During the car-crazy 1950s in Southern California, Dean Jeffries was one of the first hot rodders to chop, channel and soup-up automobiles. His distinctive paint jobs and sculpted body work attracted many admirers to his auto shop, including the likes of James Dean, Steve McQueen and A.J. Foyt.
A legendary car painter and customizer who made the “Monkeemobile” and the original Green Hornet’s “Black Beauty,” Jeffries died in his sleep Saturday at his home in Hollywood. He was 80 and had been in declining health.
His death was confirmed by his son, Kevin.
In his career, Jeffries was an automotive jack-of-all-trades, working as a stuntman, car builder, and race car painter and pinstriper. He was well known within the auto business, but didn’t achieve wide commercial success like some of his contemporaries.
“He didn’t talk about himself or promote his work,” Jay Leno, host of “The Tonight Show” and a noted car collector, said Wednesday. “We work in a town where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. That wasn’t Dean. He’s just a regular car guy who happened to create some of the most gorgeous cars you have ever seen.”
He was born Edward Dean Jeffries on Feb. 25, 1933, in Osage, Iowa. Soon after, the family moved to the Compton area, where his father was a mechanic.
Jeffries served a stint in the U. S. Army during the Korean War. Upon returning, like many former soldiers in Southern California, he used his newly acquired mechanical skills on cars.
Jeffries rented space from the “King of Kustom” George Barris’ shop in Compton and worked alongside the father of modern pinstriping, Kenneth Howard, better known as Von Dutch. The duo were known as Von Dutch and “The Kid.”
It was during this time in 1955 that Jeffries painted the number “130" and “Little Bastard” on James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean and Jeffries became friends because of their shared love of cars.
Less than a month later, the Spyder was found wrecked at the junction of routes 466 and 41 east of Paso Robles. Dean, who was behind the wheel, was killed at age 24.
Jeffries later moved his operations to Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, then to his longtime shop on Cahuenga Boulevard in North Hollywood, which remains to this day.
His first major success was in the 1964 Grand National Roadster Show with his asymmetrically styled Mantaray, which featured a Maserati Grand Prix chassis and a Cobra engine.
Jeffries created the sleek “Black Beauty” from a 1966 Chrysler Imperial for “The Green Hornet” TV series. The Monkeemobile, a modified 1966 Pontiac GTO convertible, was built in just 10 days for “The Monkees” TV show.
Later in his career, Jeffries was involved in movie production, not only as a car builder, but as a stunt driver and stunt producer.
“If he was born in France, he probably would have been a painter. But because he was in Southern California, the medium he used was on four wheels,” said Tom Cotter, who wrote the 2009 biography “Dean Jeffries: 50 Fabulous Years in Hot Rods, Racing & Film.”
Jeffries loved the Indianapolis 500 and worked on driver A.J. Foyt’s crew. One year, after racers caught a glimpse of the paint job he gave Foyt’s car, he ended up painting 22 of the 33 starters in the Indy 500 field.
In his recent years, Jeffries could occasionally be found as a special guest at car shows across the country. He had also been working to make his shop on Cahuenga into a museum of sorts, by restoring his personal car collection and meeting with old friends.
Jeffries’ second wife, Row, died four years ago. He is survived by his sister, Evonne, and his son, Kevin Dean Jeffries of Lake Elsinore.
The family said a public celebration of Jeffries’ life is planned for late May. Details will be posted at www.DeanJeffries.com.