for Hollywood to his friendships with celebrities, I think it's safe to say Dean Jeffries found that better future.

James Dean at a gas station with his silver Porsche 550 Spyder he named Little Bastard, just hours before his fatal crash.Bettman, Getty ImagesJames Dean with his Porsche 550 Spyder, custom-painted by Dean Jeffries before his fatal crash.

They Moved To Compton

The Jeffries family moved Compton in LA County, where Dad found work as a mechanic and a truck driver. Dean quickly became interested in cars—but his dad wasn't the only reason.

Custom Oldsmobile Toronado designed by Dean Jeffries for John Mecom Jr. Gerry Stiles/The Enthusiast Network/Getty ImagesDean Jeffries' Custom Oldsmobile Toronado, dubbed the "Deano Toronado"

His Neighbor Was Another Legend

It also happened that the Jeffries family moved in across the street from Troy Ruttman, an aspiring race car driver. who later became the youngest person ever to win the Indy 500. It was a match made in heaven.

Troy Ruttman in Emmett Malloy's Sprintcarclamshack, Flickr

They Were Fast Friends

Both Ruttman and Jeffries were obsessed with racing. But, if they wanted to go as fast as possible, they needed to customize their cars. But they were in luck.

A replica of the Monkeemobile from the television show The MonkeesErin Cadigan, Shutterstock

They Lived Near A Legendary Shop

Right around the corner from Jeffries and Ruttman was George Barris's shop Barris Kustoms, where he built legendary custom cars like the Munster Koach and Adam West's Batmobile.

George Barris at a ceremonyJoe Seer, Shutterstock

He Dropped Out Of School

Jeffries wanted to attend art school, but his family was too poor. Realizing that life wasn't in the cards, he dropped out of high school at age 17.

Dean Jeffries ShopThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Enlisted

Without many other prospects, the 17-year-old dropout talked his way into the Army, soon getting stationed in Sanhoffen, West Germany. There, Jeffries met a strange old man who changed his life.

Custom 1929 Ford Model A Pickup restyled by Barris Kustoms for Richard Peters. Winner of the America's Most Beautiful Roadster trophy at the Oakland National Roadster Show in 1958 and 1959. Here it appears in a Sacramento area show the week preceding Oakland. George Barris and Dean Jeffries did the paint. AMT replicated the show car in plastic model kit form in 1961.Dick Day/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

He Met A Master

While in Germany, Jeffries came across an old man who had pinstriped furniture and pianos his entire life. The old German showed this young American serviceman his craft, and Jeffries found his artform.

Adobestock 5065870itsallgood, Adobe Stock

He Learned From The Best

When Jeffries came back home, he got a job working nights in a machine shop. He spent his days learning about custom cars from George Barris and another legendary artist: Kenny Howard, better known as Von Dutch. Yes, that Von Dutch.

An animated Ken Howard, aka Von DutchThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

They Were A Pair

Dean Jeffries and Kenny Howard spent so much time together people called them, "Von Dutch and the Kid". Jeffries even designed the iconic "Winged Eyeball" that Von Dutch used for years and just never made a big deal of it.

Ken Howard - Von DutchThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

His Connections Paid Off

When Jeffries' old buddy Troy Ruttman joined a team racing in the Indianapolis 500, he convinced the team owner to get Jeffries to pinstripe all the team's cars. People started to notice his work.

Bikini Beach MovieThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Painted Cars For The Pros

After seeing the work he'd done with Ruttman's team, Mobil Oil hired Jeffries to paint their Indy race cars, which introduced him to a lot of race car drivers—AKA a lot of future customers of Jeffries' custom car work.

Dean Jeffries Painting FlamesThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Was Friends With James Dean

Fast car enthusiast James Dean ran in the same circles as Jeffries, and they quickly became friends. The movie star loved a beautiful vehicle, and Jeffries made the most beautiful cars in town.

James Dean in Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

Dean Had Him Paint His Porsche

As soon as James Dean bought his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder, he brought it to Jeffries' shop. He wanted not only Jeffries' iconic pinstripes, but for him to write "Little Bastard" on the rear.

