For some, a car is just a car. But for The Last Originals, a car is a part of a lifestyle, a piece of time and history and an embodiment of a tight knit brotherhood. Founded in 1994, The Last Originals car club rekindled a spark of the mid-century greaser culture throughout local Bay Area communities, and today continues to spread their influence, hosting events that garner over 400 cars and curious spectators. The 1950's and 60's car culture runs deep in their blood, and Goorin Brothers caught it all on camera for the The Last Originals collection. Learn about the greaser car culture in our interview with The Last Originals President Rob Balcioni.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m from San Francisco. Third generation on my street in Bernal Heights, and still living in San Francisco.
Bernal Heights [laughs].
What fascinated you with car culture?
I was born and raised around cars. My father was a gravedigger working at a cemetery and cars were a hobby for him. He was the first to introduce me to car culture. He used to race and he did Construction Derby. As far back as I can remember, I remember being in the garage with him and my brother working on cars. My father raced at Champion Speedway which used to be in Brisbane, and I’d like to say it was like Nascar but slightly different. It was like the beginnings of Nascar. The cars that had front benders, bumpers, all the sheet metal was removed and they had nerf bars around them. Hearing the stories growing up of how it was with him and his friends, car clubs back then were actually race teams. Everyone would get together, work on a car, and one of them would go and drive in the races. My father and my uncle both did that, as well as my dad did Construction Derby. I’d always been around it and was just fascinated with cars. Then, growing up watching the old movies — Boulevard Nights, Hollywood Nights and American Graffiti — I've always thought, 'Man I wish I could’ve lived back then when things were a lot simpler and everybody had really cool cars they worked on and took pride in.'
Rob Balcioni wearing the Good Boy fedora next to his 1954 Ford customline
What were your first cars?
My first car was a '62 Chevy Nova. We bought it used off a car lot, brought it home and I proceeded to make it mine so to speak. I pulled the motor out, put a different motor in, changed the suspension, changed the interior, changed the paint on it. And that was my first taste of building a car, when I was 16.
The second one I built was when I was 19. I built a '69 Ford pickup truck. That one was more extreme as far as customizing. I took the body off the frame and did a full restore on it. It’s just something that [The Last Originals] all have in common as far as working on cars. A lot of people will go out, go to bars, drink and do drugs, do whatever they do. We work on cars.
How did you first get involved in The Last Originals?
I’ve known one of the guys in The Last Originals since junior high, named Velez. My wife actually knew him too and went to the same junior high we went to. It was later on in life I got a car, built a car and wanted to join a club. [My wife] told me about Velez and The Last Originals, as well as a few other people I’ve known in the car industry who all spoke highly about the club.
I met with the guys, started hanging out with them, and went through a prospecting period. Prospect is kind of like a stationary period before someone gets made a member to make sure they’re a good fit for the club. That they’re not going to bring a lot of drama and are into the same things we are into. I made a full member in a matter of four months, versus a year which most prospects take.
Filipe Velez in the Franko pork pie with Kim and his 1947 Dodge Club Coupe
What were your first years in The Last Originals like and how did you transition into the President of the club?
We used to put on the Bay Area’s biggest shows as far as car clubs in Pacifica. When I first started as a prospect, that’s what showed the club what I could do as I brought a lot to the table when it came to planning, setting it up, getting vendors and bands, the organization. I’ve been with the club for seven years and just this past year I was voted president of the club and am the new fresh set of eyes to see the direction of what we’re doing and where we’re going to take the club.
What's it like to be in The Last Originals?
We’re very family oriented. Everything we do involves our wives and kids. Every show we put on is always very family oriented. We pretty much like to hang out with each other, have barbecues, work on each others cars, make sure everyone has running cars, and go to events as a group.
What year did you join?
In 2004. Before becoming president I was treasurer, and that actually worked out good because I became really stingy with the club’s money. We saved money for club events that we needed — order show shirts, jackets with patches, stuff like that. Making sure they always had the money for that before they blew it on barbecues and so forth.
Co-Founder Paul "Smiley" Dana wearing the Steve Smart fedora next to a1930 Ford Roadster
How would you describe the mid-century car culture that the Last Originals is centered around?
We’re more centered around the 50’s and 60’s. That's what we modeled the club after. Our cut off year for cars coming in is nothing newer than 1960. It can be as old as you want, but nothing newer than 1960. You have to be able to work on it yourself. Whether completely stock or mile custom, but we try to keep customs how they would’ve done it back in the 50's and 60's.
If anybody has ever watched American Graffiti, a film by George Lucas, that’s pretty much, realistically, how we deal with our cars. They're meant to look like back in those movies. Actually, the car club that’s in the movie is The Pharaohs. Our jackets were made to look like theirs.
How would you describe the club's founders Velez and Smiley?
Velez and Smiley are mellow guys, real laid back and full of knowledge on how cars were actually set up back in the 50’s and 60's. Smiley is a polisher by trade, so he’s very well known throughout the car industry as far as other car clubs and major car builders. If you've got trim or bumpers or aluminum molding that you need restored or re-polished, he’s known as the guy to go to.
Velez is a different fella as you get to know him. He tries to live his life the way it was back then — listening to the music. You can pull up to a car show and you’ll see Velez there with a little record player playing records, or even with a radio or an iPod. One of his cars actually had a record player that was meant to be mounted in a car. It was in his truck and it worked off his car battery.
The Last Originals Co-Founder Filipe Velez wearing the Crazy Eyes Joey fedora
One of the main reasons why I decided to join was to see how they handled themselves. What the group meant, and being family oriented, I knew I wanted to hang out with them with my wife and kids.
