Thirty years ago, Jeff Scozzaro and his wife drove matching Porsches.
His business, an Anaheim, Calif., pinstriping shop called “Jeff’s Place,” had 20 employees and turned out custom-painted automobiles and boats to the tune of $300,000 a year.
Today, Scozzaro is just another Southern California refugee carving a niche for himself in North Idaho. His pinstriping business, called “Von Dago” after Scozzaro’s trade nickname, is gaining a colorful reputation among the region’s custom hot rod and bike enthusiasts.
And while his current environs are more modest than the L.A. story of yesteryear - past chapters include detailing Sly Stallone’s limousine, lettering Elizabeth Taylor’s yacht, and airbrushing Eddie Van Halen’s by now trademark guitar - Scozzaro says life is good.
“Now, I’m just content to make a comfortable living, working my own hours,” said Scozzaro, stretching out two ornately-tattooed arms rivaled in Byzantine detail only by the designs he still paints on cars, boats, motorcycles, and other antiques. “We’re not into that pretentious game anymore.”
Which isn’t to say Scozzaro is any shorter on flamboyant persona. He remains a man whose brashness would seem more appropriate somewhere else than in the business world.
Here’s a sampling, from a recent interview at his Government Way shop:
“A guy wanted me to come out and take a look at his car. He doesn’t live a mile away. I told him he could bring his car down here if he wanted me to look at it.”
“I’m not going to do a sketch for customers. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I know what’s going to look good.”
“A lot of people call and the first thing they ask is, ‘How much is it going to cost?’ I don’t have a sign that says ‘Price Club’ over the door.”
In the pinstriping business, it isn’t necessarily the social niceties that sell. It’s reputation, macho, bravado. Scozzaro was the 38th person to be inducted into the “Pinstripers Hall of Fame” in 1996.
“He’s certainly open to what the customer wants, but when his name is on the line, he doesn’t want to do something that isn’t representative of his style” said Craig Hoelzel, in charge of marketing for John Force, the 5-time NHRA Funny Car champion. “Some people take that as being rude, but the guy’s as up front as you can be.”
Back in the early 1970s, when Force was still a relative unknown in the racing world, Scozzaro did detailing work on his cars.
“I know people who will fly Jeff in because they want to keep his name on their car,” Hoelzel said. “When he was down here in Southern California, his work was identified because it was so pristine. There are a lot of crazy pinstripers, but Jeff has a style all his own.”
Out of California’s busy market, Scozzaro’s workload remains steady. During the summer, there is a 3 to 4 week wait on pinstriping jobs. Scozzaro has been forced to scale back the sign-painting portion of his business, which now occupies only about 10 percent of his time.
Scozzaro took on the Von Dago nickname only recently, from the man who pioneered automobile pinstriping in the ‘40s and died in 1992.
Kenneth “Von Dutch” Howard was a hardcore California motorcycle enthusiast who reoriented the world of decorating cars and bikes - at the same time he alienated nearly every friend he had with his oddball quirks and drinking.
This isn’t a case of parallel lives. Unlike Von Dutch, Scozzaro said he isn’t a drinker. He’s a family man. But he readily admits to a few quirks.
“My friends used to call me the “Crazy Dago,” because of my Italian heritage,” he said. “Then it was the “Dalton Dago,” because I live in Dalton Gardens. Then somebody suggested “Von Dago.” Hot rodders kind of expect you to have a nickname.”
Forty-five magazine covers featuring three decades in the business are framed on the shop’s back wall - with pictures of everything from funny cars Scozzaro did for Don Prudhomme to a pin-striped naked woman reclining next to a Harley-Davidson for the title side of a 1976 “Chopper” magazine.
You can’t learn pinstriping just anywhere, Scozzaro said, explaining that most people get into the business by apprenticing like he did, back in the late-1960s. Then, an old Southern California master named Ron Lester took him under his wing.
“This is a testament not only to myself, but to the pinstripers before me,” he said, tracing flames on his own 1938 Ford in his Coeur d’Alene shop. “When my trade dies out - and it is dying - somebody could take a look at that and say, ‘Wow, this thing was handpainted.’ That really tickles me, that something I’ve done will be around long after I’m gone.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo