AYALA BODY SHOP
The Ayala Body Shop on East Olympic Ave opened in 1945. Gil Ayala would keep this shop open for around 40 year, at the same location, crating Custom Car Magic. A closer look at the shop.
Original Article created April 22, 2016
In this article about Gil Ayala’s Auto Body Works shop I want to highlight the shop itself, not so much the complete history of the Gil and Al (Albert) Ayala, and the Custom Cars they have created. It is the place of birth of these Ayala Custom Cars that has me fascinated from the very first time I heard about Gil and Al Ayala. The place where the two brothers created Custom Car History and Automotive Art. How did they work, how did this shop look like, was there anything on the walls that inspired them, and how did their work days look like? Over the years I have gathered as much information about the Ayala shop as I could, but I have to say there is very little known about the actual shop. The Ayala work has not been documented very well, at least not as good as for instance the Barris work and their shops. It appears that Barris understood the importance of what they were doing very early on, and tried to document it for the future… or perhaps it was just documented for creating more business at the time. In any event, the fact is that the Barris work was documented well and much has been published about it back in the day as well as in the present time.
The Ayala work, as in work in-process and even finished Customs has never been very well documented. Over the years fortunately more and more photos have surfaced, but there is a still a lot we do know only very little about. Fortunately some of the people, like Memo Ortega, who where at the Ayala shop back in the ’50’s are sharing their stories lately. Stories and memories that shed a bit of light on the mysteries surrounding the Ayala shop. Its hard to believe that a shop that produced a great number of Custom Cars from mild to wild, famous to unknown, over a long period of time. A shop that according the stories was always filled with cars and people, has not been photographed more than what we have been able to see so far.
In my research I have not been able to find one single photo that shows the complete shop, the building. Only parts of the shop show in the background of photos taken of the cars parked or worked on in the parking area at the shop. Hopefully this CCC-Article will generate some more info from people who have visited the Ayala shop during the long period it was operated by Gil Ayala. Info as in more stories, or more photos from the cars created, or showing more of the shop, the people at the shop, or perhaps even inside the shop. Lets take a look at what I have been able to find out and compiled about Gil’s Auto Body Works over the years… and hopefully more new info will show up for a part two.
Early photo, from the mid 1940’s, not to long after the shop was opened, shows just a small corner of Gil’s Auto Body shop. It shows the tall, single pole sign on 4074 East Olympic Blvd. (Olympic blvd is on the left side of the photo) The tall building on the right is the school on Eastman Ave. It appears that the small building for the House of Chrome has not yet been build at the time this photo was taken. The car in the pics appears to be a mildly restyled 1942 Buick.
Gil’s Auto Body Works
In 1945, 20 year young Gil Ayala opened his Gil’s Auto Body Works shop on 4074 Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Gil’s two year older brother Al Ayala join him at this shop a few years later as the shop’s lead metal man. At first Al was working full time at Gil’s shop, but Al was already married and had two kids, demanding a steady income. Al later would work at a local Chevrolet dealer and worked part time during the evenings and weekends for Gil. As needed Al would work full time for a stretch of time at Gil’s shop. Besides Al there have always been other employees at the shop, most of them worked there part time. Gil Ayala was the all round guy, he could really handle all the work in the shop.
This photo was taken between 1948-50 and shows the building on the corner of the property at Eastman Ave and Olympic Blvd. Its address was 4084 East Olympic Blvd. Gil rented the building to the House of Chrome. The House of Chrome 1940 Ford shop truck was of course customized by the Ayala’s, and had all kinds of chrome goodies. The Coupe on the right of the photo is parked on Eastman Ave, with the door of the separate school building behind it. The cars driving just in front the the trucks top are on Olympic Blvd.
It was the design work – and most of all – mixing paint and painting cars what really got Gil going. Gil loved to mix new paints, combining toners and metallics to come up with new, magical, colors. Discovering how paint would change over different base coats creating mile deep paint that changed colors when the curved bodies would hit the light. Al Ayala was the metal master at the shop. Both Gil and Al were responsible for the design’s of the cars. In the Golden years of Customizing, from 1948 to 1955 the shop was mainly creating custom cars and an occasional Hot Rod, but later on Gil started to do more an more regular fender bender, muffler and insurance work, since the real custom work started to dry up, and the bills needed to be paid. But mixing colors and painting cars always remained the focus for Gil, and he would continue doing that for many decades. Later he would paint a lot of exotic cars, Porsches, Rolls Royce’s plenty of Corvettes etc. Gil was well known for his high quality paint work. Al Ayala left the shop somewhere during the 1960’s, but Gill remained working on cars at the same shop up into the 1980’s. Al passed away in 1987, and Gil in 1991.
Al Ayala on the far left with two unknown guys next to him. Sitting on the car with the cap looks to be Dick Lugo who worked with Al on the 1953 Lincoln in the Hot Rod magazine article. Gil Ayala is smiling behind the steering wheel of the Model A Roadster inside one of the shop spaces.
Gil did advertise his Gil’s Auto Body Works in the 1950’s. I have been unable to find any advertising from the 1940’s and also nothing from the later 1950’s and up. Not sure if he advertised during that time or not. The ads I have been able to find from the early 1950’s all use Gil’s chopped and fade away fendered ’40 Mercury with Cadillac rear fenders, a side view photo taken at the Gil’s shop. Gil advertised in Motor Trend magazine, a few show programs and speed publications, but was never a regular, and only a hand full of ads have been created as far as I have been able to find out. Gil relied more on the returning customer, word by mouth advertising, and just doing high end guaranteed custom work.
The Major of Olympic Boulevard
According the stories we have heard the shop was always crowded, both with cars as well as with people. Especially later in the day and in the weekends a lot of people would visit the shop. Memo Ortega remembers that him and his friend(s) drove 35 miles from their home in LaVerne Ca, just to see what was going on it the Ayala shop on Saturdays. Memo would talk to Gil and they would become friends. Memo ended up buying Gil’s 1942-46 Ford Coupe in 1959. Memo remembers that the shop floor was always dirty with lead grinds, paint and pieces of metal. A lot of work was done in this shop, and everybody was always hard at work. From time to time Gil stepped out to talk to some of the visitors. But if Gil was busy painting a car, he would be completely concentrated on that. According to Memo Ortega Al was a very nice gentle guy, but not so much of an talker, he worked hard, and it showed he loved what he was doing. Gil loved to talk. His nickname was “the Major of Olympic Boulevard” he knew everybody in the neighborhood, and loved to be kept in the loop of things going on.
Also in the late 1940’s a Du Pont Duco-Delux Automotive painting sign was added to the tall vertical sign on Olympic Ave. This sign was added to the pole on the inside of the property. The original Auto Body works sign was on the road side of the pole.
Many employees over the years. In Pat Ganahl‘s Rodder’s Journal Ayala stories he mentioned a few names of people who worked at the shop. A Japanese metal guy doing really good work (but his name was not remembered), Manual, who did paint there for some time, and Ruben Palazuelas, also doing paint work. Dick Luga did metal work. Memo also remembers there were more people working on the cars in the years he visited the shop. But he sure did not remember any of their names.
During the mid and later part of the 1950’s customizing your bicycles became big with the kids. Gil and Al were pretty much aware of this fad, perhaps because Al’s own kids were doing the same, or just what they saw in the neighborhood. Al had created a special jig which he used to reshape the bikes front fork so the bikes would sit lower… One guy remembered he had to pay $3.- to have Al do the fork work for his bike. Gil also would paint the kids bicycle frames, sometimes using left over paint from the cars he had painted. How great would it be if one of those bikes would still be around today. Or how great would it be if somebody had some photos of some of these bikes created by the Ayala’s…
1950 photo from the Wally Welch Collection shows Wally’s 1941 Ford having its fenders molded to the body. In the back ground part of the Shop building, with the weirdo head and the 4074 number painted on the front. The Head is actually part of the Auto Butchers logo. It was used on T-Shirts, jackets and like here on the wall.
In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s there was a truck dealer across the street from Gil’s shop. Here we can see Gil’s 1942 Ford coupe parked at the shop with a view on Olympic Blvd with the truck dealer in the background.
This very interesting photo was shared by David E. Zivot. It shows that the Ayala’s did work on Hot Rod’s as well, notice the fade aways door hinges on the coupe. This photo was taken towards Olympic Ave with the Truck dealer across the street. I have not been able to find out anything about the ’41 Ford with heavy chop, padded top, molded rear fenders and no front end, but behind it we can see a small section of Gil’s ’42-46 Ford coupe.
We can see what is most likely the same 1941 Ford chopped convertible as we can see in the previous photo in this Wally Welch photo. The mystery convertible is parked parallel with Olympic with its back to the shop wall (same location as were the famous Jack Stewart Ford primer photos were taken).
Jack Stewart’s ’41 Ford parked with its back towards the shop wall in the same, but a bit closer to Olympic Blvd position as the ’41 Ford convertible in the previous photo. The truck dealer in across the street just to the right of what we can see in this photo.
Facing east, looking down on Olympic Blvd we can see an unknown person smiling in front of Gil’s 1942-46 Ford in 1949. A ’46 Mercury coupe is sitting just below the Gil’s Auto Body Works sign. By 1949 the Du Pont sign was added to the pole.
This Famous Motor Trend Cover shot was most likely taken from the roof of the body shop, about where the 4070 number was written on the wall. The camera faces towards Olympic Avenue, and just below the shadow of the lantern in the top left the edge of the drive way on Olympic can be seen. Notice that three of the guys in the photo are wearing “weirdo” T-Shirt.
May 1953 Hot Rod Magazine
The May 1953 issue of Hot Rod magazine had a four page how to article about extending the rear fenders of and brand new 1953 Lincoln Capri. The work was performed by the Ayala shop. Photographer Felix Zelenka and Hot Rod staff writer W. G. Brown visited Gil’s Auto Body shop in East Los Angles and documented how Al Ayala and Dick (Richard) Lugo at the shop performed the work. This is a very rare how-two article documented at the Ayala Shop. Unlike the Barris and other shops it was not common for the magazines to visit East LA to see the Ayala Masters at work. But fortunately we have this Hot Rod magazine article that shares us a few nice photos of the guys working in the Ayala shop.
The opening photo of the article shows the Lincoln sitting on Olympic Blvd next to the House of Chrome shop window. In the back we can see the roof top of the smaller building attached to the school on Eastman Ave.
Some memories about the shop
Charles Canales “As a teenager working at a car wash down the street from gil’s body shop. It was in the late 50’s. gil would bring his cars to have them wash almost every day. I got the chance to see and wash so many of those great custom cars. I remember that great looking candy apple t-bird with the gold fins.”
Mr Rodriguez “Louie Bettancout is my Nino and I remember Louie Ayala Mercury from the magazines. My dad new Gil Ayala well and had Gil paint my Stingray type bicycle the same color as my nino’s Merc, scintillating green gold. Pop had some of the parts show quality chrome plated. I didn’t like the color at first, but it grew on me. I rode the bike to school in 5th , 6th, 7th grade. St. Benedicts school Montebello.”
Walter Leeman “When I was striping out of the House of Chrome, I worked outside in the area between the building and the big driveway in Memo’s drawing. Mostly after school and on Saturdays.”
Memo Ortega “The house of chrome. we used to call it the house of goodies. Every time we went there so many things we wanted to buy. Me and my buddys got our first set of Appleton spotlites there. I wonder if the current owner of the property knows what went on in this corner lot. Gil’s 1942-46 Ford used to sit next to the House of Chrome shop… for years. It was still there when I was able to buy it from Gil in 1959.”
In 1952 the Movie Road Runners shot a few scenes at Gil’s Auto Body Works. It shows the main character’s Roadster driving on Olympic Ave, turning into the shops’ drive way giving us a little bit of a feel how it was back then. Sadly not much of the shop, or other cars can be seen in the footage. A few movie still shows Gil’s Shop sign and the Hot Rod owner driving to the shop.
