© by Michelle M. Yiatras Timechanic ™
(Nick Matranga – That Illustrious Sanguine ’40 Merc! – original written February, 2014)
Due to the length of this article from Michelle, we have split it up in three parts. Be sure to see part one and two which are linked at the end of this article.
Karpo Murkijanian, ‘Deuce Week’ Chairman of the Petersen Museum, CA, on Nick
“Nick and I were friends for 27 years. We met in 1983 when his ’32 three-window was getting painted at Jarmo Pulkinen’s shop next door to Terry Hegmen’s shop, where my ’32 three-window was getting chopped, in Stanton, CA. Their shops were around the corner from Boyd Coddington’s shop. These guys did a lot of work for Boyd at the time. In my spare time I’d meander over to Jarmo’s and we’d all go to lunch together.” Karpo growing up in Montebello next to Whittier and East LA, was surrounded by hot rodder and low rider car culture in the 1960’s-70’s. “We hit it off right away. He was naturally drawn to my Armenian nature. He was my father’s age, and he taught me about customs as my mentor. He was like a father I never had. He always encouraged and pushed me.” In business and life he was very motivating, not just with cars.
He spent time with me at his shop and on the phone.” Karpo was like the son Nick couldn’t have because his own son was handicapped with MS. “Nick just sold his ’40 Ford in 1949. He was driving down the street. He saw the Merc on a used car lot. He stopped and checked it out, 8000 miles on it. He bought it then and there. He brought it home, and his mom came outside and said in her Italian accent, ‘Nicky, that’s the ugliest car I ever saw in my life!’ When it was all finished, his mother and father said it was the prettiest car they ever saw in their life!
He told me a story about the Korean War. He left the car in the garage. He got a letter from his mom saying George Barris inquired to sell the car. He and some fellows were in a fox hole getting bombarded. He was literally shaking recounting the story 25 years later. They were getting hit left and right, and the next thing he knew, he was the only one left alive. And so he saw all his friends die, and he realized he wasn’t coming home. He loved his mother and wanted her to have the money. So he wrote her back and said, ‘Sell the car!’ So when he got back home, the first thing he did was go to Barris’ to buy the car back. Then he found out it got totaled. He was very disappointed, but realized it was time to move on.
He told me early on, ‘You’re never gonna make big money working for someone else, or by yourself. You’ll make money having other good people working for you, and treat them well. Because of the volume. One man can’t do it all. With a crew you can work in volume. Treat people and your workers with respect, and kindly, because they’ve been through it. Listen to the successful older guys, and listen well. They know a lot and you’ll get way ahead by paying attention to them.’
In 1986 at the Los Angeles Race Track, Nick had several Sulky thoroughbred harnessed race horses with painted and pinstriped buggies. He loved to talk about and show his race horses, he had box seating. He would recommend what horse to bet on and we were winning. Once I wanted to bet on one of his horses and he said, ‘No, no, no, bet on this other one…’ Another time I wanted to bet on one of his horses and again he said, ‘No, no, no, bet on this other one…’ Then I realized he personally knew all the horses racing, and their owners, and he could evaluate who would likely win a race. He would be sure to tell me when to bet on one of his horses. If I listened to him I always won. When Shauna, his wife, died from MS, he did change. He didn’t want to go out as much. He sold his ’32 three-window that Jarmo painted and Boyd worked on. He hadn’t even put on a couple hundred miles. The medical bills ran up and he needed quick money to pay it, and sold it in 1989. As it was on the cover of Street Rodder magazine April 1984. And then later in 2006 I’m on Ebay looking at ’32 Fords. I scroll down and see this black three-window. I recognized it immediately. A performance car dealer, Brian Burnett, from Los Gatos up north, was selling it, and in the description didn’t even know what it was. He could tell it was a high quality build. I called to let Nick know and he shat. So I called Brian and informed him that it was Nick and Boyd built. He remembered Nick and me from Boyd’s. Whoever buys it, we asked that it be displayed at the Petersen’s ‘Deuce Week’ 75th Anniversary of the Deuce, of 380 Fords. A super nice Canadian, Mike Seelbinder, bought it, and obliged.
