The car culture explosion of the 1950’s and ‘60s generated a tidal wave of car customizers and hot rodders that has continued to grow and evolve into the gas-fueled Auto Age that still dominates the current cultural landscape. For every kale-eating, Prius-driving, X-agenda activist, there is still fifty horsepower-obsessed motorheads more inspired by the soulful rumble of a V8 than the shriek of a Birkenstock-wearing protest marcher. The kustom culture movement is an octopus, whose tentacles can be traced to many sources. Visionaries like Big Daddy Roth, Von Dutch, Gene Winfield and George and Sam Barris mastered metal and fiberglass fabrication, new and wild painting techniques and of course, hopping up power. Seeing their world opening up across country, some of them even mastered marketing and self-promotion. Dean Jeffries was in the California epicenter of the custom car movement and through hard work and practical genius managed to weld his name in steel up among the greats.
Drafted at seventeen and stationed in Germany, Jeffries became fascinated by the old world ornamentation he saw during his time away from base. German mailboxes, furniture, storefronts and, of course, motorcycles were striped and enhanced. Inspired, the young soldier began striping while still in uniform. Back in civilian life Dean continued his customizing education, working alongside Von Dutch and in George Barris’ busy North Hollywood shop. Striping lead to painting, and then to more complicated metal forming. Dean absorbed everything by watching and was able to quickly translate what he saw into his own vision.
The work rolled in. Where Big Daddy Roth was everyone’s eccentric beatnik uncle and Barris was the carnival sideshow promoter, Jeffries was the no-nonsense head-down maker. His steady hands were involved in many of the major customs produced during this Golden Age. Jeffries was one of the first painters to get the new metal-flake concoctions mixed by the Metalflake Corp. of America. Countless clients from movie stars, hot rodders and racers to major Big Three manufacturers kept his shop at a constant hum. Like Roth, Barris, Stanley Mouse and Winfield, among others, Jeffries jumped on the merchandising bandwagon, selling hand-painted monster shirts and sweaters, freak decals, trinkets and whatever else he could put his mark on. Car shows were everywhere and a customizer with an airbrush could rake in some serious weekend coin. Jeffries was also one of the earliest flying eyeball artists. Several custom culture artists at around the same time were painting this popular totem. The Von Dutch variation remains the most familiar, but other versions were decorating street rods and dry lakes racers throughout the '50s and early '60s.
Dean was always interested in auto racing. Lucky enough to grow up across the street from Indy 500 hero Troy Ruttman, Jeffries began striping Indy contenders in the early ‘50’s, eventually moving on to painting and even crewing for various teams at the 500. He numbered James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder and painted the “Little Bastard” name on the doomed racecar. Carroll Shelby enlisted him to paint and correct the flimsy bodies on the early Shelby Cobras.
Dean’s stroke of genius, the thing that etched his name into the customizer list of eternity, was the Mantaray. Everyone has seen it, admired it, built it as a plastic model kit, but few know just how special it is. Using a prewar Maserati Grand Prix car that was forgotten and rotting away in his father-in-law’s backyard, Dean went to work. The super sixties fiberglass bubbletop design aesthetic was in full swing in the customizing world, and Jeffries was determined to take it a step further.
Junking the bodywork and engine, and bending a wire body silhouette over the Maserati chassis, the futuristic shape took form. Working from his own drawings and a natural eye for line and proportion, Jeffries created one of the major custom cars of the 1960’s, at the height of the custom craze. Often mistaken as a Roth-like fiberglass rod, the Mantaray body is all hand-pounded aluminum. Old friend Carroll Shelby provided a genuine Shelby Racing Ford small block to make sure the car would run as strong as it looked. The car stunned at the ’64 Oakland Roadster Show, taking top honors and thrusting Jeffries into the big time.
Years later, young kids thought it was either some kind of concept that inspired the Mako Shark Corvette or it was some kind of space ship ready for interstellar travel. Today, it still looks good; the lines both modern and classic, and even with the 60’s-era bubble top and asymmetrical layout it feels like it could somehow go into production by a specialist European builder.
The success of the Mantaray brought Jeffries fame, magazine covers and high profile clients. Hollywood came calling. The Mantaray makes an appearance in the hugely popular Frankie and Annette teen-o-rama, Bikini Beach. More importantly, Dean Jeffries Automotive Styling became one of the few go-to custom shops for Hollywood productions. Dean was asked to create the Batmobile for the iconic TV show. Starting with a ’59 Cadillac, the already huge fins were extended and re-styling the front end was started. But the project was never to get out of the Batcave. A phone call from the show producers demanding the car to be finished on a ten-day deadline could not be met. The job went to rival George Barris’ shop with their much larger crew and fabrication capacity.
It wasn’t long before Jeffries Automotive Styling would make up for the lost Batmobile project. In quick succession, deals were struck to design and produce both the ’66 GTO-based Monkeemobile for NBC and the Chrysler Imperial-based Green Hornet’s Black Beauty for ABC television. Both are icons of their time, triumphs of wild design as well as a source of controversy for Jeffries. His ex-collaborator and business rival, George Barris, would eventually acquire both cars and show them on exhibition along with his own Batmobile. Always the self-promoter, Barris would take credit for both cars, infuriating Jeffries. Hard feelings and public confusion went on for years.
Dean Jeffries continued building vehicles for Hollywood films and television, his creations appearing in far too many films to list here. Everything from post-apocalyptic land rovers to custom eighteen wheelers to sci-fi flying spinners for Blade Runner rolled out of his shop and on to the big screen. In addition to special vehicle design and fabrication, Jeffries would work as a stunt driver, stuntman and vehicle stunt coordinator in countless films and TV shows. His work ethic undiminished, Jeffries spent his last years in semi-retirement, going into his shop every day and working on an endless list of personal projects. He passed away in 2013 at age of 80. His achievements in paint and fabrication live on and serve as inspiration for another generation of car-crazy customizers.
Uncredited photos courtesy of Dean Jeffries archives.