Driven To Perfection
● By Sandie Tillery
story: Sandie Tillery photo: DevenCarter.com
DARRYL KUNI AND JESSE DENTON - TWO GENERATIONS OF CAR BUILDING It’s more than a hobby. It’s really a subculture with a language all its own. They call themselves “car guys.”
Darryl Kuni got excited as a young man about street rods at the 1962 Oakland Roadster Show. He dreamed of one day building a car that would qualify for entry. In January, 47 years later, he not only entered but took first place at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona with his “radical built” ’37 Chevy Coup street rod dubbed “The Kunster.”
Jesse Denton, two generations removed from Kuni, grew up admiring classic cars with his father Steve on their annual trips to Reno’s Hot August Nights. This year, Denton finished building a ’69 Camaro muscle car in honor of his dad who passed away in January 2008. It was a labor of love and a passion inherited from both of his parents whom he says were “into anything fast.”
It’s a journey both men say has only just begun. As all “car guys” (and gals) know, “one thing leads to another.” Both men often find themselves working with other “car guys,” sharing skills and expertise, advising and receiving advice, and telling car tales. It’s comical how the two who have only recently met, but whose paths have often crossed by way of mutual friends, get ramped up as they educate me about the whole community of car enthusiasts and the building process. “Once you get into a car,” Kuni begins”it always becomes way more than you expected,” finishes Denton. Both men are working on their next project. Each has a different dream.
Denton lives next door to me in a quiet neighborhood where older homes with beautiful canopies of mature landscaping meander uphill to share the lane with sun-drenched newer homes. He grew up down the street, where his mother still lives. A bit of a rebel, he works on his ’56 Bel Air hot rod in his driveway where we often hear him power-sanding the body held up by a hand-built automotive rotisserie. “When you get down to the bare metal you start getting emotional about it,” says Denton. We may be among the few neighbors who celebrate his latest modifications.
Performance or drivability? That is the challenge for those in love with muscle cars. Denton has set his goal to create a street car that exceeds 1000 horse power and still be “streetable.” He spends a lot of time researching on the Internet, goes to swap meets and speed shops, pores over magazines and talks with fabricators. He says he struggles to keep the car workable in every way but faces four obstacles: compromise, time, money and stylizing. He custom built his Camaro’s pump gas, AFR headed, dart 565 ci, supercharged big block, estimated to be between 1000 and 1300 horse power.
He is not particularly interested in entering his cars in any shows, but loves the awe when his subtle outward modifications mask the “sleeper” under the hood. It’s when he fires it up and the procharger screams that heads really turn. “It’s fun to watch peoples’ jaws hit the dirt,” says Denton.
Kuni, a semi-retired contractor, works on his cars in a rented shop, his second home where wife Joan knows his head is most likely under the hood of either his ’42 or ‘56 Ford pickup. It is there that he made all the finishing touches on his first show car which I have come to learn must be admired, but not touched.
Over the years, he had to decide whether to “just keep it a dream or do it!” He did it over a seven-year period, making 126 body modifications. Truly a “show” car, the odometer registers eight-tenths of a mile. It is essentially a piece of art. Kuni’s “Kunster” was included in the top 250 cars from the last 50 years honored at Blackie Gejeian’s 50th annual Fresno Autorama in March, a tribute beyond Kuni’s wildest dreams. “It was the journey more than the end result,” says Kuni, who concedes he may not do it again. But, the gleam in his eye still reveals a simmering passion.
They may represent different generations and pursue their dreams with different goals in mind, but Kuni and Denton share a passion that only other “car” guys (and gals) can appreciate. Both claim they forget about time, about food, about other priorities when working on their cars. Neither belongs to a club, but both have developed networks with a whole community of amateur and professional car builders and customizers. Kuni meets regularly on Thursdays from 11 am to 1 pm at Pop’s Drive-In on Highway 273 to exchange information with other car builders. Denton occasionally stops by and chats with other car buffs at Gene’s Drive-In, just a mile or so north of Pop’s.
Many of us who were teens during the 1950s and 60s remember when kids hung out at the drive-in restaurants, admiring each other’s souped-up, revved-up cars while only dreaming about the future. These kids are all grown up and now are finding time to revisit the past, borrow from it and create new machines—for both of these “car guys,” it’s a dream come true.