© by Michelle M. Yiatras Timechanic ™
(Nick Matranga – That Illustrious Sanguine ’40 Merc! – original written February, 2014)
David E. Zivot and Michelle M. Yiatras are on a quest to create a truly accurate re-representation of the Nick Matranga Barris-built 1940 Mercury. Important part of this quest is a series of interviews Michelle did with Nick and many of his friends, about the Merc and many other historical details. Michelle turned this historic information into this wonderful story.
Due to the length of this article from Michelle, we have split it up in three parts. Be sure to click “NEXT PART” at the end of this article to see the rest.
It was during one of their deep discussions over the phone about the ’40 Mercury, and the twilight of the Lost City, that David (E. Zivot) broached his intention. “Say, Nick…What would you think if I applied a serious approach to recreating your Mercury…I mean with your advice, insight, and critical judgment from beginning to end? I think I can do better than some other copies of your car. With your approval and assistance, and with your blessing. I’ve studied the car and am familiar with the proper techniques, colors, and materials that were used at the time.” After a pause, “Yeah…I’d be in on that. That would be bitchin’!” Nick replied. He perceived that David was genuinely capable of exacting justice. Going by David’s track record with the original Joe Nitti roadster discovery and restoration, as well as other projects, Nick knew he was at least cognizant and competent. David has the perspective and appreciation for the era of the American custom car that emerged from Southern California, from the immediate pre-War to post-War period, through about 1953.
Unlike other attempts that missed the target, the color was not candy apple, matte burgundy, nor freckle face strawberry, as in other interpretations. The George Barris/Nick Matranga paint job, mixed at M & H Paint in L.A., was lead based nitrocellulose lacquer alchemical blend of middle note ’41 Buick maroons called #º«@! & #¤¿« $@#%^ (what was later to become known as Barris Maroon), like a veritable gem, with deep black base note lowlights and >>>>> top note highlights. Resulting in a dusky etheric glow. A swift mercurial spectre destined for legend, haunting Nick himself, “Someday I’d like to build an exact duplicate of it…” Nick advanced on his eighties with a half-checked to-do list of life’s obligations. This particular tall order was required to wait.
David Zivot, with his detective’s discernment, sat holding the last known remaining parts of the demolished prototype, the pair of 1948 Appleton Model 112 spotlights. Purchased from a guy named Pete in San Pedro who stripped them from the wreck in a junkyard in late 1952. The rest of the wreck was promptly scrapped and crushed. The few other salvaged parts were unwittingly sold off. The spotlights were all that were left.
Nick’s 1940 Mercury at the 1951 National Roadster Show in Oakland California. George Barris took the car to the show, while Nick had left for Korea.
The otherworldly photo of Nick aside his Merc in the Barris stance catches the breath. An icon frequently leaves the hands of the originator and belongs to the ages. This car was shown in Oakland, CA at the National Roadster Show in Feb 1951 without Nick, and sold in Sept-Oct 1951 without Nick, because he was in Korea. Did he feel detached from it, or still connected to it, while in Korea? What plans was he making for it when he returned?
Nick Matranga signed photo for David.
Nick aimed to keep the car. He told David that he was going to put an OHV Cadillac engine in it, probably by the Yeakel Brothers. He also mentioned he was fatalistic about making it back, so he instructed his mother to get ahold of George, that he would know what to do. George Barris, who escorted it to the Oakland and mysterious Montebello big tent (Rodder’s Journal #49) shows, made the sale arrangements. A ready line of enthusiasts had the long green $2500, the cost of a new fully loaded car. Nick had about $1800 invested, so he profited $700, and his, “Mom could sure use it.” It is presumed that a nineteen-year-old named Stanley Hannenberg of Artesia, CA, purchased it, and within several months of owning it, in Jun 1952, smashed out of control in the rain, shearing and splitting off Edison Co power poles and mailboxes, on the corner of 168th St. and Pioneer Blvd.
The photo in the Jun 1952 Hot Rod Magazine (below) at the first annual Pasadena Auto Show and Reliability Run, showing the driver’s side open door interior view, with admiring kids looking in, could be the last known photo, taken Mar 30. Hannenberg was possibly a member of one of the attending Long Beach car clubs, and possibly knew Danny Lares, who bought the Jesse Lopez ’41 Ford custom.
