Pete Chapouris was quite possibly one of the most influential hot rod builders of the post-World War II era.
Chapouris got his start in hot rodding from his father, an Edison employee who installed power lines between Los Angeles and Boulder Dam. Pete's father earned enough money to begin fixing up his cars as well as building some hot rods. His first rod was a Model A as would be his son’s.
Chapouris got his break in the industry through his friend Gray Baskerville at HOT ROD Magazine. Gray introduced Pete to Jim ‘Jake’ Jacobs as they were both bucking the resto-rod style that was popular at the time. Gray put what became ‘The California Kid’ and Jake’s Coupe on the cover of the November 1973 issue of Rod & Custom and, suddenly, Pete and Jake were in business. Soon thereafter, they got a call from Batman producer Howie Horowitz looking for a car for his TV movie ‘The California Kid.’ The show put Pete's coupe in households all across America and ultimately inspired Cal’ Kid clones to be built all around the world.
Hot rod trends seem to shift every ten years. A decade after The California Kid, Pete & Jake’s launched the ‘Fat Attack’ with Pete’s purple flamed ’39 Ford convertible. Hot rodding the post-WW II, so-called, ‘fat fendered’ car, was nothing new but Chapouris’s marketing strategy once again jump-started the industry.
In 1986, Pete & Jake’s was sold and Chapouris went to work at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) as VP marketing. He brought personality, pizzazz and more importantly enthusiasm and passion for hot rods of all kinds. He helped initiate programs that are still in place today. He was inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame in 1999.
From SEMA it was ‘up the hill’ to Crestline, California, where he built a huge shop that turned out numerous significant hot rods including Limefire, the restoration of the Pierson Brother’s Coupe and the Doane Spencer Roadster, HogZZilla for Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top and, fortuitously, the So-Cal Belly Tank Lakester for collector Bruce Meyer.
Being so far removed from the action didn’t work for Pete and in 1995 he moved back to Los Angeles and opened PC3g in Pomona. It was a struggle, even to pronounce, and Pete didn’t know what to do. Then, one night, an epiphany—resurrect the So-Cal Speed Shop name and brand. He made the call to So-Cal founder Alex Xydias who had been canny enough to protect the name since closing shop in 1963. So, in November 1997, SO-CAL (now in caps) was back in business. This was all good timing, as the hobby was beginning to tire of Boyd Coddington’s smooth look and Pete’s New Traditionalist approach was about to became the next big thing.
Surrounded by his old cohorts, SO-CAL turned out some important and ground breaking cars: the restoration of the Bob McGee Roadster, Kopperhead for Billy Gibbons, the Duffy Livingston Eliminator restoration and, of course, the iconic red and white scalloped SO-CAL Roadster. It would be cloned around the world, just as the California Kid had been decades earlier.
Pete’s innate skill at being in the right place and doing the right thing made him a hot commodity. The first big job was a Bonneville ZT-T wagon for MG Rover. It would go on to run 225 mph and return SO-CAL to its lakes racing roots. Peter Stevens, chief designer at MG Rover and designer of the McLaren F1 said of Chapouris, “Such a fine guy, great eye for line, form and detail.”
One of Chapouris’s proudest moments came when he worked with Mark Reuss and Al Oppenheiser on the GM Bonneville program—particularly when they wanted all the cars in SO-CAL colors—as had MG. Al said, “I was lucky to be able to call Pete my friend, and thankful for every memory I had with him. Together, we set 9 World Speed records in 5 years!”
Regardless of all the project cars, Chapouris's enduring passion was to help young people find a place in life and discover their talents. In 2010 Chapouris became instrumental in the birth of the Alex Xydias Center for Automotive Arts (AXC) at Fairplex, Pomona. AXC’s goal is to help young people ( primarily high-school students ) prepare for a career in the automotive industry.
One-time SO-CAL shop manager Shane Weckerly said it best when talking of Pete Chapouris, “He took many young guys under his wing and guided them all toward greatness.”
By Tony Thacker