Tommy The Greek’s Lasting Legacy

Remembering Hot Rodding’s Pinstriping Picasso

By Michael Dobrin   –   Photography by the Author, Courtesy of the Greg Sharp Collection, the Tyler Hoare Collection & the Bob de Bisschop Collection

“If your car wasn’t done by me, you wasn’t nothin’.” —”Tommy The Greek” Hrones

Sometime in the mid ’60s, Tommy Hrones took a call at his Oakland, California, paint shop. By then he was celebrated in motoring circles as “Tommy The Greek” and his palette of subtle and scintillating scallops, slick lines, and teardrop signatures were defining accents on hundreds of show cars, customs, street and strip hot rods.

- Advertisement -
02 A metal template from Herbie “The Line Doctor” Martinez s archives with Tommy s motifs and symbols
Herbie “The Line Doctor” Martinez of Livermore, CA, remembers as a kid watching Tommy at work in his original Oakland shop. With Tommy’s encouragement he picked up the brush himself. This metal template from the Martinez archives bears iconic Tommy’s motifs and symbols.

The caller said he was with GM Design, and they wanted Tommy to come to Detroit and discuss accents and styling.
The prankster kicked in: “Who’s calling?” “What?” “Where are you calling from?” “Hold on.” “Who’s this?”
“GM in Detroit. Detroit, Michigan. ‘’
“Detroit. Does it snow there?”
“Yes, it does.”
“I ain’t goin’.”
At times impish and impulsive, he was a deft performer who took his art in stride, living his 88-year life pretty much the way he chose.

03 Tommy with his customized ’40 Merc convertible in San Francisco around 1946 47
Sailor Tommy with his customized ’40 Merc convertible in San Francisco, circa 1946-47. Black and sleek, chopped Carson top, Appleton spots, seamless fenders, recessed plate chamber and rear taillights, this car made a stunning impression on a young and aspiring custom car builder, one Joe Bailon.

A Legacy of Automotive Artistry

“He knew who he was. He didn’t care about the press,” Tyler Hoare, Berkeley, California, artist/sculptor and custom car enthusiast who met Tommy in 1975 and actively brought him the recognition he deserved both during and after his painting career ended in 1993, says. He took Tommy to West Coast Kustoms gatherings in Paso Robles, California, and helped stage an annual luncheon gathering of Tommy’s best friends at the now-closed Pier 29 Restaurant on the Oakland Estuary.

- Advertisement -
04 Front profile of Tommy’s Merc in San Francisco 1947
Tommy’s Merc, front profile, taken in San Francisco (Life With Father film billboard indicates 1947). Early speed equipment on the Merc’s Flathead included McCollough blower and Federal-Mogul high-compression heads.

“He’s the guy,” the late Cory Greenwood noted, another leading Bay Area accent artist who studied and admired Tommy’s work. “He’s been overlooked because of Von Dutch and the Southern California scene.”

Read More: A Closer Look At Jack Chisenhall’s Champ Deuce

05 Tommy s elegant dark green custom ’41 Caddy convertible for San Francisco society restaurateurs Al and Katharine Williams
In the late ’40s, Tommy created this elegant dark green custom ’41 Caddy convertible for San Francisco society restauranteurs and show producers, Al and Katharine Williams, owners of the Papagayo Room in the Fairmont Hotel. Note the Duvall windscreen and separate passenger seating. Tommy no doubt learned bodywork at his uncle’s garage in Oakland.

But according to Hoare, Tommy was not competitive or jealous. “He knew his place amongst other artists like Von Dutch. He was close with Ed Roth.” He and the irascible Von Dutch (Kenneth Howard) once went on a curbside ’striping spree before one Oakland Roadster Show (now known as the Grand National Roadster Show).

06 Tommy s stylishly customized ’36 Ford phaeton entered in the first Oakland Roadster Show January 1950
This stylishly customized ’36 Ford phaeton was entered by “Tommy The Greek” in the first Oakland Roadster Show, January 1950, at the city’s Exhibition Hall. Tommy’s sensitivity to styling included seamless fenders, Duvall windscreen, removed door handles, and a low, dark silhouette.

Oakland California: The Birthplace of Tommy’s Legacy

- Advertisement -

By his own estimate and beginning in 1926 when he went to work in his uncle’s auto body shop in Oakland, Tommy had painted and ’striped 10,000 cars. “And in the ’30s and ’40s sometimes just a buck a car,” he added. He did race cars, five white fire engines headed for wartime Britain, airplanes, boats (including Stanley Dollar’s Skip-A-Long hydroplane), kitchens, motorcycles, helmets, commercial trucks, and several Oakland Roadster Show America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) winners.

