When the name Dean Jeffries pops up in conversation, most car guys will automatically nod in agreement that, yes, this is one man who truly understands cool customs, wild flames, and precise pinstripes. After all, those were Jeffries's stocks-in-trade when he stepped forward as a major player in the custom car field back in the 1950s. His emerging presence also added credence to the phrase "Von Dutch and The Kid." Back in those days Jeffries hung out with the social-misfit Kenneth Howard, in the process learning his skills as a painter and striper. You've probably figured out by now that Jeffries was "The Kid" of the duo.
Despite his reputation as a customizer, The Kid's first love happened to be racing. In fact, racing has always been Jeffries's passion, and today he'll tell you, "Racing has been my whole life." His romance with the racetrack eventually led to the creation of the Mantaray, but before you can appreciate why he built this street-rod-cum-show-car, it's best to understand how Jeffries became hooked on racing in the first place.
Jeffries grew up in the town of Compton, California, home of many early-day hot rodders and racers. One aspiring racer who happened to live only a few houses down the block from young Jeffries was Troy Ruttman. Sharing an interest in cars, they became good friends. Ruttman, in particular, happened to be a fledging driver with a promising career. Tall and dashing, with handsome looks and lightning reflexes, Ruttman personified the typical race car driver of that time. In 1949 he landed his first ride at The Brickyard, finishing 12th in the 500 behind the wheel of the Carter Special. By 1951 he was driving for the legendary J.C. Agajanian, and together they won the greatest race of them all in 1952.
That also happened to be the year Ruttman's friend, Dean Jeffries, showed up at Indy with his box of horsehair brushes and paint bottles, ready to do work. He spent the month striping race cars and drivers' helmets, and he established a reputation among Gasoline Alley tenants when he striped the Agajanian car.
"I just worked at it night and day," recalls Jeffries about those early years at Indy. His annual pilgrimages to Indy not only helped him establish a reputation as a hot-shot striper, he also picked up a few race car-building techniques along the way. By 1960 he had become a rather proficient innovator and metalman, although to this day he says he was never truly a fabricator. Maybe history will judge differently, especially for automotive historians who use Mantaray when gauging Jeffries's talents.
But when Jeffries built the Mantaray in 1963, he didn't care about what history held in store for him or his single-seat creation. Instead, he had his eye on the grand prize that Oakland Roadster Show promoter Al Slonaker had posted in the form of the Tournament of Fame. As the name indicates, this was a special competition, open to only a select number of pro-builders. It would be akin to inviting only guys like Boyd Coddington, Roy Brizio, and Ed Pratt to compete for a special prize today. Bill Cushenbery won the first Tournament of Fame, taking home the gold with his bubbletop Silhouette. For his efforts he earned a trip to Europe, a large cash prize, and a free automobile.
The tournament appealed to Jeffries, and he became an entrant for 1964. The car that he planned to build would showcase the talents that he had acquired during the years as a custom car builder, painter, and Gasoline Alley refugee every May at Indianapolis.
Let's freeze-frame our story for a moment to point out another interesting chapter in Jeffries's career as a car builder. In 1962 he went to work for Carroll Shelby who, at that time, possessed only the idea for the soon-to-be Cobra sports car. Shelby's plan was to take a lightweight two-seat sports car, wedge a brutish American-made V-8 engine under its hood, and go racing. Originally, Shelby ventured to Chevrolet with his proposal, but the Bow Tie boys cordially showed him to the door; as it turned out, they were building a hot-shot version of the new Corvette Sting Ray, called the Z06 racer.
So Shelby did what any enterprising young American would do--he went to the next door on the block, which happened to be Ford Motor Company, and gave the same sales pitch. At the time Ford didn't have anything like the Sting Ray in the works, so they obliged with a couple of small-block V-8 motors for Shelby to play with. When he returned to his headquarters in Los Angeles, Shelby turned Jeffries loose to build the first Cobra, a car based on the aluminum-skinned AC Bristol, a British sports car that pretty much fit the parameters set by Shelby. Moreover, this project allowed Jeffries to hone his aluminum-fabricating skills that would prove invaluable a few months later when he started work on Mantaray.
Jeffries is the first to admit that he's no engineer. Given that, he wasted little time trying to concoct his own chassis for Mantaray. Instead, he dusted off a couple of old Maserati Formula 1 Grand Prix cars that he had acquired a few years earlier from his first father-in-law. Jeffries makes it clear that, contrary to what has been written in the past about his car, Mantaray's frame is not based on the fabled Maserati Birdcage, which happened to be a two-seat sports car. Mantaray is a single seater, based on a Formula 1 car of questionable 1950s vintage: "I really can't remember what year the Maseratis were built," Jeffries points out today.
In any case, he pirated the best parts from both chassis, then went to work building his entry for the 1964 Tournament of Fame. First thing he did was trash the temperamental Italian engines ("Boy, was that a big mistake! Do you realize how much those are worth today?" Jeffries will tell you now.). Naturally, the old sheetmetal was scrapped, too, as were a few other choice parts. But for the most part the frame, suspension, brakes, and steering remain Italian-made. The rest of the car, with exception of the four downdraft Weber carburetors, is true-blue American, right down to the 15-inch magnesium-cast Halibrand wheels and the bred-for-Indianapolis Goodyear Blue Streak Speedway Special tires.
