- 1 Son of a sign painter
- 2 Dutch
- 3 The kid can stripe!
- 4 I DON'T STRIPE BOATS
- 5 An accident of necessity
- 6 Long straight lines
- 7 Dutched or ditched?
- 8 Barris Kustoms with a K
- 9 A multi-talent
- 10 The stolen letters
- 11 The three-eyed girlfriend
- 12 The Flying Eyeball
- 13 Eccentric
- 14 "Keith, pull it inside the shop, I have a great idea!"
- 15 The Crazy Arab's Competition Body Shop
- 16 Von Dutch and The Kid
- 17 National fame
- 18 Red red wine
- 19 "If you keep poor, the struggle is simple"
- 20 Tempe, Arizona shop
- 21 Back in LA
- 22 Suspicious mind
- 23 Coffee, beer, reefer, jazz, and a flute
- 24 Many stories
- 25 Living and working on a bus
- 26 Machinery
- 27 Beware of the dog
- 28 Antique motorcycles
- 29 Von Dutch the Artist
- 30 Recommended books about Von Dutch
- 31 Cars Painted or Pinstriped by Von Dutch
- 32 Von Dutch's personal rides
- 33 References
Son of a sign painter
Also known as Von Dutch, Dutch, or J.L. Bachs (Joe Lunch Box), Howard was born in Compton, California. His father, Wally Howard, was a sign painter, and Kenneth learned to letter and pinstripe professionally by the age of 10. He was one of the original guys that experimented with pinstriping, and he was the first to develop a distinctive style and his striping was the first modern technique to become really popular.
While attending Compton High School, Kenneth excelled in track and field, and he was referred to as "the fastes man in LA." Family members gave him the nickname "Dutch" because he was "as stubborn as a Dutchman." He added the "Von" prefix later as an artistic signature.
The kid can stripe!
Von Dutch was working at George Birop's motorcycle shop in the vicinity and had a reputation for being a good striper and painter. At the time motorcycles were about the only vehicles that had pinstriping on them. One of the bikes rebuilt by the shop needed to be restriped, Dutch's father who was a sign painter, didn't pinstripe vehicles, but he used striping brushes in his work. Kenny had seen how to use them, and he tried to stripe the vehicle. The next day, when he showed it to the guys in the shop, they couldn't believe that the Dutch kid had done it. In order to prove his skills, Kenny striped another motorcycle while they were watching.
I DON'T STRIPE BOATS
In his youth, back in the 1950s, Keith Christensen used to hang out at Von Dutch's shop, "which was a garage attached to a motorcycle shop in Compton," he told Sondre Kvipt of Kustomrama in 2020. "I started, out of first, with idle curiosity and then admiration of the works of Von Dutch. I would go over after class at high school and just "hang out."" Keith recalled that there always was something to look at on the walls or a job in progress by him. "What a world of real art. As I remember, he had a picture on the wall of a giant battleship, with a handwritten caption on it by him, saying "I DON'T STRIPE BOATS."" Back then, Von Dutch's talent and interest were mainly motorcycles, not cars. "He had small inventions sitting around that he was in progress with and they were genius in their design. I remember a motorized set of roller skates that were powered by model airplane motors and the rider had a backpack with a small battery and a fuel tank hooked to the skates. He used one axle as the drive axle, using the shaft of the airplane engine hooked to the wheel. He was mad that he couldn't solve the puzzle of two things, ONE, to be able to not go in circles, due to only one drive axle and SECOND, how to stop as he had to set the motor speed by hand before starting the engine."
An accident of necessity
Von Dutch recalled that his particular style of pinstriping sort of grew out of an accident of necessity. While he was working for George Barris and Barris Kustoms guys would bring their newly customized cars to the shop, asking George and Sam them to fix them up. An easy way to cover up sloppy bodywork was with paint.
Long straight lines
Credited for starting the abstract pinstriping craze so popular with custom cars and motorcycles, Von Dutch told Terry Cook that the hardest thing to paint was a long straight line, "which is of course true. When I asked him if it was factual that he was the first to paint flames on a car he said he first did it on motorcycles, but "Hell, the Lafayette Escadrille painted flames on their airplanes in WWI." One time he did a full flame job on a Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing coupe and he said "I thought they were goIng to lynch me for desecrating a shrine.'"
Dutched or ditched?
