Von Dutch in a Basement
When Michael Lightbourn agreed to look at an old hot rod buried in a garage apartment basement in El Paso, Texas, he never expected to find a work of art.
“I’ve known Gary Hawkins for years. I grew up around him with my uncles, my dad, and everybody.”
Michael knew Gary had an old ’23 T-bucket powered by a Corvette L88 big-block. He just had never seen the car. In 2011, Gary asked Michael to check out the T-bucket for the codes on the 427 to assess the engine’s value. The T, Gary assumed, was just an old kit that “wasn’t worth anything.”
Michael found the famous IT engine suffix code for a factory-issue L88, date coded December of 1967, and apparently correct for a ’68 Corvette. But more than the motor impressed him. The paint job from 1969 still looked “really nice” and featured gold leaf, cool pinstripes, a pair of holograms resembling a marijuana leaf, plus painted emblems that looked oddly familiar.
Finally, when Michael worked his way around the car to the tailgate and discovered “Von Dutch ’69” painted there, he quickly lost interest in the motor and asked Gary point blank who had painted this car.
“He told me some guy who called himself Kenny.”
Michael wondered if this Kenny could be Kenny Howard, also known as legendary painter Von Dutch. As Gary revealed facts about the summer of 1969 and Kenny’s appearance in El Paso, Michael became transfixed on the events three years shy of a half-century passed.
Dutch in El Paso
Kenny “was striping some guy’s, I think it was a race car, over here on Mesa Street at the Royal Arms Hotel,” Gary remembers. He had already been through three failed attempts for a good paint job on his ’23. So, he stopped to see what was going on.
“I asked him if he would be interested in painting a car for me.”
Kenny was interested but needed a place to stay. He was living, at that time, in “a bus of some sort.”
The Von Dutch bus, converted to rolling living quarters, is well known. Gary eventually got to go inside. He described a walkway in the center and a shop up front that included, he thinks, “a mill, all kinds of painting apparatus, buckets of paint, brushes, and whatnot.” In the rear of the interior was a bed. On the back of the bus was a motorcycle, probably of German origin.
So yes, this Kenny was definitely Von Dutch, which made the pinstripes and painting on the car all the more interesting. To Michael, the car itself was a canvas for a work of art.
Gary says that Kenny “rough sanded it” and “painted it” before adding pinstripes and gold leaf.
Instead of living in the bus, Kenny accepted an invitation to stay in Gary’s garage apartment, situated in a basement, which had become something of a hangout.
Born September 7, 1929, Von Dutch would have turned 40 a month or so after he painted Gary’s T. Born in 1943, Gary was 14 years his junior. Apparently, the Hawkins’ hangout proved a fun lodging place for Kenny as well as a shop to paint.
For the summer of 1969, Hawkins had made building this car his full-time job. He worked on the T from the time he got up until the time he went to sleep, right there in that garage apartment.
Gary describes that summer as one of the best times of his life, subsisting on $200 rent paid for two separate dwellings above his head. Von Dutch painted the car and lived with Gary in this small space.
In retrospect, Gary today is a little incredulous, recalling paint overspray on the walls and fumes misting in the air of the small apartment where he and Von Dutch slept at night.
To say the two shared some party time together would be an understatement. Nightly, some 20 to 30 hot rods would be parked up and down the steeply inclined neighborhood street outside the apartment’s pair of garage doors, where young men and women gathered. Gary recalls the name of the hot rod club of that era was The Little Giants.
We ask Gary about what kind of wild things Von Dutch would do.
“He’d take his motorcycle off the back of his bus and drive out in the middle of the street and go crazy doing donuts. I guess it was a stress reliever for him.”
Another stress reliever was to go out into the street and fire his handgun into the air.
“It was an odd-shaped thing. I can’t remember the caliber,” Gary says. “It had a funny way of cocking. As I recall, the top of it would form into a V.”
This was the 1960s in El Paso, and the neighbors did not get upset or call the police. In fact, when things “really got crazy,” the people partying would run streaks of gasoline across the street and light them, so there would be a “constant fire from one end to the other,” and still no complaints.
