Jesse Lopez – Lo! & Behold part 2
Continued from part ONE of the Jesse Lopez Lo! & Behold story.
© by Michelle M. Yiatras Timechanic ™
(Jesse Lopez – Lo! & Behold – original written in august, 2011)
Jesse didn’t attend Trace’s Motorama this weekend (2011) because he just got home a few days ago from a week in the Veteran’s Hospital. I didn’t either because I was taking care of family business. So we spent Saturday night talking on the phone like homebodies. “Just so you know, when you fight a war on the frontlines, it’s not like in the movies when a guy gets shot and just falls down. In real life the guys get shot up and blown up, and they are torn apart in pieces, and you hear them make cries like you never heard any human make. And you can’t run out and get your buddies like they do in the movies because you’re next. Sometimes you can get them, but most times you have to stay put. You remember that your entire life. It affects your sleep. I talk with other veterans from WW2 to Viet Nam to Afghanistan. Post traumatic stress happens to us all.”
He reveres Fritz Voigt since childhood friendship. “Fritz was my main man. I was into speed before I was into custom cars. Before drag racing was legal there was a lot of speed racing. Fritz was five years older so he got a head start. After the Second World War socially they didn’t like Germans, and they didn’t like Mexicans, even though Germans and Mexicans fought for America and the Allies, so we sorta teamed up. I ran with Fritz’ younger brother, Art, we were on the same football team together in high school. We tagged along with Fritz. When you’re young 5 years older is quite a bit, but Fritz was good to me. Fritz was at the beginning of everything, along with Cook and Edelbrock. Bob Rufi had the pre-War record in the sand at Muroc with his 4-cylinder Chevy motor in a rail frame. We didn’t like the name ‘hot rod’. We liked A-V8’s, T-V8’s, roadsters, or buckets. A lot of guys ran buckets without the beds or tops, just the windshield. They ran better without the weight. In 2009 Fritz got inducted in the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, with Don Garlits and Snake Prudhomme.”
Santa Ana Drag Strip in the early 1950’s.
“The Santa Ana Drag Strip at Orange County Airport was the first legal drag strip. They gave it to us in 1950 to keep us off the streets. It was slightly downhill, wasn’t entirely flat. The cars got a rolling start before they gave you the flag. The rear ends, axles, and trans would come apart at a standstill start, we’d blow them. They weren’t built like they are now. That’s why there was a rolling start. Fritz’ first records came about 1950. He was already turning 133-136 mph with his Chrysler hemi in a rail frame. A lot happened after I was away in Korea. Man, the speed went up.”
“Fritz did so much for Mickey Thompson. He oversaw the design and engine build on Mickey’s car, the 1960 ‘Fastest Man on Earth’ record for him, exceeding 400 mph at Bonneville. Four Pontiac motors in the Challenger 1 streamliner. Fritz set them up to run simultaneously. GM approved them brand new Pontiacs for Fritz. GM wanted the advertisement for their Pontiacs. Fritz preferred Chevys and thought they could have gotten ten more mph out of them, but GM insisted on the Pontiacs. Thompson was a fast talker and made the deal with GM to push the Pontiacs. Fritz went through and redid them to crank them up. Fritz didn’t get the credit he deserved. Mickey didn’t like to get his hands dirty, he was the driver. Fritz was our mentor.”
Fritz Voigt in one of his dragsters on the left.
Jesse was very attached to his father and his mother. Henry worked at a cast iron foundry and as a truck driver. Frances was an angel who never hollered at the eight kids. She wore her hair in a lovely braid wrap, and prepared handmade tortillas and pinto beans for their sustenance. “In 1937, my Dad went to buy a lot in Bell Gardens, the LA River separates Bell on the west bank and Bell Gardens on the east. We kids learned to speak English in Monrovia Catholic School in the first and second grades. We were so far ahead of the public schools, I have really nice handwriting and penmanship and spelling as a result. I get teased, ‘Man, you write like a broad’. My Dad put the money down payment on the lot. His best friend who also worked at the foundry, another Mexican named Cordero, went to buy the lot next to my Dad’s. They told him they ‘don’t sell to Mexicans’. He said, ‘You sold to Mr. Lopez.’ My Dad was fair complexioned like me and they didn’t know. When they found out they gave his money back. That was tough how they treated Mexicans then. Joseph Cordero’s son Richard taught me how to drive. So my Dad and Mr. Cordero bought a couple lots next to each other in Cudahy, and built our houses and farms. Fresh milk and eggs and produce are why all of us kids have our own teeth today.”
Jesse’s Mother passed away in 1957 at age forty-nine, from a botched goiter operation, when she was starting to enjoy some leisure after raising all the kids. He took it hard, he was her “consentido” favorite. Regarding the fraternity with George Barris and Hershel Conway, “In those days it was so different, as friends a handshake would do it, you didn’t need paperwork. We didn’t sign receipts, your word was bond. People were so decent then compared to now. I gave George the formula for ‘Kandy Lak’ as a gift to his wife, Shirley. She was all for him. I gave the formula to Junior because he was doing the painting. That was for Shirley’s ’58 T-Bird, just like mine. We wouldn’t ask each other for money, as friends we didn’t owe each other anything. Sam and George didn’t make any money doing my car. I worked on everyone’s cars in exchange for the work on my car. I worked on Nick’s, Hirohata’s, Snooky’s, George’s, Sam’s, Fuzzy’s, Shorty Brown’s, Pete Morrison’s, many different cars in and out of the shop, doing dashes, engines, stretched Diego axles, metal, paint, anything that needed to be done.
George and Shirley Barris in front of Shirley’s 1958 T-Bird whcih was painted with Jesse’s “Kandy Lak” formula.
In 1961 I gave Junior my shop. Junior is a Kentucky country boy born in a log cabin with a dirt floor. He didn’t want to go to Hollywood with George. He came to me to run my shop during the day. I was working at night in the shop. I had a day job selling for an auto parts store. I was ‘bookkeeping’ during the day and running the shop at night. The heyday of custom cars was a tight ten years. We didn’t know there could be money in it. ‘House of Color’ I named it. It was my shop originally. In ’62 I was doing so well at my day job, I said, ‘Junior, if you ever get ahead, you owe me.’ I walked out and left the business, customers, and tools what we had to him. It wasn’t a big time shop, you didn’t need much to do custom cars and even drag boats then. He laughed and said, ‘OK’. As friends we looked out for each other, just like Barris. We were different than people today.”
Jesse and Junior at the 2011 GNRS Customs Then & Now exhibit.
Getting sleepy, “Right after the 1950’s it was the end of the custom car. Even we didn’t change the cars much after that. It was over. A lot of work went into those customs. Now the guys are coming back with it copying what we did. Today they put a lot of money into restoring a car to original, but generally they don’t customize them. Winfield’s chopping a few, not radical though. At the GNRS Fairplex in the winter of 2011, I really liked so many nice ones, Hirohata’s, Junior’s, a couple Birds cause I like Birds, ’34 coupes, the ’36 roadster. Wished I held on to a few of my roadsters and customs. I went to keep Junior and his wife company. The dinner was fun at the Hyatt with Greg Sharp, Blackie, Dean Jeffries, Peep. I was a bit shy and embarrassed. I left after a half hour of signing my name the next day. I left cars for roosters because they’re alive, and it’s a bigger challenge to make a strain of thoroughbred families. We all quit when the dragsters went to fuel, and when they stopped customizing. By the end of the 50’s. Then it spread from California to every State in the Union!”
Jesse’s brother-in-law, Bill Weiser, married forever to his sister Marge, was reading the Lo! & Behold thread, and exclaimed to Jesse, “Man, you could really see the puffer on it!” Referring to the Photoshopped macro of the tiny snapshot that is the only evidence of the mythic McCulloch blower set up on the legendary ’41 Ford. Sez Bill, “Memo & I were in heaven driving that car while you were in the Army!” Marge has printed copies of the thread for the relatives. Jesse will at last get to read it live for himself when he gets over to Marge’s computer next weekend. “Marge wants to buy a ’41 Ford and wants me to rebuild it for her. Heh heh, she’s all into it. I’m very close with Marge and Bill. She’s a retired corporate accountant. She used to date Tarzan, Mike Henry, another Bell HS alumini, before she met Bill. Mike worked with John Wayne in the film, “The Green Berets”. They both played football at USC, different decades.”
The wall of Legends 2011 hand for Jesse Lopez “the Mix Master” at the Motorama show organized by Trace Edwards.
