Let’s just have some fun with this. I could make it a rant. But there’s way too much ranting going on right now. Plus this one has an ironic happy ending, so I can’t rant about it anyway. And, this is a blog, so I don’t have to adhere to a tight topic. Let’s meander a bit. I like to call it “Roddin’ at Random.”
This is the cover in question. It’s a book I did about 15 years ago, on a topic I know quite well–how to paint your own car, at home, in your garage, or even in your driveway. I started learning how to do this when I was about 12 or 13, helping older friends wet-sand, prep, and mask their cars for paint, and then eventually painting all of my own cars, not to mention a few for others. Even though I don’t know anyone else who does their own painting, I’ve long known that “How to Paint,” or “Paint and Body” have always been hot-selling topics for magazine covers, not to mention many books over several decades.
The thing is, invariably, these book or magazine covers always showed some shiny (usually red), buffed-and-waxed collector-type car–Porsche, Vette, Deuce, etc.–with maybe the headlights taped off, bumper masked, windshield covered, and then some guy with a breather mask and an empty spray gun standing next to it pretending to paint this already painted car. I even had to do it myself once, but at least I taped off some flames on the hood of the beautiful, black Z/28, and sprayed yellow poster paint on it, that we washed off afterward.
But for my own book, I vowed to photograph someone actually painting a car for the cover. I also wanted to show, in the book, one complete paint job, start-to-finish. So I called my long-time friend and excellent painter John Harvey. He told me sure, and that he had the perfect candidate, a big-block, 4-speed, ’67 Corvette Stingray that had been painted the wrong red and needed to be redone in the correct Marlboro Maroon to win concours. The only problem was that John had moved his home and shop to Los Lunas, NM, 25 miles south of Albuquerque, and a long drive for me from L.A. However, I knew John would be good to work with, it was an excellent subject, and I could follow the complete job on this car. So I packed my cameras, tripod, notebook, and headed for new Mexico.
This was one of the photos I took when John was actually spraying the final clear coats on the car, which I used in the book, and it wouldn’t have been a bad cover image. But what I actually did was spend an extra night, and come back the next day when the paint was dry. We hung some extra parts on racks behind the car. Then we cracked open the doors of John’s spray room and mounted a house fan on a box, trying to make it look as much like a home garage as possible.
Then we loaded John’s spray gun with water, and I took this for a potential cover shot. Actually we shot several, from different angles, both on film and digital. I thought it looked great, and even if we cheated a little, it was the real deal–a real car really getting painted.
Well, you can see what actually ended up on the cover. I don’t think I found out until I saw the first finished, printed copies. What they used was a snapshot of the finished car taken by the owner in a parking lot. The photo of John actually painting was shunted into a corner, partially covered by the title and mostly cropped off. As you can imagine, I was rather angry about this surprise. The word “livid” comes to mind. So now you can finally see what it was supposed to look like. But you know what? That wasn’t the part that pissed me off the most. It was that tag line they added to the title: ON A BUDGET. That was just cheap. Kind of degrading. What was supposed to be emphasized was “At Home,” “In your Garage,” or just “Yourself.” As you can imagine, I raised a stink about it, but it was a done deal. Dave Arnold, the founder and Publisher of CarTech books, and I had had a few go-arounds before, but basically I had no horsepower. He was the boss. And what he told me was, “Pat, trust me. It will sell books.”
And the reason I can’t rant is that he was absolutely right. I don’t want to sound overly egotistic, but I’ve done a lot of books on pretty substantial topics. Starting with technical stuff there was nitrous oxide injection, Street Supercharging, and one they call the bible of classic Ford Performance Engines (their words, not mine). The American Custom Car is still the only historical overview of that subject. The ones I’m most proud of are the oral/social/illustrated biographies of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch. And there were even a couple of “art books” on my rod and custom photography. Lastly, there was the Lost Hot Rods series, followed by the Gallery books featuring photos from my archive. All of these were excellently, beautifully produced by CarTech Books in both hard and soft cover editions. You can’t make a living from books like these. But most sold well and some even won awards. But you know what outsold all of them? Yep, How to Paint Your Car On a Budget. By a margin of about 10 to 1. In fact, it’s still selling and it’s the only one CarTech is still printing. Despite the title (and cover), it’s a good book. So I can’t complain. Not even a little rant.
So let’s shift the topic from painting to the painter. He’s more interesting (and you can consider this column a “two-fer.”). Having just spoken with John, he reminded me that not only did he have a shop next to my upholsterer, Dave Gade, in Orange, CA, where I met him in the ’70s, but that he had a pair of beautiful, black-lacquer 3-windows then that I featured in the July ’76 issue of Street Rodder magazine.
