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“Lil John” Buttera, Master Hot Rodder, 1941-2008
Written by Jim Hill on March 3, 2008
Hot rodding and racing lost one of its luminaries Sunday, March 2nd, when "Lil John" Buttera passed away at the age of 67.
Hot rodding and racing lost one of its luminaries this past weekend when John Buttera passed away from complications of a brain tumor. “Lil John,” as he was known to the industry, was 67 at the time of his passing.

Buttera loved the California lifestyle, especially racing and rodding aspects of being in the Golden State, but unlike many of its pioneers, he was not a native. Buttera came to “The Coast” in 1969 with a reputation and tremendous skills already intact when he abandoned the snow and ice of Wisconsin for SoCal’s balmy beaches. It was in Kenosha, Wisconsin that Buttera built a reputation for designing, fabricating and welding highly crafted dragster chassis as the “B” part of R&B Chassis. R&B built many of the upper Midwest’s best cars, and his skills as a high-end craftsman made it possible for him to smoothly transition his way into the ranks of “chassis masters” on the SoCal scene.

His initial works were in building more front-engine dragsters, but he soon branched into Funny Cars and then Pro Stocks, each one bearing notably innovative design and flawless craftsmanship. Soon ‘Lil John Race Cars’ became a hallmark among many of the top drag racers of the 70’s. Among his very well known customers were Don ?Snake? Prudhomme and Don “Stardust” Schumacher. It was also Buttera who designed and built the very successful and unique Barry Setzer owned, Bruce Walker driven, small-block Chevy powered Pro Stock Vega of the early 70’s, one of the most successful Pro cars run on the West Coast.

Buttera was gifted not only as a fabricator and welder but also as a machinist. All of his works were adorned with examples of his rampantly intuitive creativity. He may very well have been the “father of billet components” in racing and street rodding, as his love of taking a chunk of aluminum and machining it into something uniquely functional were legend. Buttera caught the street rod bug in the 70’s, and created several top-flight rods. These were not only rolling examples of his talent, but high mileage rides that he was quick to jump into and drive hundreds of miles purely for the pleasure of enjoying driving a car that was his own creation.

A true hot rodder and lover of anything that had wheels and went fast, Buttera proved that even a little guy without huge corporate sponsorships could, with plenty of hard work, ingenuity and dedication, build a race car capable of qualifying for and running in the 1987 Indy 500. Buttera?s dream began with a cast-off Dan Gurney Eagle chassis tub which Buttera re-engineered, redesigned and rebuilt, ending up with a virtual masterpiece that had even veteran Indy campaigners admiring what one optimist from the hot rodding culture could produce. Buttera’s car didn’t win Indy, but it qualified eighth, a third row position that was substantially ahead of a field filled with cars and crews backed by at least ten times the cash resources Buttera had in his jeans. It was the same optimistic “Hey, we can do that deal!”, never stymied attitude that earmarked Buttera’s craft and his life.

‘Lil John Buttera, master metalsmith and passionate hot rodding icon, is survived by his son Chris and daughter Leigh, son-in-law Ronnie Capps, granddaughter Katie and grandson Max.
RP Lil John
No matter what Buttera built, it set trends, dating back to the dragsters, funny cars and Pro Stock machines he built in the 60s and 70s. He built funny cars for the biggest names in the sport during the halcyon days of drag racing including Don Prudhomme, Don Schumacher – the list goes on and on. The race cars Buttera built represented a sea change in the 1970s Funny Car class, much in the way Kent Fuller’s “Greer, Black & Prudhomme” dragster changed the approach to dragster building in the early 1960s. Characteristics of a Buttera Funny car included simplicity, elegance in design, and a low slung wicked stance. They were also much easier to work on than earlier models. The cockpit area laid the driver’s way back in the seat, sometimes making it hard for them to see but the aerodynamic advantage outweighed any driver’s complaints. His funny cars not only looked amazing, they won championships too. He also set the standard in the NHRA Pro Stock class. The Pro Stock machine he built for longtime client Barry Setzer in the mid 1970s featured removable panels all around with a chrome molly tube chassis – a build style still implemented today. Prior to that car – Pro Stocker’s were mostly factory stock unibody machines.