Their favorite drink in those days was Ripple wine, which they bought in gallon containers to mix with 7-Up and ice.
Gary’s reason for contacting Michael had been to verify that the engine in the T was, in fact, an L88. If so, he planned to remove the very valuable big-block to sell and insert another engine that was “more streetable” and maybe less collectible. Then he could drive his old hot rod again.
But now another issue was much more important. The ’23 T-bucket that Gary kept telling Michael was “not worth anything” and was “just an old fiberglass kit” was far more valuable than the L88 engine.
Michael might have taken advantage of this situation by keeping quiet about the car’s heritage and making a really good buy. “I’m not like that,” Michael says. Instead, he explained to Gary that the T was a “valuable piece of artwork” painted by the late Von Dutch, a cult hero in the car hobby who passed away in 1992.
Michael began investigating the Von Dutch stripes and artwork. Of particular interest was the famous Von Dutch trademark Flying Eyeball, which Von Dutch said went back to the Egyptian culture of 5,000 years ago.
But, on this particular car the eyeball did not appear between the familiar Von Dutch wings, painted atop the radiator shell and on the cowl in front of the windshield. Gary explains why.
“Kenny first painted an eyeball with wings on it. And the eyeball looked like it was bloodshot. I just didn’t like it. I said I don’t want that. I don’t think you can see the eyeball anymore. The gold leaf is starting to flake off. He wanted to put on an eyeball. As a matter of fact, we scraped it off.”
Gary bent down close to the wings on the top of the radiator shell to try to detect any remains of the eyeball. But he could not see them.
That lack of an eyeball atop the wings “threw me off when I first saw it because everything Von Dutch does has the eyeball,” Michael says. “I recognized the wings. I just didn’t see the eyeball. And I kept going back to the signature, but this makes it more like a one-off because it doesn’t have the eyeball.”
On part of the chassis at the base of the radiator is an odd symbol in more gold leaf that Gary guesses is an “abstract finger.” Gary pointed directly above the car to the original design, formed into a three-dimensional shape out of a wire coat hanger in 1969 and still hanging in place.
Gary explains how he had to argue with Kenny to add this symbol. Von Dutch didn’t want to add it, but he finally did. He was very much opposed to it.
Just opposite the 10-inch-wide slicks—the widest available at the time—on either side of the body are what Michael describes as hologram images, in bright pink, of a marijuana leaf.
Von Dutch added his name and the year, ’69, to the top rear of the body on the tailgate. Gary explained he had two different tailgates for preservation of the Von Dutch logo.
The garage apartment hid another treasure, a sign Von Dutch painted for Gary to display with the ’23 T-Bucket at car shows. Gary wishes he had taken better care of the sign, which shows the effects of exposure to the weather.
We looked at the area of this garage apartment where Von Dutch spent several weeks and found a half dozen photo albums. The beds were gone for sleeping, but many of the remnants of Gary’s summer college days remain.
Of considerable interest is the tiny office area with bookshelves and walls that could be preserved for a museum to recall the college student lifestyle of the ’60s. The place almost looks like Gary walked away one day and left the car and his summer of ’69 behind, but one to which he could return through the years.
In one photo album we found a damaged print of Von Dutch standing beside the ’23 T-bucket. Visible in the background was the shelf above the workbench. And on that workbench we could see today, in 2016, many of the same items, left undisturbed, that we could see in the 1969 print.
Looking at this photo of Von Dutch and the ’23 T-bucket is enough to give anybody an eerie feeling. Maybe if Von Dutch could have added the eyeball, like he wanted, the job would have been complete. The car could have moved on, been sold. Maybe Gary could have let go.
Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Gary put the T-bucket up for sale. But he backed down when he found out the buyer was solely interested in the L88. And now, in 2016, Gary has finally discovered, through his friend Michael Lightbourn, the identity of Kenny Howard, whose work is now considered art.
Gary is thinking about selling the garage apartment. Then, what would happen to the ’23 T-bucket? Where would it go?
“The flying eyeball in the sky knows all and sees all.”
Before Dutch Came to Town