6 Decades of Balance and Line: Pinstriping With Dennis Jones
Sometimes the car bug bites early. For Dennis Jones, legendary letterer and pinstriper, it also bit at just the right time in history. Hot rodding, drag racing and custom car culture was still emerging from the primordial ooze of post-war boredom, teenage swagger and chronic speed addiction. As a kid in Pico Rivera with a steady hand, an eye for style and the discipline to study and refine his craft, Dennis would burn his mark into the endless sheet metal canvas that is car culture.
“Early on, I talked my mother into driving me to the Baron, Roth & Kelly shop. I wasn’t old enough to drive. There were ’52 Chevys all scalloped and pinstriped. They were masking out flame jobs. Ed Roth wasn’t building cars yet. They were knocking stuff out as fast as possible. I wanted to stay out of the way, so I just watched them work in the bays for, maybe 40 minutes or so. There was a guy named Slimbo there, a striper. He finally came up to me and says, ‘You look like you’re pretty interested in this stuff.’ I told him that I was. He took me aside and gave me some pointers.”
“The first thing Slimbo told me was to get a nice piece of glass and a car door or fender. He just said, ‘Get your paint going and practice. When you’re done, wipe it off and start over again. Practice, practice, practice.’ And he was right. I never had anyone show me how to hold the brush or how to load it with paint. I just watched those guys work. I learned it by watching.”
“Here I was a sophomore in High School and I was striping dashboards and doing spider webs, musical notes, whatever. I’d make $35 a day on the weekends- that was good money. With that and my paper route I bought my first car, a ’40 Ford sedan with a built Flathead. I sold that and bought a ’56 Chevy, which became my real high school car. I ran a few drags with it, ran El Mirage, took it to Bonneville.”
“My two early influences were first, the Lasage brothers, Burke and Joe. They had a red ’32 coupe and Burke was already a pretty well-known dry lakes racer. I used to stop and admire that car and before long they wanted me to letter it. I was flattered that they would trust it to me, I was just a kid. Later, I painted Jerry Kugel’s black lacquer Ford at my folks’ house. I was lettering race cars, hot rods, anything I could get my hands on. The other big influence was Ak Miller’s Garage.”
When Dennis’ older brother, Bob, got hired at the now-legendary Ak Miller Garage on nearby Whittier Blvd, Dennis saw it as a way into a world that he had been obsessed with since he striped his first neighborhood bicycle frame. Ak Miller was already a legend in hot rodding and a founder and key player in the SCTA and later the NHRA. His garage was a buzz of creativity and innovation in drag racers and dry lakes cars. “I would hang out at Ak Miller’s and you couldn’t help but be inspired by all the stuff that was happening there.”
“This, what we now call car culture, was going on all over L.A. and into Long Beach. But in the Whittier/Pico Rivera area, we had our own little thing happening. Cruising Whittier Blvd, Bob’s Big Boy, all that. And there was always something new and interesting going on at Ak Miller’s Garage. That’s how I got in with The Roadrunners.”
“The Roadrunners were an SCTA club made up of mostly La Habra, Whittier and Pico Rivera Guys.” These “guys” included some of the biggest names in hot rodding and drag and dry lakes racing- in addition to Ak Miller, Wally Parks, Fred Carillo, Art Chrisman, Vic Edelbrock, Jerry Kugel, Bob and Dick Pierson and many other car culture legends ran with a Roadrunners plaque.
“The year I graduated High School, 1962, we ran three cars at El Mirage. First was a ’62 Corvette, and then we ran the Corvette’s tow car, a stock ’56 Ford Fairlane- yeah, it was there, so we ran that! We also ran my high school car, a ’56 Chevy with a 327. We hit 148mph with my Chevy, a record. But the SCTA wouldn’t let us do a follow-up run because it didn’t have a roll bar. They never expected that car to go so fast.”
“Right after high school I was interested in commercial art and took a class over at Cerritos College. It was called Package Design. Today they call it Graphic Arts. I was good at it and even won an award at the college, but I decided that it wasn’t for me. They taught us what to expect as a professional and I didn’t like the thought of being indoors lined up along side three or six or ten other artists, an Art Director hovering over your shoulder…”
“I liked working on cars. They call it car culture today, but I just liked to be around racecars doing lettering and striping. It was an inspiring environment. I took it seriously, I concentrated on good lettering and striping. Names on cars were popular. Baron, Roth & Kelly would do names for $3.00. I would do them for $1.50. They were the kings and I learned as much as I could from them. Von Dutch was around, but he was kind of doing different things.”
“I’m formally trained as a sign painter. I committed to a two-year sign-painting course at L.A. Trade Tech College. They taught you everything, starting with drawing letters. We learned proper spacing, how to apply gold-leaf, how to paint a sign up on a wall, lettering glass storefronts, lettering in reverse on the back of glass- all of it. I came out of there as an apprentice sign-painter and went to work right away for a big sign company.”
“I got married, bought a house, had kids. I worked for the sign company all week and did cars at night after work. I might work 3 or 4 hours into the evening and then do it all again the next day. It’s tough to keep up that pace and eventually I was so busy with my side work, I bit the bullet and opened my own shop. It wasn’t easy walking away from a good union job with a retirement and security and all that, but I decided to control my own destiny. I opened Jones Custom Lettering and 45 years later, I’m still in business.”
Coming around full circle, Dennis’ work is heading back to Bonneville on the most high-profile car in recent memory. “I just did the silver leaf lettering on Danny Thompson’s Challenger II streamliner. We were out at Bonneville in the late-50s and early-60s when Mickey Thompson was doing all kinds of wild things. Chasing 400mph in Challenger I. Challenger II is a gorgeous car and I was excited to do it.”
“I’m a good pinstriper but my real strength has been lettering, I’m known for my lettering. They look at it as art today, and it is, but we didn’t think of it that way when I started.” Dennis Jones has infused the wide reach of car culture with skill and tasteful execution for 60+ years. Pick up any custom car magazine from the golden age right up to the present day and somewhere within those pages, his work will assert itself, staking out its own unique place, here in this automobile age.
Photos by Tim Sutton