If you wanted your car custom-striped in Southern California back in the 1950s, you would ask for it to be "Dutched." Keith Christensen remembers that there were many days that he would arrive at the shop and Von Dutch wasn't there. "There was always a line of four or five cars waiting to be pinstriped. When we heard the roar of a motorcycle coming down the road, we would all look up in unison to see him pulling in on his 1940s Indian motorcycle. A wreck of a bike with a side shifter hooked to the gas tank and suicide clutch. He would park the bike, put the kickstand down and walk over to the door of his shop and unlock it. Totally oblivious to the customers standing there and their cars sitting in line. He would turn on the lights inside, turn on the radio, get some of his brushes out and a few cans of paint set on the bench. He would stroll around the inside of the shop, "Yawn", stretch and walk over, turn the radio off, lights off, and come out and lock the door. Everyone watching him the total time - again, ignoring everyone, he would start his bike and roar away down the highway !!"
The next day the same people would be patiently standing in front of his shop, "hoping for Von Dutch to work on their car. A couple of times, he would walk over to me and say "C'mon and we would walk over to a tiny restaurant next door and have a sandwich. All the total time the patient customers would just stand there! When the mood and the setting were right he would produce some of the greatest works," Christensen recalled. "Real Artistry in the finest!"
Barris Kustoms with a K
George Barris hired Von Dutch on a part-time basis to do paintwork for him. The first job Von Dutch did for Barris Kustoms was to paint the business sign on the outside of the building. According to himself he fooled with the spelling and came up with a "K" instead of a "C" to spell custom, and thereby establishing the Barris' phrase "Kustom Car." While still working out of his shop on 7674 Compton Avenue Barris's Custom Shop used the phrases "Kustom Automobiles" and "Kustom Auto Painting" in their advertising. So I guess this kills Von Dutch's story.
Von Dutch was a multitalented artist. In addition to pinstriping, ha was also a gunsmith, kustom painter, knife maker, sign painter, inventor, customizer, and a fine artist. Von Dutch also did a lot of special effects for movies and was a consultant for period movies because he was a gun expert. The man was a genius and could make something out of anything. He was mostly interested in motorcycles but did also customize some cars. One of the cars he restyled was based on a Cord and a Cadillac, so he named it the Cordillac. Another automotive creation by Von Dutch was his truck the Kenford.
The stolen letters
Keith Christensen remembers having a sandwich with Von Dutch when he suddenly pulls a letter out of his pocket and waved it cussing! "He said it was a letter to his girlfriend and he couldn't figure out why she hadn't got his previous letters. On the back of the envelope was the most beautiful desert scene penciled on it by him. It was so perfect! It even showed an uncanny dimension, all on the back of that small envelope. Someone at the postal service was stealing his letters for the art they had on them."
The three-eyed girlfriend
Von Dutch related a story to Christensen one time. "He said he and his girlfriend went to a party and before the party, he sat her down and made her look straight ahead and try not to blink. He proceeded to make an exact duplicate of her eye on her forehead dead center. Size, color and all including small creases. He said he got a duck-billed hat, much like they wore in the 1920s and had her put it on over the eye. Pulling it down far enough to hide that perfect, third eye! He said, "I instructed her to face people directly, don't turn, don't blink, then pull up the hat slowly." He said "Oh man" what a startling response I got from everybody!" The more they partied, the wilder the responses!"
Von Dutch claimed that he started drawing flying eyeballs at the age of 18. His sister Virginia Howard Reyes told Sondre Kvipt of Kustomrama that she was there the first time he drew it, and she could confirm that her brother drew it in 1948. Dean Jeffries on the other hand claims that he invented the trademarked Flying Eyeball in 1951. According to Dean, Kenny used to paint a third eyeball on his forehead. This gave Jeffries an idea, and in 1951 he designed a logo with an eyeball and wings that he later trademarked. The logo is known as "The Flying Eyeball". Kenny kept using it, and Jeffries never bothered to make a deal out of it. Jeffries still owned the right when he passed away, but somebody else had started making big bucks out of the design together with the Von Dutch Brand. Virginia Howard Reyes recalled tha Ed Roth created another version of "The Flying Eyeball" before Dean Jeffries. "Dean Jeffries drew one with a roller skate on it, Jeffries eyeball is his own creation and not the same as Von Dutch's, and no one is fighting over Jeffries eyeball because it never became as popular as Von Dutch," she told Kustomrama.
