After enduring the confines of an economy class cabin for over 12 hours and then being subjected to a hellish couple more hours in a customs and immigration hall queue at LAX, a few months back my family and I arrived in Southern California for a 10-day stay.
On the itinerary were the usual things that tourists do, but of course I also managed to squeeze a few car-related activities into the schedule, too. SoCal’s car and pop culture from the 1950s and ‘60s has always interested me, so during this whirlwind visit I really wanted to taste a little nostalgia.
To get things started, we headed up to Burbank for the Friday night car meet at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant. This location opened in 1949 and was designated a Point of Historical Interest by the state of California, but beyond that the food was great and the parking lot show even better.
That’s a genuine barn-find Shelby Cobra by the way.
Heading out into the desert allowed us to take a drive down a little stretch of Historic Route 66, and hitting the drive-thru at the oldest operating In-N-Out Burger (East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena, built in 1952) and the walk-up window at the oldest operating McDonald’s (Lakewood Blvd, Downey, built in 1953) satisfied that craving.
But none of these things left as much of an impression on me as what I found at 10820 S Norwalk Blvd, Santa Fe Springs.
There can’t be too many speed shops from the golden era of hot rodding still around, let alone operating from the same premises, but Moon Equipment Co. is an exception to the rule.
Dean Moon relocated to this address in 1956, and many Moon-designed and branded speed parts are still being made here today on the very same machines they originally were.
Before I delve into my exploration of the iconic yellow buildings, a brief history on Dean Moon himself is in order.
The Dean Moon Story
Born in 1927, Dean moved to Southern California with his family when he was nine years old. That same year his parents opened Moon’s Cafe in Santa Fe Springs – complete with a go-kart track named Moonza – and, as expected, Dean worked there part-time when he wasn’t at school. In high school, Dean picked up a part-time job in the machine shop at a local Lincoln-Mercury dealership, and it was here – as well as in auto shop class – he gained practical experience.
By the time Dean graduated high school he was already selling his first product – the Moon Fuel Block – which he designed and manufactured in class, but a military career called and he was soon posted in Japan with the US occupying forces. On his return to the United States, Dean started Moon Automotive with his brother and ran the operation out of a small garage at the back of the family’s cafe.
The Korean War saw Dean drafted back into service, and this time he served as an aerial photographer. At the end of the war, Dean returned to Sante Fe Springs, purchased land on Norwalk Avenue, and ultimately set up shop.
In the years between opening Moon Equipment Co. and his death in 1987, Dean grew and fostered a company that quickly became an institution in the hot rod world. Over the years, the iconic Mooneyes eyeball logo has applied to street cars, drag machines, salt flat racers and everything in between, and today Moon-branded speed parts continue to be used in builds all over the world.
After Dean passed away, his wife Shirley ran the company for a couple of years before closing the doors and putting everything on hold. It was at this time that Shige Suganuma, a Japanese hot rodder and long-time close friend of Dean stepped in to keep the Moon legacy alive. Shige, who at this point was supplying Japan’s hot rod community with Moon parts, decided to purchase everything – the shop, the stock, and the brand.
Shirley Moon died in 1990, and it took two more years before the shop was open again for business, this time with Shige and his good friend Chico Kodama at the helm. Since then, Mooneyes has expanded around the world with more outlets and a global dealership network.
While Shige is based in Japan at Mooneyes Area 1 in Yokohama, Chico heads up the Stateside manufacturing operation at the Norwalk Avenue address. When he’s not at the shop, Chico also gets behind the wheel of a 220mph+ Modified Roadster, but more on that shortly…
One of the many great things about this company is their willingness to show people around their iconic facility. In fact, visitors – many of whom travel here from the farthest reaches of the world, like I did – are encouraged to ask for a tour, which is pretty cool.
While Chico attended to some business, I first took a nosey around the retail shop, which of course stocks all of the parts that Mooneyes manufactures, along with a few select items from other suppliers.
All the classics are still here – Moon Discs and Moon Tanks front and centre.
Even bigger is the range of Mooneyes-branded merchandise and accessories. It’s easy to spend a lot of money in here – just ask me – but considering how much cool stuff they make, I can’t see how you’d not want to leave without a bag or two of goodies (and perhaps a box of Moon Discs…).
While the merchandise side of things has grown greatly in the years since Shige and Chico took over, Dean Moon was a real visionary when it came to developing his brand.
Lifestyle collaborations in the automotive world might seem like a relatively new thing, but Moon Equipment Co. was doing it back in 1969 with a little shoemaker in Anaheim called The Van Doren Rubber Company. Fifty years on, Mooneyes still collaborates with Vans.