Tragically, neither car nor driver would survive the week.

James Dean waves from behind the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder 'Little BastardBettmann, Getty Images

His Work Did Not Last Long

James Dean's fatal car crash in "Little Bastard" occurred mere days after Jeffries had painted it.

remains of 'Little Bastard,'Hulton Archive , Getty Images

He Got His Own Space

By 1956, Jeffries was good enough that George Barris offered him a job. Jeffries didn't want a job—but he did happily rent his own shop space from Barris, right next door to Barris Kustoms. But the street wasn't big enough for the both of them.

1965 Rod & Custom Staff - George Barris ShopThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Moved To Hollywood

As Jeffries grew from "the kid who hangs around" to "#1 competition," it was only a matter of time before his set up right next door to Barris Kustoms reached its expiry date. In 1958, he packed up shop and moved to Hollywood.

Musician Jeff Beck speaks with parking valet on arrival at 3rd Annual Rock Awards, held at The Palladium, Hollywood CA 1977 (Photo by Mark Sullivan/Getty Images)Mark Sullivan, Getty Images

His Mentor Became His Rival

Jeffries and Barris would continue a professional rivalry for the rest of their lives, with Barris taking credit for Jeffries' work many times over the years.

American designer and builder of many famous Hollywood custom cars George BarrisWilliam Nation, Getty Images

He Ran A Studio Of Style

If you didn't already know that Dean Jeffries' shop was a little different that other garages, the sign on the door would make it clear: Jeffries Studio Of Style.

Jeffries Automotive Styling ShopThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Worked For Celebrities

James Dean wasn't the only Hollywood star who was interested in Jeffries' work. Celebs like Steve McQueen, James Garner, and even Elvis started coming to Jeffries' shop just to hang out and gawk at his creations.

Ala Kart - Custom 1929 Model A PickupThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Built The Little Deuce Coupe

"Little Deuce Coupe" isn't just the name of a song, it's an actual car. You can see it on the cover for the Beach Boys' album of the same name—and yes, it's a Dean Jeffries custom hot rod.

The Beach Boys Skyfox1, Flickr

He Put Flames On Cars

Dean Jeffries was one of the artists who pioneered painting sinuous flames on the front end of a car, so Guy Fieri owes him a thank you.

Dean Jeffries Painting FlamesThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Could Do It All

More an artist than anything else at first, Jeffries' skills at fabrication grew as the years went by, and by the early 60s he was building full-blown custom creations out of his shop. 

Custom builder and painter Dean Jeffries paints art workThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Made A Legendary Car

In 1963, Jeffries wanted to prove that he could compete with older builders like his mentor Barris. That drive pushed him to build probably his most famous custom car: the futuristic Mantaray.

Dean Jeffries' The Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Was Inspired By Nature

While at an aquarium during a trip to Seattle, Jeffries was struck by the beauty and grace of the manta ray. He wanted to try and capture that in a car, so he got to work.

Dean Jeffries' The Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Worked Fast

Jeffries only worked on the Mantaray on nights and weekends while still working full time in his shop. Still, he finished the custom in just three months. The final result was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Dean Jeffries' The Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

It Looked Unlike Anything Else

With its bubble windshield, sleek, asymmetrical design, and single headlight positioned at the car's front point, the Mantaray quite simply blew people's minds.

Mantaray designer and builder Dean JeffriesThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

It Blew People Away

After its debut, the Mantaray won Best Experimental Car at the 1964 Pomona car show. The design was so eye-catching, it transcended the car world into popular culture.

Bikini Beach MovieThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

They Put It On TV

The Mantaray stood out so much that soon after its debut, it was featured on both Steve Allen's The Tonight Show and in the teen movie Bikini Beach.

steve allTurner Classic Movies

There's An Easter Egg On The Car

If you look very closely, you'll see the word "Cobra" on the Mantaray's valve covers. When Carroll Shelby built the first of his iconic Cobras, he had Jeffries paint it. 