“I got my hand from Trace, holding my paint mixing paddle dipped in “Kandy Lak”. We used R & M more than DuPont. “Kandy Lak” was pure DuPont though. It was so nice of him to do that for me.” Referring to Trace Edwards’ multidimensional “Wall of Legends”, he designed for his Long Beach Motorama 2011 show, which he cast the working hands of 25 first-generation car kustomizers each holding one of their actual vintage trade tools honed from their prime. Based on a concrete mold forming the envelope for the glass cast hand in repose, and mounted on a walnut shelf with an archetypal photo plus bio background, the original castings are kept in separate time capsule vaults, and then are all together stored in a master vault for future generations. Trace produced a first-class five-star act, demonstrating his brrrilliant artiste, and his reverent devotion to his elders. The artifice stirs up genuine tears. The Kreation of Kar.
The Hula Hut, a restaurant drive-in located in Whittier was one of their favorite hangouts, “Across from Ak Miller’s automotive repair and speed shop, on Whittier Blvd, he had one of the first Dyno Tune’s. Where Presidents Nixon and Reagan grew up around there. The HH was a little beach hut style burger stand covered with palm leaves that we loved to go to. We drove about twenty miles from any direction driving and racing those very same cars. We didn’t have second cars until later. L.A. was central. George’s first shop on Compton and Nick were west side Fox Florence. The Ayala’s were east L.A. Carl and I were from the southeast, Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, Huntington Park. So Fritz was my engine guy. I didn’t know Ak that well because he was a different area from the east side Whittier. We’d go to the drive-ins to choose each other off. Ak had a real nice shop though with nice equipment. We had a lot of respect for Ak. A lot of guys went to Edelbrock, Weiand, Cook, to build their engines. By the time I got back from the service I was building engines of my own. At that point I was in contention with Fritz. It didn’t affect our friendship. We went on to work together.”
The Hula Hut matriculated Dean MOONEYE’s “Hutters Car Club”. The “Hutters” of Whittier were not known to have a club plaque, and generally painted “Hutters” in large white letters on the deck lid of their dry lakes cars, and also used this seldom seen original circa 1949-50 water slide decal (from my personal collection) on their windshield or back glass. “Fritz always liked for me to beat Ak’s boys, like the Ayala’s were in competition with the Barris’. We all competed and street raced. You have no idea how much fun we had. Turkey Flats was a turkey ranch right on the outskirts of Whittier by the avocado orchards. There was a level asphalt half mile ideal for racing. We’d meet at the HH and choose each other off and head out to TF. A well known hangout because the cops were more lenient. Cars would be lined up on the weekend trying to get in. We drove twenty miles to get there from Bell. And East L.A. drove to get there also, ten miles from Gil Ayala’s. No freeways. All surface streets with lots of stop signs. Also Fritz’ shop, “Voigt’s Place”, in Maywood on Slauson Av, it’s still there. We used to race on Slauson going out. If it got hot at HH we went to Slauson. The Russian cemetery is still there. It was a halfway point, so all the spectators would meet up at this halfway point and you could pretty well see by then who was winning.”
“It was fun when the cops was chasin’ us. We’d laugh like hell when it was over. Sometimes they’d get us though. I got turned loose ten times to the three, four times they booked me. They would chew us out because they didn’t want us to crash. We didn’t have disk brakes so the cars didn’t stop that quick. It was lucky that no one hurt themselves. They’d fine us $50-100, and hopefully the judge was lenient so they didn’t take your license away. Working for $1.50 an hour that was a lot of money. Couldn’t complain about the cops, they’d chase us, and except for one badass, they understood. All the people were a lot different then, nicer and cleaner. Everybody knew and respected each other. Not like all about the money now.”
Jesse with his 1941 Ford at Camp Roberts in 1951. The car in primer the whole time he stayed there, waiting for another paint job with another hue of green.
One of Jesse’s pals in the army posing with Jesse’s coupe.
“Bell, Maywood, and Cudahy was a hub. So many of us car guys went to school together, we grew up in the Bell area and went to Bell High School. We went to Bell Auto Parts, used to be called “Cragar”, because they licensed the parts. Guys from San Diego, San Fernando, Bakersfield, they came to Cragar-Bell. My heroes would come pulling in, so many fellows that made names for themselves. Young people today have no idea what good times we had with cars, then in 1945-47, while I was still in high school, and after in ’48-50. There was a lot of street racing. We drove our race cars on the street during those days. Full speed was 95-100 mph. At the opening of Lions Drag Strip the rails started to go over 113 mph.”