This photo was taken at the first annual Pasadena Auto Show and Reliability Run and featured in the June 1952 Hot Rod Magazine.
Nick deployed for boot camp in Feb 1951, later that year the car was sold, and he returned from Korea in Jan 1953. Born Nicholas Joseph Matranga, April 21, 1930 in Los Angeles, CA, died March 27, 2010, in Torrance, CA.
Nick off to the Army in 1951.
A few months before his abrupt respiratory sickness and passing, I asked Nick, “Did you choose the maroon-ish (’41 Buick #¤¿« $@#%^) color? Did you participate in the idea to blend the black and >>>>> with it? Did you prefer any other colors over the maroon?” He confided, “I picked it all. It was the color I wanted. Everybody’s car was maroon, but I wanted the color, as well as the custom, to be outstanding. We started adding black lacquer to it. We’d shoot panels and let them dry and look in the sunlight. Then it was too dark. We were thinking about the >>>>> dust anyway. The >>>>> dust looked so you wouldn’t even notice it in the evening, just dark blackish maroon. In the sunlight you would see it wasn’t black, it was opalescent,” “Like a ruby star?” “Yeah!” It was properly finished suiting.
He continued, “It was originally going to be black, but there were a lot of black cars out there. Then I saw a customized Buick in the ’41 #¤¿« $@#%^, and I thought it was so pretty. But I wanted to hop that color up. Nobody’s hit it yet but me. I have to salute George Barris for his patience with me. We shot so many panels and let them dry and looked at them in the sun. In them days it was pure lacquer. We’d shoot the car and color sand it. And let it dry for a month. And color sand it again for the final rub out. A lot of guys got impatient and let it dry only a week. I wanted to be sure that it sweated and breathed before its final color sand and rub out. So that the thinners in the paint wouldn’t shrink. George was a great painter, and he was careful not to put it on too wet. We would always use wet sandpaper. I was never a dry sandpaper man. If it went on too wet and run, we had to let it set a little and then use the wet sandpaper, super fine grade. It’s good when the paint goes on wet, but you have to control it. You don’t want it over sprayed. You want the paint to lay flat, without waves. So it is color sanded flat.”
I further queried, “Did you save any part yourself from the car before you left for Korea?” He confirmed, “That car was completely not saved. We modified everything we were doing with parts available. Everything had to have a line with me, from where we mounted the taillights to the top chop. I was a fanatic. Johnny Zaro got me started on the ’40 Merc. The ’40 Ford standard coupe has a similar front end and grill look that the ’40 Merc had. I would have done my ’40 Ford. Then I decided it was a one seat coupe that wouldn’t look good chopped, so I found a ’40 Merc. Just happened to be driving by a used car lot when I spotted a cherry low miles grey-green coupe.
The factory Merc had two seats, driver front and passenger back, called a club coupe. It had more length that was better to chop, that would look like not just a hot rod at Bonneville, but a custom that was just there with the look. Started out the butt ugliest Merc, and I knew it had potential to conform to the most beautiful lines, once drawn and cut. Everyone who chopped the ’40 Merc kept the post, and it looked like crap. ‘That post is gone!’ I said, to make the car flow longer. We wanted the side door windows to channel with the top line. I wanted the curve of the window frames to align with the top, in a matched flow. From the hood to the doors to the trunk, the line just flowed from the nose to the tail, it just keeps going.” “Like wind through the wings of the Mercury quicksilver insignia?” “Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say! That’s why I moved the bumper guard mounted tail lights, the line from the trunk goes right to it.
This photo shows how nice the shape of the top and the window frames flowed on the car.
The engine was custom built by Phil Weiand, installed with Weiand heads and intake, who I was good friends with, and I hung out at his shop. He gave me a good deal on the motor. Gaylord did the interior. The carpet was dark maroon, the upholstery was dark maroon and ivory DuPont Fabrilite. I insisted that anyone, including my girlfriend, remove their shoes before entering my car. My shoes were always impeccable. Once a girlfriend spilled a Coca-Cola on the carpet and giggled. Next day I got over her.”
Jesse Lopez of Bell-Riverside-Downey, CA, on Nick
“Nick lived in a different part of town than I did. He was from the West, Fremont. Him, Rackemann, Ortega. And I was from the Southeast side, Bell, Huntington Park. Don Rackemann was a good driver at Bonneville. We were 20 miles apart. All the So Cal guys were different than the rest of the country, we dressed different, talked different, different cars. East L.A., Gil and Al Ayala’s shop. So Cal was a big area with no freeways, all surface streets.