07 Craig Clemens first car a ’36 Ford phaeton customized with Tommy the Greek’s stripes in white and light blue
From the rare monograph, “Cruizin’ in a Dream Decade/The ’50s,” art and words by Craig Clemens, son of an Oakland body and paint shop owners. “My first car was a ’36 Ford phaeton bought in 1953 for $350. Customized in about 1949 with a ’47 Ford driveline, chrome dash, ’40 Olds spade bumpers, white and blue tuck ’n’ roll, and painted Washington blue with ‘Tommy the Greek’ stripes in white and light blue.”

His apprenticeship was in the pit–literally. “We had no lifts, so we’d work all day under the car in the grease pit. It was hot and dirty in summer, cold and dirty in the winter. I started pulling and scraping wooden wheels. We’d varnish them and rub them out with pumice stone. We’d wax and polish car bodies after rubbing them out with gunny sacks.

08 Tommy s wide range of work including pedal car fire engines motorcycles boats and airplanes
Tommy did ’em all: pedal car fire engines, big white fire engines headed to Britain during the war, motorcycles, boats, and airplanes. Just one proviso: “We’ll do it Tommy’s way.”

In those days you had to do everything. My uncle wasn’t good at ’striping. He’d shake that line. I started ’striping then.”

09 Tommy applying the final accent line on Ken Fuhrman’s A V8 at the Oakland Roadster Show 1958
Applying the final accent line on Ken Fuhrman’s A-V8, which was a display buildout in the Romeo Palamides Automotive booth. Oakland Roadster Show, 1958.

The eldest of eight, Tommy was born in December 1913, in Oakland’s Emeryville district. His father, Theodore, had come from Greece to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire and later became a carpenter at the Santa Fe rail yards in nearby Richmond.

10 Tommy precisely accents each louvre on the hood of Dean Moon’s ’34 Ford coupe at the Oakland Roadster Show 1955
A study in concentration and perfection. Tommy precisely accents each louvre on the hood of Dean Moon’s ’34 Ford coupe. Oakland Roadster Show, 1955.

Tommy’s life and work would be inexorably tied to Oakland and the East Bay. Terminus of the Southern Pacific railway by the 1870s, Oakland became a powerhouse center of manufacturing, trade, and shipping. By 1930, the Oakland Chamber of Commerce tagged the city as “Detroit of the West.” Durant began Chevrolet operations in 1916, Ford assembly in Richmond in the 1920s. Dodge cars, Fageol buses, Peterbilt, Atlas Imperial Diesel Engines, White Motor Steam Car, and Hall-Scott motors were all part of a booming regional industry.

Read More: Parting Shot: Dave Bell & His Iconic Artwork

11 Tommy working on Joe Castro’s radically redone ’55 T bird “Candy Bird ” 1958
Scallops and ’stripes begin to take shape on Joe Castro’s radically redone ’55 T-bird “Candy Bird,” 1958, one of Tommy’s earliest collaborations with builder Joe Bailon.

There was plenty of work in the motor trades. Oakland’s hot rod and custom car culture flourished as the GIs came home. From the Hubbard Cams shop on Grove Street out to Hayward’s Vic Hubbard Speed and Marine (no relations) there were dozens of speed equipment suppliers. Oakland had been a center of competitive motor racing (open Sprint Cars, Roaring Roadsters, and BCRA hardtops) at circuits like Oakland Speedway and Oakland Stadium. The spotlight ramped up with incandescence in an almost-afterthought showing of contemporary hot rods and customs in the first Oakland Roadster Show, a sidebar display at the January 1950 Imported Car Show at Oakland’s Exhibition Center. Promoters Al and Mary Slonaker knew then that there really was a “There” in Oakland.

12 Sculptor Tyler Hoare with Tommy at the West Coast Kustoms events in Paso Robles
Sculptor and custom car enthusiast Tyler Hoare met Tommy in the mid ’70s and later made sure he attended the West Coast Kustoms events in Paso Robles, where, in 1998, Tommy was inducted into the event’s Hall of Fame. Hoare also helped stage the annual Tommy The Greek lunch at now-gone Pier 29 on the Oakland Estuary. Hoare, of Berkeley, is celebrated for his Snoopy/Red Baron sculptures in the tidal flats of East Bay shoreline, among other public artworks.