“Later in the 1950’s, in Maywood near Fritz’ shop, a guy named Wally Gerdes’ renown ’32 roadster was stolen. Forty something years later I found out who stole it. Man, oh man, it was an Italian friend of mine from the east side. The Gerdes family sold weekend newspapers on the corner of Slauson and Atlantic across from the Clock drive-in. We hung out there on that corner. Wally had a fast ’32. He never got it back. The guy who stole it was joking with me about cars and he bragged about it. I shocked him when I told him Wally and his brother Joe were my good friends. I loved that ’32 and it influenced me because I was still a kid before I drove. Wally was a few years older. Joe was in my grade. It broke Wally’s heart. After Wally Gerdes’ car was stole, he quit. They stole a hell of a car; clean, factory black, fenderless, ’32 grill and hood intact, with a 59AB block that Fritz built. Never heard from Wally again, that was it for him. A guy had to work his ass off for a car. Wally’d usually win if he got chose off. The guy that stole it was a good guy, just a stupid kid, and didn’t realize the harm he done. If you had a fast car you had to watch it, because you couldn’t lock it and if you left it unattended it could get hot wired.”
The October 1951 issue of Popular Science magazine did an article on some Barris Custom Cars. One of the cars used for the feature was Jesse’s 1941 Ford.
“Our cars were our whole life, and if it was a special car, you were really something. Times were hard back then and going to the drive-in was a big deal. I went to work just so I could afford a car. Now look at all the entertainment they got. Back then everyone was poor. It was simpler then. People don’t realize that we didn’t have TV’s, let alone computers. Me, Zaro, Matranga, Ortega, we all regretted that we didn’t take pictures. We didn’t even own a camera, except for George. I wish I had pictures of Nick and me, or Johnny and me, or Sam and me, or George and me, or Carl and me. Imagine that. All those pictures we could have taken of all we would do, Balboa, the Hula Hut and the Clock, Big Bear, with our cars. An era gone by…drive-ins, cruises, races. No TV. Now everyone has a camera on their phone.”
A friend of mine who is a grade/high school photographer told me that when the kids sit for their yearbook photos they are clinging to their cell phones and can hardly get them to look away from the gadget for the shutter release. Media is hypnotizing our youth and adults. Opposable thumbs were designed for wielding instruments besides texting. Parts were designed for finished assembly besides collecting rust in hog troughs. Spend time with your sons or fathers or grandfathers in the garage, and drive the frontiers for a panoramic view of the terra firma. Living imparts its meaning and purpose.
Jesse relaxing for a moment at his rooster farm.
Best pal Tippy in and around the rooster farm.
Chatting with Jesse after all the record hot and rainy summer, “How’s tricks?” He explained that he’s been relaxing with Margie in Downey. Sold off most of his thousand birds. Packing and shipping them in 14” x 14” customized wood veneer and metal screen crates, one chicken per crate. Too much to do and don’t like others doing for him. Also perfectionism is hard when you get older and don’t want to rely on others. “Crooked Face (pet fightin’ rooster) passed away a couple years ago from 15 years old age. He dropped all his feathers and they didn’t come back. He ain’t the only one going through a hard molt.” He’s selling the four acres farm and moving to Downey with sisters, Margie and Rose. “Still have friends around there, Al Andril. Still get together with Johnny Zaro, Oren Breeland, Richard Carter. George (Barris) don’t drive no more, has a live-in housekeeper. But he sounds good. Still cognizant, yet feeble, memory fading. He’s been talking to Margie about it. They want to operate (his brain tumor), it’s optional, his decision. He don’t want to get operated on. Every year we meet in Hemet. Losing memory of the shop on Compton and 77th, the start of Barris Shop. He couldn’t remember, and this was a few years ago. Oren and I had to straighten him out.
Jesse on his rooster farm holding “Crooked Face” his pet fightin’ rooster in his hans.
