Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Father's Day Letter To Claude Hampson

Click on photo to enlarge - photo credit unknown
It was a much different world back in 1960!
For me, it was a world of cars, girls, & AM Radio, in that order, and I was working at my stepdad's autobody shop after school, on Saturdays, and during summer vacation.
This was no ordinary body & fender joint, and dad was no Bondo© hack! He was a master metalcrafter, among many other things, and worked specifically on imports, which were still rare in those days, and mostly owned by car enthusiast perfectionists who doted & fussed over their beloved machines.
The shop was always full of pretty sports cars, like MGs, Triumphs, Austin Healys, Alpha Romeos, Porsches, and Jaguars.
And, very often with outrageously expensive exotics too, from gull-wing Mercedes 300 SLs, to Ferraris, Bugattis, Aston Martins, Alpha Bats, Facel Vegas, Lamborghinis. or AC Ace/Bristols (before Carroll Shelby modified those same chassis & bodies to accomodate Ford V-8s and created the original Shelby Cobras)
And there were some Volkswagens too, and VW Karmann Ghias, and Renaults, Peugeots, Citroens, Borgwards, Vauxhalls and such.
But the cars I loved the most were the ones my stepfather built himself, like the Formula III car, Andrea, (named after the owner's daughter), which he designed & built, from the ground up, in the late '50s for Chuck Nerpel, editor of Motor Trend Magazine, and, especially, the 1927 Model T Ford Track Roadster he built for his friend Jack Thompson in the mid-fifties.
I still loved cars in those good old days---before we knew about global warming, and before I could look back upon a half century of the horrific consequences resulting from freeways, urban sprawl, overpopulation, pollution & industrialization---and long before my brilliant stepdad was stricken with mind-erasing Alzheimers.
My dad doesn't know me anymore and he lives in a care facility close to my mom's place in Utah.
For Father's Day, they asked the sons & daughters of the male residents there to send letters and pictures to be shared with the group as they assembled our Dads, and the family & friends who could attend, for a celebration this weekend.
Dad probably didn't understand a word of my letter, or even look at the pictures, but my mom said there wasn't a dry eye among the staff and visitors as the letter was read.
When my stepdad began to lose his faculties, he and I had been good buddies for many years, and I'm very thankful for that because there was a time when we wouldn't even speak to each other.
In my later teens, we had a few very tough years, as sons & fathers often do, and I was a wild one, an angry delinquent from a broken family. So we had a blowout!
Too rebellious to follow rules, I ended up living on the streets for quite some time.
I had nowhere else to go because my real father, a diabetic (and a very talented guy too, by the way), drank himself to death a few years after my mom divorced him.
My stepdad had some rough edges too, and didn't adjust very smoothly to becoming the instant father to four rowdy kids. But we got through those years, and, after I grew up a little, became very close friends again.
We're all human, we all make mistakes, and forgiveness may be the most important ingredient of love.
I've posted my Father's Day Letter* below.
But dad doesn't grasp what the words are about anymore, even though I purposely included many names, places, objects and events that should trigger his memory.
Still, it's Father's Day, and I'd like someone, anyone, to know how I feel about my dad.
Dear Claude,

I’m writing to wish you a very Happy Father’s Day and to say that I love you. I would also like to try and express how much I appreciate the great influence you’ve had on my life.
I am now 61 years old and you’ve been the only father I’ve known for 47 years.

You married my mother, Lois, when I was 14 years old, taking me under your wing and giving me a job at your business, Claude’s Body Shop, in Reseda, California.

In those years you were well-known and respected as one of the finest metal-workers, welders, tool & die makers, and auto-body craftsmen in Southern California.

Working under your example taught me to truly appreciate fine craftsmanship and the value in knowing how to do many things well.

I watched you build Formula III race cars, hot-rods and customs. I witnessed your restoration of many priceless antique classic cars, including that blue 1930s Bugatti T51A, a priceless one of a kind Alpha Bat, and a very rare Facel Vega.

