Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dean Weller's amazing hand-crafted creations

Dean Weller is quite a guy. At 86-years-old, he is easily one of the most interesting people I’ve ever come across while working on this blog. The things he’s doing in his Southern Johnson County, Kan., shop are nothing short of amazing.

There are so many little tangents this story can take, but let’s start with Dean himself.  Dean was a home builder with a passion for old cars. He is also an incredibly talented artist and craftsman.

And by "incredibly talented," I mean that he could probably make anything car related from scratch. Anything from the smallest piece to an entire car. Anything from a wooden wagon body to a smooth steel speedster. Seriously. Anything.

On the day I visited Dean's shop, he was hosting sort of an open house for his friends. Sitting in the corner was an unfinished Ford Model A unlike any other. The sketch on the workbench indicated that it will be a unique round trunk speedster design finished in sort of an early hot rod motif. This was Dean's latest project, and everything about it was conceived, designed, and crafted by Dean himself. He drew the sketch. He bent the metal. He engineered and built the convertible top mechanism. He is doing it all.

Dean said he builds about one car a year, and he never sells anything. So his amazing creations are parked throughout the 100-year-old former Model T dealership. Several of them are Model A-based speedsters and race car look-alikes. But he's quick to point out that they're not race cars. One of them has "Fast-4-Grandpa" painted on the side. "I don't really go for fast," Dean says. "So that's why that's on there. It's stock underneath, but fast enough for me." Oh, and Dean hand-lettered that number on there himself.

On another one, Dean decided he wanted something that looked like a Bugatti Type 35. So, of course, he made one out of a Model A. He had to set everything back on the chassis so he could get the long hood look he desired, so the A's original four-banger looks kind of small in there. But he left the Model A radiator shell and everything on there, because, as he says, he didn't want to deceive anybody.

Another Model A still carries the shape of an original 1930 roadster. But it's far from original. The entire body was recreated in ornamental wrought iron. You can see right through it to the engine or interior, because it was all hand-made. The Ford logo, and "America's Sweetheart" is scrolled throughout the design. "If you've ever worked with that, you know that when you bend it, it springs back," Dean said. "So making those shapes is really a challenge." The word 'challenge' seems like an understatement. If I hadn't seen the car, 'impossible' would seem like a better way to describe it.

One of the stars of the collection is a gleaming white 1912 Mercer. This would have been a very expensive two-seat sports car back in the day, and if you are lucky enough to find one today, it will command big dollars. It looks legit, but like most things here, all is not what it seems.  Dean built the entire car from scratch, mating it up to a 1930 Pontiac chassis. "I had never made a brass radiator shell like that before." Few have, Dean. Few have. The emblem on that hand-formed radiator says "Mercer II." "That's like 'Avanti II'," Dean states, "because I didn't want people to think I was trying to pass it off as a real Mercer." That's probably a smart strategy, because it looked dead-on to me.

Dean's collection has a couple of connections to Hollywood. Two of the vehicles were featured in the 1996 Robert Altman film Kansas City. One of them is a 1921 Model T that, as you may have guessed, Dan built the wooden body on from scratch.  Dean says they dressed him in white coveralls and told him he was a baker. "I drove by in the background, but I was so far back there I don't know if anybody really saw me."

The second vehicle that was in the Kansas City movie was a 1927 Chevrolet stake bed truck, which is now resting deep in the basement of Dean's building.  Dean says that they wanted to use the truck in the movie, but the tires were too rotten to drive it. So the movie company bought a set of tires for it, which is still wears today. "In the movie, a bunch of immigrants pile out of the back of it." Pretty cool.

Dean's other brush with fame came much earlier. In 1960, Dean and his brother built a little antique runabout novelty car to use in a local parade. Their parents owned a motel, and one of the guests happened to be Smiley Burnette, known for being Gene Autry's sidekick.  Dean says that Smiley took a liking to the little car, and asked the guys if they would build six more just like it, and travel around the country with him to give kids rides at his public appearances.

"It's not often that a real movie star asks you to do something like that for them," Dean recalls, "especially when they pay you to travel with them." The Weller Boys were up for the challenge, though, and soon they had seven little parade cars, all with the name of a different famous cowboy's horse painted on the front. Smiley kept all but one of the little cars until his death in 1967, and his widow gave Dan the chance to buy them back.  Dean is ecstatic to own the little cars today, and points out that the same air has been in the tires for 50-years.

Every car, every part, and every thing in Dean's collection has a great story. I could triple the length of this post and not even scratch the surface. 'Fascinating' seems like an overused word, but it really does apply here.

Dean doesn't particularly like pop-in visitors. It's not because he doesn't like people or isn't sociable, because he was a very forthcoming, congenial host. But visitors tend to take time away from his car building. So don't make it a point to go check the place out any old time. This is not meant as a publicity piece. It's just a story that's worth telling.

Pictures can never tell the story like Dean can, but I've put together a slideshow to at least give you an idea how great this place is.  Dean is one of those unforgettable characters that builds unforgettable vehicles. Guys like these come along once in a lifetime.


  1. Craig,

    So happy that you were able to make it
    to Deans'..........What a GREAT person !

    The only word about visiting him...........
    unforgettable !!

    Don Mayberry
    "Basehor Boys"

  2. Yeah, Don. I really enjoyed going there. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Guys like this are indeed a rarity, and a treasure. Certainly, and sadly, they're not being 'replaced' either. Also as certain is the stories/mysteries/headaches for historians in a hundred years. i can just see the 'Bring A Trailer' entry for that blue Model A/Bugatti or the Mercer II'! Great fun!

    Thanx for the post and the glimpse into this interesting man's shop.