We lost Bill Larzelere two weeks ago. Another one too many, especially recently. You probably don’t know who Bill is, er, was. People around here would respond, “Oh, you mean the guy who does the $1000 wax jobs?” No, not exactly. Bill called what he did “Automotive Grooming.” People who showed cars at places like Pebble Beach knew that one of the surer ways to win was to have the final detail job done by Bill Larzelere.
My friend Derek Bower told me. I called him about honing a pair of spindles, and I could tell he was bummed about something. So I asked and he said, “Today’s a bad day. Bill Larzelere died.” Derek knew Bill much better than I did; he even worked for him for a while. And it was Bill who introduced me to Derek, when I was looking for someone who could finish a few finicky details on my ’32 roadster the right way.
And that made me think way back. To the mid-1970s. It was a young John Callies (yes, the one with the #303 Simca coupe, the Pontiac Performance guy, and then racing crankshaft maker) who introduced me to Bill. I was writing my first book (“Super Power”) on nitrous oxide injection, and John was selling nitrous out of his garage in the neighborhood just down the street from Bill’s shop at the corner of Orchard St. and Burbank Bl. in what Johnny Carson used to derisively call “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” Turns out Tommy Ivo grew up and still lives on the same street, about a mile down, but we’ll get to that in a moment. I was photographing John showing how to properly fill a nitrous bottle for your car. When finished he said, “You know Willie, the world’s best car detailer?” Of course I hadn’t noticed Bill’s sizeable “compound” on the corner, 2 or 3 doors down, because it was surrounded by a 6-ft. high block wall abutting the sidewalk. There was no signage. Just a wrought-iron screen door with a mailbox and doorbell. When we pressed the doorbell a loud car horn blared, and soon an inner door opened and one or two man-eating dogs leaped out, barking and growling, until Bill or his assistant restrained them. This happened every time I went there. Which was many times over the years. Bill and I got to be pretty good friends.
Can you tell I’m struggling with this? I don’t like obituaries. I like a “Celebration of life” a lot better. And in fact, Bill was good at celebrating life. While he had incredible patience in detailing a car down to its nuts and bolts, he was an enthusiast, even zany at times. I can’t explain it here. You’d have to have known him.
But since this column is primarily photo-based, that’s how I want to represent–and celebrate–Bill. Once I met him, and he learned what I did, he’d call me up, often, and say, “Pat, you’ve got to come over here and see what I’ve got in the shop! Bring your camera.” So I did.
This was the first photo I took in Larzelere’s shop. And this was typical of the kind of stuff he’d have there. The candy purple Forty is of course the Rev. Scrub Hansen’s, which ended up on the 4th cover of The Rodder’s Journal after I showed it to Steve Coonan. It’s sitting on a hydraulic lift, the kind old gas stations had, so he could raise the car to detail everything underneath, in this garage work area. The yellow car behind it is, of course, Boyd’s AlumaCoupe (better known to us as the Easter Egg), which was not TRJ material. And I have no recollection, whatsoever, who owned or built the heavily chopped Merc with the DeSoto grille. Oh yes, and one man-eating dog–a pitbull?–which fortunately appears to be wagging its tail.
Speaking of Japanese-powered hot rods, Joe MacPherson’s Infiniti Flyer ’29 Model A won 1995’s America’s Most Beautiful Roadster giant trophy. Many agreed it might not be the most beautiful (many AMBR winners weren’t), but we all knew that with Art Chrisman building it, Steve Davis metal-work, Junior’s House of color paint, Tony Nancy upholstery, and Bill Larzelere rub-out and final detailing, it would be very hard to beat in any judged car show arena. Mmm, too many RIPs in that sentence.
And speaking of Junior’s House of Color, I don’t know how many of Junior’s paint jobs Bill rubbed out, but it was a lot, including the Hirohata Merc’s restoration. We still don’t know how Barris knew I was there that day taking pictures and interviewing Junior and Frank Sonzogni about the car’s original construction. He just showed up. And Bill was busy buffing the fresh lacquer paint. So I got the inspiration to take this photo. That’s George with a Barris crest, Junior with the spray gun, Sonzogni with a body hammer and lead file, Jim McNiel with the car’s pink slip, and Larzelere with the buffer.
And while we were doing the interview, Bill was out in the spray booth carefully and gingerly finishing up his cut-and-rub process with a power buffer and his own concoctions of rubbing and polishing compounds.
I kind of hate to admit that out of all the books I’ve done, the one titled “How to Paint your Car…On a Budget” has sold the most, by far. When I objected to the “On a Budget” part, the publisher said “It’ll sell books.” He was right.
The finishing step to any good, custom paint job is the color sanding and rub out. It’s much more than a two-step process, and doing any step improperly can ruin a paint job, probably requiring a respray. I’m a little surprised that Bill allowed me to show some of his secrets, but he let me spend a couple days in his shop photographing his start-to-finish process for cutting and rubbing a basecoat-clearcoat metallic maroon paint job on this ’60 Pontiac. It comprised ten pages for the final chapter in the book. And that didn’t even include several hours of tedious hand-rubbing and polishing with cloths and compounds or waxes that Bill did decide to keep secret. He was amazingly patient, as well as generous.
