There are those who spend top dollar on the latest in German high-performance and those who lock away exquisitely finished restorations like hardened war criminals. Brother JD, owner of El Rey’s Garage and star of Discovery Channel’s Turn and Burn, fits neither of those categories, and he couldn’t be happier.
Instead, Brother JD builds the wildest custom rides found in Venice Beach, California, with the Average Joe in mind, all while staying true to his signature hillbilly-hoodrat style.
Check out what he had to say about his impressive 1957 Pontiac Chieftain, nicknamed ‘Smokahontas.’
How did you acquire your Chieftain?
I found Smokahontas in a storage yard off an alley in the middle of Los Angeles, glass broken, tires flat, rusted out floors, and half an inch of sand covering the engine and other parts of the car. It had been sitting in the desert for years before I found it in LA.
And the name?
I came up with the name because after we got the motor runnin’, she smoked more than any other fresh start-up I’d ever seen. Sometimes the smoke will dissipate after all of the years of junk burn off…but not this time. There was some serious engine work needed. She’s an Indian, so ‘Smokahontas’ was fitting at the time. I’ve since rebuilt the original 347 V8 and now she purrs like a kitten.
What drew you to the Pontiac Chieftain when you bought it?
What drew me to the Chieftain was that it’s a 2-door hardtop no-post … my favorite. Also, it’s just like a ‘57 Chevy, only I thought a bit cooler because nobody has ‘em – just different with great bodylines. Also, many parts are shared with the ‘57 Chevy so parts and info would not be too difficult to find … hopefully.
Did you have any experiences with them in the past?
No, I never fooled around with one before. Part of the fun for me is to learn. These project cars are all different and they all have unique ways of being put together.
Can you talk us through some of your modifications?
I basically like to use original drivetrains, if possible. It saves money, time, and they are usually okay with a bit of basic mechanical love. On this one, the engine had to be pulled, so I pulled it, tore it down, inspected and rebuilt it using stock parts. The block was good, parts were good, threw in a fresh gasket set and away I went.
I rebuilt the carb, modified and installed a new ’57 Chevy gas tank…the Pontiac tank could not be found. I cut pieces of steel and welded them in after I cut out the rusted floors. I also removed the broken center section of the front bumper and installed a makeshift chain link grill – this was just an experiment. I used the stock steel wheels – painted gloss black with chrome lugs – and bought fresh wide whites for tires.
I dropped the car front and rear with lowering blocks and cut coils up front. I had dual exhaust with glass packs installed and had them exit through the rear bumper like an old T-bird. I painted the car with rattle cans, gray with a black stripe, and covered the seats with matching Mexican blankets. She’s not a show car or a trailer queen, but she is driven ‘round here all the time.
How does she drive?
She runs good – starts right up and has plenty of power. The brakes aren’t that great … drums all around … but I don’t really mind. I don’t race it. I just cruise it. No big deal to me.
Any favorite stretches of road in LA to give it the gas?
One of my favorite things to do is the alley crawl. I like to creep my rides down the alley known as “Speedway” in Venice. It runs just behind the boardwalk of the beach – she sounds nasty echoing off the walls and I get many, many thumbs up and “nice ride homie” comments as I’m rollin’. It makes me happy that others enjoy the sight of something that I’ve created that isn’t perfect – a bit crude and a bit dirty, but just the way I like it.
What would you change about Smokahontas, if anything?
I built a custom grill for it, made out of a timing chain and some valve stems that I cut and welded together. That thing has got to go at some point, I was just playing around for a different look. Eventually I will build a cool grill for it. I have it in my head but haven’t actually done it yet. The other thing … I’m gonna’ give it a proper paint job at some point. I still have to make door panels and then install a carpet and headliner. I might even get crazy and put a radio in it! I always like the sound of engines, so I thought I’d rather listen to that than a stereo.
How does the Chieftain make you feel?