Some hot rod builders strive to adopt the latest developments, both technical and aesthetic, to keep “current” and satisfy their customers’ lust for new trends. Others eschew the new and embrace the old — the traditional hot rod, those simple, timeless machines of the late 1940s and ’50s.
James “Jake” Jacobs — best known as the Jake in Pete & Jakes — falls firmly in the latter camp, where axles are dropped, springs are buggy, and tops are chopped. Jacobs’ legacy and influence is widespread and enduring. During his five decades as a hot rodder, he has left a legacy as a car builder, journalist and aftermarket pioneer.
It all began in 1950s Compton, California. “Back then,” Jacobs recalled, “Compton was as all-American as Mayberry.” Jacobs was born in late 1945 to Garrett and Leanna Jacobs, who had migrated to California from Iowa in 1929, behind the wheel of a Model T touring. Garrett was a self-employed freelancer who would switch from delivering milk (with Jake at this side) to hauling various loads in a ’40 Ford dump truck. Occasionally he would purchase a dilapidated metal commercial building, disassemble it (with the boys’ help), move it another location, then put it back together and rent it out. Frugal and smart, Garrett was successful enough to raise three boys (Jake was the youngest) and eventually own the Hesperia Airport in Southern California.
Meanwhile, Jake concentrated on typical kid stuff — model planes, trains and automobiles, and a home-built go-kart or two. Compton was adjacent to the L.A. suburbs of Lynnwood and Bellflower— cauldrons of hot rodding — so Jake and his buddies would ride their bikes to George Barris’ shop and watch famed customizer Dean Jeffries pinstripe George’s creations. Or hang out at Art Chrisman’s speed shop or the upholstery shop of Eddie Martinez.
After high school and Compton JC, Jake befriended Dan Woods, who had built a wild hand-made custom milk truck that caught the attention of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. When Roth offered Woods a job, Woods made Mr. Rat Fink an unsual counter-offer: You get me only if you hire my friend, Jim Jacobs, too.
So began Jacobs’ relationship with one of hot rodding’s most dynamic characters. His first task was to help Roth complete the bizarre Druid Princess. “That car would never fly today,” quipped Jake. “I mean, a baby coffin?” Jake also attended car shows with Roth and did art production on Roth’s chopper magazine.
By this point, Jacobs was an expert at fashioning traditional hot rod suspensions that worked. Moreover, he knew as much about early Fords as Henry did. Was that axle out of a ’27 T or Model A? Jake knew. His savvy piqued the interest of Rod & Custom Editor Bud Bryan, who offered Jake an associate editor position. Jake’s knowledge lent credibility and accuracy to R&C’s tech pieces, which was critical as the magazine aimed to invigorate the “street is neat” movement. “He wrote good captions,” Bryan recalled. “We had tech sheets with all the information on a specific car. Jake knew how to put that wording together without it being chunky.”
When Rod & Custom was killed in the early 1970s, Jacobs reunited with Dan Woods to start a chassis business where he perfected parts to help early Ford suspensions perform well at high speeds on modern highways. Then Rod & Custom came back to life and Jake returned as a freelancer, handling art production and ensuring the accuracy of tech stories. He continued working on suspension design in his spare time, which paid dividends when the book was killed again. Jake then hooked up with Pete Chapouris, who was working at Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena and started a business.
The result? Pete & Jakes Hot Rod Repair, which began building and repairing cars, but later evolved into a chassis component manufacturer that influenced the entire street rod aftermarket. “We started out making small parts like shackles and steering arms,” Jake explained. “But when we launched the 4-bar front suspension, the business took off.”
Jacobs and Chapouris had a flair for promotion. Both had built signature cars with national followings — Jake’s chopped yellow ’33 Ford coupe and Pete’s chopped and flamed ’34 Ford coupe that starred in the 1974 made-for-TV movie “The California Kid” alongside a young Martin Sheen. The two rods were design elements in the Pete & Jake’s logo and appeared together on the November 1973 cover of Rod & Custom. Yes, being in SoCal meant plenty of publicity for the company, its products, and its owners.
Jake and Pete continued the business until 1986 when it was sold to Jerry Slover in Peculiar, Missouri, who has maintained the success and spirit of the brand. Since then, Jake has continued to tinker on hot rods on his spread in Apple Valley, California. His love for old Fords remains. He restored the famed Bill Neikamp roadster, which he purchased in parts in 1968 for $1,300. (His father was dumbstruck his son would pay such a sum for a basket case, especially since he loaned his son the money.) Jake stashed the restored roadster in the Petersen Museum before displaying it at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, then sold it to the museum for $250,000. “My father was there when I bought the car and saw it hauled away to the museum,” Jake said. “He was baffled and amazed both times!”
Jacobs has been amazing hot rodders for half a century now. Many have called him a renaissance man, although he’s not sure what that means. He was once credited with building the first rat rod. (He disagrees). He’s now deep into vintage kart racing, likely inspired by his former boss at Rod & Custom, Tom Medley, who was an avid kart racer. A kart’s straight axle might be part of the appeal, too.
When asked what attracts him to traditional hot rods, Jake pondered a long time. “Hmmm…I’m not sure,” he said. “I like simple things, the look of a straight axle, the clean styling of any early Ford.” He’s currently at work assembling a true retro ’28 Model A to compete in the throwback-on-the-beach Race of Gentlemen at Pismo Beach. “It will be a period correct pre-WWII car like the ones that ran at Muroc back in the day,” he said.
Picture Jim Jacobs behind the wheel of a ’28 Ford race car, kicking up surf and sand in the face of modernity. A more fitting salute to the man is hard to imagine.