‘Remember Oren and his brother (Loren)?’ George lived with them at Oren’s place and Oren’s mom took care of them all like brothers. Had chemo and radiation on his left side behind his ear. He recognizes my voice –“Chili!” But he doesn’t remember the stories of the past, so I talk to him about the present, how he’s feeling and who’s running the business. George and I had a good run together. He didn’t yell at me the way he yelled at the other guys. George said, ‘I always respected you, you weren’t like the other guys. You’re the main one that did the mechanical work on the cars. Everyone always said I treated you different, it was because you were more real. You were into it all before we were.’”
Jesse with his mildly updated T-Bird from a few years ago. Jesse once told me he really wanted to paint his 1941 Ford in the color he now has on his T-Bird, but dark colors were big back then, so he never got the nerves to paint his 1941 Ford his favorite light yellow.
“I was always strung out on fast cars and speed. The others wanted pretty cars. I was putting in Dago axles on ‘em. Bill Ortega did his own work too. I was a combat soldier in the Korean War, the Forgotten War. Fifty-five thousand soldiers killed in two years, 8000 MIA still over there. I go to the shrink at the Vet’s Hospital because I’ve got War Trauma. The age is catching up with me, and I got freaked out with anxiety and depression. Eighty-four years old, and I’m deficient in B12. No other problems. Little eleven-year-old girls know more about facts-of-life than we did at twenty-one. The youngsters don’t want to work like we did. They move too fast with their computers and cell phones, and don’t know the real world.” Or they think they’re in a reality show, with microprocessors faster than S.Co.T. blowers. “Jerry (Daman) calls and checks in with Margie and Bill when he can’t get me on the phone. They got to be friends. He’s come a long way and is doing pretty good. I encouraged him that even though he’s doing a car like mine, to do it how he likes. But he wants it exact. Even Junior (Conway) told him the metal work that went into my car was so much more than what went into Junior’s mostly stock car. People didn’t get it when he did recreate Junior’s car, I hope he gets more attention and appreciation for my car. Getting the color right then, I shot a curved motorcycle tank so the highlights would bend. ’46-47 Dodge Chrysler color, and I messed around with gold and silver metallic…”
In early May 2015 Jerry Daman was almost finished with his recreation of Jesse’s 1941 Ford. Appletons are missing and so are a few other details.
Oh, Tavo, by 1953 Jesse was long home from Korea/Japan since September ’52, working at the parts store (Huntington Park Chanslor & Lyon auto parts and paint store). And then he got his “Lo’s” Mobile gas station (in Vernon) later in ’53. He didn’t look back at Camp Roberts since that first sixteen weeks of training. “Camp Roberts was literally a rattlesnake and cow shit junction. Until they reopened it and drafted us early to clean it up. It was closed since WW2. The first few weeks we had to do clean up detail and then 16 weeks of basic training.” So when they busted loose they didn’t look back. He didn’t get a chance to meet your Pa.
Two of Jesse’s pals while staying at Camp Roberts.
The H.A.M.B.’s Bad Bob PM’ed me: “I really liked Dick a lot. We talked all the time about when he was a teenager, cruising Lynwood, Tweedy Blvd in Southgate, Harvey’s in Downey, etc. He was such a cool cat. We would hand out Cragar (Wheels) pamphlets at OCIR (Orange County International Raceway), Irwindale (Speedway), Riverside (International Raceway), Ontario (Motor Speedway), when we were kids, for him. He also worked at Centerline [Wheels] for years. Everybody knew him.” Thanks, Bob!
Berardini Bros and Dick with the Berardini Bros ’29 Model A Roadster.
I believe that is about the only photo left of Dick Lenarz, with the Berardini Bros, and their ’29 Ford Model A roadster (#7) with their signature seaweed flames. Do you know what year (1950?) or place (Santa Ana Drags?) this was taken? Even though his brother Russell was a professional scenester photographer. (Richard “Dick” & his brother Russell Lenarz both passed in 2003). Dick and Russ were part of the Berardini Bros pit crew. I appreciate you posting it on the thread for historical purposes. Did you get it from his son, Mike? He told me he had one. Jesse sighs, “Junior’s shop is within walking distance of Margie and Bill. You gotta do what you gotta do. The time has come.”
Jesse Lopez passed away peacefully on Thursday February 24, 2022, surrounded with his ex-wife Marlene and his kids as his home in Albuquerque, NM
Resources and more info:
- Big book of Barris
- Barris Technique books
- Rendezvous Ballroom Facebook Group
- Motor Trend September 1949
- Popular Science October 1951
- Danny Lares Collection
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