The Customizer’s Customizer
From the February, 2009 issue of Rod & Custom
By Calvin Mauldin
Photography by Dick Dean, Collection
If there's a different way...
If there's a different way to skin a Merc, good ol' designer Dick will think of it. Even the two-tone yellow and white is refreshingly different from what most of the customizers use these days. This was once a four-door built on the low-priced side. Dick sold it to his friend Harold Saul.
Dick also does all of the...
Dick also does all of the Cadillacs for the Hard Rock Cafes. This huge woodie is just one of the fleet.
Another one of Dick's passions...
Another one of Dick's passions is flying his Pitts aerobatic airplane. Look out, Red Baron.
This photo illustrates that...
This photo illustrates that the old master hasn't forgotten the time-proven tricks.
How about a ride to Paso Robles...
How about a ride to Paso Robles in a stretched Merc? Love it.
Dean jazzed up his even-in-the-'50s-rare...
Dean jazzed up his even-in-the-'50s-rare '31 Ford Victoria. The A got a pair of sealed beams, Deuce shell, wide whites, and 16-inch wires. Wouldn't you like to have one just like it in the '90s?
A nice '32 Ford sedan was...
A nice '32 Ford sedan was one of Dick's first channel jobs, done with a borrowed torch. This was probably the only hot rod with matched-grain birch floorboards, much to the chagrin of his parents.
This '30 A roadster was treated...
This '30 A roadster was treated to some race-track styling, beginning with the nose. Two '39 Ford fenders were used to build the piece. Dean also MG'd the doors for easy entry. Hanging a drive-in restaurant tray would have been tough.
One thing Dick remembers about...
One thing Dick remembers about his channeled '29 A Roadster was the may-pop tires on the front and how he lived to remember them. The chrome bumperette was off one of his dad's old race cars. The rest of the roadster is neat, too, and from an era of low-buck rods that were cool.
Right out of a Henry Gregor...
Right out of a Henry Gregor Felson novel was this chopped and channeled '32 three-window powered by a loaded-for-bear flathead nestled in those cherry framerails. The fellow behind the windowless coupe is smiling because he just bought the rod. Probably cheap, too.
Back in the '50s, you couldn't...
Back in the '50s, you couldn't own a custom shop without a customized shop truck. This is Dick's '53 Ford for his just-opened South End Kustoms in Wayandotte, Michigan.
Oh, man! A Sunday at the drags,...
Oh, man! A Sunday at the drags, circa 1957. Dick's customized '56 Chevy is about to go head-to-head with an opponent's '57 Plymouth Fury. Dick calls this his first not-flame job.
The "Gemini" was built for...
The "Gemini" was built for Gary Lee and Lee Wells. The two-seat dragster won First Place Experimental and Engine at the 1963 Winternationals. Always the tongue-in-cheek kind of guy, Dick says the extra seat was for driver training.
Rod & Custom featured the...
Rod & Custom featured the latest creation from Barris in the August '64 issue. "Surf Woodie" was built at the height of the surfing craze. The chassis was tubular, and the power was a Paxton-supercharged 289 Cobra. The autograph on the photo says volumes.
When customs started to fizzle...
When customs started to fizzle in the late '60s, designer Dick capitalized on the dune buggy fad with the "Shalako GT." The VW-powered kit car sold very well, though some road-testers couldn't quite believe at first that the "Shalako" could off-road it. Dick still has his.
Lovely Mrs. Dean poses with...
Lovely Mrs. Dean poses with the '70 follow-up to the Shalako, the "Shala-Vet." This little unit would meet California's hard-core fender law of 1971. The engine room would hold a VW engine, a pancake six Corvair, or a Ford four-cylinder. Talk about power options.
Dick, in the early '70s, was...
Dick, in the early '70s, was in charge of Mal Bricklin's effort to introduce a sports car named "The Bricklin." Even with the nice design work, the car didn't make it.
This is how the big-three...
This is how the big-three styling studios did design work in the pre-computer days. Dean loved it.
Always the innovator, Dick...
