Obituary: Dean Jeffries / Customizer of race cars, hot rods

Feb. 25, 1933 - May 5, 2013

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Dean Jeffries, a car customizer, designer and painter who was considered one of the pre-eminent artists of American race car and hot-rod culture, died May 5 at his home in North Hollywood, Calif. He was 80.

His death was announced on the website of the company he started in the 1950s and operated until recently, Dean Jeffries Automotive Styling.

Mr. Jeffries' creations were featured in magazines like Rod & Custom, in the hard-baked gloss finishes of Indianapolis 500 race cars and in dozens of movies that celebrated cars, including "Bikini Beach" (1964) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980).

He was renowned for the precision detail of his brushwork on cars driven by the racing champion A.J. Foyt and the actor Steve McQueen; for his steel and fiberglass novelty cars like the Monkeemobile, used on the 1966-68 TV sitcom "The Monkees"; and for the indestructible, supercharged stunt vehicles he designed and built for movies and TV series.

As a sideline, Mr. Jeffries also drove the stunt cars he built, developing a specialty in overturning and rolling at high speeds. He retired from stunts, but not until three years after he broke his back in 1981 while shooting a scene for the action comedy "Honky Tonk Freeway."

He recovered and was shooting "Romancing the Stone" (1984), when he re-injured himself in a stunt requiring him to drive a 5-ton truck off the edge of a ravine, steer it over a 100-foot chasm and crash-land on the other side. "That's when I decided to retire," he said on his website. "I finished -- I did the jump -- and decided it was enough."

Edward Dean Jeffries was born Feb. 25, 1933, in Lynwood, Calif., the son of Viola and Edward Jeffries. His father, a car mechanic, tried to teach him the trade. But he preferred drawing and hated the grease of mechanical work, he told Tom Cotter, author of the 2009 biography "Dean Jeffries: 50 Fabulous Years in Hot Rods, Racing & Film." Though Mr. Jeffries wanted to attend art school, his family could not afford the tuition, he told Mr. Cotter. Instead, he apprenticed throughout the 1950s with some of the custom-car artists in his neighborhood.

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