Nick was so fun to pal around with. I fixed him up with a longtime girlfriend, Lil, from the East side. I had girls from all over. Nick was steady. She was my girlfriend, Joyce’s, friend. Pretty and blonde lady. They hit it off real good. Later he married his wife for life, and we didn’t see him much after that. He was a family man. After the War (Korea), me and Nick and Zaro weren’t together any more. Nick went his way with his wife, and years later he bought a truck shop. Early on he didn’t like to get his hands dirty. Zaro got married too.
Johnny Zaro just got married with Fay. The photo was taken shortly before leaving the scene in Johnny’s 1941 Ford.
Nick had a happy personality. His mom, Josephine, made us Italian food at their restaurant, on Florence on the West side. (Nick was proud of his lifelong 26” waist. He was able to stay trim even though his family had a restaurant, and his favorite food was Italian.) We filled up on homemade ravioli, salads with real imported olive oil, fresh bread. Mama Matranga’s long johns saved my life in Korea, and she always hugged me and took the place of my mother when she passed in 1957, at 49, from a botched operation. When I met Nick and we went to his mother’s Italian restaurant, it was the first Italian food I ever had. There was only one Mexican restauraunt and only a couple Italian then. Nick’s mother was so very good. She sent me care packages with food and long johns. The Army really strung us out and wouldn’t give us enough food and clothes. I’da froze to death if it wasn’t for her. No one else did that for me.”
Discussing the ‘Kustom’s L.A.’ club plaque. “Mine was rusty maroon molded out of aluminum pot metal. An original one. The letters protruded, not made out of tin. The background recessed and the letters were more rounded, not squared. The frame edge had about a ¼” lip all around. The letters and frame edge were polished out, so they shined and stood out. Members were not given number stamps in order of joining up. #3 was Nick’s. The large ‘S’ at the end of ‘LoS Angeles’ had no particular meaning.
Nick had a ’53 Monterey, it was the complete body change, not like the ’55. It was factory black. He got that Merc and met his lady and got married. We didn’t hear from him for a while after 1956. Custom cars only lasted maybe 10 years. Then people got new cars, and they didn’t do anything with them. Johnny Zaro traded his Merc for that ugly bathtub car with the fadeaways, that ’41 Ford. There was a lot of work done to that car but it was ugly, different strokes.
Early version of Johnny Zaro’s 1941 Ford build by the Barris Custom Shop.
Recently Johnny didn’t show up at our Hemet, CA, CoCo’s get together. Twenty-two of us old Kustom’s guys. Pete Werrlein checked in with him, and Johnny said he couldn’t make it, heart problems with old age. Johnny’s always been hyperactive and nervous. I’d make fun of him for constantly eatin’ his fingernails to the quick. He had his peculiarities. He talked in riddles mostly. We’d be talking about something and he’d come up with something off the wall. He was driving his ’40 Merc from 77th St and Compton Av, just got it done, and ran into a parked car on Nadeau St. Just completely done and painted leaving Barris’ going home. For years Oren Breeland thought it was me that ran into that car. Johnny was a bad driver. He sat on the curb crying when they went to pick him up. Coming down from the Crestline San Bernardino Mountains on a crowded summer holiday with live music and dancing, he was excited because he met this girl up there, and was on his way to visit his mom. Through the rolling hills of the grape vineyards was a severe curve at 90-100 mph, and he wedged the car between two trees, and dented both sides and the top. Everything got dented because the car was sandwiched between the two trees and buckled on top. He took it to two guys in San Bernadino to work on it. George was mad and wouldn’t fix a total car wreck. So these two guys fixed it pretty good. At Barris’ we would only work on cherry cars. When I saw it I thought that son of a bitch was good. Johnny wrecked the car a couple times at least. He was so hyper he wrecked the car.
A later version of Johnny’s 1941 Ford with a new grille and painted a new light color.