I still had a lot to learn about photographing cars then, but as the caption says both of these cars were basically hulks when John got them. I don’t remember what became of the ’34. The ’36 John figures was a race car of some sort. The top was chopped a mild 2-1/4 inches and the hood was louvered. But the firewall was cut out for a set-back engine and the body was a gutted shell. And he still has it. After turning it into a full-fendered, Chevy-powered streeter (with a Gade interior, of course), he’s repainted it at least a couple of times. He also made a few body mods, such as an inset license and frenched ’39 taillights. Then in ’88 he painted it a GM red pearl. And, being a custom painter in Orange County, he of course got his materials from Betz Speed and Color, and became good friends with Stan Betz, who in turn introduced John to his long-time friend, Von Dutch.
This is a photo John took in May ’88 when he delivered the freshly painted ’36 to Dutch at the Brucker warehouse in Santa Paula. His eyesight was beginning to fail by then; you can see the magnifying goggles propped on his head. John left the car with him for a week, and of course didn’t say anything about how he wanted it striped.
So this is what he got. John just recently got the car back after nearly 20 years in Darryl Starbird’s museum in Kansas. As John says, “For Dutch, it’s pretty restrained, other than the scallops on the fenders.”
The best part, even if a bit outsized, is the flying eyeball, done with surprising detail. We’re not sure, but we think this might be the last complete car Dutch ever striped.
Back in 1985, when I was a staffer at Hot Rod, I did a 10-part series called “How to Paint your Car, Start to Finish.” It involved several vehicles showing various steps, but for the last two, the masking and spraying and the color-sand and rub out, I called on John, who was then operating a paint shop owned by baseball great Reggie Jackson, which he called Reggie’s Paint by Lil’ John.
Of course the primary reason for Reggie operating a paint shop was for John to paint his own growing collection of hot rods and muscle cars.
These photos are from the Dec. ’85 issue, and the subject being sprayed was Reggie’s latest acquisition, a slightly banged-up but rare 327/350 hp ’66 Nova SS 4-speed. Here John is carefully and expertly spraying it bright Regal Red lacquer. In the series I was stressing the use of solid-color, non-metallic acrylic lacquer for your first paint job, as it was the easiest to spray and easiest to fix. I recently sprayed my new ’33 Fordor in PPG black acrylic lacquer, and was told I got the last they made. Too bad.
We also used a take-out hamburger and Coke as a prop in each segment to stress the do-it-yourself-at-home aspect, so once the paint was finally sprayed on the car, Lil’ John got to finally munch one. In the final segment we showed John color-sanding and buffing this final finish, and just showed the reflection of the burger and Coke sitting on the brilliantly polished hood. In black-and-white, of course.
Now let’s switch back to John’s current operation in New Mexico. When I was there doing the How to Paint book photos, I was surprised to see a couple of pretty wild customs parked in the large storage area of his shop. When I asked what they were, John replied, “Oh those are mine.” I had figured they were customers’ cars. I had no idea John was into full customs. But he is.
So let’s start with the T-Bird. It’s the last year of the “Rocket” version, a ’63, and once you get past John’s trademark brilliant candy paint, you can see he’s made several custom body changes. The first thing you should notice is the 3-1/2-inch top chop. I had no idea Lil’ John did stuff like that. I thought he was mainly a painter. And doing it on a ’60s car is way more difficult than on something from the ’20s or ’30s. Since he’s out in the middle of New Mexico, I asked how he got the windshield and other glass cut for it. “Oh I do that myself,” was his non-plussed answer. “I just set it out in the sun, let it get good and hot, then just do a little at a time, with a regular glass cutter. Takes a while, but it works for me.” Other body mods are too numerous to catalogue. Plus you’ve got to know your T-Birds. Obviously he started by shaving off all body chrome. Then he went to work extending the rear fins, rolling the rear pan, reshaping the grille (with chrome tube insert), reshaping the hood scoop, and even rerouting the fender/door side crease a bit. Besides the purple candy inside, the upholstery was basically a kit from a T-Bird supplier, but for a ’61 to get the white he wanted. Inside the fully painted and slightly chromed engine compartment, John swapped the original 390 big block for a newer 351-W with a single 4-barrel and polished aluminum. Just the thought of sanding, detailing, and candy painting all that sheetmetal under that cavernous hood
wears me (and my fingertips) out. Note the reflection on the hood underside. But John says that wasn’t the worst, by any means. “This one I did on a rotisserie. The whole underside is sanded, smoothed, and candy painted, just like the top. Boy, I’ll never do that again!” Did you notice the taillights John made out of flat red plastic with chrome bullets in the center? Kind of match the chrome reverse wheels with bullet Spider caps. Along with the medium whitewalls and moderate stance, this car has a definite early-mid-’60s theme going. Oh, the color? John says it’s basically candy purple, “But I blended in some candy violet until I got the shade I wanted.” Yes, that’s his thing, and he’s a master at it. Now you might be wondering why you’ve never seen this Bird before. It’s a full-on show car, but unfortunately that’s not John’s thing. He built this in ’07-’08, but it’s never been seen in any major shows, or magazines, or anywhere else until now.
