Friday, August 30, 2013

The tale about Jim Kierstead, b.1923 d.1947

Jim leaning against his 1939 Mercury

Most of you have probably never heard about Jim Kierstead. I would neither have known if I never went ahead and researched my ancestry. History is a very important subject to me. Many don't care about their ancestors, that's not the case with me! Your forefathers are very important, because you would not exist if it was not for them! It is also fun to find out more stuff about them, finding similarities between you and them, and what qualities you have inherited from them!

However, a lot of Norwegians emigrated to the US through the centuries, as did my family. Last year I decided to trace them down, and soon I discovered my long lost relatives overseas. Jim was one of them, and an interesting thing about Jim, was that a 1939 Mecury popped up on google when I searched online. It was not an ordinary 39' Merc, but a custom!

The car was mentioned on Jim's nephew blog, and it said that it was built by Sam Barris. I tried to get in contact with the nephew several times without luck, so I wrote down the info and saved the pictures on Kustomrama, in hope that somebody would see it and mail me for more information and pictures about the car. Good thing I did, because I could not find the blog now.
Jim's Merc at an early stage, outside his parents house in Inglewood.

By, I was able to find out when he was born, where he and his family lived, and when he died. He was born on may 30th, 1923, the eldest son of James and Ruth Kierstead. They moved from Utah to 909w 85th street in Inglewood, California in the 1920's. Jim also had three brothers, which one died in 1935 at the age of 5. He was playing in the backyard while his mom did laundry, and he accidentally fell into the big tub of water and got boiled to death. This must have been extremely hard for the family, and poor Jim was only 12 years old when the accident occurred.

When World War Two broke out, Jim got enlisted and joined the Navy, the submarines to be more specific. He was well built, and was the boxing champion of the submarine corps. It was during this time that he got known with Sam Barris, and the two of them became friends. And when the war was over, Jim bought himself a dark green 1939 Mercury 2-door coupe. Harold Johnson, the brother of Jim's wife remembered he went with them to pick the car up, and they paid it with 1000 dollar bills. Jim was making a good life working as a lather at the time, and earned good money.

Harold would spend all the time he could, helping Jim and Sam out on the car. According to him, Sam would to the lead and torch part, while they did the other stuff, like filing and sanding. This was most likely the first 39-40 Merc that Sam chopped, and it looked killer when it was done. They did not raise the windshield, so it appeared somewhat the same as Johnny Zaro and Al Andril's 1940 Mercs. The removed the running boards, flipped them over vertically and welded them to be like rocker panels. Jim wanted the car to be as smooth as possible, so they removed all the chrome on it. Looking at the pictures, it looks like he used front bumpers from a 1941 Chevrolet, both up front and rear. The fender skirts appeared to be the long units from a 1941 Ford. The Barris' brothers would always do the car in grey primer while under construction, apply white when all the body modifications were done. The owner would usually drive around with it for a while to clear out all the bugs before final paint.

Jim and Helen in 1947.
In 1946, Jim got married to Helen Johnson, also of Inglewood. Helen was Swedish, and hailed from Kansas, but they moved to California in the 1930's. They were a nice couple, and would often go out dancing jitterbug. They were so good at it, that Hollywood film scouts discovered them, and wanted them on the screen. However, Helen did not like the Hollywood business at the time, and they refused the offer. A year later, they got a baby boy, Tim was his name. This was in the autumn of 1947, and the world was really smiling at them, he had a beautiful wife, a new born son, good job, their house was almost completed, and his Mercury only needed paint.

In December 1947, the car was painted in black Lacquer. Polished and prepped, Jim and Harold were supposed to drive to Reno on the weekend of December 6, debuting the car for its first long run as a completed custom car. Harold was in Redando Beach with Dick Owens, a though guy that was in the Guadal Canal during WWII, he also had a chopped 1940 Merc with a Carson top. However, it was raining hard and Jim was heading south on Sepulveda. Between El Segundo Blvd and Rosecrans Ave, he could see a Duesenberg heading towards him. One of the cars crossed the double striped line, and the Duesenberg hit Jim on the left front fender. Jim's car was totaled, and Jim was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. He left behind his two months old son, newly wedded wife, his two brothers, parents, and his nearly completed house. The church was over crowded when his funeral was held, a lot of people knew him, and he was known to be a handsome nice man.

