Another Great builder passes: Lil John Butera died

We offer our condolences to Lil John’s family… 
Race car and street rod builder “Lil’ John” Buttera has died. He passed away in Southern California this morning due to complications from a brain tumor. He was 68.
No matter what Buttera built, it set trends, dating back to the dragsters, funny cars and Pro Stock machines he built in the 60s and 70s. He built funny cars for the biggest names in the sport during the halcyon days of drag racing including Don Prudhomme, Don Schumacher – the list goes on and on. The race cars Buttera built represented a sea change in the 1970s Funny Car class, much in the way Kent Fuller’s “Greer, Black & Prudhomme” dragster changed the approach to dragster building in the early 1960s. Characteristics of a Buttera Funny car included simplicity, elegance in design, and a low slung wicked stance. They were also much easier to work on than earlier models. The cockpit area laid the driver’s way back in the seat, sometimes making it hard for them to see but the aerodynamic advantage outweighed any driver’s complaints. His funny cars not only looked amazing, they won championships too. He also set the standard in the NHRA Pro Stock class. The Pro Stock machine he built for longtime client Barry Setzer in the mid 1970s featured removable panels all around with a chrome molly tube chassis – a build style still implemented today. Prior to that car – Pro Stocker’s were mostly factory stock unibody machines.

Buttera turned his sights to street rods in 1974 building a 1926 Tall T Ford – the first in a long series of influential hot rods. The 26 T sedan, his white ’29 roadster, John Corno’s ’32 roadster that won the 1980 Oakland America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award, and a ’33 Willy’s model 77 for Mr. Gasket’s Joe Hrudka (wheels machined out of solid chucks of aluminum, naturally) were just some of his influential and mouth watering hot rods. His subtle craftsmanship and superior engineering skills again set his cars above all others. He is credited as being the first to whittle street rod, race car and motorcycle parts from solid chunks of billet aluminum. He also drove his rods, sometimes long distances in the 1970s and 1980s alongside his friendly rival from Northern California Andy Brizio. The late Gray Baskerville once asked Buttera how he could make a rear view mirror out of a solid block of aluminum to which Buttera tersely replied…”That’s easy – just cut away everything that doesn’t look like a rear view mirror.”

Content to let others have the spotlight and build on the platforms he pioneered in street rodding and racing, Buttera focused his attention in other avenues during the later half of the 1980s through the 1990s and into the new millennium. He designed cutting edge parts and components for many companies during this time, working with the likes of the Edelbrock Corporation, Harley Davidson, Bon Speed and others. He became well known in the custom motorcycle scene building several “smoothie” style V-Twin bikes.

In 2004, he returned to what he loved best, building street rods and driving them across country. He scratch built a little polished aluminum lakes modified roadster in his Los Alamitos, California garage and drove it to Indianapolis to the Goodguys Hot Rod Nationals in June of 2005 where he was honored as a Goodguys “Hot Rod Hero.” While not a warm and fuzzy guy at all, you could visibly see how happy that trip made him and he got a chance to hang out with many old friends along the way.

One of Buttera’s many racing peers was Tom Hanna – a talented and well respected metal fabricator and former top fuel drag racer. “Buttera’s inspiration for me was immense,” said Hanna. “This guy would take it a step beyond your wildest creative imagination. He could leave you feeling pretty inadequate. I remember going to SEMA one year and John had built a motorcycle that was on display. It blew me away. I’m not a motorcycle guy at all – but this bike left such an indelible impression on me, that years later when I built a dragster for the Reunion Cacklefests, I plagiarized the spirit of that first bike John built. He was amazing. You could conjure up your best project, execute it to perfection, then see something John built and it would make you want to throw your deal in the scrap yard. He was an absolute artist. If Kent Fuller is the Leonardo of the wheel, John may well have been the Michelangelo”