Nick in his office 1966.
I was co-chairing and organizing the event, and when Mike and his wife showed up I directed them to park it in the exclusive ‘Cover Car Row’ for the weekend. The black lacquer still looked brand new. It was the first show in twenty years that Nick attended any event, and the last time. The big day Saturday was hectic. Nick tapped me on the shoulder. I was surprised to see him because he rarely turned out for a car show. He loved that car. We went over to see it, and it looked so good. He wanted to meet the new owners. Nick and Don Rackemann walked around and found out that the new owners were at the hospital because they got hit by a car, walking from their hotel on Wilshire Blvd, Friday night. They were seriously hurt. Nick was winded, so he didn’t stay long. And that was the last Nick ever saw it. We sent them copies of Nick’s pictures of the car and a ‘Deuce Week’ poster. They still have the car and are in good shape. Nick really didn’t build another car until the ’37 Chevy coupe he started in 2005. He got to drive it a bit before he died, just needed final interior.
Another major thing Nick taught me, is that when you’re building a car that has a lot of custom trick stuff done to it, put it in primer, and then drive it to get the bugs out of it. Then blow it apart and paint and chrome. That’s how he did the Merc. He drove it out to the Santa Monica beach one day. When he pulled in and parked the car, people gathered around. He went to eat. When he got back, there was a swarm of people around the car, and he couldn’t even get to it. When Hirohata’s was getting chopped at Barris’, he asked Nick if he could use his side windows to copy the design. Nick said, ‘Yeah!’ George Barris wanted him to use the LaSalle grill and Nick refused, so he used the stock ’40 grill.”
David says one beautiful thing about the stock ’40 Merc is the stock grill.
“The first ten years I knew him, in the 1980’s, traditional customs were not popular. It was all about hot rods for me, growing up in the 1960’s-70’s. Nick had a really bitchin’ three-window. I didn’t even know he had a Merc until the 1990’s, when I started coming around the transmission shop, and I saw all the Merc and Bonneville pictures on the wall, I had no idea. Now that was bitchin’, and he told me the stories. I didn’t even know he was a Bonneville competitor. I really looked up to him. The last time I talked to him he said he loved me, right as we were hanging up. I was shocked because it was the first time he spoke like that. He usually spoke no holds barred, but it was, ‘MF this or MF that.’ A week later he was in the hospital and couldn’t talk. Nick was blunt and to the point.
Either he liked you or didn’t like you. Very opinionated. Once I didn’t call him for a bit, and I called and said, ‘Eh?’, and Nick said, ‘Where the f–k have you been! Who are you banging?’ I said, ‘A Sicilian!’”
Frank Baney, Lou Baney’s son, of Inglewood and Huntington Beach, CA, on Nick
A finish carpenter by trade, a race dragster restorer by hobby, owns the ‘Yeakel Plymouth Special’ ’64 top fueled dragster, fellow ‘Screwdrivers’. Father, Lou Baney, General Manager of the ‘Yeakel Plymouth Center’, S. California car dealership, sponsored the top fuel dragster. “In 1963 I was 8. My father, Nick, Joe Pisano, Nick Arias, Don Rackemann, and all their families went on a big vacation weekend on the Colorado River at River Shore Resorts at the CA/AZ border, in the town of Earp, CA. They all had boats. Don was the ringleader. Everyone was waterskiing, and I had never skied before. So I was left sitting in a cabana on the beach. Nick had a broken hand because he hit a wall, and he was stuck on the beach with me. So he sat with me and talked to me a couple hours about how I could do it, ‘It’s so much fun. I know you can do it. I’ve seen you ride your bike and skateboard. You’ll pop right up.’ He went and wrapped his hand in a plastic bag and silver taped it up. He said, ‘Sit in my lap, and I’ll hold your knees with the skis sticking up from the water.’ He hooked us to the boat and said to them, ‘Hit it!’ The ski rope tightened and pulled us up, and Nick stood me up and let me go, and off I went skiing. After that first run I wasn’t afraid anymore, and from then on you couldn’t get me out of the water. I’ve taught both my kids and their friends how to water ski in the same way and in the same place. We’ll teach my grandkids that way too.
