Believe What You Want

The story of Von Dutch—automotive pinstriper Kenneth Howard—isn't his story at all; it's the story of us, of our faith: our willingness to believe a guy when he says he pinstriped one car for 10 days in a row; that he was the youngest German U-boat commander ever; that he crawled out of a flying saucer that crashed somewhere in the L.A. Basin. It's a story that's taken more than 60 years to tell, but you could say it's been waiting to be told since 1929, the year Howard was born; it's a saga that's been hinted at for years, relayed in dribs and drabs, but which automotive journalist Pat Ganahl is now, finally, telling us all at once, in VonDutch:TheArt,theMyth,theLegend.

People have told Von Dutch stories for years, displaying them like medals won for some feat of strength or bravery: proof that you've made contact in some small way with Los Angeles car culture's greatest, prickliest legend and lived. They usually sound like something about Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill—but given the circumstances, and hot rodders' own tendencies to dramatize, they're read into the record and taken as statements of fact.

This, after all, is a corner of the world where cars don't just run fast; they go “like Jack the Bear,” or “like a striped-ass ape”; and lo and behold, Transdapt, which made engine-to-transmission adaptors, used a striped-ass gorilla for its logo. Which came first? Can't say. Myth and reality are tied in the traps, at the end of the quarter-mile. Fiction very easily becomes fact, for sometimes scarcely anything separates one from the other. This was, and is, Von Dutch's world, his milieu, his meat. Ganahl is very probably the first person to preface anything about the man with a disclaimer, and to his credit, he uses many.

“The fact remains that we know virtually nothing about Dutch's background and development as a pinstripe artist, gunsmith or anything else,” Ganahl writes in the introduction, opening the floodgates to the yarn about V.D. pinstriping a '27 Studebaker for 10 days at the 1955 Motor Review, a car show in mid-'50s Los Angeles; the one of him being the “youngest German U-boat commander in WWII, now illegally in the United States . . .”; the one about him being the “sole surviving crew member of a flying saucer that crashed somewhere in the mountains . . .”

Some truth emerges; after presenting all versions of the truth in the first canard, Ganahl eventually decides to accept inaugural HotRodmagazine editor Wally Parks' corroboration. Elsewhere, he connects with Howard family members—some, like Von Dutch's ex-wife—to solve mysteries like the one of why Von Dutch abruptly moved to Arizona. (The story has long been that he was running out on a manslaughter charge in California, but at the last minute, Dutch's ex-wife says no—he just wanted to go somewhere, and it was either Arizona or Australia.)

The whole book is like this: unsolved mysteries of unsolved mysteries, plain truths or half-truths that we've perpetuated for decades. Ganahl comes as close as anyone ever may to debunking Von Dutch's cult of personality—in the process, revisiting virtually every kustom kulture phenom of the '50s, from Earl Bruce, whose flamed Mercedes 300SL made a stink with the sports-car set, to the self-proclaimed Crazy Arab, a pinstriper himself, to Jim Brucker, who ran the Cars of Stars and Planes of Fame museum in Buena Park. It's a virtual roadmap of an area of postwar California that no one else has drawn in such detail.

Perhaps best of all, at the end, with only Von Dutch's skill at pinstriping secure and undeniable, Ganahl writes, “Believe what you want to believe”—which is what Von Dutch wanted all along and what we want now too. It validates us and him at the same time.


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