A new sign
Somewhere during the early or mid 1950’s Gil had a huge shop sign made on the corner of Eastman Ave and Olympic Blvd. at the side of the small building that was used by the House of Chrome. The sign was sitting on two large poles and had a huge square section for the sign. Above the square section were four round sections with the 4074 numbers on it. Below the square section a muffler shaped section was made, most likely to get some extra attention to that part of the business. We do not know what was on the sign originally, but the photo below, from the Rodder’s Journal second Ayala article shows what was still on it around 1970. This sign is still on the building today.
The only photo I have seen of the big sign next to the House of Chrome building was used in Pat Ganahl’s second Ayala story in the Rodder’s Journal (#40). The photo from the Greg Sharp Collection shows Ruben Palazuelas painting Big John Mazmanian’s 1970 Cuda Funny Car candy red outside! The badly faded and flaked sign advertises “Speed Equipment and Body Works = Painting” plus an barely visible side view image of Gil Ayala’s 1955 T-Bird. Below the big sign that rested on two large poles is an smaller sign in the shape of a muffler. This sign is still there today.
Several scenes in the Boulevard Nights movie from 1979 was shot at Gil’s Auto Body Works. Gil was still operating the shop at the same location during that time. These movie stills give us a nice look at the shop.
Gil’s Auto Body Works was located at 4074 East Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles, which was considered not to be part of the good side of town. It was not a bad part of town then, but the location most likely was the main reason why the Ayala cars and the work inside the shop was not covered more in the LA based car magazines in the golden years of customizing.
At we can see in Memo Ortega’s layout of the shop it was subdivided into several separate sections. At least two spaces specifically for doing body work, a sanding and masking section which was bigger than the body work spaces. Most likely since painting cars was high on the list of the shops clients. And sometimes cars came in just for a new paint-job. There was a separate paint booth, and a small storage room and office. The small building on the corner of the property was put there in the later part of the 1940’s And was rented out to the House of Chrome. A chrome accessory shop of course had a lot of customers coming in, which most likely was good for business of the body shop as well. Since the clients would all see the beautiful customs being worked on and coming out of the shop. In the mid ’50’s the House of Chrome moved to a bigger location on Beverly Blvd. and the space was then used by Gil for various activities over the years.
This rather low res and fuzzy aerial image was taken in 1948 and comes from the HistoricAerials.com website. It shows the small House of Chrome building in the top right of the property, and the main shop building(s) on the lower and left part of the property.
Custom Car enthusiast Jeff Neppl drives by the old Gil’s Auto Body Works location regularly, he took this photo of the old House of Chrome building and the old Sign which are both still there, in 2012. The photo was taken from South Eastman Avenue, and the street on the right is East Olympic Avenue. It shows that even the muffler shaped lower section is still in place.
In 2015 Jeff Neppl was able to get onto the former Gil’s Auto Body Shop property and take a photo from the other side of the former House of Chrome shop. This photo is about the same angle as one of the first photos in this article with the House of Chrome 1940 Ford. The two electrical poles and the school building are still there.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip back in time to Gil’s Auto Body Works shop, and hopefully this article has shed a bit of light on the Ayala Shop. I wish there was a lot more to tell, and especially to show of the shop building, inside and out. And I really hope that this article will help some others to share their stories about the shop, and perhaps even some never before seen photos of the shop might surface. If that will happen I will make sure there will be a part two of the Ayala Body Shop here in the Custom Car Chronicle. If you have any info on the Ayala shop, or perhaps photos to share that have not been included in this article, then please email Rik here at the Custom Car Chronicle so that we can add the info to this article, or use it in a part two.
Resources and more info
- Hot Rod magazine, May 1953
- Motor Trend magazine, April 1950
- Rodder’s Journal, articles by Pat Ganahl issue #39-40
- The Jack Stewart Ford, book