The Impact on the Hot Rodding Community

Tommy was There. His sleek, black ’36 Ford Phaeton was a showstopper—no running boards, no handles, seamless fenders, Duvall windshield. During the war years, Tommy built another landmark car: a ’40 Merc convertible featuring a chopped Carson top, sunken tail lights, recessed rear plate, Appleton spots, and moon disc spinners. Painter and custom stylist Joe Bailon, with whom Tommy would have a long and productive relationship, said “I was totally wiped out. That was the greatest car I’d ever seen!”

13 Tommy s flame and motion scallops on Don Ricci’s A pickup at the first Oakland Roadster Show January 1950
Tommy’s flame and motion scallops enhanced Don Ricci’s A pickup in the first Oakland Roadster Show, January 1950. The car placed Third in Originality, Street Division.

Tommy became a featured star at Oakland. In 1958, as Romeo Palamides tore down and rebuilt Ken Fuhrman’s A roadster, Tommy did the body ’striping and hood louvers. There was the brush, the car, and the lacquer—all props in the Tommy show.

And it was always quite a show.

14 Tommy adding light accent lines to Andy’s Instant T in the ’70s
Tommy added light accent lines to Andy’s Instant T in the ’70s.

Herb “The Line Doctor” Martinez of Livermore, California, remembers the theatrical flourish in Tommy’s studios. “If it wasn’t for Tommy allowing me to hang around his shop (originally at 55th and Foothill in Oakland) I’d never have continued my career. He was the master—and fast. Wham bam! He’d open a can of Veco lacquer with an ice pick, fire the pick into the wall—ping!—set up like a rocket, and ’stripe the car with the straightest lines I’d ever seen, all the while baiting and needling the customer.”

15 Lee Chappel’s Tornado streamliner at Mojave spring 1951
Lee Chappel’s Tornado streamliner at Mojave, spring 1951. At one time Tommy’s shops were close to the Chappel works on East 14th Street. There is no direct evidence that The Greek did Chappel’s streamliner, but accent details reflect his work on other race cars and hot rods in the same time period.

December 1994. Tommy is closing his shop in East Oakland. There’s one last car being masked for final spray. “Oh, hell, he can wait,” Tommy growls. His office is bare, with an unvarnished desk and a filing cabinet. He pulls out the desk drawer, spreading out dozens of snapshots—all young, very attractive women in ’40s-style Betty Grable swimsuits.

Read More: 1st NSRA Street Rod Nationals Peoria Winner & Speedway Motors Cars and Coffee

16 Tommy s work on the Hubbard B Comp flathead powered Crosley at Bonneville 1952
Since the first Oakland Roadster Show, Tommy was close to the Hubbard racing family in Oakland. Here his work graces the nose and body of the Hubbard B/Comp flathead-powered Crosley at Bonneville, 1952. Running a de-stroked motor, the car set B/Comp sedan record at 131.96 and took a second in C/Comp with a 296-inch engine. Those identified include a young Romeo Palamides (’striped shirt) and driver Richard Hubbard (rear of car).

Wistfully, he sighs. “Yeah, we had a good time in those days. Go down to Forest Pool in the Santa Cruz mountains.”

17 Tommy’s spiked flame scallops on Hubbard Racing Cams’ fuel dragster at Vaca Valley Raceway 1958
Accentuating motion and body symmetry, Tommy’s spiked flame scallops intimated speed on Hubbard Racing Cams’ fuel dragster at Vaca Valley Raceway, 1958, with Dick Hubbard driving. The DeSoto-powered slingshot was built by Jack Friedland. The car had style and balance but did not perform to class standards.

Unique Approach to Art and Life

The presence of an attractive woman would often put Tommy into motion. In an earlier interview, ’striper Greenwood recalled, “We were up at another shop. Tommy was there with his Triumph and this older man came in with a stunningly beautiful young woman. Tommy jumped right up: ‘Don’t go away. I’ll be right back!’ He tore out down the hill to the nearest flower stand, roared back to the garage, entered at high speed, lay the bike over, slid right up to the young lady, dismounted, and handed her the bouquet.”

18 Tommy s treatment on one of Romeo Palamides’ dragsters from the late ’50s early ’60s
A similar treatment on one of Romeo Palamides’ showy dragsters from the late ’50s/early ’60s.

In the ‘60s, his reputation could’ve taken him other places, but he chose to work in Oakland where he collaborated with custom car builders like Joe Bailon and a clique of innovative fabricators like Jack Hageman (“He’s the best,” Tommy said in an early interview).

19 Tommy s embellishments on Palamides’ “Untouchable” jet dragster at Fremont Dragstrip 1966
Palamides’ “Untouchable” jet dragster gave Tommy a huge canvas to apply his brilliant embellishments. The car is shown at starting apron area Fremont Dragstrip, 1966. The driver is Oakland’s Lon Gredetti, one of Palamides’ daredevil pilots who also raced speedboats.