Most, if not all, of the parts for those cars had to be hand-built from scratch and you always managed to do an impossibly beautiful job of it.

You were gifted with an extremely rare native genius, which, combined with your uncommon talents for artistic craftsmanship, innovative invention, and skilled know-how, put you in great demand in each of your fields of expertise.

Your talents seemed easily transferable to any craft you chose to practice. I watched you build gorgeous kitchen cabinets for our house in Van Nuys and remember you taking up many forgotten or difficult arts. You could do absolutely anything that captured your interest, and your interests seemed boundless.

You could hand paint exquisite realistic wood-grain patterns on any surface, a talent which came in quite handy for restoring the metal dashboards of antique cars which were often painted to look exactly like walnut burl or some other rare exotic wood. And I remember you painting a plain household door to look just like knotty-pine.

I remember when you got a centrifuge and took up lost-wax casting, when you found an old forge and set it up in the garage to practice hand-forging, all with superb results. You were also a master machinist, in great demand because of your unmatched skills with milling machines, lathes, and any other machinery you could get your hands on.

All the aspects of your skills and talents had a huge impact on my life. I still strive to be good at many different things, as you were, and, while I don’t have the same set of skills that you did, I'm quite artistic and productive in my own ways, through arts & crafts, photography, graphic design and such. And, to this day, I still do all the construction and repairs to our home, as you always had.

In the 1980s, I built the laundry room onto my house as a result of skills and confidence I learned from you. After I retired I rebuilt my roof to accommodate insulation, replaced all of our windows and doors, and recently installed pine-plank flooring. Now I’m preparing to remodel our kitchen and build the cabinets myself.

I do our own plumbing and remodeling, as you did, rarely hiring outside help, because, like you, I’ve learned that I can usually do a better job of it, and have the rewarding satisfaction of doing the work, being self-reliant, and saving money too.

Back the 1970s, from your example, I restored my old Datsun pick-up to mint condition, even rebuilding the engine myself.

Around that same time I took up stained-glass window making and built a bunch of nice looking windows which still grace several custom homes in Topanga Canyon.

The last window I made, in the late ‘70s, was for you and mom, for the front door of your Granada Hills house, where you saw it every day for decades, and now mom has moved it to the new house there in Elwood, Utah.

As you can see, being witness to your fine craftsmanship and working under your guidance, even for just those few short years, greatly enriched my life.

You showed me how to lay out a hood, or a body panel, and scribe it accurately for punching louvers, and how to properly prepare a car for a show-quality paint job. You taught me how to dis-assemble mangled cars and how to meticulously re-assemble them once the parts were repaired or replaced. You tried to teach me metalworking, welding, and machinist skills, even when I didn't really have an affinity for that stuff. But most importantly, you taught me to use care at every step, and to pay attention to details, and I became very good at that.
And, the fact that you trusted me to work on some of the world's rarest & most valuable cars gave me a great feeling of confidence.

Working at your shop, I developed practical and mechanical skills which have been extremely useful to me throughout my life. The education I got from you has been far more valuable than anything I learned in school, with the exception of the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, most of which mom taught me.

But still, you’ve given me so much more than all that, because you truly became my father.

You often reminded me of how important it was that I learn a trade so I could make a decent living for myself. You instilled in me a work ethic, and the desire to be responsible, which has enabled me to have a home and a family of my own for the past 28 years.

And, like most dads, you taught me how to drive a car, but not just any old car. I learned to drive in a classic red 1958 Triumph TR3 sports-car. And then, just days after I’d gotten my learner's permit, you let me drive that hand-built, now classic hot-rod around the block.

The 1927 Model “T” Ford track roadster you built for Jack Thompson in the '50s was featured on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine in August of 1958 (I sent a copy of the cover with this letter). Then, in the late ‘80s, you were consulted to assist Tri-C Engineering with part of its complete restoration, and today the car is considered one of America’s all-time classic hot-rod roadsters (I’ve enclosed some photos and stories about that too). Last I heard, the roadster was at Petersen’s Classic Car Museum in Los Angeles, but I got to drive it down old Reseda’s Canby Avenue, with you as my passenger, way back in 1961 when I was only 15 years-old. I was so nervous my clutch leg wouldn’t stop shaking. Driving that loud wild looking hot-rod is one of my all-time favorite memories.