A fat little fellow named Tony brought his ’41 Ford convertible over, and George talked him into channeling it. I told them then they’d have trouble to drop the hood and goddamn it looked like a pancake on fenders. I told them the hood would be too flat, and it was. I thought that car was an abortion. It was built for Little Tony, not Zaro. The metal work was bad, and the fade aways. A lot of waves, not so straight. Little Tony wanted it Barris Maroon, and I think it showed a lot of mistakes. It looked rough. So they changed it to off-cream to cover it up and not see the imperfections and ripples. It was never meant for Johnny, and he had nothing to do with its creation. What made him want to trade is that his car had been pounded out a few times from wrecking it. Johnny and I thought differently, and he thought Little Tony’s car looked nice. It had a floating grill, something to fill the gap. They traded cars and a little money about 1949. Johnny was real happy to have it.
Al Andril’s blue Barris-built 1940 Mercury and Johnny Zaro’s maroon version next to it.
Johnny and Al Andril were neighbors and best friends for many years. Now Al lives by Marge and Bill in Downey, CA, and they meet up when they take walks. I like it there. I had a lot of girlfriends in Downey, and my ex-wife. Practically all my relatives and friends in Bell moved to Downey. Sister Rose has a big house there too. We all used to go to ‘Harvey’s Broiler’ (Harvey and Minnie Ortner, partners in the ‘Clock Broilers’ of L.A., founded ‘Harvey’s Broiler’ in 1958, the Downey drive-in restaurant and coffee shop, on the corner of Firestone Blvd and Old River School Rd, that became a Southern California car cruise ritual draw and later was renamed ‘Johnie’s Broiler’ in 1968.) I used to pull in with my new ’58 Bird in ‘Kandy Lak’. One of the first to roll out of King Ford in Huntington Park. Black with black interior, I drove it straight to Lynwood, and dropped the bumpers, and also the chrome gingerbread, and sanded it to paint it. I lowered the front to rake. No one ever saw a new ’58 Bird, let alone a Kustom Kandy one. My formula of candy lacquer. Joe Bailon coined ‘Candy Apple Red’ at the 1952 Oakland Show with a ’41 Chevy. His was not as bright for me. I made it just right. My secret formula. It just freaked people out. After George’s wife, Shirley, saw my Bird I sold to Rackemann for his wife, Jo, she had to have one too, her ’59 Bird in ‘Kandy Lak’.
Nick wasn’t into racing and mechanics like me and Rackemann were. He was more into looking good with his good personality. Johnny Zaro was a real handsome rascal. Nick could make a believer out of you with his talk. Johnny did his stint on his own ’40 Merc, whatever George told him to do. George designed and made the plaques first for his cars. Later he started and made the club. We decided to have meetings. Now he can barely remember the shop on 77th and Compton. When I ran the ‘Kustom’s’ plaque it meant something, there was only about fifteen of us. We didn’t run ‘Kustom’s’ plaques on stock cars like Nick’s Monterey or my Cadillac, even though they were nice.
Nick Matranga in the late 1950’s.
The clubs didn’t exist after we got back from the Korean War, no meetings because there was no more real custom cars. George might have given some plaques away, but they didn’t run ‘Kustom’s’. Formed the club when George had the plaques made for us guys who had the cars, from 1948 to the early 50’s.
Don Henchman, Bob Ruble, Richard Carter, Johnny Zaro, Al Andril, Oren Breeland, Bill Ortega, Paul Janich, Shorty Brown, Harold Larson, Carl Abajian, Jack Stewart, Vard Martin, Les Callahan, Nick, Sam, George, and myself. They voted me in as President.
We’d meet and go to Balboa, Crestline, or the Big Bear Mountains. We weren’t kids anymore, we were young men with responsibilities. We’d just plan get-togethers. No official club. Dick Fowler was a squirrel, just weird, he never fit into our clique, he belonged to Fox Florence gang. Not a nice-looking car. (The Dick Fowler ’38 Ford coupe was a very early Sam and George Barris effort, about 1946-47, when they first came down from San Francisco/Sacramento.) I knew him pretty good, he hung out at the Barris shop even before I got there because he lived by the shop. It wasn’t a real custom, not a nice chop, just changed the Packard grill, and kept it kinda black.
In Bell Gardens, we raced from the corner of Eastern Av and Slauson Av, in front of the Dodge and Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, down Slauson ¼ mile, to Garfield Av, or further on to the ½ mile at Anaheim-Telegraph Rd. We’d go through the Russian cemetery to get away from the heat, and get a good view of who was winning. Bill always talks about him and Margie in the back seat of my car, when he was watching it while I was away…”
Continue reading about Nick Matranga in the NEXT PART
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