There are those among us who seem to track true like their life was on rails … who almost magically develop an expertise so far above the rest of us that their talent can only be described as God given. Henry Ford, Ted Williams, James Dean, Elvis, Steve Jobs … they were all like that. Driven by a talent that was bigger than they were. That’s the level of genius that Dean Jeffries brought to custom car building. He was a low key guy and never blew his own horn, but he was one of the best at designing customs. Whatever Jeffries tried his hand at he always seemed to be head and shoulders better than all the rest. Of course, it helped that he was born at a time when custom cars were all the rage in the California lifestyle.
A great friend to the hot rod hobby, Hall of Fame custom builder Dean Jeffries passed away at his home in Hollywood on May 5, 2013. He will be remembered for his most popular achievements, such as building the Monkeemobile, a custom 1966 Pontiac GTO Convertible, for the hit ’60s TV show The Monkees, and the Black Beauty, a highly customized 1966 Chrysler Imperial, from the original Green Hornet TV series with Bruce Lee. Dean Jeffries was 80 years old at his death.
Already a hot rodder when hot rodding was just becoming “acceptable” in California, Jeffries learned how to pinstripe by working with Von Dutch in Lynwood, California in the early 1950s. Soon he began to do complete custom paint jobs and then got into custom fabrication. He also did work for George Barris.
In those early days he hung out with actor James Dean who had him paint his now infamous 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder race car. It was Jeffries who painted the “Little Bastard” legend on the tail panel. Later, Carroll Shelby brought the first Shelby Cobra to Jeffries to rework the aluminum body panels. He did such a good job that Shelby had him paint it too. Jeffries still owns the only remaining Ford GT-40 race car from the team that won back-to-back Grand Prix championships under the leadership of Carroll Shelby. It is in his prized collection.
In 1964 after he had moved his shop to Cahuenga Boulevard in North Hollywood, Jeffries received a great deal of notoriety nationally for one of his custom designs. The car he built was called the Mantaray, an asymetrical “bubble top” design that incorporated a Maserati Grand Prix chassis with a Cobra engine. It won the Oakland Roadster Show that year and got him on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine. The Mantaray was later featured in the Hollywood movie, “Bikini Beach” in which Frankie Avalon drag raced the car to win the heart of co-star Annette Funicello. Jeffries actually drove the car in the movie. It was his introduction to Hollywood and stunt production for the movies.
Among the stars that would visit his shop over the years were Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, Jayne Mansfield, James Garner and Jay Leno.
Never one to let grass grow under his feet, Jeffries found that he not only wanted to build cars for Hollywood, but he also became a stunt driver and produced stunts for many movies. Some of the movies he was involved with included: “What’s Up Doc?”, “The Blues Brothers”, “Honky Tonk Freeway”, “Roger Rabbit”, “Romancing The Stone” and “Die Hard: With Vengeance”.
In 1981, Paramount Pictures did a movie called “Honky Tonk Freeway” in which they asked Jeffries to jump a 5-ton truck across a 90-ft section of freeway overpass that had been under repair. Not only did Jeffries build the truck so that it could make the jump, but he also drove the truck in the stunt. Watch the movie. This was a very complicated stunt scene. The scene turned out perfect in the camera … not so well for Jeffries. It turned out Jeffries was in intense pain with a broken back from when the truck bounced on landing.
While he was doing “Romancing the Stone” with Michael Douglas he had to build three 1984 Ford Broncos, two of them with roll cages that could withstand the stunts he was asked to do. Jeffries always said one of his strong suits was building a decent chassis and roll cage. In the movie he had to jump one of the trucks 118 feet over a river. He reinjured his back in that jump. As he got older those back injuries took their toll on him.
Jeffries had a fascination with the Indianapolis 500 Championship race. He pit crewed for A.J. Foyt for many years to get close to the action. He also painted many of the cars that ran at Indy.
Dean Jeffries was born on February 25, 1933, and is survived by his sister Evonne and his son Kevin Dean Jeffries of Lake Elsinore, California. His beloved wife, Row, preceded him in death in 2008.