You helped me get my first car, a 1953 Studebaker, my second car, a ’56 Chevy, and several years later, you gave me your beloved 1941 Ford pick-up, which had been given to you by your best friend Phil Freudiger (Muroc 200 MPH Club) many years before.

During my early twenties when I was on my own, after those awfully difficult teenage years, you and I became good buddies. So, the late 1960s, ‘70s, & '80s were great times for us. Remember the season’s passes we got to Busch Gardens every year, where we’d get together several times a month, with family and friends, to have an absolute blast?

We went to countless swap-meets and car shows together, to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire a couple of times, and often met for Sunday brunch, or went out to dinner or movies. You came up to Topanga Canyon and partied with my hippie friends when we had our pig or goat roasts. We went to wild counter-culture plays at the Topanga Community House.
Oh, we had such good fun then didn’t we?

I miss those days very much, when we were all so young and alive, and I wish we lived closer to each other so I could visit you more often.

Peggy and I enjoyed seeing you so much when we were there last October. We loved taking you out for that ride to see the new house and visiting with you there for part of the day. The next time we come to Utah we hope to do that again.

I’ve enclosed some pictures with this letter that I thought you might enjoy looking at: my favorite photo of you & mom, dancing in the 1980s; two pictures of your grandkids; some of Peggy & I; and one of me and my life-long friend Charlie. I also sent some photos of your now famous roadster, and a picture of that brass sun-pendant you made for me by the lost-wax casting process.

Thank you dad for all you’ve given me…

I hope you have a very nice Father’s Day.
I wish I was there with you today.
I love you very much!
Your son,

Click on photo to enlarge - photo credit unknown/owned by Tri-C Engineering
The entire nose of this beautiful track-style roadster, from the firewall forward, was hand-formed from aluminum, as was the full belly-pan. The grille, & grille bezel, were crafted from stainless steel and the matching nerf bar was fabricated from spring steel and then chrome-plated. Dad did all the work himself, before he had his own shop, including an immaculate black lacquer paint job which he sprayed, outdoors, under a giant walnut tree in his dad's front yard.
I think dad was still building aluminum Indie Car bodies for Frank Kurtis at Kurtis Kraft in Glendale when he built the roadster.
The original pin-striping was done by Jimmy Summers. Other details I remember are that the engine is a souped-up bored & stroked '48 Mercury Flathead V-8 with finned aluminum heads, a racing cam, and three Stromberg 97 two-barrel carburetors. The dashboard is engine-turned stainless, crafted by dad, with Stewart Warner gauges, and the tail-lights are '39 Ford teardrops. Custom headers route the dual exhaust pipes through a pair of hand-made surface-mounted stainless bezels, beneath twin nerf bars, on the tail of the modified 'T' bucket. The gloss black paint is contrasted with red Kelsey Hayes wire-wheels, and red leather upholstery
The roadster was completely restored some 15 years ago by Tri-C Engineering with my dad as a consultant. Dad also made some repairs to the aluminum cowl (hood) at the time. The car now looks exactly as it did nearly 50 years ago when it was featured on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine.
This is one of the first cars I ever drove.
But, in the harsh light of 21st Century realities, my love affair with the automobile is long a thing of the past. Still, I'll never forget this little beauty...
...and I'll never forget my stepfather, Claude Hampson.
*The Father's Day Letter above is slightly edited from the original, to correct grammar, smooth out a few sentences, and include a couple of overlooked details. But, it's still 99+% the original letter.
postscript - 6/21/07
There's a substantial amount of research linking aluminum with Alzheimers and I suspect that a lifetime of forming, fabricating, machining, sanding, and welding Aluminum was instrumental in my stepfather acquiring the disease.