Always the innovator, Dick marketed the "Dot Rod" kit car using the chassis and power train from a Datsun. The information packet sold for $10 and gave instructions on building a glass or steel '32-'34 Ford. If it was built correctly, this is how it looked.
In 1979, a '55 Chevy Nomad...
In 1979, a '55 Chevy Nomad was turned into a clone of the "Waldorf Corvette" that inspired the Nomad in the first place. Did you get that?
One of Dick's phrases is "You...
One of Dick's phrases is "You imagine it, we'll build it." That's what happened here with the wildest wine-hauler ever constructed.
This is an interior shot of...
This is an interior shot of Dick's shop. You can see a topless Merc getting the shop specialty, a Carson-styled chopped lid.
By 1966, the car show scene...
By 1966, the car show scene was getting outrageous, along with everything else. The "Turnpike Hauler" shared floor space with the "Boothill Express," "Bathtub Car," and other oddities.
There's just no debating it: True artists recognize and are usually fans of other artists. Musicians, writers, and actors all have their idols, and so do the big-name old-time customizers. Among those unsung idols is Dick Dean, sometimes known as the most famous ghost-builder that ever lived. We'll explain that last contradictory statement later on in this story.
Hold it! What's that? Some of you in Magazine Land don't have a clue as to who Dick Dean is? Well, here's a hint. Think of television and movies and some of the weird cars you've seen on the silver screen, both big and little, over the years. Think of Batman or The Monkees, or Jurassic Park's fabulous machines. While you digest that, we'll get on with the story.
The fact that Dean became an automotive artist and a gifted designer with the keen ability to execute his ideas in metal seemed to be preordained. Dick was born in 1933 in Wayandotte, Michigan, 20 miles south of the heart of the automotive world: Detroit. It didn't hurt the design urge that his dad, Vick, owned a Nash dealership, which meant there was no shortage of cars to look at. It was body repair, or the lack of it, that provided Dick's early training.
Dean tells the story, "Dad's body men could remove and replace fenders, bumpers and anything that unbolted, but little else. He used this outside fellow, who owned a tin building with a dirt floor, to do the serious repair that called for replacing quarter-panels and lead work, and his name was Bill Hines. Bill let me hang around and watch him work, and he taught me how to work lead and do other neat custom tricks."
High-schooler Dick, already an art and drafting student at Roosevelt High, signed on at the Ford Trade School because his life's ambition was to be a model-maker for Henry's giant company. "This was an enjoyable experience for me, but the program was closed down after my first full semester. Ford was phasing out their apprenticeship program, something they would regret later." Dean goes on to add that his grades were so exemplary the school honored him and two other outstanding students with a small wall of fame, and Dick says that the recognition was a pretty big deal.
Instead of being frustrated with the Ford Trade School closure, Dick mastered pinstriping and began earning extra cash. He also started chopping tops, which very few people were doing at the time. "I had a hacksaw and Hot Rod magazine as a guide," the legend explains. "My first chop job was Teddy Z's Model A. I also learned how to cut flat glass and chopped a few '40 Fords." About this time, Dick bought a well-used $25 Hupmobile (stamped from old Cord body dies). "Bill Hines painted the car for me after I worked on the body for two years to get it just right."
Dick also acquired a '32 Ford sedan and traded the fenders to a friend named Gooch for a one-day torch rental to do a Deuce channel job. He also needed new wood for the floor, so he used some matched-grain birch cabinet doors he found sitting in the family's basement. The high-dollar custom-made doors were intended for his mother's cabinets. Obviously, she was not happy when she found out. Dick still pleads "not guilty by reason of hot rod insanity."
Any plans for an automotive future were put on hold while Dean and others worked as Uncle Sam's policemen in the Korean conflict. A cargo plane's cockpit took the place of the Hupmobile's mohaired interior for a while as Dean flew the unfriendly skies, hauling war equipment. The reward for this stint, besides becoming a pilot, was the G.I. Bill, which sent Dean off to Pasadena, California, and famous designer Strother McMinn's classroom at the Art Center College of Design. Of this experience Dick relates, "McMinn was a really cool fellow and very patient. He was such an influence on me to this day. Hey, he taught Harry Bradley how to draw cars, and look at the career he's had."
