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Regular readers may have noticed a couple of existing features written by Karen & Keith Baker, charting specific exploits of their recent tour of California. This week we bring you the concluding part of this series, with a fascinating look at rodding and biker establishments, plus some key individuals involved with the hobby. Karen takes up the story...
As Keith has been in the customising business all his life, he has made many friends in the USA. Before any of us get too much older, though, we decided before a recent trip to California that it would be an excellent idea to spend some time with them and also meet up with a number of other hot rod people.
We stayed with Jeff and his lovely wife, Suzanne, for several days. He has been building custom bikes since the ‘60s, and told us many fascinating stories from his past – the parties, the people and, most interestingly, his career. If only we had thought to take a tape recorder with us, the information gleaned from Jeff would have been sufficient to write a history of bike building in California. At one time, he owned three shops and was a real innovator when it came to custom bike parts in the earliest days of chopper building. Interestingly, many of these innovations have now been attributed to others. He used to supply parts to Arlen Ness, for example, who is now probably the most famous name in custom bike building, having appeared in Biker Build-off on numerous occasions, as well as on other TV shows.
Jeff McCann with some of his recent work
Now Jeff has chosen to focus on just the custom painting of bikes, ironically enough, mainly for Ness. His work is of a standard rarely seen elsewhere – he often sends us photos – but the quality and finish are simply immaculate. We were extremely privileged to visit his paint shop, less than half-a-dozen people ever having seen it! Jeff then took us to Ness’s showroom, where he gave us a complete, behind-the-scenes tour. We saw the workshops, parts warehouse (huge) and fabrication areas, and there was also a museum featuring bikes from the ‘60s to date. Jeff took obvious pride in pointing out all his work!
Ness's impressive showroom above and his equally amazing Museum below
Bob “Munn” Munroe
We then went on to visit Bob Munroe, a fabricator involved with both bikes and hot rods. He and Jeff have been friends for many years, as they share a long history of working in the same business. Bob is a quiet, gentle, unassuming guy, who has had to deal with a lot in his life. He was really welcoming and genuinely enthusiastic about his work.
Bob Munroe with some of his toys
He has a large workshop behind his house, with hot rods, bikes and tons of fabricating equipment all squeezed into the available space. As Jeff pointed out, it was difficult to believe this workshop has also featured on Biker Build-off. Munn has always been self-employed, but recently went to work for Steve Moel.
Custom bike and well equipped workshop below
My favourite vehicle was an original ‘33/’34 Ford Phaeton, which looked just like the sort of car we all imagine we might discover in an old barn – untouched for many years and with a genuine patina. The seat leather was cracked with age, for example, but all the stitching and piping could be seen. As it turned out, this particular phaeton was actually an eBay purchase that had cost Bob $50,000, so it wasn’t quite a “barn find”.
Original untouched 33/34 Ford Phaeton a favourite
When Keith was 13, he was given an article on a motorbike taken from Hot Rod magazine, as this was his interest at the time. What really caught his eye, though, wasn’t the bike, but a picture of a Model T, called “Expression”, on the back cover. It was the first custom paint job he had ever seen, an outrageous, psychedelic display of colour true to the era (1969), painted by Art Himsl. It sparked Keith’s imagination and ambition, and put him on the road to his lifetime career as a custom painter, hot rod and bike builder.
Art Himsl (centre) a source of real inspiration for Keith
Art has always been willing to share his experience with Keith and others, so as can be imagined, Keith was really looking forward to visiting him in person.
He has an amazing home in the foothills of the mountains, which is a maze of garages and workshops, full of his cars, projects and memorabilia. There was so much to see, it was really a question of where to start.
Art's unique wagon
The garages house a Thunderbird, station wagon, Model T and other rods – all with Art’s iconic artwork. Like Keith; his preference is for a lot of colour. My personal favourite was what Art calls the “Zeppelin”. It was built in 1937, as a prototype motorhome, and renovated by Art a few years ago. It’s a home on wheels and reminded me of childhood caravan holidays. Amazingly, the bodywork is actually made from canvas, which is a challenge to paint.
Art has many projects on the go at any time, and the workshop is very well organised with every inch of space put to use. The walls are covered with signed photos of Art’s famous customers, all of whom look very proud to be associated with him. There are also loads of templates of his work. The ceiling is used to display a collection of hood ornaments, custom-painted bombs and other interesting items. By comparison, the spray booth is an immaculate white, and provides a startling contrast to the riot of colour seen everywhere else.
Art's playroom complete with train set above the bar
I stood back and listened as Art, Jeff and Keith chatted about their work, exchanging experiences and ideas on the materials they use. Who would have thought a conversation about the merits of various masking tapes could be enthralling? It was, though, and the passion these three amazing painters have for their work definitely made this one of my treasured holiday memories.
Art's latest project is this unique bodied roadster
We were then taken upstairs to see even more of Art’s treasures. We were met with the sight of a large number of trophies, accumulated over a long and illustrious career, as well as many more personal collections. These included a group of wooden slot machines, antique gambling chips and a card table. Art explained that he often liked to work at night, and that friends would come over and play cards in this room while he was busy downstairs. When Keith asked if they played for fun, Art replied, “There would often be $10,000 on the table.”
Art's workshop, complete with custom-painted bombs!
Another of Art’s hobbies is trains, which includes model trains, and he’s laid two tracks around the room, one running above head height. He has constructed a miniature town, including Bob Monroe’s workshop (with flashing “welding” light) and Andy’s T-shirt shop. He also has a 1in-to-1ft scale train, for which he plans to build a track around the grounds.
Keith wished we could have spent more time at Art’s, as there was just so much to see, and undoubtedly they could have talked for days.