Von Dutch was known as an eccentric artist. In an interview with Hot Rod Magazine March 1977, he tells about a guy visiting his shop bugging him to stripe his car. He really got him mad, so he decided to give him a little surprise, as he put cobwebs and spiders all over his car. Another customer who was foolish enough to pressure Von Dutch into a quick job he didn't want to do got a striping job that wouldn't dry, as Von Dutch had mixed a lot of oil into the paint. In Hot Rod Magazine April 1989 Pat Ganahl also tells stories about a firetruck Von Dutch was hired to do traditional pinstriping on for a station in Arizona. Once completed Von Dutch had flamed the truck instead. When racers brought him grille inserts from Model A's or 32s, half the time he would stripe them upside down. Pat had also heard a story about a customer that got a car striped. When the customer got back to the shop Von Dutch had pinstriped one side of the car differently than the other. When brought the car back to Von Dutch, Von Dutch would tell him: "Who can see both sides of your car at the same time? Why should they be the same? This way, you get two different designs on your car to enjoy for the price of one." Also if somebody tried to dicker on the price, Von Dutch would raise the figure instead of lowering it.
"Keith, pull it inside the shop, I have a great idea!"
In late 1954 Keith Christensen bought his first new car, "a 1955 Buick! Polar white and beautiful dark green leather inside. I drove a 1950 Olds 88" before that. It was SUPER fast, but not enough design with all of the new cars out on the market." When Keith pulled into Dutch's shop he saw it and said "Keith, pull it inside the shop, I have a great idea!" "Not knowing what he had in mind and too scared to ask, I pulled it in. "He said those portholes on the side are super cool!" They were the first of the perfectly round portholes. I stood back and he started masking and taping down both sides. There sat my beautiful, NEW Buick, all stock, not customized, yet and at his mercy! Boy, I was scared! He got a small airbrush and proceeded to paint bright "RED" flames coming out of the portholes and running down the sides to the front doors. He was super happy! He said, "They look great. They just fit" I stood there grinning and agreeing with him. I was stunned when he said, "Hey Keith, it's on the house, I've been wanting to do one ever since I saw them." Well, I drove home and into the reality of, "what will my folks say?" I was only 17 and they had cosigned on the car. I hid it around the corner in a friend's driveway. I told my folks a fib, that it was being tuned. I finally brought it home and they were much better about it than I thought. They were so interested in my endeavors, that it was accepted. One solace was, I had started the Coachmen car club at my house a year earlier and when the members saw it they couldn't say enough good about it!! That was in 1954 and it was such a new world of customizing cars, that this just re-enforced the desire to make an outstanding car out of whatever you drove and that was just the beginning of my building that Buick into a real custom car."
Von Dutch got a little too moody and eccentric for Barris Kustoms, so he moved his operation uptown to "The Crazy Arab's" Competition Body Shop at 7201 West Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1955.
Von Dutch and The Kid
After Von Dutch moved, George Barris asked Dean Jeffries, aka "The Kid" if he would sublease a shop space in the Barris Kustoms Lynwood shop. Dean Jeffries used to hang around Von Dutch at the beginning of his career. In the book Dean Jeffries 50 Fabulous Years in Hot Rods, Racing and Film Dean admits that it was Von Dutch that learned him to pinstripe. As Dean spent a lot of time around Von Dutch, the duo became known as Von Dutch and "The Kid". Before Dean "Jeff" Jeffries rented space at the Barris Kustoms shop he was working out of George Cerny's Cerny's Custom Shop.
Red red wine
In 1956 Von Dutch pinstriped and airbrushed Bill Daniels' 1950 Oldsmobile. Bill was 18 years old when he stopped by to get the car Dutched. It featured louvers in any area available. 200 in the hood, 100 on the deck lid, and on all interior garnish moldings, and Von Dutch told him that anyone crazy enough to have louvers on the trunk deserves flames which he airbrushed. "He also individually striped each louver, and there were hundreds. He didn't want anyone watching, said to go home, come back in 8 hours and guaranteed, you will be happy," Bill told Sondre Kvipt of Kustomrama in 2020. "When I first made the appointment, he said to be sure and bring a half-gallon of red wine along with the car."
"If you keep poor, the struggle is simple"
Von Dutch said in a 1965 interview, "I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty. I don't have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I have are on my feet. I don't mess around with unnecessary stuff, so I don't need much money. I believe it's meant to be that way. There's a 'struggle' you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money it doesn't make the 'struggle' go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple."