So this is a good one I’ve never had occasion to show anywhere in print. Bill calls up and says, “Pat, you’ve got to come over and see what I’ve got in the shop right now. It’s two of Seinfeld’s Porsches, the first and last 911s.” I guess Jerry Seinfeld is a big Porsche collector. Personally, my interest in Porsches ends with 356s. So I’m not sure why the blue one is the last 911. But Porsche guys will know. The best part is the license plates, of course. And the “First” one has to be a blue plate painted black, because this was before Calif. offered black personalized plates. But also check out other stuff you can spy in these photos, starting with Bill’s extensive plant collection, “Which just sort of grew” according to Derek. Did you notice the original Firestone dirt track tire leaning against one of the pots? This was well before repros. The Rambler in back was probably one of the “stray dog” vehicles that kept following Bill home. This part of the compound was open-air, where Bill put up a couple of large canopies. In the upper photo you see a ’61 Corvette, and that’s a ’59 Buick hardtop next to it. Can’t remember what the tailfin with the USAC emblem on it was. Maye an Indy-type car.
You might have seen this pretty amazing vehicle because it’s now owned by the Petersen Museum, but chances are slim since it’s the only one there is. Known as the Bosley MK I, it was completely hand-built with a fiberglass body between ’52 and ’54 by Richard Bosley in Ohio (he did build a different MK II ten years later). I snapped these quick pics to try to entice Steve Coonan into featuring it in The Rodder’s Journal, but he wasn’t impressed. I was. Not only did it have a 6-carb Chrysler Hemi, a 4-speed, and a Halibrand Q.C. rear, but it also had rare Halibrand knock-off mag wheels, ’50 Ford IFS, and a custom tube frame. I thought it looked pretty good and qualified as a sports rod.
But a second reason I include these photos is because they show some of the outside of Bill’s “compound.” The car is parked on Orchard St., headed toward Burbank Bl. The block wall you see wraps around the corner. At far right is the screen-door entrance, while the wood-slat fence between them incorporates a hard-to-see roll-back gate to bring cars in and out. This car must have been quite a ride in the mid-’50s. Now nicely detailed, too.
I think on this particular day Bill just called and said, “Come over to the shop. I’ve got something worth seeing. Probably make a good picture.” It sure did. I can’t recall exactly when this was, and I just thumbed through many pages of TRJ contents and I couldn’t find it. But remember when we used to do single page photos like this called “The Rodder’s Garage”? We used this as one, and I wrote a simple caption that said something like: “Just a typical cluttered SoCal garage, with the wife’s grocery-getter station wagon ready to make a quick trip to the market.” Of course this was Tommy Ivo’s original 4-engine injected Nailhead dragster that debuted on the Dec. ’61 Hot Rod cover, but in the Wagon Master livery after next-owner Tom McCourry had dragster metal-master Tom Hannah fit it with a hand-made, all-aluminum Buick station wagon body and Riviera nose in 1981. Nothing in this photo was set up. This was just an alcove in Bill’s garage where he parked cars to keep them clean when they were done. Can you imagine detailing this thing?
Like many young hot rod enthusiasts of many years ago, I was smitten by T-Bucket roadsters as a young kid, specifically Tommy Ivo’s “Outhouse” T with the injected Nailhead Buick engine and low stance. So I was surprised–and delighted–to learn as a young rod magazine reporter that it was stashed, partly in pieces, in a garage near my hometown. I rushed out, camera in hand, to see it and take a few pictures, two of which ran in one column in my editorial in the Nov. ’77 issue of Street Rodder mag. I think it was the second “Lost Hot Rod” I showed in print. The car was then owned by Hy Rosen, who bought it around 1962 from Bill Rolland and had Barris redo it as a more gaudy show piece, but without changing any of the basic car. Rosen owned Reliable Auto Wrecking, one of two big yards in Riverside, CA, where rodders bought parts in the ’50s and ’60s. By the late ’70s Hy’s son Jack had taken over the business, launched a street rod parts co. called Reliable Auto Accessories, and kept the T stashed, as is, in a small storage garage. I checked on it regularly and urged Jack to restore it. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that he actually did, but sort of secretly. He teamed with painter Ron Jones to do the work, but I never learned who did things like mechanical rebuilding or upholstery. My friend Bob McKray said Jones brought the car to his shop to get the Hilborn injection set up properly and tuned, then took off in a blaze of tire smoke for a test run, and never came back (or paid). Jack said they also took the car to where Von Dutch was living in a trailer to have him stripe it just as he did originally. He claims this is Dutch’s last stripe job. The fat lines on the generator and headlight might indicate this, but I have my doubts about the small signature on the corner of the dash–and the whole job, for that matter. I was doing a book on Dutch at the time, and I didn’t hear anything about this. He died in ’92, and was pretty incapacitated by then. I don’t know. In fact, there are no dates on my photos, and I can’t remember exactly when Bill called me to say the Ivo car was at his shop. I assume this was in the early ’90s, not long after the restoration was complete, and before it was taken to the NHRA Museum in Pomona where it remained for many years.
Before closing I would mention that Larzelere’s is where I found the mysterious, unidentified scrapbook that Bill bought at a pawn shop, containing several photos from the D&B used car lot full of hot rods and customs in the late ’40s that I showed in TRJ No. 35 (’07). It also contained several snapshots of the equally mysterious Wes Collins custom ’34 roadster with the Du Vall V-windshield, which I covered in TRJ No. 51.
OK, that’s enough. There may have been more. But I thank Bill for letting me take these photos and share them with you. I thank Bill for being a cool, fun friend all these years. And I’m sorry that he’s another one gone. RIP. Amen.