We met up with Tony at his book signing during the SEMA show in Las Vegas – somehow, he even managed to sell us two of his books – and shared memories of when he was building his roadster at Keith’s workshop. The most lasting memory seemed to be the Mr Kipling fruit pies that were their main source of sustenance during this time.
Once back in LA, we visited him at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, of which Tony is now Director. It was a really busy time for him, with the SEMA show, followed by the NHRA drag racing finals at Pomona. He took us to meet his family in their beautiful home at the top of the hills, and to some great restaurants for dinner.
We also met at breakfast time each morning, and he drew us a map showing hot rodders’ places of interest to visit that day (another Thacker book on the way!). This was really helpful, and enabled us to meet even more fascinating people.
Tony Thacker suggests Keith might like to squeeze himself into Tommy Ivo's four-motor car
The Museum encapsulates a complete history of drag racing, with many cars from each decade of racing on display. There are also a number of memorabilia exhibits, regularly updated by Tony, making this a must for drag racing fans to visit. Tony encouraged Keith to sit in Tommy Ivo’s four-engined (Buick) dragster for a photo, but he couldn’t get into it! He was keen to sit in Don Prudhomme’s Keith Black Hemi-powered dragster, but still no luck. Finally, though, we did manage to get a picture of him in a dragster.
Keith was surprised when Tony suggested visiting Chrisman’s Auto Rod Specialities, as the company specialises in racing chassis. Tony assured Keith, “You’ll love his place – there are Hemis everywhere.”
We were certainly impressed when we arrived, with everyone hard at work even though the boss, Art Chrisman, was not there. They carried on working, although were happy for us to look around.
Rare "blown" Ardun above and matching supercharged hemi below
Tony was right – I counted about 15 engines, including two monster SOHC engines, blown Arduns and an assortment of exotic big Hemis. It was difficult to stop Keith drooling. It was not just the engines either; they were also working on a number of hot rods. He was amazed to see the paint on an engine block being wet sanded and polished to an incredibly smooth finish. As we were leaving, we saw the poor guy whose lovely job this was, hard at work, and probably with no finger tips left!
This seriously understated Ford Victoria packs a blown Hemi punch
We also noticed black tyre marks running the length of the yard – about 300 feet – where somebody had obviously been playing. It’s always nice to see that people enjoy their work.
Someone's been having fun!
The Kennedy brothers, Joe and Jason, are genuine old-school hot rodders. They work in the premises their dad used previously for his restoration business. We pulled up outside a huge pair of closed gates and heard dogs barking. Not sure if we were at the right place or welcome, we were about to leave when someone called out, “Come on in. Don’t mind the dogs.” They were happy for us to walk around.
The brothers build complete cars, even painting them on the premises. They were busy prepping a coupe body for paint when we visited. They had some lovely cars, including a ‘32 three-window coupe and sedan, plus many other early Fords. The workshop also had the accessories you would expect to find in a Californian hot rod shop – Schwinn bikes, surf boards, cola coolers and juke box. You could just about imagine them going surfing before getting down to work on their hot rods. It definitely looked like the American-dream lifestyle.
Bob Walden set up Walden Speed Shop in 2005, dedicated to saving old hot rods one panel at a time. The huge workshop was full of hot rods and frames in bare steel, so we could immediately see the quality of his work. Keith chatted to one of the fabricators, as Bob was busy when we arrived. As soon as he could, though, Bob was pleased to spend time with us. He is justifiably proud of the work his company does and was keen to show us its capabilities.
Bob told us that all the panels were made in the workshop, but Keith was puzzled. “I can’t see an English wheel anywhere,” he observed. “Don’t like them – I use a Yoder,” responded Bob. He obviously uses “The Force,” we thought, looking for a little green man. He then took us over to a gigantic machine. “I hammer all the panels using this power hammer,” he explained.
Gorgeous panel work on this '34, including that amazing roof chop
Keith said he would be pleased to paint these, as the finish achieved was incredible. This is praise indeed from a paint sprayer, as anyone who has ever had the misfortune to try to paint poor panel work will know.
Although not a painter himself, Sid has spent a lifetime supporting the great artists of the custom world. He supplies their materials, specialising in striping equipment, such as brushes, paint, books etc. At 88 years of age, he is still an active businessman and always on the look-out for new products to sell. Not all are related to the paint world either – for instance, he also sells metal detectors!
We decided to visit Sid on our way to the airport. His premises are on Santa Monica Boulevard, not far from Rodeo Drive. He works out of a flat in a 1930s building, and we squeezed into the hot, overcrowded office, stacked with paperwork. Unbelievably, he had a heater on in LA! He introduced us to his two employees, but how they all worked in such a crowded space we couldn’t imagine.
Sid was pleased to see us
We hadn’t rung in advance, but Sid was really pleased to see us and wanted to take our picture. “I know! Even better,” he said, getting excited and running off. He soon reappeared with a camcorder. Randy decided Sid should “film” us in front of a Harley Davidson pick-up in front of the building. The owner of the truck was slightly puzzled at the request, but waited in good-natured fashion while Sid worked out the technicalities of the camcorder. He also managed to record a rare occurrence – us singing “Happy Birthday” – as he invited us to his birthday party.
Keith stocked up on dagger brushes, but Sid could not resist trying to sell us more stuff. He showed Keith new materials and persuaded him to buy some samples before starting on me. “What about a metal detector?” he asked. “I’ve got these great new talking watches. Do you want Spanish - or English - speaking?”
Speaking of time, ours was rapidly running out, and we had to leave. On arrival at LAX, I realised I had left my jacket at Sid’s. We rang and he assured me he would send it on. A few weeks later, we received an e-mail, asking if we needed anything else, as it could be sent with the jacket. Keith gave in and bought a new book.
Sid may be getting on in years, but what a salesman!
Story & Photos: Karen & Keith Baker