Tempe, Arizona shop
Back in LA
Terry Cook worked at Hot Rod Magazine from 1972 to 1974. While he was working for the magazine he heard that Von Dutch was back in the LA area after "hiding out" in Arizona for years. "I sought him out as I wanted to meet the legend," Terry told Sondre Kvipt of Kustomrama in 2020. "He was an amazing, talented, funny and interesting guy. He was literally from another time, dimension, or galaxy. He was working for his long time patron Jim Brucker at Cars of the Stars in Buena Park. Dutch was a true Renaissance man who could fix or build anything out of wood, metal, glass or whatever substrate was on hand. He was a locksmith, clocksmith, gunsmith, mechanic, engraver, car and motorcycle fabricator and painter, welder, sign painter, and pinstriper all rolled into one. When I met him he was only 43, but it must have been a lot of hard years of abusing his body with alcohol and tobacco as even then he looked “old” with lots of facial wrinkles and failing eyesight."
Terry Cook recalled that Von Dutch was very suspicious of him when he first met him at his shop and later at his rented home in Buena Park. "Even after I showed him my name in the masthead of HOT ROD and showed him my driver’s license to prove my identity, he was still not convinced. He told me he had never paid income tax and I eventually surmised because he was possibly mildly paranoid schizophrenic (my own diagnosis), he feared the IRS might be looking for him. He was a modern-day hermit of sorts."
Coffee, beer, reefer, jazz, and a flute
Over time Terry Cook would visit Von Dutch periodically in his shop in Buena Park. "When he worked, he had a military-style web belt with all sorts of wrenches, tools, etc., hanging from it, so they were always handy. Because his eyesight was failing, he often wore a flip-up/down jewelers magnifying glass that positioned the lenses about 3 inches in front of his eyes when it was time for close up work. And he always seemed to wear army boots and denim bib overalls. When you looked at his engraving and pinstriping, you could see it was not as precise as it might have been in his earlier years. He would rise and set with the sun. He would drink coffee in the morning and drink Coors beer in the afternoon and smoke reefer if it was available. No drugs harder than marijuana. With the jazz radio station in the background, he would occasionally pick up his flute and play along with the radio. Not a great flutist, but better than you or me," Cook recalled.
Because he drank too much, Terry soon learned it was wise not to be around him in the later afternoon as the alcohol often made him belligerent. "I never attended them but at the annual Rat Fink Reunions with Ed Roth, Robert Williams and other Kustom Kulture artists and legends, I understood they didn't want Dutch around. The reason? In the evening he would become unruly, and he often packed a gun. He was a bad drunk. Being paranoid and a little bit nuts, I've said that "Von Dutch was not playing with a full deck, but all his cards were aces!"
According to his sister Virginia Howard Reyes most of the stories being told about Von Dutch are just stories. Some are somewhat true, but almost all of the stories on him are all different because he never gave a straight answer, and liked to play with you. When he told you something, you believed it, and he got a kick out of it. According to Virginia he never lied, he hated liars and was very honest. He wasn't eccentric as a young boy, but since he was quite different from the norm, his family always knew he had something special in him.
Living and working on a bus
After a controller from the building inspector's office started bugging Von Dutch for having antiquated machinery in his shop, he decided to move into a public transportation bus, since there is nothing in the vehicle code that says anything about how old the machinery can be.
When Brucker closed Cars of the Stars and moved all his belongings to a large fenced compound in Santa Paula, north of Santa Barbara, Dutch lived there in the small sleeping compartment in the rear of his bus. It was a 1950 GM TGH-3102, 27-foot-long, with a 270-cu.in. GMC straight-six. The front 2/3 contained his machinery, lathe, drill press, industrial compressor, and associated hardware. When he would work on a Steve McQueen movie he would park the bus on the movie set, live in it, and make whatever props were needed. The bus was restored and was later owned by Steve Kafka of Arizona.
Periodically Terry would visit Dutch in Santa Paula. "When he took me into his bus, he warned me, "Don't touch any of the machines, they're all electrified." The bus was rumored to be a trade out for a pinstriping job. Dutch hated the concept of money and preferred to trade." According to the 1977 Hot Rod Magazine article, one of the things Von Dutch enjoyed doing most was building and working on machinery. Building an engine from scratch, see it grow, have it make heat, and power, would beat Frankenstein's monster to Von Dutch.