“I did all of Dago’s jet jobs,” he said. “Dago” being Romeo Palamides, a flamboyant Oakland racer/showman who campaigned his “Untouchable” jet dragsters at California strips in the ‘60s. “Red, white, and blue, and purple and white. I also sold him a lime yellow ’41 Caddy. I made an Indycar for Jim Hurtubise, purple and silver.  I was makin’ good money—$50-$60 a car.”

20 Jim McLennan’s ’34 Ford pickup with a subtle Tommy The Greek treatment in the ’50s
Jim McLennan’s celebrated ’34 Ford pickup, a Champion Speed Shop workhorse, received a subtle, lowkey Tommy The Greek treatment in the ’50s. Note The Greek’s “J/M” flash signature on the truck’s spare tire wheel cover, left front fenderwell.

There was plenty of work for other talented Oakland painters. Red Lee was a ’striper who was a paint judge in early Oakland Roadster Shows. Leroy Suprenaut was a mainline painter for the Strehle Body Shop in Oakland but was also a ’striper with a rare skill in the application of intricate gold leaf. (His work embellishes the Victorian pumper fire engine in the History Gallery of the Oakland Museum). St. John Morton not only ’striped and painted but promoted the art of accent and embellishment.

21 The black ’32 Edelbrock Bosio Ladley Edelbrock roadster
The Edelbrock-Bosio-Ladley-Edelbrock roadster. In 1956, the black ’32 (above) bearing Tommy’s simple ’striping, won the AMBR title at the Oakland Roadster Show. Then-owner Eddie Bosio, San Francisco, is at the wheel and is joined by his sidekick, premier San Francisco engine builder Charlie Tabucchi. Bosio bought the roadster in the early ’50s from speed parts wizard Vic Edelbrock Sr. and transformed the spare and fast dry lakes racer into this street cruiser. Fast-forward almost 40 years and the car was the centerpiece in a rare gathering of Northern California rodding figures, all now gone. They include Tommy Hrones (at the wheel); then-owner Jim Ladley, Sonoma; in the passenger seat and standing (left to right) Jack Friedland, Oakland; Jim McLennan, San Francisco; Ed Hegarty, Richmond; and Ed Binggeli (Bing’s Speed Shop), Windsor, CA. Ladley sold the car back to the Edelbrock family soon after this 1995 photo and the roadster was consigned to the Roy Brizio Street Rods in South San Francisco where it was restored to its ’40s and ’50s lakes racer trim.

Influence on Emerging Artists

Tommy could put ascending young artists through the wringer. Great painter Art Himsl of Concord, California, was doing a ’striping demonstration at an early Oakland Roadster Show. It wasn’t going well.

Read More: Traditional & Timeless ‘32 Ford Roadster

22 with Tommy’s simple ’striping 1956

“Man, I was having trouble laying a straight line; it was running late and I was nervous. There was a crowd but in back a booming voice, ‘Hey, kid, havin’ a hard time? Can’t hold at straight line?’ I’d had enough, and turned to the agitator, ‘Here, you do it!’ and handed him the brush. It was The Greek. Zip. Zip. The job was done. He turns and says, ‘Here’s my card kid.’”

23 Frank Rose’s ’27 T with Tommy s flamboyant scallop treatments 1954
Frank Rose’s ’27 T bore one of Tommy’s more flamboyant scallop treatments when it won the 1954 America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at Oakland. Shown here that year at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, the car featured a tubular frame and fender and hood metalwork by master shaper Jack Hageman Sr., a longtime Tommy The Greek collaborator.

Playful Nature and Love for Pranks

Tommy was a sharp observer of human nature and took satisfaction in pranking customers. If someone dare suggest how he do his work, the colors, the lines, he’d do just half the car or kick the customer out. Long ago, the late Jim McLennan, part owner of San Francisco’s legendary Champion Speed Shop—and a leader of the San Francisco hot rodding movement in the ‘50s—called in a hurry. Champion’s cherished ’34 Ford pickup was headed to the Oakland Roadster Show the next day. He needed a quick ’stripe job. Tommy showed up and started working; it was late and he feigned fatigue, dribbling a line down the side of the truck’s door. “Oh, oh, I’ll have to do this tomorrow.” McLennan went ballistic: “This (expletive) is supposed to be the greatest and he can’t even do a straight line.” Tommy let it stew; a master of drying time, he finally stepped up, wiped off the offending curve and laid in the line. McLennan and Tommy were friends forever.

