LOS ANGELES – “Lil’ John” Buttera, an innovative creator of hot rods, dragsters and Indy cars who was praised as much for his artistic designs as his engineering, has died. He was 68.
Buttera died March 2 at Los Alamitos Medical Center of complications from brain cancer, his son, Chris, said Tuesday.
“You couldn’t help but admire him,” Don Prudhomme, who drove winning Buttera cars, told the Los Angeles Times. “He was the best. Not only was he an innovator, he just did things that other chassis builders didn’t do.”
Among other things, Buttera pioneered the use of custom parts made from aluminum blocks called billets.
In the 1970s, his use of billets for suspension, wheels and other components made for lighter hot rods and sparked a craze for the technology.
Clients at his shop in Cerritos included racing stars such as Don Schumacher and Shirley Muldowney. He built Schumacher’s 1970 U.S. Nationals-winning Funny Car.
Buttera also built a car that competed in the 1982 Indianapolis 500.
“The first time I saw my car come out of Turn Four at Indianapolis . . . I had goose bumps all over me. I couldn’t talk; I was crying,” Buttera told the Orange County Register in 1995.
The car finished in 27th place.
Buttera-built cars also appeared at the 1984 and 1987 Indy races but were sidelined by a crash and mechanical problems.
Buttera entered his own car in the 1987 Indy race. It qualified eighth and received the Clint Brawner Mechanical Excellence Award.
Buttera was born on July 22, 1939 in Kenosha, Wis. His father worked at an American Motors factory, building Ramblers, Chris Buttera said.
Buttera was drag racing in Wisconsin when famed racer Mickey Thompson persuaded him to come to California in 1968. He fit in well with the burgeoning Southern California car culture.
Over the decades, his innovative designs were applied to a range of wheeled vehicles, from drag-racing funny cars to motorcycles. For about the past decade he had worked for Harley-Davidson on designs for their motorcycles, his son said.
“He was a genius. He could do anything,” his son said. “He liked designing. He’d sit in front of his computer all night long and draw pictures,” then get a piece of metal and cut out the part.
In recent years, Buttera built hot rods out of his garage in Los Alamitos.
He was a longtime friend of fellow hot rod designer Boyd Coddington, who died four days before him.
In addition to his son, Buttera is survived by a daughter, Leigh, and two grandchildren.