He along with the other guys were big heroes and racers. He was always so down to earth and nice to bother with me and talk and listen to me. When I was 17 and broke a transmission in my truck, I took it to him at ‘Advanced Transmission’. Just a kid and he told them to take care of me. Then we went for a ride in his black ’57 Nomad fully restored and customized. When we got around the block he asked me if I wanted to drive it. When I got behind the wheel he directed me to a big open street and then he said, ‘Hammer it!’, and it took off, a big block 396 Chevy engine. That was the fastest I ever went, it wasn’t how fast we went, it was how quick we got there. The first time I ever got pushed back into the seat. I thought mine (’61 Chevy pickup with a small block 327 Chevy), and my buddies cars were badassed hot rods. It was a real racer’s car with all the expensive good stuff in it that I wanted. Here’s a grown up that can have anything he wants and he took time with me to drive in his car. I looked up to him and he was a kid at heart.
Nick with his 1957 Chevy Nomad that was painted at the Barris Shop.
Nick knew my dad before my dad knew me. My relationship with Nick was in the moment of the 1960’s. In the 1970’s he told me to stay away from horses, both as a hobby or betting, because it’s just a place to throw money, you’ll go broke. Although he loved them. He would walk me around his shop and go over his latest cars with me. He treated me like I was somebody even though I was a kid with big eyes and my tongue hanging out. As far as he was concerned business stopped when I came in and we talked about race cars. I collect dragsters, boats, motorcycles, pretty much anything with a motor in it.”
Nick Arias, “Nick Arias Jr Racing” piston and engine shop, of Normandie Av, Gardena, CA, on Nick
“Later on I got to be better friends. The Yeakel Brothers sponsored us at Bonneville 1955. Don drove it. And Danny O’Brien. I built the 6 cylinder GMC engine, I ran it in the B class. We ran pretty good. Horning 12 port head. Alcohol-nitro 50-50 blend. Hilborn fuel injection. ’29 Model A on ’32 frame. All painted powder blue. Three cars, the ’55 Cad 4-door sedan for the crew; Danny’s F-100 Ford pickup; and the roadster, Cad engine A by Nick M., and GMC engine B by Nick A. Lou Baney ran the whole crew. Nick was a good guy and worked hard. He had a job as a bricklayer mason before he got into his transmission shop. We were part of the crew. We all got along. We all pitched in. We ran the Yeakel car that won. I used to stop by and say hello at his transmission shop while he was working on the ’32.”
Bonneville 1955. Don Rackemann’s F-100 pickup, Lou Baney’s 1955 Cadillac, and the Danny O’Brien, Rackemann, and Baney highboy. All cars were painted the same Iris Blue, then striped and flamed by Von Dutch. From left to right. Nick Arias Jr, Bill Likes, Danny O’Brien, Don Rackemann, Jo Rackemann, Rich Rackemann, Nick Matranga, Lou Baney, Ted Evosavich; famous shot by Hot Rod magazine, from Nick’s personal collection.
Dennis Loehr, financial advisor, of Torrance, CA, on Nick
“I knew Nick well the last eight years of his life. Nick has not changed one iota since his youth. A feisty tailed dart, more energy than he knew what to do with, a dynamo. A guy came into his office at ‘Advanced Transmission’ in Torrance, a foot taller than Nick’s 5’5”, said something smart alecky that inflamed Nick, and Nick knocked him down and out with one punch. He was very strong for his size. He was a very proud and private Sicilian. If he didn’t like you, that was it. His arms were severely burned in Korea, and he was a very patriotic guy.”