In 1954 Dick Dean married his wife, Jeanne, and was working at a "real" job at a steel mill in Michigan as a recorder until one night when a good friend was killed by a runaway ladle of molten steel. "I went home and told my wife that I was going to quit the mill job and open a custom shop, since I was working with cars on the weekends anyway. I rented this little two-stall shop and built a customized '53 Ford pickup as my rolling advertisement. South End Kustoms was a struggle to keep in business, but we held on and my luck changed. It was 1959 at the Detroit Autorama when I met George Barris.
"I built and entered an orange-and-white '57 Ford hardtop that I called 'Orange Peel.' The custom had neat little tricks that George liked, such as the stacked taillight lenses and the front grille treatment. Barris said, 'If you ever get to L.A., I'll give you a job.' This was February. We were in L.A. in April, and true to his word, George gave me a job at $175 a week, and there was plenty of work to do."
Here Dean began his "ghostbuilder" period, working on some of the best customs ever to roll out of the Barris shop, including the "Ala Kart," "Golden Sahara," and the "Barris Air Car." Dick also likes to point out, "People forget we also built some nice cars that never became famous in that time period."
Dick left the Barris employ for nearly three years to build a five-seat Mercedes-Benz-styled Studebaker for Jack Ryan. The salary was enormous, and the design work was done by none other than Strother McMinn, Dick's former professor. Clearly, Dick had made a name for himself, if not with the show-going magazine-buying public, then with his peers in the custom car world. A case-in-point was when Dean Jeffries suggested that Dick should join forces with him to see what would happen. What happened was the "Manta Ray," "Monkee Mobile" and "Green Hornet Car," as well as many other cars for television. The collaboration lasted for two years, and at the end Dean went to work for Barris again and forty more cars were built. It's also of note that during the early-to-mid '60s, the original "Batmobile" was built, and it debuted along with the "Munster Koach" and "Grampa's Dragula." This trio became etched in the minds of young television viewers and their offspring, thanks to reruns.
Dick still builds projects for Barris. Some of the latest creations were for The Flintstone's film, and Dick also did the remote-control Ford Broncos for Jurassic Park. He also did the cars for the Power Rangers. When asked about Barris, Dick said, "He was a great styling influence, he paid me well, and the checks never bounced."
When customizing hit rock-bottom in the late '60s, Dean the designer capitalized on the dune buggy craze by building a GT-inspired "Shalako Buggy," which he sold in kit form or as a turnkey drive-away car. After that, Malcolm Bricklin contracted Dick to develop his far-out sports car concept into an actual driving and manufactured vehicle that, sadly, didn't find a market.
Today, Dick estimates he has chopped about 1,000 tops from straight posts to lean-back. He also specializes in '49-'51 Mercs and has done nearly 300. As a matter of fact, on any given day in Dick's San Jacinto, California, shop, there are usually several Mercs, getting whacked. Of course, that's not all he does. Not by a long shot. When he is not creating another fantastic car for a customer or for the entertainment industry, Dick is working on one or two neat rides for himself, and for his other hobby, he builds and flies radio- controlled model aircraft that are works-of-art in their own rights.
At 65 years of age, Dick doesn't plan on closing the shop soon, he's still having fun. Dick has a sense of humor and talks about hilarious and historic stories about hot rodding and customizing that would fill volumes. In short, we don't want to embarrass Dick, but he's an automotive treasure.
Other writers have dwelled on Dick's man-behind-the-scenes "ghostbuilder" persona as though he was robbed or cheated of fame and fortune. Of this Dean says, "If people want to give me credit, that's fine. But if I didn't need money to raise my family, I would have built those cars for free. That's what I enjoy."
As this story is being written, Dick Dean is preparing for a trip to Afton, Oklahoma, where he will be inducted into the Starbird Hall of Fame. He'll have a larger section of the wall this time around, compared to the one at Roosevelt High decades ago when he was an aspiring designer. This one will mean just as much, if not more. You don't get space on this Wall of Fame unless you're the customizer's customizer, and as Dick says, "I've had a hell of a lot of fun doing this kind of work." Very few people can say that.