I was enjoying a warm Los Angeles Friday evening with the Odd Squad Car Club and a collection of charming chopped coupes when one of the local hotrodders mentioned that Mooneyes USA in Santa Fe Springs was having their annual open house. A busy Saturday of possibly pretentious cars and coffees and stanced late-model cars flexing was immediately cleared; Mooneyes was bucket list status and exactly my speed.
Hotrodding has a complex history full of iconic early pioneers; the grease monkeys who innovated, the arenas where they tested their machines, and the shops that built a global industry of speed parts. Time has relegated most to the history books or seen them revived into profit-hungry zombie clothing brands with mere allusions to their heritage. But as the righteous church of speed is being rebuilt by organizations like The Race of Gentlemen and new social media spreads the good word of hotrods to the uninitiated it’s important to recognize the standard-bearers who have kept the hotrod aesthetic and lifestyle alive unwaveringly through the decades. The everlasting Mooneyes is the most iconic of the old school club. You know it as the ubiquitous little yellow surprised cartoon eyes on the windows of little deuce coupes and roadsters the world over but the story of this little hotrod shop is nearly the story of hotrodding itself. Born in the hotrod heatwave of 1950s Southern California, Dean Moon’s unlikely little business venture was destined for international icon status.
I motored up to Santa Fe Springs expecting the limited parking to make a chore of the hike in to the Mooneyes shop. I was correct about the hike but wrong about it being a chore; the cars started a block from Mooneyes. Hotrods street parked on Norwalk Blvd, industrial parking lots hosted impromptu shows, and sidewalks were clogged with laid out cruisers. The kustom and lowrider clubs turned their reserved parking lots into mini festivals; boomboxes kept our footsteps light and rhythmic, every other car had a cooler of beer in the trunk, and Mexican food was prepared under pop up tents to be sold to passers by. Pedestrians wove between the glossy hunks of chrome and couldn’t help but join the party while my shutter clicked to the rhythm of the music.
The cars that came to celebrate Mooneyes were mostly stylistic with lowrider and kustoms outnumbering pure hotrods. But Dean Moon was built for speed. At first glance, an upbringing of busing and cooking for his father’s cafe doesn’t seem like the fires that would forge a hotrodder. But behind Moon’s Cafe was Moonza, a 1/5 mile kart track keeping the industrial town of Santa Fe Springs entertained and giving Dean an early taste of speed. By high school he was selling his first hotrod part, a fuel block for distributing gasoline to multiple carburetors that’s still a Mooneyes product today. World War 2 pulled Dean into the merchant marines but it was merely a distraction and he was back to hotrodding when he got home. In 1950 he purchased the 10820 S Norwalk Blvd shop and founded Mooneyes before getting called back to war, this time in Korea. He served as a photographer, giving him a skill that would be invaluable in promoting his business. When he got back he was soon selling Moon discs that claimed to be good for 7 miles per hour over 190 and spun fuel tanks in sizes just large enough for a ¼ mile of power.
On the day of the open house the speeds on Norwalk never required aerodynamic aids like moon discs (despite sporting some fresh black tire marks by the end of the day) but no cruiser worth their salt would ignore the promenade. The soundtrack of the boulevard was open headers, exhaust pipes scraping, and the occasional tire chirp. The nucleus of all the activity was the original Mooneyes shop, the very building Dean Moon purchased back in the heyday. The cars pulling in and out of the shop’s parking lot were some of the choicest hotrods in the area, both fresh builds and vintage survivors. Eye-catching yellow was splashed everywhere and a thousand Disney-shaped eyes gazed from every wall and surface.
Those same walls hosted some auspicious hotrod history. Carroll Shelby called his friend Dean for some shop space to install a Ford V8 in the very first AC Cobra. Around the same time Mooneyes purchased his friend Chuck Potvin’s business making superchargers, camshafts, and ignition parts. Many of those parts wound up on the Mooneyes sponsored dragsters and dry lakes racers wearing bright yellow paint. Dean had an eye for branding and a mind for PR, using his iconic livery and photography skills to make his cars a staple at races and his catalogs indispensable to a hotrod builder.
Hotrod parts are still made at Norwalk Ave but the business has evolved to survive. Dean’s death in 1987 echoed the changing landscape of car culture. Mooneyes was in jeopardy for a brief time before gaining new life with an international flavor. Shige Suganama was a longtime Mooneyes distributor in Japan, good friend of the Moons, and clearly had a deep love for the brand because he bought it and revived it as Mooneyes USA. Hotrod component manufacturing continued as per tradition but the public relations side of the business was due for a makeover. The new owners have pumped vitality into the brand with new apparel and merchandise, international locations across Southeast Asia and the world, and the incredible Mooneyes show in Yokohama, Japan.
With this international connection the chatter around Mooneyes headquarters isn’t what you would expect from most hotrod shows in America. Enthusiasts discussed the finer points of carburetion and superchargers in Japanese, Los Angeles Spanglish, and American English to the tunes of Rockabilly music and throaty flatheads V8s. Some were lifetime Angelinos driving their hotrods to an old local haunt while some had jetsetted across the Pacific in a pilgrimage to the birthplace of their passion. All spoke the same language with different words.
The beginning of Mooneyes is a tale that could only be told in the small geographical nucleus of Southern California; the crowds of innovators, racers, and engineers overlapping and interacting in the greater Los Angeles area. But now the brand represents the universality of hotrodding; the Indonesian choppers that could make a Hell’s Angel swoon, the Japanese lowriders that would own Whittier Boulevard if they could make the trip, and the Scandinavian muscle cars tearing up the few European drag strips. The Mooneyes Open House celebrated over 60 years of operation in Santa Fe Springs with both local flavor and international flair.