Interview: Bill Quirk
Foreman of Victress Manufacturing and Friend of Alton Johnson
I first met Doc Boyce-Smith (Co-Founder of Victress Manufacturing where LeMans Coupe was built) when he and Hugh Jorgensen were working on the very first Victress buck. It was located in a back stall of Vic’s Gas Station on Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood. I stayed in touch with Doc after he moved his operation north to an industrial park on Sherman Way, still in North Hollywood.
It was shortly thereafter that Doc hired me, even though my only transportation was a bicycle, for 75 cents an hour. My duties were pretty much sweeping and general clean up. I remained working there while attending high school and graduated in Winter of 1956. It was an exciting time, because we were all learning about fiberglass lay-up, resins and the many chemicals and techniques we were using. We were truly on the cutting edge of a new industry. By then I had purchased transportation: a 1932
Ford Roadster Hot Rod. Merrill Powell had bought into the company and Bill Powell was hired. If I remember correctly, Bill Powell was kicked out of his home and Doc gave him a job and a place to sleep. It was a couple of years later that Alton Johnson came on the scene. Alton, who was born and raised in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in the heart of the South and the Jim
Crow era. Like most black kids, it was pretty tough growing up. Even though, Alton was a dreamer with a positive attitude. He found that he had a great talent and a love for automobiles. He extended that love and talent into design. So much so that he won a design contest with the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contest. It wasn’t long after that that he learned of Strother MacMinn’s LeMans Coupe project. One thing lead to another and Alton contacted Victress Mfg., talked to Doc about employment and his desire to build the the LeMans Coupe. It wasn’t long before Alton arrived, he was hired and his dream was in full gear.
He worked in the shop as an employee and after working hours started on his own project. His exhausting and rigorous schedule continued for months, but he didn’t let up. We were all amazed and impressed at Alton’s vast abilities and talents; he could do anything. When he completed the buck, it was an all hands on board project to build the mold. Once the fiberglass mold was complete, the fiberglass body was laid-up. It was a very exciting day when the LeMans body was removed from the mold. From there Alton built the chassis, installed running gear and engine, all within the course of a year.
In the period of time Alton and I worked at Victress, we became very close friends. We both loved jazz and would often travel over Malibu Canyon in Alton’s car to La Mur, a restaurant and bar with a wonderful black lady who played piano and sang. She had a style similar to Billie Holiday. We would go over at least once a week.
One evening when Alton was returning from Malibu with a fellow employee and friend, Eddie Matta, his brakes failed to work on a turn. Malibu Canyon Road was very mountainous with steep embankments. Alton lost control of the car and went through a chain link fence; the car being ripped in half. Fortunately, Alton and Eddie were dragged out of the car by the fence as the bulk of the vehicle went careening down the mountainside over 100 feet.
Alton’s and Eddie’s lives were spared, but not the car; it had been totaled. I went back with Alton the next day to view the remains in the bottom of the canyon from the road above, and took photos of the crash too. We agreed that he and Eddie were lucky to be alive.
Unfortunately, Victress closed its doors in 1963 and Alton and I went our separate ways. I did a short stint at Bruno’s Corvette Repair in Studio City. Roger Brunelli (Bruno) moved to a larger facility about two miles away, still on Ventura Blvd. I heard that Alton was working there and stopped by to say hi. I told him I had been married since we last saw each other and invited him out to our new apartment in Covina. He accepted and Linda made a nice big Italian dinner, but our guests never showed up. That was my last encounter with Alton Johnson. That was in 1965. My career in fiberglass had ended and I was in construction as a superintendent.