Beware of the dog
Terry recalled that his pet, possibly half Huskie/half-wolf, was chained under the bus. "I don't know if it had a name or a gender. You always kept your distance from Dutch's pet, whatever it's name or gender. I heard a story from Dutch that some people were approaching the bus and Dutch waited until just the right moment, then warned the people not to get close to the dog. That was at the same time that the dog bolted for the strangers from under the bus. Dutch's warning shout was timed so the chain would reach full extension just as the dog just about reached the strangers. And Von Dutch would then laugh his cackle laugh."
Von Dutch the Artist
Dutch was a lot of things, but first and foremost, he was an artist. Terry Cook remembers one of his objet d'art hanging from the ceiling at Cars of the Stars was a 4 foot wide by 2 foot high sheet of clear plexiglass. "On one side he painted a cut down motorcycle. Matching up when seen from the other side there was a naked man with his arms extending forward to the front axle where the forks should be and rear legs folded to contain the rear wheels. The two images lined up precisely and the surrounding background was clear regardless of which side you viewed it from." Cook has a relative who is ingrained into the highest level fine arts museums in the USA. "I've asked her. "How come this painting is worth a fortune? I don't understand." That's all a mystery to me. But now that I think of it after seeing some of Dutch's art, I know when I see his brilliance. It's like a modern Picasso."
Recommended books about Von Dutch
- Von Dutch: The Art, the Myth, the Legend - By Pat Ganahl
- The Art of Von Dutch - By Aaron Kahan
- Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams and Others - By Ron Turner and Robert Williams
- Sundays with Von Dutch - By Tony Thacker and Richard Karl Koch
Cars Painted or Pinstriped by Von Dutch
Paul Sylva's 1927 Ford Model T Roadster
Jack Chrisman's 1929 Ford Model A Tudor
Tom Pollard's 1929 Ford Roadster
Jim Helmuth's 1932 Ford Roadster
Manuel Gonzalez's 1940 Ford Coupe
Bruce Gonzales' 1941 Willys Coupe Gasser
Buster Litton's 1949 Ford
Richard Clar's 1949 Oldsmobile Coupe
Bill Daniels' 1950 Oldsmobile
Bob Hirohata's 1951 Mercury
Philip Sauers' 1951 Mercury - Sashta
Paul Lehrbass' 1952 Pontiac Catalina
Louie Gaulrapp's 1954 Chevrolet
Spencer Murray's 1954 Chevrolet Hardtop
Harry Hanford's 1954 Lotus
Dick Jackson's 1954 Mercury Monterey
Keith Christensen's 1955 Buick
Merlin Windham's 1955 Buick - "Dragon Wagon"
Bud McNair's 1955 Chevrolet 210
Perry Gardner's 1955 Chevrolet
George Contaoi's 1955 Ford F-100
Ina Mae Overman's 1955 Ford Thunderbird
Earl Bruce's Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
El Caballo II
Bill Krause's Maserati Type 61
Paul Galloway's Dune Buggy
Von Dutch's personal rides
- RM Sotheby's - Von Dutch - Self-Portrait
- Rod & Custom April 1989
- Wikiperdia - Kenny Howard
- Keith Christensen
- Terry Cook
- Hot Rod Magazine March 1977
- Virginia Howard Reyes
- Cite error: Invalid
<ref>tag; no text was provided for refs named
- Rod & Custom February 1993
- Dean Jeffries 50 Fabulous Years in Hot Rods, Racing and Film
- Barris Kustom Techniques of the 50's Volume 4
- Barris Kustom Techniques of the 50's Volume 4
- Barris Kustom Techniques of the 50's Volume 4
- Bill Daniels
- The Rodder's Journal Number Fifteen
Did you enjoy this article?
Kustomrama is an encyclopedia dedicated to preserve, share and protect traditional hot rod and custom car history from all over the world.
- Help us keep Kustomrama and history alive. For as little as 1 USD a month you can become a monthly supporter. Click here to learn more.
- Subscribe to our free newsletter and receive regular updates and stories from Kustomrama.
- Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Click here to forward it.
Can you help us make this article better?
Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional information or photos to share about Von Dutch.
This article was made possible by:
SunTec Auto Glass - Auto Glass Services on Vintage and Classic Cars
Finding a replacement windshield, back or side glass can be a difficult task when restoring your vintage or custom classic car. It doesn't have to be though now with auto glass specialist companies like www.suntecautoglass.com. They can source OEM or OEM-equivalent glass for older makes/models; which will ensure a proper fit every time. Check them out for more details!
Do you want to see your company here? Click here for more info about how you can advertise your business on Kustomrama.