24 Frank Rose with his ’27 T roadster and Dick Kraft’s T roadster before the Oakland Roadster Show opening 1954
Oakland’s Frank Rose with his AMBR-winning ’27 T roadster in 1954, posed alongside Dick Kraft’s T roadster before the Oakland Roadster Show opening that year. Kraft, of course, made American hot-rodding history running his spare and dreadfully exposed “Bug” dragster at the first Santa Ana drags in 1950.

Retirement and Contributions to Art

In retirement Tommy played a lot of golf, savored a soft ride in one of his many Caddy sedans, and always took time to feed the stray dogs, cats, and pigeons near his Oakland shops. Tommy’s work was art—and it set him apart.

25 Tommy working rapidly in his East 14th Street shop 1994
Tommy The Greek Hrones worked rapidly, taking charge of any project at hand. Even on his last day in his shop in East 14th Street in 1994. He was way ahead of everyone, quickly masking this coach for paint.

“Tommy’s art has always been in a classical vein: clean, a disciplined line, spare decoration, clear, and well-defined areas of activity and void. Think of the work of the Dutch artist Mondrian,” Phil Linhares says, retired chief curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California and co-curator of the museum’s 1998 exhibition Hot Rods and Customs.

26 Joe Castro’s “Candy Bird ” 1958 a Bailon Hrones collaboration
Joe Castro’s “Candy Bird,” 1958. The reworked ’55 T-bird was among the first Bailon-Hrones collaborations in the late ‘50s and featured daring re-shaped grille bars, slick lakes pipes, and emphatic Hrones accents.

In contrast is the art of rival Von Dutch—the Jackson Pollock of ’stripers! Tommy’s work expressed the hot rod and custom design language of Northern California. Think Gene Winfield and the Bay Area Roadster guys. In vivid contrast think George Barris and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth; excess was only the beginning.

27 rear views of the Castro “Candy Bird ”
Either leaving . . .

The Undying Legacy in Custom Cars and Hot Rods

It would be fitting that Tommy’s final act—his January 2002 funeral—would be laden with irony and uproar. His coffin was lavishly ’striped and he was buried with a brush in hand. There were more than 200 loyal East Bay hot rodders and custom car colleagues on hand. Most had known Tommy for decades. The priest recited his incantations and began his eulogy, “Dearly beloved, we are here to honor the life of Jimmy the Greek . . .” Pandemonium. Shouts. Curses. Disruption in the pews. The priest of course corrected his mistake, but the grumbling and mumbling went on.

28 Front view of the Castro “Candy Bird ”
. . . or coming, the Castro “Candy Bird” was a balanced flourish of motion and style.

There was and will forever be only one Tommy the Greek Hrones, master of accent and forever flowing lines that bring the final embellishment to the custom cars and hot rods of our time. MR

Click on this issue’s cover to see the enhanced digital version of Tommy the Greek’s Lasting Legacy.

mr sept 2023

- Advertisement -

Related Articles

Search Our Site

More Modern Rodding

Intricate Fabrication On Myers’ Fenderless Ford Roadster

Part 3: Custom Fabricated Decklid, Wheel Wells & Floor By...

Deuce Coupe With Vintage Vibes

The 1932 Ford Three-Window Highboy Coupe Brings Back Dry...

The Boss 427 Ford Should Have Built

“Clevor” The Perfect Cleveland & Windsor Engine Build By Ron...

How to Install a Drum to Disc Brake Conversion on a 1963 Impala

By Tommy Lee Byrd   -   Photography By the Author In...

Mom’s 1967 Pontiac GTO

Smith Family Restoration Project of This Pontiac GTO By Brian...

DIY Floor Pan Rust Repair

How To Replace a Rusty Floor Pan on this...
More Modern Rodding

2024 Grand National Roadster Show … First Look At AMBR Contenders

Want To See Who Is Competing For America’s Most...

Looking Back at Some of America’s Most Beautiful Roadsters

By Brian Brennan It’s just around the corner … the...

Three Days of Classic Chevy Action at the 2023 Danchuk Tri-Five Nationals

By Tommy Lee Byrd   -   Photography By the Author If...

2024 Barrett-Jackson Cup Winner – 1960 Buick Invicta

Clean Sweep For The Cal Auto Creations Muti-Award Winning...

2024 Barrett-Jackson Cup Top Five Finalist Revealed – 1959 Chevy Impala

BBT Fabrications Does The Unexpected With This Incredible Bare-Metal...

Classic Car Battery System Guide

Everything You Need To Know About Charging Systems By Ryan...