Talk about a horse of a different color! I’ve seen a few custom ’58 Lincolns, so I knew this was something close. My guess was a ’57 or ’59. John clued me it was a ’57 Premiere. And it’s a classic example of the field orphan dragged home. To give an idea, John said it sat so long in a local field that the steering wheel was cracked and crumbling. With the chopped top and lowered seats, he couldn’t see over it anyway, so he said he chipped the rest off, reworked the metal ring inside to be flat on top (like some Mopars), then made a mold and recast the wheel in fiberglass. You’re probably getting the idea that John likes the building, customizing, and painting part more than the cruising and showing. Maybe. Maybe not.
Did I mention chopped top? Yes, John sliced 4 inches out of this one. Of course it’s shaved, has extended fins, rounded corners, a tasty rear grille, custom taillights, and so on. Under the big hood John planted an equally big 460 Ford bored to 475 inches. Inside are four bucket seats and a handmade full center console. John rescued this desert derelict in 2000 and didn’t finish it until five years ago. Remember the intense craze we had for House of Kolor’s equally intense new color, Tangelo Pearl, about ten years ago? That’s what John sprayed on this Lincoln, lots of it. No this isn’t a mild custom. It’s intense. Now all you need to do, John, is slam it. He says that’s in the works.
So let’s get to the Corvette. This one you might have seen. I featured it in Hot Rod magazine in July ’83 when it was a race car. Then I showed it in various forms in my Lost Hot Rods II book. This is another car John has had for a very long time, and you might say it’s another derelict he salvaged.
When John found it in the mid-’70s, it was drag racing at Famoso with a big, injected, Boss Hemi Ford(!) engine. It had a tube axle in front (dropped, not jacked up), and giant slicks in back in cut-out wheelwells, riding on coil springs with ladder bars. The interior was gutted of everything but a rollbar and bucket seat. It was colorless white when John got it, and even the Hemi Ford was gone. So John first dropped in a single 4-barrel big block Chev and bracket raced it at nearby Orange County Raceway.
But of course John couldn’t leave it white. He’s a custom painter. So for its first redo, he taped out and laid on Candy Brandywine, Tangerine, and Pagan Gold. Plus he scored a 488-inch KB-built Chrysler Hemi with a Moldex stroker crank, Isky roller cam, and Hilborn injectors.
Surrounded by some nice polished aluminum paneling by John, and backed by a beefed Torqueflite, this new good-looking multi-brand beast was good for 9.40 e.t.’s at 140+ mph in the quarter. But if you’re a seasoned drag racer, you know from the mph that John could have cut that e.t. quite a bit with some gear changing and tuning.
But as I say, I think John likes the building and rebuilding more than the fine tuning.
So in between the drags, John bolted some tall, skinny tires on the back, along with a parachute, and headed for the El Mirage dry lakes. The gearing was more attuned to that, because up there on the hard-packed dirt it scooted to 188 mph on gas. Not bad.
So that inspired John to take the Vette to Bonneville, which he did in ’81, ’85, and ’87, running just a clip under the magical 200 mph. The only problem was that the Chrysler tended to come unglued at those speeds, and John didn’t care much for that–nor did his bank account.
But not long after that John and his wife Sandy relocated to rural Los Lunas, where they found a nice house on a large, tree-shaded lot, with a big “barn” out back and room to build his own spacious spray booth. Somehow–mostly through appreciative word-of-mouth–John has kept his custom painting business plenty busy. But there are no dragstrips or dry lakes nearby, so John decided it was finally time to treat the old ’58 Vette to a nice new paint job, some interior amenities, and a slightly tamer driveline for some fun street driving. Well slightly tamer. No new LS motor for this old warrior.
John did give it a luscious new candy red paint job, with pearl white coves. Although he’s not into this new Pro Touring thing, he swapped the tube axle in front for an equally low TCI IFS unit complete with disc brakes and R&P steering. The big tires still stick out of the flared rear fenders, the new chromed headers barely clear the road, and there’s a big blower sticking through the fiberglass hood. You can clean it up, but it’s hard to take the hot rod out of a real hot rod.
The same goes for the new big-block Chevy street motor. You’d think a 6-71-blown 454 would be more than enough for cruising Albuquerque. But no, John can’t help himself. It’s stroked to 496 inches, it has Sonny Bryant reworked aluminum heads, the solid-lifter Clay Smith cam has a Bonneville grind, the blower is an 8-71, and it has twin 750 E-brock carbs on top. Yes, it’s a hot rod. Backing it up in good Corvette style is a Doug Nash 5-speed stick. John’s comment: “It sounds really nasty, but it doesn’t get far on a gallon of gas..”
On the inside, John kept the roll bar for good memories, but had to add a second seat, a steering column, and even make his own dashboard, housing a lineup of hooded instruments. And of course there’s candy red paint everywhere.
Wanna go for a short, quick cruise?
Yes, this car is totally out of style right now. But, personally, I think it’s completely cool. And bad.
So once again I’ve blathered on much longer than I should have. But, hey, what else have you got to do? I’m just trying to help keep you safe at home, and somewhat entertained during this ongoing quarantine. If this one isn’t enough to keep you occupied, there are a whole lot of older ones you can browse back through. You might be surprised. Otherwise, talk to you again in a couple weeks. Bye.