Perhaps the highlight of John’s legacy was his Indy car involvement. Hanna remembers it this way. “John had participated in one of those soap pyramid schemes that blew through drag racing and unlike most of the chumps, he got lucky and wound up with enough of a nest egg to try the Indy 500 on the cheap. Most of us would have given it up as a passing dream far beyond our reach. But not John, he was hell bent to try the impossible. With several volunteers (including Steve Leach) he picked up a used Eagle tub from Dan Gurney, built an engine with help from Bruce Crower and thrashed the thing together working around the clock in his two car garage. In the process he amazed the Gurney camp with what he had done to improve their product, qualified eighth the first time he ever set foot on Indy’s hallowed ground and all of this with a driver nobody else wanted. He so impressed the Champ Car establishment with what a bunch of broke drag racers had achieved, that he was awarded the first-ever Clint Brawner Trophy for technical achievement. That award resides today in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. Back before Indy racing was spec. series, you could actually build your own components, engines, modify the chassis and aero package. You know – be creative. Few share John’s level of pure artistic and technical creativity.”

When asked recently about Buttera’s contribution to the street rod world, STREET RODDER Magazine’s Brian Brennan simply shook his head and said, “He was the first true craftsman in the street rod industry, the pre-eminent car builder of his era, perhaps any era.”

Long divorced, never remarried, Buttera is survived by his son Chris, daughter Leigh, son in law Ronnie Capps, granddaughter Katie and grandson Max.

Photo courtesy of Brian Brennan/STREET RODDER Magazine

GoodGuys Article


Boyd Coddington: A great builder dies young

We would like to offer our condolences to the Coddington family, We are very sorry to hear of Boyd Sr.’s death.

Boyd Coddington, the hot-rod innovator whose creations won the coveted Grand National Roadster Show’s America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) trophy a record seven times, died Wednesday morning after a lengthy hospital stay. He was 63.

Coddington was raised in rural Idaho but moved to Southern California as soon as he came of age, to pursue his dream of building hot rods. He quickly earned a reputation for subtle, stylistic innovations on what had been an almost overdone theme–the ’32 Ford roadster. That branched out to ’33s, ’34s and then all manner of surprising twists on iconic themes.

Cars with names such as Boydster, Smoothster, Alumacoupe and Chezoom redefined what a rod could be. His wheels were equally well known, particularly those shaved from billet aluminum. He soon earned the nickname “Billet Boyd” for his aluminum-machining techniques.

One of his best qualities, realized at the height of his creative passion in the mid-1990s, was his ability to gather a talented team to produce the creations he envisioned.

In the early ’90s, he had assembled one of the best teams ever, including builder Lil’ John Buttera and designer Chip Foose, to produce some of the best hot rods the hobby had ever seen, raising the level of what could be expected from such a craft.

His early works were swaddled in simple, flowing lines. The Foose-designed Boydster was an early Coddington interpretation of the iconic ’32 Ford roadster, but Boyd’s take was stretched three inches, lowered and smoothed out beyond what anyone else had ever done. The subsequent Boydsters II and III carried that theme but with full, flowing fenders.

The Smoothster was a yellow, full-fendered ’37 Ford riding on Corvette mechanicals and a Corvette drivetrain.

A Corvette engine also powered Chezoom, a ’57 Chevy so heavily modified that only 10 percent of the original sheetmetal remained. While the look was unmistakably ’57 Chevy, it was unlike any ’57 ever seen, with a lowered, channeled body and a reclining cruiser elegance not normally associated with the muscle of the original.

Like Chezoom, Cadzilla was a reclined cruiser take on a more modern Cadillac. Designed by Larry Erickson and built by Boyd for ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, it is one of his most well-known creations.

Coddington experimented with aluminum in offbeat creations such as the Mitsubishi-powered Alumacoupe, the truck-based AlumaTruck and the shiny Aluma-Dub-Tub.

Coddington went through his share of troubles, including a bankruptcy in the late 1990s. He is best known outside the rodding community for his Discovery Channel show, American Hot Rod, which often showed his short-tempered side. But ultimately, his influence on hot rods and customs cannot be overstated.

“It is my firm belief that Boyd is the founding father of this street-rod movement,” said Gary Meadors of the Goodguys. “From the Boyd cars to the Boyd billet aluminum wheels . . . that whole smooth look that he brought to street rodding is what set him apart. He took our hobby to a whole other level with all the exposure he got in media outside our world. He was a forerunner, and he will be missed.”
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