Dean Moon

People Culture

the eyes have it...

The entry in the Los Angeles Times on June 6th 1987 read thus:

“Dean Moon, a drag racing pioneer and speed equipment manufacturer from Whittier, died Thursday at the La Hambra Convalescent Hospital of complications of a lengthy illness. He was 60.”

It goes on to list a few of the more notable autos he built or worked on, but it seems a little lacklustre for a man who lived in a high speed dust cloud and whose trademark colour was superbright chrome yellow.

It is, of the course, the nature of the obituary to be dry and sombre. Meanwhile it’s our job to shine a light on the life – and celebrate the genius – of the man who was central to the development and spread of the hot rod ethos and still affects it nearly thirty years after his early death.

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Moon embodied custom culture’s sense of mischief.

Like so many of those that both garner success in life, and leave a lasting impression after death, Moon was multi-talented. Not just a parts man but a true man of parts. Part maker, part racer, part mechanic, part marketing man and part business brain.

Born a child of the depression he was baptised in gasoline from the start, mixing with the roughnecks and nascent hot rodders in and around The Moon Café, his father’s LA eatery. Soon out racing on those local roads himself the young Moon ran into trouble with the law. Legend has it that he is the first Hot Rodder to do hard jail time for street racing- all 4 days of it.

Immersed in this scene he soon spotted an opportunity to make it pay. Setting up shop in a garage behind his Dad’s café Dean and his brother Buzz started knocking out custom parts for the hot rod community.

The early pieces out of ‘Moon Automotive’s’ shop were an instant hit. The Moon throttle pedal, the Moon fuel tank, the Moon Disc (an aluminum wheel hub) – which apparently shifted ten thousand units in a single month – were all becoming, or to become, ubiquitous in the growing hot rod culture of the US.

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But Moon didn’t just know how to make good stuff. He knew how to sell that stuff as well. He was an expert brand builder. It seems obvious to us now in our media saturated world that the brand is king – and that brand ‘me’ is at least its queen – but back in the world of the 40s startup Dean was a visionary.

He’d intuitively understood from an early age the importance of the logo, playing with the representation of his own name in school typing classes to make what would eventually become the best known logo in custom culture. He knew that a product could be distinguished just by the way it was presented to the world.

He cannily added to his marketing prowess by skilling up as a photographer during his military service. He could now write and sell quality photojournalism to the growing stable of auto mags emerging across America, often featuring his own products so Moon Automotive had no need for a PR department or a hefty Ad budget.

Moon_Eyes_Bare_Foot_Pedals-500x500 The Moon barefoot gas pedal is one of the totemic products of the culture.

By the late 1950s he’d moved out of the Moon Café garage to new premises in Santa Fe Springs. ‘Moon Automotive’ became ‘Moon Equipment’, business boomed and somewhere, somehow he met a man from Disney who turned the schoolboy typeface into the ‘Mooneyes’ logo.

And with Moon’s success those cartoon eyes became all seeing and all pervading in the world of hot rodding, drag racing and custom culture in general. But how did they end up staring out over a packed hall in a Tokyo suburb, casting their gaze over the biggest custom car and bike show on the planet?

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Moon Discs, bred for the Salt of Bonneville, can enhance almost any ride imaginable.

After Dean took his last ride out of the La Hambra Hospital in 1987 his wife kept Moon Equipment alive until she too passed away. In 1992 longtime Japanese Moon Equipment dealers, Shige Suganuma and Chico Kodama, bought the business and the new Mooneyes was born. They kept the original shop in Santa Fe Springs and opened a new one along with The Moon Café in Yokohama. The place soon became a focus for a worldwide culture.

The last line of that LA Times 1987 obituary read thus:

“No services are planned, according to the family.”

Well maybe not. But every December thousands of Dean Moon’s wider family don their Sunday best and gather in a Tokyo high temple for a service most fitting for one of their founding fathers.

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