Dennis composed the video for Nick’s (& his lovely sister, Connie’s) obituary.
David Zivot, of Las Vegas, NV, on Nick’s ’40 Merc
“I can tell you that using photographs to scale anything from can be a tricky business. Case in point, the famous Marcia Campbell photograph of the almost dead on side view of Nick’s car in front of John C. Fremont High School. When I started my project, I produced a 1:1 scale blowup on a vinyl banner from a fellow’s computer that had the hard drive space to process a life size (apprx 14’ x 5’) hi res digital file of this. I lined up the door and the stainless trim, for a horizontal starting point, matching it with an actual piece of stainless off my ’40 Merc. I also used the known diameter of the Cadillac sombrero hubcaps for both horizontal and vertical measurements as well. Proceeding to chop the top from this blowup or any templates made from it, were not to the degree of accuracy that I was after. I threw away all templates, blowups, etc., and used my own eye. In fact, using any of the photographs for precise measurements is asking for trouble, because of the distortion factors involved. The metal man that finished the chop had something the others didn’t…an eye!
In the final analysis, the compound curves that are demonstrated on those wonderful creations, especially after they are chopped, are best replicated by getting as close as you can in the ballpark with measurements, but finalizing it with your eye from every angle possible, from multiple distances, and knowing the documented data of the car. There are many little tricks and details on how I think I finally captured this chop on Nick’s car that I’ll relate to you at a later moment.
Marcia Campbell photo of Nick’s Mercury in front of John C. Fremont High School.
Two photos of Nick’s 1940 Mercury at the Hall of Justice on California Avenue in South Gate, Ca. more on this photo shoot can be seen in the Line-Up Photo Shoot article. These were gifted to David & Michelle by Jesse Lopez from his personal collection of never before seen originals of Nick’s car taken by Marcia Campbell, bearing her stamp on the back.
I’ve experienced in the past that sometimes the most unreliable sources can be the original owner/builder because memories fade with age. Not so in this case with Nick, he was acute. Some observations on early paint jobs, including Barris Maroon. My initial plans were to find a meticulous match to what was known as Barris Maroon circa 1946-52, that was based on ‘41 Buick #º«@! $@#%^. My researches indicated through discussions with George Barris, Junior Conway, Nick Matranga, Jesse Lopez, and Dick Bertolucci, boiled down to this. You can only get so close, and barring finding an untouched never been in the sun 60 yr old example of an original Barris paint job would have told me only, that particular paint job only looked like that. In other words, Barris Maroon could vary from car to car, depending on amount of >>>>> powder used, what time of the morning George Barris sprayed it, and who was bugging him that day. Plainly put, numerous variables. So to get as reasonably close as possible, I personally mixed ’41 Buick #º«@! & #¤¿« $@#%^, using toners only, with no <<<<< powder added, put in differing amounts of fine >>>>> powder (in this case a 65 yr old can of Crescent brand), dipped each shade in a light bulb, sent them off to Nick, and said, ‘Nick, when I hit it on the nail, tell me.’ Five or six light bulbs later he said, ‘You got it, kid!’ All of this is to illustrate that you have to use as close as possible the available materials at the time, talk to the original owner if he is still alive, and in the final analysis, go with your gut and understanding. You also have to satisfy yourself. The most important thing is not the quality of the paint job and the accuracy of the color, but does it look ‘1949-50’ or not?!