Do The Last Originals have any traditions?
Two times a year when all the guys get together and we do what’s called a club night out. We usually go downtown, North Beach area and hang out all as a big group. We do camping trips with all our families too.
When you’re meeting people who are interested in becoming one of The Last Originals, what speaks to you?
It’s up to them to show interest. They’ll need to start come hanging around whenever we do a barbecue or when we have our monthly meetings. They’ll come hang out and everybody gets a feel for them. You know, what type of person they are. We’ll have a meeting and say 'Hey this guy seems like he’s pretty cool. He’s building a car, he’s showing a lot of effort, why don’t we make him a prospect?' And then we’ll call him into a meeting and we’ll give him a prospect shirt. It’ll have the club name on it but it’ll say "Prospect" in the middle. And that’s the first step to becoming a full member. And then as he’s prospecting, we’ll all pay a little bit more attention to what he’s doing and what’s going on. Making sure that he’ll bring no drama, no arguments, not starting fights with people and so forth. The prospecting period can take up to a year.
What’s something that most people don’t know about car clubs?
We’re not gangs. We’re just a bunch of people that like old cars, the old lifestyle, like to hang out and have a good time. A lot of people get us confused with gangs, and we are not a gang. Despite how some of us look with all the tattoos, we’re not gangs. We are just a bunch of old people who love old cars.
Who makes your clothing, like the jackets, patches and T-shirts?
We found a good quality shirt and a silk screener in the East Bay. The jackets come from Los Angeles, a company called Green Stans. They do a lot of high school style letterman jackets. They were actually around back in the 1950's and 60's making jackets back then. The patches for the jackets are a little bit more difficult. We have one lady in the East Bay who does them by hand in her apartment. When someone becomes a member is when we give them the patch and their jacket. We actually have our logo copyrighted.
Steve Hosick wearing the Ken Dundee ivy
What should someone attending one of your events expect?
If we were putting on a show, they should expect a high quality show. Our shows have ranged from 250 to 400 cars showing up at our car shows. Live music, raffles with quality prizes, good music. We would always hire a local band from a high school or a junior high school. There were three years in a row when we had a junior high school band which was actually pretty cool because we got to see how they progressed. We would always hand out trophies, hold pin-up girl contests where women dress in retro clothing which was usually sponsored by vintage clothing stores.
We were once a part of a Cow Palace show, when they decided they didn't want any more of our cars there. They thought that we were just junkyard people with junkyard cars, and people only want to see the high dollar cars that never get driven. We made a show called The Last Laughs, put it on literally down the street from the Cow Palace by Bay Shore and the old railroads. I think that year, the first year when we did it, we advertised it and we had maybe 300 cars show up. The producer from the Cow Palace show actually came down to the show and told us that we taught him a lesson because the Cow Palace was a ghost town. So to what people can expect from one of our shows — we put on that show, threw it together real quick in three months, promoted it and everybody came to our show instead of theirs. The Last Laugh show still goes on.
Families come. Spectators are always free. Doesn’t matter how big your family is. It’s always family oriented. One year we had people doing face painting for the kids. We have popcorn for the kids. Kids model contests in little model cars. There’s usually plenty to do. It’s always trying to be well rounded for the whole family.
What kind of response do The Last Originals receive from the community?
When we did the show in Pacifica, it brought a lot of people into the city. A lot of people would stay overnight at hotels. We would open up the gates from 10 a.m., but we'd start setting up earlier at 6 a.m. and there would be cars already lined up. Some people would stay over night to get there bright and early, or some spend the night after the show.
We would always help with the local community, letting them advertise. We’ve done shows at bowling alleys, and that was their best day of the year. Same when we did it in San Francisco by Cow Palace. Local businesses would want to start getting involved in our shows.
Rob with his daughter Evangelina wearing the County Line wide brim fedora
We heard that you guys don’t normally wear hats. How has that changed since working with Goorin Brothers?
Some of us do wear hats, a lot of us don’t. I do wear a hat because I’m bald and I like to keep my head protected. We did the last photo shoot maybe eight years ago with Goorin Brothers and I believe since then two of the guys actually wear Goorin hats. The few that don’t are just really into their hair.
My daughter, who modeled for her first time, really liked the fedora that she had for her wardrobe during the shoot. Both my kids are into cars. My daughter is building her car, welding and wrenching and taking things apart with me.
How is The Last Originals different from other car clubs?
We do not charge member dues. We’re a little bit more strict than some clubs with the cars that we let in. But mainly, we’re just more family oriented. Whether you're in The Last Originals or you're a part of another car club, we all get along. We’re all family to each other. We go hang out with a lot of other car clubs. They invite us for an event they’re doing, and we’ll hang out together. We’re really just a big family.
From left to right: Rob Balcioni, Eric Rothenhaus, Steve Hosick, Paul "Smiley" Dana, and Filipe Velez
What's something that most people don’t know about you?
That’s tough ‘cause I’m an open book. Most people come up, look at me and right away they’re scared and think I’m a big, mean guy. Even though I'm not smiling doesn't mean I'm not in a good mood. I don’t know, I just never smile [laughs]. Most people tell jokes and go ‘Oh that guy, he doesn’t laugh or nothing’ but I’m actually a pretty soft, mellow guy. Don’t judge me by how I look. Nothing is more important to me than my daughters, although everyone I’m pretty sure knows that about me already. Something nobody knows — I’m definitely afraid of spiders. That is my kryptonite... I will run and scream.
What is “LA VIDA”? LOFFLO?
La Vida is Spanish for life. LOFFLO means Last Originals Forever, Forever Last Originals.