We lost another great hot rod hero when the well-known and well-liked Dick “Magoo” Megugorac, builder of highboy roadsters of unerring quality and style, passed away in early 2016.
In reviewing Magoo’s history in hot rodding, it became apparent his nickname reflected an unmistakable sense of irony. How does one of the hobby’s most prominent visionaries earn a moniker from a cartoon character best known for a lack of vision? Ah, the unintended consequences of a difficult-to-spell last name.
Born February 5, 1928, in the southern California beach town of Santa Monica, young Richard eschewed the lure of sand-and-surf for the region’s other popular pursuit, hot cars. By his early teen years — before even securing a driver’s license — Magoo was already tinkering and customizing various vehicles. He was equally creative in his drive to, well, drive — purloining plates from his father’s pickup to motor unnoticed by the local gendarmes.
Soon, he found himself the youngest member of the Low Flyers Racing Club, a petri dish of rodding brilliance. He got to hang with such luminaries as Stu Hilborn, George Barris, Jack McGrath (Indy 500 hot-shoe), and Jack Engle. Nothing like learning from the best.
Then the war came and Magoo served in Japan for 18 months as a mechanic’s instructor during the post-war occupation. He returned to Los Angeles and continued his car crafting, fine-tuning his skill set while building cars in his garage. Along the way, he met and married Lois, who would be his loving partner for 40-some years as well as the “in-house” trimmer who stitched up many a highboy interior.
Come the 1960s, he and his brother-in-law Carl Riggen started Riggen Slot Cars (Carl Riggen was Lois’ brother) to capitalize on the big boom in small race cars. Riggen went on to become one of most successful slot car companies of the day, and is prominently mentioned in any history of the hobby. The company was sold in the early 1970s.
With street rodding revving up — powered in part by the first Rod & Custom Street Rod Nationals in Peoria, Illinois, in 1970 — Megugorac opened the door to Magoo’s Street Rods in San Fernando Valley’s Canoga Park. Magoo was a jack-of-all-trades – he handled chassis construction, engine mechanicals, and body-and-paint. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, save upholstery, and Lois had that covered.
Magoo’s singular talent, however, was building cars that just looked right, the subtle just-so stance, the simple-yet-elegant detail work, and perhaps most important, bomb-proof reliability. His cars drove well and could be driven anywhere, anytime. No less a luminary than the legendary Lil’ John Buttera once said that if he wanted a car to drive across the country, he’d have Magoo build it for him.
And that’s not to say Magoo’s cars were not innovative and spectacular. Ah contraire. He crafted many cars for the Grand National Roadster Show, and bagged the top AMBR prize in 1979 with Brian Burnett’s stunning ’32 Ford Highboy powered by a Ferrari V-12 – the “Duecari.” The car is still driven today. He also supplied the first giveaway cars for the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association and the National Street Rod Association. His reputation within the car-building community grew over the years, propelled by a steady stream of cars featured in Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Street Rodder, and more. He also earned a spot in Darryl Starbird’s National Rod & Custom Hall of Fame, and was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Roadsters.
In a short piece for the 2003 Goodguys yearbook, Magoo recalled the changing nature of the street rod hobby. “Back in the 1970s there was no aftermarket,” he explained. “You had to do everything yourself — look for the original bodies, modify stock frames, have springs wound or arched. Whatever it took, you really had to work overtime. I remember picking up a Ferrari V-12 engine for a ’32 roadster. The $10,000 price was a real shock. Another customer wanted a V8 diesel Caddy in his roadster. Now that took a little extra effort.
“Today you can just buy bodies, frames, rails — everything you need. I call ‘em Erector Set cars. And while the craftsmanship is wonderful, in my eye, nothing looks better than a ’29 highboy on deuce rails. Now that’s a hot rod!”
Magoo’s talent also inspired many car builders that came after, including Roy Brizio, who once told Megugorac’s longtime friend, Street Rodder editor Brian Brennan, “I always looked at Magoo’s cars for inspiration. He detailed his cars so nicely. I sincerely learned so much from him by just looking at the cars he built.” Magoo also enjoyed a tight bond with young Dean Livermore of Hot Rods by Dean.
Another admirer was the late “Stroker McGurk” creator Tom Medley. A longtime friend of Magoo, Medley felt uniquely bonded to Magoo because Stroker’s signature ride was a ’29 highboy roadster. “Magoo builds really bitchin’ ’29s,” Medley once said. “Stroker would have approved!”
Richard Dick “Magoo” Megugorac passed away on January 13, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona, where he and Lois had retired to. He was 87. Another hot rod hero who will be missed.