Guys that have original color photos to extrapolate from are lucky…No base coat-clear coat, just plain old fashioned lacquer. One pint tin can Crescent >>>>> powder, late 1940’s, from John Carambia’s collection of NOS. ’41 Buick #º«@! $@#%^ modern acrylic lacquer. An original can of nitrocellulose was too deteriorated so had to use modern. All the constituent parts had separated and the solvents and binders smelled funny like stagnant turpentine. George Barris confirmed my suspicion that it was #º«@! $@#%^, rather than just the very close #¤¿« $@#%^. I tested a can of #¤¿« $@#%^ and it was too brown. The #º«@! $@#%^ was very rich with some purple like blue blood. When you buy the #º«@! $@#%^ it commonly comes mixed with <<<<>>>> powder. Trial and error determined the degree of >>>>> highlights just enough so it glowed in the sun like 24 carat, not copper, bronze, nor Roman. In those days, M & H mixed the Rinshed-Mason base and George added the >>>>>. I got a dealer of authentic vintage lacquers to mix my base and I added the >>>>> touch. Nick verified the result.
Marcia Campbell with the Model A Pick-Up built with the help of the Barris shop.
I knew of Nick since I was a youngster from his outstanding custom cars. When I finally got to meet him later on he offered encouragement and advice, and a friendship developed that not only encompassed our mutual interests, also in seeing the world as it really is as well as how it really was. His reminiscences brought the days of the early hot rod and custom era to life, and perhaps more importantly what it was like to be young when it was good to be young in Los Angeles, USA.”
Nick was a paisan whose family matriculated from a neighboring village in Palermo, Sicily. His mother knew all the families and their folklores. So he knew by your family name what calibre of people you were. When I told him my family name from Detroit, he said, ‘They are good guys but formidable guys, don’t mess with one.’ Nick was very steadfast and straight forward. He was Proud to Serve both his family and his country in their times of need.
Nick & Custom US Postage Stamps, made for Nick by David as a surprise gift.
Jesse Lopez of Bell-Riverside-Downey, CA, on Johnny Zaro, Fritz Voigt, and Gary Wise
“I just got back from Fritz Voigt’s 90th birthday party at Fritz’ house in Downey, CA, on Saturday, March 22, 2014. Quite a few of the old guys I hadn’t seen in a while, and his family and kids, all of Fritz’ buddies. I went with Pete Werrlein and my nephew, John ‘Beanie’ Acosta. We all went and looked at Beanie’s chop of my car, and I critiqued the rear window cut, like I critiqued Jerry’s. My club coupe was ugly like a turtle before it was chopped, but it had the slope to make the right cut. Isky was at the party with his unlit cigar and English racer cap, he has a pretty sharp smart memory. We liked to wear those butcher caps, white cotton. They’d get dirty from messin’ with cars, so at night we wore a clean one, but they’d get grease anyway. I had half a dozen myself. Mickey Thompson’s ex-old lady, Dixie, was there. Fritz ran around with her for quite a few years after her and Mickey broke up. She still looks good and takes care of herself. Fritz looked pretty good even though he’s in a wheelchair to get around. His wife is a nice lady and helps him get around. His memory’s good.
We sat and bullshitted about street racing. He tells the story when he was testing the dragster on gas right on Slauson Av in Maywood by Fritz’ shop, west over the L.A. bridge. On the other side was wide open at Bell Gardens by the Ford/Mercury plant. We all took turns. Finally a cop came along and wanted to know who was doing the driving so he could write them up. I said, ‘Give it to me, I’m going in the Army!’ It was a couple weeks before boot camp in 1950. So he wrote me up. Bill Ortega and a bunch of guys got jobs at that big new Ford/Mercury plant. I even thought about it. An hour after Pete, Beanie, and I went home, Pete got a call at his house from Johnny’s son that he passed away that day, peacefully. He had heart and nerves health problems the past few years, that’s why he wasn’t hangin’ around much. Johnny’s son was trying to reach me, but I wasn’t home yet. They’ll let us know the details. I called Al Andril and some others and let them know. Al and Johnny were neighbors growing up in Maywood and built cars after they were in the Navy together. Craig Wise was at Fritz’ party. Craig’s older brother, Gary was a good friend of mine. He was a nice guy, worked for Hampton’s in Downey, they built blower setups for engines in their small speed shop. Building manifolds to set the 471 hemi blowers on, Chrysler, Ford. Gary was a machinist.
