Modesto jeweler, car builder Bart Bartoni dies. Last ride will be Sunday on 10th Street

A cruise starting on Tenth Street on Sunday will honor the late Bart Bartoni, a longtime Modesto jeweler and custom car builder.

Mr. Bartoni, who died Sept. 7 at 89, was a prominent part of the cruising culture celebrated in “American Graffiti” by Modesto-born filmmaker George Lucas.

He owned Bartoni Jewelers at 919 Bartoni Lane, an alley along Tenth Street, from 1961 to 1993. The business started when downtown was still Modesto’s retail center, before Vintage Faire Mall and other rivals.

“I remember when this block would be so busy you couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Bartoni told The Modesto Bee in 1993. “ In the ‘60s and ‘70s when I had a big sale, people mobbed my store. Sometimes they lined up around the block to get in.”

Mr. Bartoni was born in Escalon on May 9, 1930, the only child of Americo and Gemma Bartoni. The family moved to Modesto when he was 14. He graduated from Modesto High School and served in the U.S. Navy.

Mr. Bartoni got hooked on cars while a child in Escalon, where the guests of wealthy neighbors arrived in Cadillacs, Deusenbergs and other fancy rides. He took part starting in 1947 in the cruises on Tenth Street, the main meeting place for young fans of the pastime.

“He fell in love with cars,” said a plaque dedicated just this week outside his former business. “Bart was very creative and sketched concept cars in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

Mr. Bartoni was part of the legendary Gene Winfield’s custom car team. He also applied his artistic bent to jewelry, which he started designing at 18. He held several jobs on Tenth Street, including selling men’s clothing, before opening Bartoni Jewelers.

The plaque is on a building that has just been transformed into Nine3One, which provides office and other space for entrepreneurs.

Mr. Bartoni also owned a bar and restaurant called The Godfather in the mid-1970s.

Graffiti honors

Mr. Bartoni took part in the Graffiti events every June that celebrate cruising. In 2014, he served as parade grand marshal, waving from the back seat of his 1960 Cadillac El Dorado convertible. The same year, he was inducted into the Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame at Tenth Street Place.

The plaque noted that Mr. Bartoni was still working on two cars at the time of his death – a 1938 Alfa Romeo and a 1940 Cadillac La Salle Club Coupe Custom.

He is is survived by his longtime companion, Lisa Lodi; his daughter, Vicki Whited; two grandsons and a great-granddaughter.

Fitting tribute

The cruise in Mr. Bartoni’s memory will start at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, on Tenth Street. Drivers can stage their custom cars at 1 p.m. in the parking lots at 11th and K streets.

The cruise will go to the Fruit Yard, 7948 Yosemite Blvd., for a 2:30 p.m. celebration of life and car show.

Donations in Mr. Bartoni’s honor can by made to Community Hospice, the American Heart Association or St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.