No doubt, Mantaray's curvaceous lines are stunning, reflecting a true work of art. But the real beauty that any skinned-to-the-knuckles street rodder can appreciate is in how Jeffries created that body. First, know this: it took 86 individual pieces of sheet aluminum to form that luscious body, each part pounded into shape by hand. Knowing that, it's challenging to examine the 36-year-old body up close to see where the weld seams lie. Whether you have the eyes of a 62-year-old or a 26-year-old, you'll be hard pressed to see where Jeffries set the bead back in '63.
For all it's worth, the body appears to be formed from a single piece of material. Gaze at it some more and you tangle with another thought: How the heck does it come off the frame? Well, according to Jeffries, the sleek body was engineered for easy removal, and in fact body and frame spent a number of years separated when Mantaray was retired from the show circuit a few years after its conception. Recalls Jeffries, "I really didn't have any use for it (Mantaray) any more, but I didn't want to get rid of it, so I yanked the body and hung it from the ceiling, and parked the rest of the car in the corner of the shop." Fortunately for hot rod posterity he never pilfered parts from the car for other projects, so it took little work to restore Mantaray a few years ago. Essentially, Jeffries applied a new coat of pearl white, polished some odds and ends, and rolled the finished product into the Petersen Automotive Museum where the car resides today.
It's worth pointing out, too, that the body rests on a series of sub-frame attachment points strategically placed throughout the Maserati frame. "I took tricks for building an Indy car, and used them for this car," explains Jeffries.
One trick he had to learn himself was in working with plexiglass to form the bubbletop. Bubbletops were vogue among show cars back in the early 1960s, and while some builders enlisted the assistance of huge pizza ovens to mold their Plexiglas tops during that same time, Jeffries fashioned Mantaray's top the old-fashioned way. He used a tube to blow air into molten plastic, until it bubbled to the proper size. "Then I let it cool overnight, came back and cut and formed it," he tells us today. He makes it sound simple, but even Jeffries realizes that what he accomplished was pretty special when he adds, "And I only had to make one!"
When you listen to Jeffries talk matter-of-factly about how he built this car, you get the impression that he can do anything with his hands. For instance, consider the dragster steering wheel that he formed from ordinary steel stock. Jeffries gives a rather colorful and straightforward description of how he built it: "I just heated it, bent it, then had it chromed." So simple for a guy of his talents.
One thing that Jeffries couldn't do himself, though, was stitch the leather upholstery. For that he called on his good friend, Roy Gilbert, whose needle and thread later would help form the interior to many Jeffries creations, including various Hollywood cars such as the Monkeemobile and the Green Hornet's car.
But Mantaray's interior proved to be more difficult to cover with leather than it looks. The seat has multiple curves that converge into a single point, making it difficult to form a contiguous pattern. Even so, Jeffries and Gilbert succeeded in creating a cockpit that followed the car's theme, in which the entire seat cover appears to have been formed from a single piece of cowhide. Jeffries didn't have to apply as much elbow grease with the engine. It's not by chance that he selected a small-block Ford V-8 with Cobra valve covers. Remember, he was working for Shelby at the time, and as partial payment for his work on the Cobra project, Jeffries was rewarded with a complete race-ready motor and 4-speed transmission. Boasts Jeffries today, "And the motor has only a few miles on it." Think about that, all you Cobra fanatics!
Actually, the entire car appears as fresh today as when he rolled it into the Oakland show arena on February 14, 1964. Nine days later, February 23, he rolled out with the Tournament of Fame first-place prize. "I won $10,000, a trip to Europe, and a new car," recalls Jeffries, "so I guess it was worth [building] it."
Later the car appeared in the movie Beach Blanket Bingo, in which a Hollywood character dressed in a gorilla suit made his grand appearance behind the steering wheel. All monkey business aside, Mantaray was a major draw on the show car circuit during the late 1960s, and received a multi-graphic paint job at one point in its life. An air scoop was added, too, in order to give the car a fresh appearance in its waning years as a celebrity feature car.
One more thing worth noting about Mantaray. Jeffries conceived the name one day while he was holed up in his hotel room during the weekend of the Monterey Kar Kapades car show. "I was looking out the window at the ocean," recalls Jeffries, "and I saw a Manta Ray. That's when I decided on the name."
In the process he exercised a little owner's prerogative when he formed the name into a single word. Show promoters and magazine writers insisted on spelling it the proper way--Manta Ray--but Jeffries says the name should be spelled as one word. Which makes sense, because it helps maintain the purity and integrity of the design. A design that pleases the eye with its flowing, one-piece beauty, making this perhaps the first smoothie street rod ever built. Think about that while you search for the 86 individual body sections of Mantaray.
The influence of the front-engine Indianapolis 500 roadster is apparent in this photo. The
The famous Dean Jeffries crest and the Mantaray emblem are original. A little tarnished, b
A quartet of downdraft Weber carburetors are neatly stacked on the low-mileage Cobra-Ford
If you ask Jeffries today, he'll say that the bubbletops were a dumb idea. "But," he'll ad
Once the single-piece canopy was closed, Jeffries's futuristic race car assumed its clean,
The man who built Mantaray, Dean Jeffries, is still active as a custom and hot rod builder
The offset engine was one of the design features from Indy 500 racing that Jeffries enlist
The Mantaray's asymmetrical design helped give rise to a whole new look within the custom
The instrument insert is mounted to the left-hand side. Jeffries says that all the toggle
The upholstery was stitched by Roy Gilbert. It's the original leather, although it's rathe
The huge Maserati drum brakes were left in the original condition, as they were last used