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Blogger Tim Hodgens said...


What a wonderful gift your dad was to you, and what a wonderful gift you are to him!

May he borrow your memories to replenish his.


12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim - What a beautiful post. 'Nough said. - Kathy in Kentucky

2:38 PM  
Blogger Todd M said...

Wow. He is obviously a great man. Thanks for sharing his story.

5:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh man, I could weep, too. That was really awesome. What a couple of great men.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

What a great tribute, Jim. I had tears in my eyes. Almost makes me wish I had called my dad on Sunday...:(

7:29 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Thanks everyone-

It's heartbreaking to see someone that gifted deteriorate so rapidly.

There's a lot of research linking Aluminum with Alzheimers and I suspect that a lifetime of forming, fabricating, machining, sanding, and welding Aluminum was instrumental to him acquiring the disease.

7:31 AM  
Blogger arcolaura said...

Mmm. So glad that you can still celebrate all that he gave to you and to the world.

I have heard that there is a link between welding and Parkinson's, too. My Dad has done a lot of welding over the years, not as a career, but just keeping things working on the farm, and building, always building - a catwalk from the driveway across to the second level of the shop, a spiral staircase, a frame for a wind turbine, and so on...

Now he is helping me build a sunroom/greenhouse onto our house. The tremor in his hand used to bother me every time we went curling, but now that I see him daily, it is just part of who he is. And he works at a tremendous pace - I can't keep up! I am very grateful for his help, but even more so for the chance to work with him regularly, to learn how he tackles things, to share successes and laugh together at the setbacks. When we finish, I think I'll have to go and help him build something at home, just so I don't slip back into the old routine of being too busy with my own things to go and visit. He and Mom are only five miles away - that's a gift to cherish.

9:00 PM  
Blogger anna maria said...

That is a beautiful letter you wrote to you father, and even if his mind didn't understand it, maybe it touched his heart.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

kTo my late brother Jim, and my late stepfather Claude, I never knew about this until tonight, 5 years after the fact and a year and 1/2 after your untimely demise. That was the most beautiful letter/tribute to anyone I have ever read, you detailed his life, his accomplishments, his creative talents which seemed to be endless! Yes he was a very gifted man, as were you, you had different talents, but no less perfect in their outcome, attention to detail rubbed off on several of us. Even painting the inside or outside of our homes, I am very meticulous, and it has to be perfect...because that is the way we were raised:) Be proud of what you do...I wish I would have learned to weld, watching him laying a bead down a piece of steel was like magic, it was always perfectI am now almost 60 years old and have seen many welds and welders, but none come close to the welds I grew up watching Claude do. I know you can never read this but I am compelled to write. I remember Jack Thompsons roadster and many of the cars you mentioned in you fathers day card, I remember the smell of the shop and the one armed bandit coke machine...10Cents! I remember Red who painted for rancho motors who shared the same lot, and Bob Arambla(sp) who worked for Claude. I remember the adding machine and the sound it made LOL ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka-vooooooommmm...the vooooommm was when the lever was pulled back to add the numbers up...I remember the kitchen he built in the house in Van Nuys, Mom and I were just talking about that, seems she visited the current owners of the house and those cabinets are still there including the tile kitchen counter he put in. To summize up what I learned about our stepfather, I never saw him encounter a mechanical problem he could not resolve, if he bought something and it was broken he would fix it...if he wanted something and no one made it he would make it..I saw him expertly use that forge you mentioned, I watched him completely disassemble a 21 jewel swiss watch, clean it and reassemble it and it worked! I saw him make 2 beautiful fully functioning stanley planes 1/10th scale, I watch him build a beautiful metal sculpture in about 2 minutes!, of a ships frame, it looked like an old sunken ship! he used iron and a cutting torch!
I was not interested in most of that stuff but live at home under his roof much longer than you did and much did rub off on me as well.
I love you both, and miss you both...
Jo Anne 9/23/2012

3:04 AM  

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