Fritz wasn’t the easiest guy to get to be friends with. He was one of a kind. He was my mentor. I first loved drag racing before customs. That’s why my custom hauled ass. Fritz advised me and built the 3/8 strokers I ran on my car. I’d hurry out of his shop and tore them old flatheads apart and put them back together again in one day. Fritz always made sure we kids were doing it right, my 15-16 to his 20-21, those five years made a difference. Walter was his two years older brother, was walking without a cane at the party lookin’ good, he was even taller 6’3” than Fritz’ 6’. They were good sized Germans. Art the younger brother and I were in the same grade and ran around in high school, he died young in his 50’s from cancer. He wasn’t into cars like Fritz, Walt, and me. That’s how I got to be more friends with Fritz and Walt. Us Germans and Mexicans got along. In Catholic grammar school I learned formal English and math from the nuns, so my siblings and I were the smart ones by the time I went to public school. They’d kid me that my handwriting was like a woman’s it was so neat and beautiful.
Fritz said he didn’t wear shoes until eighth grade in Cudahy, CA, at Bell High School, we were all so poor after the Depression, War, and all.
My friend, Rogelio ‘Roy’, recommends and is driving me over to a new kind of therapeutic hospital at Mexicali, Baja, for a couple weeks, to get a full checkup and get off the meds for PTSD. I’m so healthy that I don’t need the anti- anxiety/depression drugs the VA put me on. At the old Veterans Hospital, all they know you by is your last four and serial numbers. This new treatment hospital gives advanced and personal attention. Other folks that went there were greatly improved. PTSD is a big issue for soldiers. The great American Army forgets about the soldiers when it’s done with them.”
By the way, Jesse’s keeping his ranch land in Riverside County, even though he sold most all of the roosters, because he needs the breadth of country fresh air and landscape to get away. The city life of Downey is too dense for him full time.
Johnny Zaro ’41 Ford 1951 Oakland or L.A. Roadster Show Walter Wyss Collection Custom Car Chronicle. Possibly John Manok (who worked for George with his brother Ralph at the Lynwood shop) polishing the hood, George Barris polishing the bumper guard, Jack Stewart leaning on the driver’s front fender, possibly Gene Simmons (who hung around the shop as George’s Hollywood buddy and first brought over Jesse’s gal, Flo, on his motorcycle) on the far left. Zaro’s car when it was Barris Maroon, had more metal work on it than any other car in the shop, the darker and iridescent colors showing the imperfections.
Craig Wise of Downey, CA, on Gary Wise, and Fritz Voigt
“Early in Gary’s career as a machinist he worked for Stricker Engineering in Maywood, CA, a few doors west of Fritz Voigt’s Shop. Gary made precision aircraft parts for the government. Rich Stricker owned and drove the ol’ SoCal Coupe for a few years with a front mount blower on a Caddy motor. When I was 15-16 years old I to work in that machine shop as a clean-up boy, sweeping the floor & cleaning the machines. When I was finished with my cleaning duties, I would go to the back room where the ‘34 coupe was stored, I would pull the old WWII canvas drop cloth off the coupe then get in and make like I was racing at ElMo and B-ville! I even talked to Rich about selling it to me. He told me he could not do that; said if anything bad ever happened to me in the coupe it would be very hard for him to deal with. Gary worked for 25 years with the Stricker’s, then he moved on to Don Hampton’s shop ‘Hampton Blowers’ in Downey. Gary & Don knew each other from Bell High School. Don started drag racing back in the 1950’s while he was still in high school. Don started from the bottom and raced his way up to the top. If I remember right, he was top eliminator at the 1965 Winter Nationals in Pomona driving his beautiful front engine blown Chrysler dragster. Don had a very successful career with his blower business, he’s still in the shop 6 days a week. He was elected into the Dragster Racing Hall of Fame a couple years ago.”
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