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Remembering hot rod evangelist Pete Chapouris

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Pete Chapouris. Image courtesy of SoCal Speed Shop.

Who knows how life might have turned out for Pete Chapouris had his chopped and flamed ’34 Ford coupe not graced the cover of the November 1973 issue of Rod & Custom magazine, alongside a yellow coupe owned by Jim “Jake” Jacobs? Might there have been no Pete & Jakes Hot Rod Repair, no Street Rod Equipment Association, no Pete Chapouris Group, and no revival of the SoCal Speed Shop? For over four decades, Chapouris proved to be a guiding light to hot rodders the world over, and on January 6, Chapouris died of complications from a stroke, age 76.

Like many growing up in Southern California in the 1950s, Chapouris was drawn to the hot rod scene. It’s said he built his first car (a ’32 roadster, later fitted with a Model A coupe body) in 1955, at the age of about 15. It wouldn’t be the last, though his job at the Clayton Manufacturing Company (a dynamometer manufacturer that also employed his mother, Doris, and his father, Peter) limited the time he could devote to building cars.

Chapouris went to night school to learn welding, and soon took a part-time job building dragster frames with M&S Welding. In 1971 he left a steady job at Clayton Manufacturing to work at Blair’s Speed Shop, and about the same time began working on the ’34 coupe that would later appear on the cover of Rod & Custom. As Goodguys relates, it was the magazine’s Gray Baskerville who introduced Chapouris and Jacobs, as both were working on custom coupes with a similar build theme. By the time the “Are Coupes for Chickens” issue hit newsstands, Pete and Jake were friends who believed the hot rod market was healthy enough to support a new business startup.

Pete & Jake’s Hot Rods opened in Temple City, California, in 1974. Around the same time, the magazine cover was paying additional dividends, landing Chapouris’s coupe a leading role in the 1974 television movie The California Kid (starring a very young Martin Sheen). The movie not only increased business at the shop, it also lent its name to the flamed Ford, which (somewhat ironically) soon became better known than the film itself.

At a time when hot rods were being built with modern suspensions for convenience and expediency, Pete & Jake’s took a different design approach, preferring instead to improve on Henry Ford’s original parts. Though hot rods of both philosophies grace cruise-ins today, it’s no exaggeration to say that parts developed by the business helped to prove the validity and performance of more traditional builds, perhaps preserving the species.

In 1987, Pete & Jake’s was sold to new owners, and Chapouris joined the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) as its vice president of marketing. The move seemed to be a good fit, as Chapouris played a role in the creation of the Street Rod Equipment Association, a group that would later become the Street Rod Market Alliance and later still, the Hot Rod Industry Alliance, today a dedicated SEMA council.

Three years later, he was once again on to new things, this time building custom cars and bikes with friends Bob Bauder and Pete Eastwood. In 1995, perhaps sensing a change in the market, Chapouris started the Pete Chapouris Group (abbreviated as PC3g) with the goal of building and restoring world-class hot rods. Among the shop’s clients was Bruce Meyer, and the restoration of his Pierson brothers’ coupe ultimately led to another project: bringing the iconic So-Cal Speed Shop belly tank lakester back to life.

In 1997, Chapouris approached So-Cal Speed Shop owner Alex Xydias with the crazy, brilliant idea of licensing the So-Cal Speed Shop name, and almost immediately the venture proved to be a success. Beginning with a single location in Pomona, California, the business rapidly expanded to include eight retail stores, selling everything from hot rod parts to T-shirts and other apparel. The deal even resulted in a contract to build four land speed cars to showcase the products of GM performance, a project that set records and saw the return of the familiar maroon-and-white So-Cal Speed Shop livery to Bonneville.

As for accolades, it may be easier to name the halls of fame that Chapouris isn’t a member of than to give a full accounting of his achievements. Suffice it to say that if there’s an institution relating to hot rods, custom cars and cruising, chances are good that Chapouris is enshrined in its hall of honor. The same can be said for SEMA, which recognized his accomplishments in the industry by inducting him into its own hall of fame in 1999.

Pete Chapouris leaves behind a wife, Carol, a daughter, Nicole, and a son, Peter, but he also leaves a legacy in the hot rod community that ensures that his name, his passion and his talents won’t soon be forgotten.