My Car Quest

July 17, 2024

The Case of the Custom Carrera

A 356 with a colorful history including a bank robber and a Hollywood Kustomizer.

by Wallace Wyss –

I used to drop into Hollywood customizer Dean Jeffries’ shop whenever I passed by, on that road that paralleled the Hollywood freeway in Studio City, a suburb of Los Angeles. His name was Dean Jeffries, he the famous custom car guy (for some reason some media spell it “Kustom” just like some people spell “school” the ignorant way “skool.”).

I was dropping in to observe the painfully slow progress on his Ford GT roadster, a car he had been given by Ford when he was walking through the Ford garage with AJ Foyt and Foyt leaned over and said “Hey, tell ‘em you’re gonna put a car in a movie and they’ll give you one for free.” So Jeffries points toward a GT40 roadster, one of five made in small block form, and it’s shipped out to Hollywood. Jeffries was as tough as nails. I remember he also did stunt driving and, in one stunt, overcooked it and flipped an off road vehicle breaking his back, but insisted on doing the stunt over…

I was unaware, or didn’t remember, that at one time he owned a 1956 Porsche Carrera Coupe. He owned it from 1956 – 1962. I dimly remember seeing it in old magazines at the drug store, when I perused the magazines for free (which I do to this day at Barnes & Noble!).

Some say this was the car that “launched his career” but since his career was 95% hot rods, and dune buggies and movie cars, I say it was irrelevant to his career except that it demonstrated his talents (he also is lesser known for painting the words “Little Bastard” on the tail of James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, perhaps on the same day that Dean lost his life in that car on the way up North to a race.

Dean Jeffries Custom Carrera

SURVIVES THE FIRE

It is not so much known that Jeffries worked for famed customizer (and later arch rival) George Barris back then, when Barris was still in Lynwood, California in 1957. Jeffries had started as a pinstriper so this was a big project for him. He got help from other customizers at the time including Sam Watson, Bill Hines, upholsterer Eddie Martinez, and of course Barris. Jeffries narrowly escaped having his Porsche be one of the cars caught in the December 7, 1957 Barris shop fire which destroyed 18 custom cars.

The story of how the Porsche came to be rediscovered decades after Jeffries sold it is in Excellence magazine and in my Incredible Barn Finds book (Enthusiast Books, Hudson, WI). To give you a condensed version: back in ’57 Jeffries was offered a ’56 Carrera coupe in trade for another car he owned. He took it in and decided to customize it, sinking in the headlights, taking the bumpers off, lowering it, the whole ‘50s thing (thank God no flames!) He did it in metal because as he told Excellence magazine “Bondo didn’t exist back then.” (Odd, I was there in the ‘Fifties, using Bondo myself at the time…but that was back in Michigan)

He fashioned his own cooling grille scoops in the back, installed Mercedes 300SL coupe-style roof vents, countersunk taillights of his own style and painted it pearl. In those days you used real fish scales to get the translucent look. The four cam engine the car had come with and been replaced earlier with a pushrod but he jazzed that up. He won dozens of awards for it, maybe partly because there weren’t many Porsches on the custom car circuit. He offered it for sale in 1960 issue of Road & Track. It didn’t sell.

Dean Jeffries Custom Carrera

THE BUYER SAID HE “PICKED LETTUCE”

Now here’s where the story gets interesting. In the Excellence story Jeffries told the author that a man walked into his shop in ‘62 and said he wanted to buy the car. He was vague about his occupation, saying something about “picking lettuce” (there’s a pun coming…)

He sells it for cash money. Later on the Feebs (nickname for FBI) drop by and try to find out how the deal went down. The car wasn’t, it turned out, stolen, but the man who had bought it was picking lettuce (gangster jargon for money) with a gun at the local banks. He was on their Wanted list for bank robbery. During one of the robberies, a bank guard had been killed.

The bank robber sold the car sometime before he was caught, and it ended up in Florida where an owner got the nose crunched, then left it in his girlfriend’s driveway where he sold it to her for a little over a grand. Then comes a guy named Jack Walter. He had a girlfriend on the same street and kept noticing the crunched nose Porsche. He buys it. That was 1971.

Meanwhile all over the world, Porsche hunters are searching for this car. Walter keeps if for, oh, 45 years or so, and finally puts it up for sale. But not before restoring it. He even involved Jeffries in the restoration. Though the first four cam engine had disappeared eons earlier, he found a replacement four cam and put that in. Then the car achieved Sainthood. Well, not in the eyes of the Pope but being asked to appear at Amelia Island concours in 2011 was enough to make it a Porsche collectable all over the world.

It had to be shown with a pushrod engine because his four cam engine wasn’t done yet. The car was finally restored after eight years of work. Gooding Auction Co. reported that when Jeffries saw it restored, he cried.

Dean Jeffries Custom Carrera

The car was eventually sold in 2016 at Gooding’s auction in Monterey for $785,000, above their highest estimate. Now I know that’s a lot for a “Kustom” car, but hey, refitted with a four cam, if brought back to stock shape, it would probably be worth a good deal of that. And yet this is a famous person car, and most of the time famous ownership adds a little push to the pricetag. I don’t know if I would pay more, maybe I’d pay more for James Dean’s long lost ’55 Speedster (rumored to be in France, see Incredible Barn Finds #4) as I find Dean to be more of a legend than Jeffries.

So this is a “crossover” car in that it was a landmark car in the custom car field, making an appearance on the cover of the October 1959 issue of Rod & Custom magazine. And created by the same man who is credited with the Monkee mobile, the Kyote dune buggy, the Green Hornet car, the Landmaster from the movie Damnation Alley and the Mantaray – an asymmetric hot rod (itself created on a Maserati chassis with a Cobra engine).

I gotta give Jack Walter credit for first spotting it, and then hanging onto it so long. Nice retirement bonus, y’might say. So there is a lesson here to be learned for you sports car purists: free yourself from your uptight prejudice toward those who spread the Bondo so liberally and drop in on their shops once in a while.

You never can tell what’s parked out back….

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss art

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is collecting Porsche barn find stories for a Porsche only barn find book. If you have one to suggest you can write him at Malibucarart@gmail.com

 
 
 
 
 

Dean Jeffries Custom Carrera

Photos compliments of Bonhams, where this Porsche was sold again for $436,750 inc. premium at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction in Carmel, CA in 2018.

Summary
The Case of the Custom Carrera
Article Name
The Case of the Custom Carrera
Description
Some say this was the car that launched Dean Jeffries' career but since his career was 95% hot rods, and dune buggies and movie cars, I say it was irrelevant to his career except that it demonstrated his talents.
Author

Comments

  1. Glen Durmisevich says

    Great story. I grew up in LA and would stop by Jeffries and Barris’ shops now and then because there was always something very interesting there.Love the LA Kar Kulture back then.

  2. Mark P Livingood says

    Great article as always; I had to share this one on a link to a FB post from the Savoy Auto Museum, relative to the Dean Jefferies tie-in with James Dean’s 550.

    It is such a shame that the Porsche 550 gained it’s notoriety in the celebrity-infatuated U.S. culture re: James Dean’s story that has overshadowed the 550’s true place in automotive, racing and Porsche history it holds. Sadly, once again and even at an auto museum ‘pop culture’ captures the attention of the folks who do the reader boards, give the docent tours and post things to their FB page.

  3. “The car was eventually sold in 2016 at Gooding’s auction in Monterey for $785,000, above their highest estimate. ”
    then

    “Photos compliments of Bonhams, where this Porsche was sold again for $436,750 inc. premium at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction in Carmel, CA in 2018.”

    Someone took a huge bath on this thing…

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