In the corner of the showroom is a vintage diorama featuring an Ed Roth scale model car display. There’s a life-size ‘Big Daddy’ and his anti-hero Rat Fink, too.
The Moon Museum
Next door in the first garage bay is the Mooneyes museum.
As you’d expect, there’s all manner of stuff in here, much of which harks back to the heyday of hot rodding in Southern California.
It’s really neat that so much memorabilia was kept safe and not misplaced over the years, and it remains here onsite for anyone that visits to pore over.
The centrepiece of the museum at the time I visited was Dean Moon’s 1934 Ford street car, which features Edelbrock flathead heads and 3×2 intake, and of course Mooneyes yellow paintwork.
Judging by the registration sticker on the rear plate, the Roadster hasn’t been on the road since Dean’s passing.
Further down the driveway is a nondescript three-bay block building which today serves as Moon’s warehouse and packaging/distribution department. Back in 1962, however, something very special was born inside…
I’m talking about the very first Shelby Cobra build, codename CSX2000.
As the story goes, at the time Carroll Shelby received his first chassis from AC Cars in Great Britain, he was renting workshop space off Dean Moon. To get the prototype Cobra up and running, Shelby hired some of the Moon staff, and within no time the car had a Ford V8 engine up front. Legend has it that once it was fired up, both Shelby and Moon took the Cobra straight out onto the streets of Santa Fe Springs to go Corvette hunting.
The car is still in existence – in used and unrestored condition – and changed hands in 2016 through RM Sotheby’s Monterey Car Week auction for US$13.75 million (plus buyer fees).
The Machine Shop
The final stop on my tour was the Mooneyes Machine Shop – the place where Moon speed parts come to life.
Right inside the front door is a recreation of the iconic ‘Mooneyes’ dragster from the 1960s. Actually, it’s the second recreation; the first – that bare chassis hanging from the rafters – was crashed in Japan back in 2005.
The original quarter-mile machine still exists, but being too precious to race now, this almost inch-perfect replica was created in order to keep the legend alive. Amazingly, it uses all period parts, including the Dragmaster chassis it’s built around and the smallblock Chevy V8 engine running a Potvin blower.
Chico’s car is built for another form of straight line racing – the sort that happens on the Bonneville Salt Flates. Under the fibreglass ’27 Ford Model T (with track nose) bodywork is a custom chassis, and a Fred Larson-built, Potvin-supercharged smallblock Chevy V8 running on alcohol. His best result to date: 221mph (355km/h).
Being a proper machine shop you’d expect to see equipment everywhere, just don’t go looking for any state-of-art CNC multi-axis mills or the like in this place. Some of the machinery has been here for a very long time, and I don’t think it will be going anywhere in the future either. In preserving some of the Moon magic, Shige and Chico are committed to building parts the good old fashioned way.
The Moon Disc is a favourite, and Dean Moon was making these things in his Moon Automotive garage prior to moving to this location. Not only do they look great, they were originally designed as an aero aid, hence why so many old school racers still use them on the salt – Chico included.
Along with fitments for cars, motorbike and bicycles, there’s even a Tesla Model S version Moon Disc on offer now, and I’m told by fitting them you get even more range.
For a look a how they’re spun up from a flat alloy circle, there’s four (old) clips on YouTube you can check out, starting with the first here.
When Mooneyes started making the motorcycle version, they quickly started amassing a whole of leftover centre sections. It didn’t take long to figure out that these were the perfect size for a small clock – now a popular Moon product.
All the cast Moon products are manufactured offsite, but all the finishing work is taken care of in the machine shop. Chico showed me the full range of Moon Tanks, which go all the way from large fuel tanks right down to small tanks like this remote master cylinder reservoir.
Although this shop has all the equipment to build and maintain cars and bikes, these days it’s only staff projects being worked on in such a way.
I learnt something new during my visit when Chico showed me this motorcycle build. I had no idea that these things even existed, but it turns out that Harley-Davidson sold some of its tooling equipment to Japan in the 1940s, and the result of that was a brand called Rikuo. A JDM Harley – now that sounds like the makings of a cool bike project…
I could have spent a long time in the shop, as everywhere you turn there’s more treasures to be found.
Ultimately though, my time at 10820 S Norwalk Blvd, Santa Fe Springs had to come to an end.
I can’t help but think what might have happened if Shige and Chico hadn’t stepped in, but given how Mooneyes has only gotten bigger – both here in SoCal and everywhere else in the world – they were definitely the right people to carry the torch into the 21st century.
Even if you’re not big on hot rodding, this place is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in the neighbourhood. And if you needed an excuse to visit, this Saturday is Mooneyes USA’s annual Open House event, so there’s guaranteed to be a big turnout of cars and people, all in some way inspired by the Moon brand.
If only I was a little closer…