Well, 70 years has passed by, and I have a hard time finding people that knew him at the time. I feel I have a lot I common with Jim, with the experiences he had, and his interests.  He was born on May 30th, 1923, I'm born on the same date as his father, June 21st 1993, he lost his brother when he was 12 in 1935, I lost my brother when I was twelve in 2005, they were four brothers, we were four brothers, his girlfriend was born on december 5th, my girlfriend was born in december 5th, he had a 1939 Mercury, I have a 1939 Mercury, he built his with Sam Barris, I'm building mine with Brad Masterson who looks up to Sam Barris, he built it at the old Barris shop, I'm building mine in the old Barris shop.

As you can see, a lot has happened in 70 years..

Jim's Merc V.S. Brad's first 39-40 Merc chop
I especially like Jim's 39 Merc, so I am going to clone his car. My brother Sondre made a new logo for the shop, with the 39 on. So I'm doing everything I can do to spread Jim's story so his legacy will not be forgotten. He was a pioneer, along with Harold and Dick, and they truly deserves to be remembered. I've spent countless hours on the web and on the phone trying to find more out about him. I've visited his son Tim twice. He is a really nice guy, and he actually had a 1940 Ford that was according to him restyled by Barris at some point. It was chopped and channeled, but the KuKluxKlan stole the car from him in the 1970's. He has also been into cars all his life, and has owned a lot of old cars during the years.

Jim's old house at 909W 85th Street
Visiting Jim's footsteps in LA
Yesterday, I spent the whole day researching in the field. I ate a big breakfast at the china restaurant across the shop,(Where Dean Jeffries ate when he discovered the Barris Shop fire on December 7th 1957) and went to Inglewood to check out the place where Jim lived. I knocked on the door, and three Mexican families lived there now. They did not know shit about their house's history, and were surprised when I told them it. 

Where Helen and lived with her family, 1133W 87th street.

Helen Johnson's old Residence

I then drove to the house were his wife, Helen lived. From there I called Harold Johnson. We spoke a while about the old days, how things have changed and about Jim. 

Visiting Jim's grave, Inglewood Park Cemetery
Then I went to the flower shop to buy some nice flowers for Jim's grave. The staff at Inglewood park cemetery showed me on a map where his slot was, but I could not find it. The grass covered it, so i had to do some digging. It turned out nice with flowers, and I'm sure Jim is happy with how it looks now.
It had been a while since it was groomed, but now it's the best looking grave around there.

Inglewood High, and the mild customized 40 Merc I found in the 1940 yearbook. 
Inglewood High School
Then I stopped by Inglewood High School, to check out if I could find him in any of the yearbooks. Inglewood High School is were the safety education film, "The Cool Hot Rod" was shot in 1953. (Click here to watch The Cool Hot Rod). I examined the yearbooks, but I could not find him. It was not wasted time, because I found a picture of a 1940 Mercury with dual spotlights from the 1940 yearbook, so that was quite cool. I then went to Morningside High School, but they did neither have any records from him there. 

The Crash Site
Next stop on my list was to see where he died, at Sepulveda and El Segundo blvd. When I was there, a 1939 Ford coupe drove by, that was a funny feeling to see such a car there right where the accident occurred. An ambulance drove right by after the 39 passed, that made goosebumps all over me, and a cold chill went down my spine. I stayed there a while, just looking at the cars passing by, and suddenly I got an idea to check out the public library to look for some old newspapers that the crash might be described in. I was right, I found a small clipping, from December 11th 1947 about the crash. Next I went to the police department to check if they had any files. I had emailed with them earlier this winter, and they'd remembered the case right away! They had found all the old records from 1940's to 1970, but they were not labeled, and they did not allow me to go through them, so hopefully they can give me more information later on. I stopped by the fire department as well, they did not have any records from the crash, but I saw a lot of other crash scenes from the 1940's, and they were bad..

That was all I had time for yesterday, so this morning I went by the Inglewood public library to see if there were any written in the Inglewood local paper. Unfortunately the December 6-9th editions were not in the microfilm collection. So I called UCLA, the California State Library and some other libraries, so hopefully they will find it for me. I also stopped by the St. Michaels school and Manchester school in Inglewood to check for old records, but they did not have any. I will keep looking, and I got some other clues that I will follow up soon! So stay tuned!


  1. Researching family history is great already. But finding out that one of the ancestors owned a kustom and being able to trace down the places from back then in real is just amazing. Great work and thanks for the write up.

  2. I will pass this on to John Barris, Sam's son, one of my very closest friends. I was raised in N Long Beach and have a deep history with the Barris clan. You can see some of my Barris art at: RICK WILSON