Buttera turned his sights to street rods in 1974 building a 1926 Tall T Ford – the first in a long series of influential hot rods. The 26 T sedan, his white ’29 roadster, John Corno’s ’32 roadster that won the 1980 Oakland America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award, and a ’33 Willy’s model 77 for Mr. Gasket’s Joe Hrudka (wheels machined out of solid chucks of aluminum, naturally) were just some of his influential and mouth watering hot rods. His subtle craftsmanship and superior engineering skills again set his cars above all others. He is credited as being the first to whittle street rod, race car and motorcycle parts from solid chunks of billet aluminum. He also drove his rods, sometimes long distances in the 1970s and 1980s alongside his friendly rival from Northern California Andy Brizio. The late Gray Baskerville once asked Buttera how he could make a rear view mirror out of a solid block of aluminum to which Buttera tersely replied…”That’s easy – just cut away everything that doesn’t look like a rear view mirror.”

Content to let others have the spotlight and build on the platforms he pioneered in street rodding and racing, Buttera focused his attention in other avenues during the later half of the 1980s through the 1990s and into the new millennium. He designed cutting edge parts and components for many companies during this time, working with the likes of the Edelbrock Corporation, Harley Davidson, Bon Speed and others. He became well known in the custom motorcycle scene building several “smoothie” style V-Twin bikes.

In 2004, he returned to what he loved best, building street rods and driving them across country. He scratch built a little polished aluminum lakes modified roadster in his Los Alamitos, California garage and drove it to Indianapolis to the Goodguys Hot Rod Nationals in June of 2005 where he was honored as a Goodguys “Hot Rod Hero.” While not a warm and fuzzy guy at all, you could visibly see how happy that trip made him and he got a chance to hang out with many old friends along the way.

One of Buttera’s many racing peers was Tom Hanna – a talented and well respected metal fabricator and former top fuel drag racer. “Buttera’s inspiration for me was immense,” said Hanna. “This guy would take it a step beyond your wildest creative imagination. He could leave you feeling pretty inadequate. I remember going to SEMA one year and John had built a motorcycle that was on display. It blew me away. I’m not a motorcycle guy at all – but this bike left such an indelible impression on me, that years later when I built a dragster for the Reunion Cacklefests, I plagiarized the spirit of that first bike John built. He was amazing. You could conjure up your best project, execute it to perfection, then see something John built and it would make you want to throw your deal in the scrap yard. He was an absolute artist. If Kent Fuller is the Leonardo of the wheel, John may well have been the Michelangelo”

Perhaps the highlight of John’s legacy was his Indy car involvement. Hanna remembers it this way. “John had participated in one of those soap pyramid schemes that blew through drag racing and unlike most of the chumps, he got lucky and wound up with enough of a nest egg to try the Indy 500 on the cheap. Most of us would have given it up as a passing dream far beyond our reach. But not John, he was hell bent to try the impossible. With several volunteers (including Steve Leach) he picked up a used Eagle tub from Dan Gurney, built an engine with help from Bruce Crower and thrashed the thing together working around the clock in his two car garage. In the process he amazed the Gurney camp with what he had done to improve their product, qualified eighth the first time he ever set foot on Indy’s hallowed ground and all of this with a driver nobody else wanted. He so impressed the Champ Car establishment with what a bunch of broke drag racers had achieved, that he was awarded the first-ever Clint Brawner Trophy for technical achievement. That award resides today in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. Back before Indy racing was spec. series, you could actually build your own components, engines, modify the chassis and aero package. You know – be creative. Few share John’s level of pure artistic and technical creativity.”

When asked recently about Buttera’s contribution to the street rod world, STREET RODDER Magazine’s Brian Brennan simply shook his head and said, “He was the first true craftsman in the street rod industry, the pre-eminent car builder of his era, perhaps any era.”
courtesy of Brian Brennan/STREET RODDER Magazine