One -- A man buys a 1933 Plymouth, intending to restore it someday, but before he gets too far with the rusted-out body or the engine, he leaves this world. The car sits in the side yard, or in the garage, or in the barn, or the driveway. Sometimes another old car lover passes by and sees it -- and buys it for himself. Sometimes a widow sells the unrestored car on eBay or in a classified ad. But this time, the man's wife takes the Plymouth to the Jimenez Bros. It will become a remembrance, a memoriam of chassis and chrome.
I went looking last week for a 1958 Apache truck, my favorite vehicle, the one I dream of buying, and everywhere I asked, at salvage yards and car shows, people mentioned the Jimenez Bros. My ex-husband said if anyone had an Apache, it would be them. As Doug and I rounded a curve near the overpass of the 215 Freeway in north Riverside, where anonymous cars flew past above us, a turquoise-hooded 1953 Chevy 3100 pickup was being backed into a driveway on a trailer.
Cain and Jobe Jimenez and their shop have been featured on the television show "Chop, Cut, Rebuild," for a 1941 Mercury on which they did the paint and bodywork and a 1969 Dodge Charger.
Right now, Moose Hutchinson, wearing a welder's helmet, his long goatee held in sections by elastic bands, slides underneath the Plymouth and keeps working on the metal and wood floor he has painstakingly fabricated because the original couldn't be salvaged.
The Jimenez Bros and their craftsmen never do anything halfway. The beginnings of the Plymouth sit outside on a trailer, next to a 1949 Ford Panel, waiting for rescue. It will take six months, at least, hours and hours of engine work and chrome, of door panels with six and seven and nine coats of paint and then sanding and then more paint, to make the Plymouth into this dream of what someone wanted.
Two -- A man stands in front of his 1939 Chevy, the one he will restore, in Riverside's Casa Blanca neighborhood. It is 1951. He's Josue "Cochi" Jimenez, Cain and Jobe's uncle. Their father, Jose "Facho" Jimenez, is 66 now. Along with another uncle, Joe "Crook" Ortega, these men were original members of Los Vagabundos, a car club in Riverside's Casa Blanca neighborhood. Cain and Jobe tell me how much they admired their father and uncles. "Los Vagabundos -- we wore their jackets around the yard when we were kids. We wanted to be like them."
One of the first cars Cain worked on, when he was just out of high school and trying to get a shop together, was a 1963 Cadillac. (How does he know the makes, models and years of all the cars? By the grilles and fins, taillights and windows. The brothers began in an 800-square-foot building, working all night painting custom flames on vehicles, trying for something bigger. Then they moved to another workplace.
During this time, Jobe told me, he was restoring my dream truck -- a 1958 Apache with a wrap-around windshield. It was black, with a green interior, and lowered so close to the road that sometimes when he drove it on the freeway, it would knock off the road reflectors. That's low. In 2000, a 17-year-old boy from Malibu High saw the truck at the Pomona Swap Meet, and begged his father to buy it. The truck would be his first vehicle since he got his license, Jobe said. The dad drove a Mercedes. The son wanted something totally different. "He was kind of invisible, he said, out there at Malibu," Jobe laughed. "That parking lot was full of Mercedes and BMWs. So the kid drives up in this truck, and suddenly he's got all the girls. He's a whole different guy."
Three -- A man buys a 1950 Mercury on eBay, has it shipped from New York to Riverside, where it sits inside the Jimenez Bros big workshop, which they opened after the sale of the Apache. Seven employees, and Cain and Jobe, will work on the Mercury. Like so many classic cars which sat outside in the Midwest or East Coast, there's a lot of rust, a lot of rebuilding. Engines, door panels -- all have their time. And in the large enclosure where painting happens, a roof glows candyflake tangerine, layer upon layer of sparkle and orange gloss.
Even in this economy, people want these cars, and they love the perfection of detail. Jobe looks around and reflects, "Some people keep their cars for collateral. You can store your money this way -- cars like this never lose their value." I see sparks flying from under the Plymouth, and men moving the Chevy truck gently off the trailer with Cain. He's right -- people who love cars, paintings, sculpture, jewels, rare books and records and musical instruments will always be willing to invest in that kind of art. These cars are investments in particular obsessions -- a way of holding value that people might want to reconsider, when stock market investors like JP Morgan Chase and others gamble and lose with other people's money, when companies "make" profit by moving figures around on computer screens. People who still make something we can drive, touch, and love -- like the Jimenez Bros and the men here, are artisans putting another coat of primer and then custom flames or candyflake on better dreams.
Previously in this Classic Car Culture series: The Old Farts Racing Team
Next and final in the Classic Car Culture series: The Apache Truck
Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.