Shelby repaid the favor by providing both the engine and the transmission for the Mantaray.

Carroll Shelby, Shelby-Cobra 260Bernard Cahier, Getty Images

He Iterated On Himself

Jeffries later combined his Mantaray and his love for buggies in the Kyote, a dune buggy with a similar look to his iconic custom. 

Bruce Meyers Manx Dune BuggyEric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

He Built Buggies

Jeffries actually went into production on the Kyote in 1969. With a staff of 15 people, Jeffries built around 1100 Kyotes out of his shop. But soon, the demands of Hollywood meant the Kyote had to go by the wayside.

Bruce Meyers Manx Dune Buggy 2Eric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

He Had All The Right Connections

NBC was looking for someone to make a custom car for their new sitco. With his shop right in Hollywood and his futuristic custom all over the TV, Jeffries was an obvious choice—and he didn't disappoint.

Dean Jeffries Pontiac GTO Monkees CarThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Built The Monkeemobile

The show was The Monkees, and they needed a Monkeemobile. To make it, Jeffries started with a Pontiac GTO. Then he got creative.

The famous MonkeemobileBruce Alan Bennett, Shutterstock

It Looked Like Nothing Else

By the time he was done with it, the Monkeemobile had pointed grille, GMC blower sticking straight up out of the recessed hood, and a rear-deploying parachute. It was awesome.

MonkeemobileThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

His Creation Was A Hit

The Monkees was a hit—and so was the Monkeemobile. The quickly started selling scale models of Jeffries' custom in stores.

Dean Jeffries Pontiac GTO Monkees CarThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

He Became "The Guy"

The Monkeemobile solidified Jeffries as "The Guy" if you wanted a custom car in Hollywood. Next to come knocking was The Green Hornet.

"Black Beauty" car of "The Green Hornet" movieETC@USC, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

He Built Black Beauty

When ABC rebooted The Green Hornet as a TV series in 1966, Jeffries was the obvious choice to build the newest version of Kato's car, Black Beauty

As usual, he didn't disappoint.

Green Hornet Black BeautyFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

It Hid Surprises

Jeffries turned what started as a fairly mundane 1966 Imperial Crown convertible into "Black Beauty," a sleek, black and green custom with a retractable cannon in the front grille.

Green Hornet, William Nation, Getty Images

It Wasn't Just Cars

Turns out Jeffries was also an expert in dune buggies—and built his share of customs! Remember the moon buggy that James Bond drives in Diamonds Are Forever? Another Dean Jeffries Custom.

Moonbuggy From Diamonds Are ForeverWikimedia Commons, Picryl

Trolleys Too

There aren't any trolleys in real life that look as good as the trolley in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That's because the one in the movie was a Dean Jeffries custom.

Special Effects factsWho Framed Roger Rabbit (1988),  Touchstone Pictures

He Did Entire Movies

Some jobs were bigger than others. Maybe he just needed to build a single car—or maybe he had to oversee custom fabrication for an entire fleet of semi-trucks, like he did for 1978's Convoy.

1978 movie tamahaji, Flickr

He Couldn't Finish The Batmobile

Jeffries was asked to design the Batmobile for the 1966 TV series with Adam West. He started the job—but he didn't have the time to finish the project. He handed it off to his old mentor, George Barris, who took over.

Batman and Robin Meeting Green Hornet and KatoBettmann, Getty Images

He Got Involved

Nobody could build cars like Dean Jeffries—and no one could drive them either. No wonder he ended up with stunt driving credits on dozens of movies, from The Blues Brothers to The Fugitive.

Dean Jeffries pinstriping Rod & Custom magazine's custom project pickup truckThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

The Car Companies Came To Him

When Ford asked Jeffries to customize a 1964 Falcon Futura, he did not disappoint. Though most famous for his hot rods and outrageous custom's, Jeffries' sleek, candy-apple-into-black Python Falcon is one of his best.

Dream Truck project vehicleThe Enthusiast Network, Getty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


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